By Alan Baldwin
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton described Juan Manuel Fangio as the 'godfather' of Formula One on Thursday and said it was crazy to think he could soon join the late Argentine as a five times world champion.
Fangio was, until Michael Schumacher won seven titles, the man with the most and the 1950s champion remains revered as possibly the greatest driver of all time and certainly of his deadly era.
Hamilton can equal the South American's haul on Sunday with three races to spare, the 33-year-old Mercedes driver needing only to score eight points more than Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel in the U.S. Grand Prix.
"He's the godfather for us, one of the greats from the beginning and will always be admired in the sport," the Briton told reporters.
"It is crazy to think that I'm embarking on a similar number of championships that he had."
Hamilton had no envy of Fangio's era, however -- a time of frequent driver funerals and also an age completely alien to his background as the grandson of 1950s Caribbean immigrants to England.
Hamilton has broken down barriers as Formula One's first and only mixed-race champion, and did so coming from an under-privileged background without wealth or any family history of motor racing.
At a time when Fangio was dominant on the racetrack, Hamilton's paternal grandfather Davidson was working for the London underground transport system having newly-arrived from Grenada.
The sort of social leap Hamilton, now a global superstar with the fortune to match, has achieved would have been inconceivable when the European-dominated Formula One world championship started up in 1950.
"I don't know if the 50s was a particularly good time, it wasn't a great time for black people either, so I probably wouldn't have been racing back then," said Hamilton.
"I'm grateful to be in this era and with the technology that we have and seeing the cars advance."
Hamilton has driven cars from Fangio's era, notably joining the Argentine's great rival Stirling Moss a few years ago for a spin in an old Mercedes at Monza, which also proved an eye-opener.
"It's always really strange to hear the drivers' mental philosophy back then," he said.
"Sir Stirling would say you'd want to fall out if the car's going to crash: you hope that you get thrown out the car. It's a much more confined space for us (now) -- it's all about being stuck in and being safe."
Hamilton has now won 71 races, compared to Fangio's 24 and second only to Schumacher's tally of 91, but a season in the Argentine's day had as few as six or seven races compared to the 21 today.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)