SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Oh, what a feeling!
It's still sinking in for Lewis Hamilton that he is the new Formula One World Champion.
In December 1995, when he approached McLaren team owner Ron Dennis at a banquet and said that one day he wanted to drive for McLaren, F1 was but a dream for the 10-year-old Hamilton.
At the time he was a rising star in the go-kart racing ranks in England.
Dennis was impressed by Hamilton's demeanor and confidence. Two years later Hamilton became a protégé in McLaren Mercedes' young driver program.
And on the afternoon of Nov. 2, 2008, Hamilton, age 23, won the F1 Drivers' World Championship in a cliff-hanger finale in Brazil. It wasn't until the final seconds of the final lap that Hamilton was able to pass Timo Glock to take over fifth place. And fifth was just enough for Hamilton to snatch the title by a single point from Felipe Massa, who won the race in his Ferrari.
"It feels great," Hamilton said. "It feels great. I don't think it has hit home yet. I woke up this morning, I felt relaxed, I felt satisfied and I felt full of energy. I felt really fresh, and then it keeps popping into my mind: 'Wow, you are world champion!'"
Hamilton was talking to reporters in Sao Paulo on the day after he had clinched the crown.
"Never in a million years would I have thought that I would be here," he said. "I had dreamed of having it, which is why it probably does feel like having a dream. That is why it keeps popping back into my head, to show it is reality. So it is a great feeling."
Dennis said that this was the first of many championships for Hamilton.
"If you look at the statistics, he has won more points in the last two years than any other driver," Dennis said. "He's won more races than any other driver; he's had more podiums than any other driver. He's the youngest world champion ever. He just keeps delivering and, at the end of the day, he's just two years into his career. So there's a long way to go."
Michael Schumacher, who won a record seven world championships, thinks Hamilton is one of the best ever.
"I really rate him for what he's done in such a short time -- arriving just last year and competing with [two-time champion Fernando] Alonso, and very often being quicker, speaks for itself," Schumacher said.
Might Hamilton be the one to break Schumacher's record?
"I would say, absolutely, yes," Schumacher told the BBC. "Nobody thought, even me, that I could beat [five-time champion Juan Manuel] Fangio. Then I did. Records are there to be beaten."
But Hamilton is not aiming for Schumacher's records.
"I don't plan or try to reach any of his records," he said in the press conference in Brazil. "It's not something that really appeals to me. I love being in the car and winning. That's a great feeling, a fulfilling achievement.
"Just to get to one championship has been incredibly hard. Hopefully, I'll grow as a driver and if that means winning world championships, so be it."
A year ago, in his rookie season, Hamilton lost the championship by just one point to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen.
"I think this year was a lot different to last year," he said. "Last year we had a lot better consistency, perhaps less mistakes. But at the end of the year I was at a point in my life, where I was thrown into the limelight. I was leading the world championship and the pressure that I could be world champion in this race [Brazil 2007] was tough to take on my young shoulders.
"I think losing that world championship probably made me stronger, and that is why we pulled through at the end of this one. But there were races this year that we won, we won some of the best races -- Silverstone, Monaco, Germany -- but there were races we lost either through a mistake from myself or a mistake by the team."
In that dramatic last lap in Brazil this year, the McLaren team told Hamilton he had to pass Glock to get the championship. It was raining and Hamilton was on rain tires while Glock was slowing because his Toyota was on dry-weather tires.
"In Turn 10 [of the last lap] they told me that Glock was just ahead," Hamilton recalled the next day. "He is on slick tires and he is struggling. [The team said] 'If you can overtake him, then that will be great!' I didn't know if I was close enough and there were only two corners left.
"I came through Turn 11 and saw [Sebastian] Vettel pass him, and he was just about to turn into the corner and I shot up the inside. So at that point I relaxed and thought I should have it. I was expecting the team to go, 'Woo hoo, you've won the championship!' But they didn't! So I was panicking for a second."
It was only after Hamilton crossed the start/finish line for the final time and headed into the first turn on his cooldown lap that the team confirmed he was champion.
Glock has ridiculed speculation that he deliberately backed off so that Hamilton could take over fifth place and thus win the championship instead of Massa.
After endless interviews, hugs and laughs with his team, and streams of people coming by to congratulate him, Hamilton finally left the track.
Later, Hamilton, his American girlfriend, Pussycat Doll pop singer Nicole Scherzinger; his parents; his brother, Dennis; team members and friends celebrated through the night at a private night club in Sao Paulo.
Hamilton, who drinks alcohol sparingly if at all [he was usually the designated driver when going out for a night on the town with his friends], had only a couple glasses of champagne, compared to last year when he tried to drown his disappointment. The rest of the time he drank water and just sat back and savored the moment.
"I remember towards the end of the night I just sat there on the side, a song came on: 'We are the champions' by Queen," he told Autosport. "I saw all my team members, my mechanics, my engineers, the catering people, the bosses, my dad, everyone. They were all so happy.
"I could just sit there and take it all in. It was just a feeling that you can't put into words: to see how happy you have made everyone, and how much work they have put in and how satisfied they are. It was really nice seeing that, and after that I was up and ready for bed. I learned my lesson from last year!"
I can have No. 1 on my car, and that is the coolest thing ever.
-- Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton is the first British driver to win the championship since Damon Hill in 1996.
"Lewis is a tremendous talent," Hill said. "He has got a world championship in the bank, and I think he is going to be difficult to stop from now on."
Former F1 team owner Eddie Jordan reckons that Hamilton is on the verge of worldwide stardom like David Beckham, whose fame crosses far beyond the realm of soccer.
Stirling Moss, whom many fans consider to be the greatest F1 driver never to win the championship, believes that Hamilton will be "a tremendous ambassador for our sport."
"He does bring a whole new thing to the sport," Moss said in an interview with the BBC. "The two important things he brings are: (1) the way he is, his demeanor, the way he dresses and the way he talks to people, and the other one is the way he races because he's exciting to watch."
This year Hamilton's Vodafone McLaren Mercedes carried the No. 22.
Next year Hamilton will have the prestigious No. 1 on his car, denoting that he is the reigning world champion.
"I can have No. 1 on my car," he said, "and that is the coolest thing ever."
Oh, what a feeling!
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.