F1 » Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton came into Formula One with a lot to live up to after his record in the junior ranks but, whatever happens in what is likely to be a long career, like it or not his name will go down in history as the first black grand prix driver.
To say that that is the only significant thing about Hamilton, however, would be grossly unfair, as his record prior to F1 speaks for itself. Indeed, his success in the lower ranks led many to tip him as a future world champion, something given more weight by the fact that he has been a protege of Ron Dennis' since approaching the McLaren team boss as an eleven-year old.
Hamilton began racing when he was just eight, but quickly established himself at the head of the pack, becoming the British Cadet Kart champion in 1995 and adding a number of other successes to his tally before moving into cars.
He was a McLaren-Mercedes Champion of the Future in 1996, as well as securing the Sky TV Kart Masters title and the Five Nations honours. In 1997, he moved up from the Cadet level to the Junior Yamaha class and, once again, immediately took the laurels, repeating his British title success from Cadets and taking the McLaren-Mercedes Champion of the Future crown in the class.
He took the Champion of the Future tag again in 1998, and continued to progress through the karting ranks, taking runners-up honours in the 1999 European JICA championship to go with his Italian 'Industrials' title and fourth place in the Italian national JICA series.
Paired in a 'dream team' with future F1 rival Nico Rosberg, Hamilton went one better the following year, his first full season in senior competition, whitewashing his rivals to take the four-round 2000 European FA title. That success paled, however, when he went on to win the world title later in the year, before ending the decade with victory in the Masters event at Bercy. The successful campaign also led to Hamilton being made a founder member of BRDC 'Rising Star' scheme.
Having become the very best in karts, Hamilton began the move to cars, taking fifth overall in the 2001 Formula Renault Winter series. The decision to skip Formula Ford and head straight for the 'slicks-and-wings' category was justified when he then took third overall in the 2002 Formula Renault UK championship, collecting three wins, three pole positions and three fastest laps en route. He also took in four of the nine Eurocup rounds, again with Manor Motorsport, claiming fifth overall on the back of some scintillating runs.
Although the temptation to move up to F3 was great, Hamilton opted to remain in FRenault in 2003, and it proved to be a wise move, with ten wins, eleven poles and nine fastest laps seeing him cruise to the UK title. Having secured the crown with two rounds to run, Hamilton finally made the move to F3, but a tentative debut at Brands Hatch was curtailed by an accident that left him in hospital with concussion. He bounced straight back, however, taking pole for the end-of-season Korean Superprix, before another incident ended his hopes of victory.
A full-time F3 campaign was announced for 2004, but Hamilton snubbed the British championship, preferring instead to try the F3 Euroseries. He had a solid debut year, taking one win and two thirds to end the season fifth in the standings, before dominating the inaugural Bahrain Super Prix and taking victory in race one at Macau, an event eventually won by future GP2 team-mate Alex Premat.
Following the same strategy adopted in FRenault, Hamilton did the same again in 2005, but left Manor to join the crack ASM team in the Euroseries. Backed by the existing series champions, the Briton blitzed his opposition, taking win after win to easily take the title, with 15 victories, 13 poles and 15 fastest laps emphasising his dominance.
His rise was also illustrated in the blue riband F3 events, as he seized the initiative to win the Marlboro Masters at Zandvoort, the Monaco Grand Prix support races and the Pau Grand Prix.
With all that achieved, Hamilton had only one more category to conquer before Formula One and, while the GP2 Series would be a tough nut to crack, he took to it with aplomb. Among the fastest in almost every winter test he attended, he was signed to replace Rosberg alongside Premat in ASM's sister team ART Grand Prix, and was listed amid the pre-season favourites, despite his rookie status.
Although a quiet opening round in Valencia yielded a maiden podium, Hamilton made short work of playing himself into the series, taking a rare win double in round three at the Nurburgring and going on to add three more victories - at Monaco and twice at Silverstone following a breathtaking three-abreast passing move at Becketts - before the year reached halfway.
Although he failed to take another win, and faced stiff opposition from a resurgent Nelson Piquet Jr, consistent podium finishes - some inspired by scintillating recovery drives through the field, such as that in Istanbul - Hamilton ended 2006 with five wins and 114 points, twelve more than the Brazilian.
That success put Hamilton's name on everyone's lips, and there was speculation that he might make the step up to F1 towards the end of the year, possibly doing the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix in place of Pedro de la Rosa. In the end, however, mentor and McLaren-Mercedes team boss Dennis opted for caution and stuck with the Kimi Raikkonen-de la Rosa pairing formed when Juan Montoya was given the boot post-US GP.
Hamilton was given seat time in testing, however, and was officially confirmed as part of the 2007 McLaren line-up at the end of November. The announcement ended months of speculation, and allowed Hamilton to finally get on with the business of preparing, having apparently been told of his place after Monza's GP2 finale in September!
Early whispers suggested that, while he would get a lot of testing time prior to the start of the season, it might have been better for Hamilton to spend the whole year learning the ropes away from the media spotlight. However, the rookie was quick to silence those who doubted him....
Having topped the times regularly in pre-season testing, he qualified third on debut in Australia - before passing world champion team-mate Fernando Alonso around the outside of turn one to run second for much of the race. Despite being re-passed by Alonso, Hamilton claimed a maiden podium, beginning a run of top three results that stretched into the mid-season, and included his first two wins, on the annual transatlantic jaunt to Montreal and Indianapolis. His first pole also came in Canada as Hamilton established himself, not only as a consistent points leader, but also the title favourite.
Ninth in the rain-affected European GP - where he crashed heavily in qualifying and then had to be rescued from the gravel trap after an off early in the race - appeared to be the low point of Hamilton's sensational season as he bounced back with a controversial victory in Hungary, second at Monza and another win - perhaps the most impressive of all - at the soaking Japanese GP. However, with the title in his grasp, Hamilton's determination to win from the front cost him dearly, as self-induced tyre wear saw him slide into the gravel while making his pit-stop. This time there was no rescue and the Briton posted his only DNF of the year.
He could still clinch the crown - and become the first rookie to do so - with fifth place in Brazil, but an early gearbox problem left Lewis with too much to do, eventually coming home seventh as Kimi Raikkonen swept to the title. A post-race fuel protest promised to move him up the two positions he needed, but Hamilton magnanimously insisted that he did not want to win the title that way. In the end, the protest was thrown out and he had to settle for second on countback after tying on points with team-mate Alonso.
The year, however, had been riddled with acrimony, not least between the two drivers - despite claims to the contrary - and the espionage row that saw McLaren slung out of the constructors' championship. Alonso, who never settled, duly left what he felt was 'Hamilton's team', leaving the Briton as undisputed number one in only his second season.
Unsurprisingly, Hamilton was determined to make amends and claim the title in 2008 but, with Ferrari holding the upper hand between his wins in Melbourne and Monaco – that latter a brilliant, but fortuitous, success after clipping the Tabac barriers in mixed conditions – and errors of judgement in both Canada and France, he had his work cut out.
Silverstone next up was the perfect tonic, however, and, despite the British climate doing its best to dampen spirits, Hamilton turned in another sublime wet-weather performance to stay in the fight. Another win in Germany followed, before another run of six races without a victory – albeit punctuated by podiums in Valencia, Spa and Singapore – allowed Felipe Massa to keep the battle alive. The McLaren had actually crossed the line first in Belgium, but was stripped of victory after being adjudged to have gained an advantage by cutting the chicane in battle with Raikkonen.
One point ahead of Massa following a disappointing Italian GP, Hamilton was boosted by his rival’s misfortune in Singapore, before penalties in Japan slowed both contenders. Hamilton then won easily in China, erasing the nightmare of 2007, to give himself a seven-point cushion heading to the Interlagos finale.
With Massa always favourite for victory on home soil, Hamilton had to target at least fifth place to secure the crown, but, while the Ferrari man proved true to form, the Briton surprisingly struggled in mixed conditions. Just as the title again appeared destined for Maranello, however, a sudden downpour in the final two laps left slick-shod Timo Glock helpless to defend fifth from Hamilton, the Briton clinching the championship on the run from final corner to finish line!
With just 35 grand prix starts under his belt, Hamilton wrote himself into the record books as the youngest-ever world champion at 23 years, nine months and 26 days, but his chances of a repeat appeared dented by McLaren’s focus on 2008.
With a new set of regulations on the horizon for 2009, the Woking team struggled to get a handle on its new car, leaving both Hamilton and team-mate Heikki Kovalainen well off the pace in pre-season testing. After two seasons running at the front, the Briton was about to swap the toughest race of his life for the toughest season but, in typical Hamilton and McLaren fashion, neither was prepared to take it lightly.
The year began with more controversy, as Hamilton was found to have lied to the Australian GP stewards during an enquiry about passing behind the safety car. Stripped of his third place finish, a contrite Briton then blamed his team during a Malaysian press conference, but both sides knuckled down to the task of turning the year around.
With mentor Dennis stepping aside as a result of the furore, Hamilton could have lost some of his power within the team, but a run of points finishes before F1 returned to Europe ensured that he remained de facto
number one. The next few rounds were barren as McLaren worked hard on developments to the MP4-24, and Hamilton immediately reaped the rewards by claiming an unexpected victory in Hungary. From then on, he scored as well as anyone else, taking another win in Singapore, and ending the season fifth overall - best of the rest behind the dominant Brawn and Red Bull duos.
Team-mate Kovalainen was allowed to leave at the end of the 2009 campaign, a move that presented Hamilton with his toughest challenge since lining up alongside Alonso in 2007, as reigning world champion Jenson Button arrived at McLaren. Added to that, the new MP4-25 would not benefit from direct Mercedes backing after the German team set up its own equipe
at Brawn, but showed enough promise in the hands of both drivers during testing, suggesting Hamilton - and Button - could be contenders again.
The year started with a podium in Bahrain, but just one further podium followed before Hamilton finally returned to the top step of the podium in round seven at Istanbul Park. There, he also exerted his will against Button, banging wheels with his team-mate in a bid to retake the lead. A second win followed next time out in Canada, and led to a strong second half, albeit one crucially peppered with back-to-back DNFs in Italy and Singapore that eventually scuppered a title shot. Although remaining being in the hunt until the final round, Hamilton was a distant outsider by Abu Dhabi and eventually finished fourth overall, despite chasing eventual champion Sebastian Vettel to the line in the finale.
Crucially, the relationship with Button remained cordial, and the pair returned in 2011 determined to take the fight to Red Bull and Ferrari. While the latter remained in reach, however, the battle to overcome RBR remained a little tougher, as Vettel romped to a second title.
Hamilton started the season strongly, with second in Australia and a hard-earned victory in China being followed by another runner-up spot in Spain, but his campaign began to unravel thereafter as off-track issues took their toll on his focus.
A series of incidents in Monaco led to a visit to the stewards and the now infamous, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek, suggestion that he was being picked because of the colour of his skin. Despite winning again in Germany, Hamilton was definitely off key through the middle of the season, clashing terminally with Button in Montreal and Kamui Kobayashi at Spa, and struggling to match his team-mate at most rounds.
His championship challenge suffered as a result, but there were signs that the Briton had regained his focus by season's end, taking the only non-RBR pole of 2011 in Korea and returning to the top step of the podium in Abu Dhabi, suggesting that, with a settled life off-track, he could be a contender in 2012.
With a competitive car and an unchanged McLaren line-up, Hamilton was on form from round one, claiming back-to-back poles in Australia and Malaysia, even though he had to settle for third in both on raceday. Despite being the king of qualifying with eight fastest times on a Saturday - one of which was lost to the fuel regs in Barcelona - it was astounding that he had to wait until Montreal for his first win, but Hamilton kept himself in distant touch with the title fight with further victories in Hungary and Italy as the European season ended. He was denied the top step of the podium by gremlins in both Singapore and Abu Dhabi but, by then, both his championship aspirations and 2013 plans were settled.
Even when pit-stop problems appeared to cost him better results in the first half of the season, Hamilton was something closer to a PR dream as he accepted that ‘that’s racing’ on more than one occasion. Posting set-up data from Spa online hinted at the battle of wits over a new McLaren contract, but many still felt that he would stay at Woking before news of a three-year deal with Mercedes broke prior to Suzuka.
With the weight off his shoulders, Hamilton was sublime in the USGP and could have won in Brazil, but still finished fourth overall. Next year probably won’t be so successful.....