AROUND 16 years ago, back in the days when I was a fresh-faced sports reporter, I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to spend some time with a talented young British motor racing driver at Brands Hatch.

The potential of this politely-spoken yet confident 17-year-old, while undoubtedly talked about even at that stage within the sport’s hierarchy as a seriously hot prospect for the future, was pretty much unknown to the rest of the world.

Little did I know that in being given the opportunity to talk extensively to someone who had only a month before passed his driving test, I was in the privileged position of interviewing a young man who would become the most successful British driver in Formula One history.

Yet, in truth, his rise to the top did not surprise me.

Because for all of his inexperience and rookie status, Lewis Hamilton made up for it in determination, confidence in his own ability and above all, talent.

Hamilton goes into this weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix as 2018 world champion – but it will not be an unfamiliar feeling.

Having successfully retained his crown last month at the Mexican Grand Prix, the Mercedes driver joined Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher in claiming five or more World Championship titles.

Hamilton’s incredible most recent success prompted me to delve into my cuttings and look back on that special day I spent with history-maker Hamilton, who back then was a rising star in the Formula Renault UK series.

It goes down as one of the best moments of my own career so far (although I perhaps did not realise that at the time), particularly because of the openness in which he spoke.

For in hindsight, Hamilton’s attitude offered clues, even back then in 2002, of his desire – and what he just might achieve in later years.

“My ultimate ambition is to become Formula One champion and then double champion,” he had said back then, without any hint of hesitation.

“Every time I get in the car, I learn something new. There’s so much to learn about the car and each time I go out I get faster and faster.

“It’s all a big learning curve for me. There’s always a higher goal. Once you achieve something there’s always something higher.

“When I qualify in pole position I want to qualify half a second ahead of everyone else.

“There’s always something better.”

I vividly recall watching Hamilton tearing around the track that day, distinctive in his yellow helmet worn as a nod to one of his heroes, the great Ayrton Senna.

At the time, I wrote: ‘One of two things strike you when watching Hamilton speed around Brands Hatch. The first is his breathtakingly-natural ability to drive a single-seater racing car. And the second is his bright yellow helmet.’

As a young driver, Hamilton had strong support from Ron Dennis’s McLaren-Mercedes group.

He was, though, still acutely aware of how difficult it might be to reach his goals; not that it quelled his enthusiasm to get to the top.

“It’s whether you have the talent and whether you can get the support,” he said.

Another striking feature back then was Hamilton’s connection with his father Anthony, who sacrificed so much to help his son achieve his dream.

The bond they share is inextricably linked to the success he has enjoyed on the track since becoming a cadet, in 1995.

“Racing has definitely brought us together. Everything I do, I do with him,” he said at the time.

Hamilton is now 33 years old but there is more to come from this extraordinary driver.

He has the great Schumacher’s all-time record of seven world titles in his sights and is showing no signs of relenting in his pursuit of more success.

Yet whatever he achieves in future years, Hamilton will now forever go down as one of the sport’s greatest-ever drivers.

He has certainly come a long way since that day we spent at Brands Hatch.