F1 season preview: What's driving Lewis Hamilton?

EXCLUSIVE: Hamilton still inspired by karting 'abuse' (3:33)

ESPN sat down with four-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton in Turin to discuss whether he still has what it takes to race and the struggles he dealt with as a child getting into the sport. (3:33)

On Sunday, Lewis Hamilton will start the 209th grand prix of his Formula One career. If all goes to plan he will do so from pole position with the realistic aim of cementing the first win on the way to his fifth world championship.

Many things will be flashing through his mind. His engineers will have briefed him that morning on the car's strengths and weaknesses and how the two will combine to form the optimum race strategy. Plan B and Plan C will also be logged in his memory just in case an accident brings out an unforeseen Safety Car or the wear rate of his Pirelli tyres proves surprisingly high.

The start procedure will also be at the very front of his mind; a sequence of switch changes committed to memory in order to prepare the car for the quickest possible launch down to the first corner. He may also have considered how to defend or attack as he hurtles towards that first apex or, more likely, he will leave that in the care of his natural reflexes and vast experience.

But somewhere in the back of his mind there will also be a memory. A recognition of all the hard work that has brought him to this point. All the hard work that turned a kid from Stevenage into a multimillionaire sports icon and a four-time world champion.

It may be the second-hand go-kart he received for Christmas ahead of his eighth birthday that flashes through his mind, or it could be the three jobs his father took on to pay for his early karting career. Something will be there at the back of his mind and he will use it to give himself an extra competitive edge over the next 58 laps of racing.

"That's often in the back of my mind when I'm in the car," the 33-year-old told ESPN in a recent interview. "I never forget that my family sacrificed everything and moved mountains for me to have the opportunity that I have.

"That hunger that I had when I was eight years old; when the teachers said that I was never going to amount to nothing; when the other racing drivers' dads said I was never going to amount to nothing; when the kids shouted abuse at the race track to me and my family. That still powers me on through the races."

On the morning of our interview, the first race of the season is still over a week away and Hamilton is working with Mercedes' title sponsor Petronas to launch the Malaysian oil company's new Research and Technology Centre. TV crews from across Europe have flocked to an industrial estate outside Turin in order to be granted ten minutes with the world champion, and an outside balcony is clogged with cameras and lighting equipment vying for his attention.

Hamilton's time both on and off the race track is incredibly valuable, and he knows it. He is currently leveraging that value to seal a new contract with Mercedes that is expected to keep him at the team until the end of 2020. The 'i's have yet to be dotted and the 't's are waiting to be crossed, but ahead of our interview Hamilton reassures a packed press conference that it will go ahead. But with 62 victories to his name and one more title than he needed to achieve his childhood dream of equaling Ayrton Senna, what is the motivation behind the new deal?

"I just love racing," he says with clarity and conviction. "I still love racing today, I still love the challenge of every year getting myself in shape.

"I always have this question of if I can still drive before I get to the first test; can I still do it? Do I still have it? I love that unknown. People are like 'it's never gonna go' but maybe one year you don't feel good in the car, so I'm always excited by that.

"I love racing and working for this team. There is nothing quite like the working environment you have when you are working for a big organisation like this and there are so many creative people and engineers and designers and I am fascinated by that.

"It's my 12th season and I am still going to the factory and I am still seeing things being built and made, and I'm like how do you do it? This is a car that comes from all different parts of the factory and it comes into one little space and it fits together perfectly. I love that and then there are only two of us who get to drive that incredible machine that they built.

"And then on top of that I'm the most competitive person I know. Until today I've not met anyone who's more competitive than me and I want to win -- and I truly believe I can if I put my mind to it and if I work hard for it. I like that it doesn't come easy. I like that I have to work hard for it."

Arguably the only thing missing from Hamilton's impressive career is a drive with the most successful F1 team of all: Ferrari. Maranello has lured many a driver during the prime of their career and is often seen as the ultimate destination for F1's greatest talents. To date, Hamilton claims not to have approached the Italian team and insists it is not a box that needs to be ticked before he retires.

"I've never made Ferrari aware that I wanted to race for them, so it doesn't really surprise me [they haven't contacted me]," he adds. "I'm not really bothered by it and I still have respect for that team.

"It was never something for me as a kid to have the goal to get to Ferrari. It was just to get to Formula One."

But even without a Ferrari contract, Hamilton is already surprisingly popular in Italy. Prior to the start of our interview, a group of fans congregated outside the factory gates hoping to get a glimpse of their hero. Based on Hamilton's movements on social media and a sixth sense for the world champion's whereabouts, members of his fan club shadow him at almost every public (and sometimes non-public) event he attends. One member of the Turin-based chapter of 'Team LH' has hand painted several scenes of Hamilton's 2017 title victory on a large canvas and gives it to him as a gift. Hamilton later posts a picture of it on social media in reciprocal appreciation.

"I know that I have people powering me on and following me," he says afterwards. "There are people who stood at the gate over there with my logo tattooed on their arm and they are like 'we can't wait for the first race, we are going to get it! We are going to go for number five!'

"It's like a journey that I'm on with so many people. It's almost impossible to fully embrace how special the journey is and how important it is to me and those people that are on the journey with me."

But all great journeys need a destination, and in recent years Hamilton has talked more frequently about his life after F1. He admits that even during the highs of his fourth world championship campaign he took some time to question where and when it would all end.

"At the end of the season, of course I am wondering to myself 'do I want to keep racing?' I have to ask myself that for sure. Even through the year I have to ask 'how long do I want to keep racing?' but I don't know at the moment.

"Do I want to go next year? Yes. Do I want to go the year after? Most likely. Do I want to go after that? I'm not sure. But what I can tell you right now is that if I feel this way next year and the year after that, I'm going to keep extending it and just keep going."

Hamilton is now embarking on his 26th year in some form of motorsport competition. A quarter of a century and the vast majority of his life has been dedicated to reaching his current position, and it's formed a story that he is quite rightly proud of. For all his other interests in fashion, music and the wider world beyond F1, he knows he will never achieve such heights in a chosen field again. And for now that is enough to keep him at the top of his game and convince him to stay in the sport.

"There is a long, long time after racing, a long time in retirement. Maybe the first six months are going to be amazing and you are going to be able to do things that I've not been able to do before -- it will be difficult for people to grasp exactly what those are but I'm excited about that.

"But after that you are going to miss racing, you are going to miss competition, you are going to miss that pressure. There's no other environment that I'm going to be in that is going to have the pressure that I am able to resist and compete under anywhere else in my life. So how do I feed that adrenaline and that excitement roller-coaster ride with something else?"

Coverage of Formula One in the U.S.A. will return to ESPN this year and begins at Melbourne's Albert Park with the Australian Grand Prix. Full programing details below (all times Eastern Time):

Rolex Australian Grand Prix
Practice 1 - Thursday, March 22, 9:00 PM - ESPN3
Practice 2 - Friday, March 23, 1:00 AM - ESPN3
Practice 3 - Friday, March 23, 10:00 PM - ESPNEWS
Qualifying - Saturday, March 24, 2:00 AM - ESPN2
Race - Sunday, March 25, 1:00 AM - ESPN2