“Lewis broke all the records when he arrived in Formula 1 in 2007,” says the managing director of McLaren Jonathan Neale. “People were advising us that he should come in and do a year in the test team before getting into the race car. But Ron [Dennis] and Martin [Whitmarsh] were confident about putting him straight in there, even though it would be quite testing alongside Fernando Alonso.
“How would he measure up on the grid? How would a 21-year-old handle racing alongside someone with the pedigree of Fernando Alonso? How would the media treat both of them? We were managing expectations, but then, of course, Lewis just tore up the rule book. He said ‘Stuff you!’ We were all looking at each other and saying ‘perhaps we ought to recalibrate ourselves’…”
Lewis Hamilton came into F1 at the beginning of 2007 and didn’t fail to finish on the podium until the 10th round at the Nürburgring. Two wins, four second places and three thirds in his first nine races. Even his double world champion team-mate wondered what was happening.
Blisteringly quick, superb in wet conditions and someone whose meteoric rise through the ranks surprised not only his fellow racers, but McLaren’s boss Ron Dennis: Lewis Hamilton marched onto the F1 track as if he had been there for two seasons already.
To many, though, that wasn’t a surprise. At the age of six he was a national champion in remote-control car racing and in his first taste of karting that year at Rye House in Hertfordshire, he promptly lapped his father Anthony. Karting titles soon followed and at the tender age of 10 he approached Dennis saying that he not only wanted to race for McLaren, but that he also wanted to be World Champion. Thirteen years later he had achieved both.
But was his speedy rise through the ranks thanks to the financial support that McLaren had been supplying since 1998 rather than out-and-out speed? It certainly helped him get into the right cars. However, he didn’t fail to deliver and progressed rapidly to the GP2 Series in 2006, which he won on his first attempt.
“We went for a test at Mallory Park in 2001 in the Formula Renault car,” says Manor Motorsport founder John Booth who ran Lewis in Formula Renault and F3. “We had to hire the circuit exclusively because he wasn’t old enough to have a race licence, and within four or five laps it became pretty obvious he was special. He didn’t have a road car licence and he couldn’t even drive at the time, but he still picked up the gearshift no problem.
“He actually had a fairly major shunt that day. We got the car repaired; he went back out again and was just as quick straight away. He had the confidence and the speed.
“In his first year of Formula Renault [after doing the Winter Series in 2001] he showed lots of speed. He won three races and started the next year as favourite. We went to every pre-season test and he was always quickest by five or six tenths. In the first four races it didn’t quite click, but we went to Silverstone and he was lying fifth on slicks when it started to rain. He went on to win quite comfortably. He won the next nine races after that. His wet weather driving… It’s just totally natural.”
Once onto the F1 grid in 2007 he dazzled both the believers and the sceptics, even if the latter were keen to point out that his seamless transition into the top echelon of the sport was down to hours in the McLaren simulator and on the test track.
“I don’t agree with that,” says Booth. “OK, it helped him learn the circuits and sort the consistency, but I’m not so sure it helped the raw speed.” Neale agrees: “We put some good engineers with Lewis over the winter so that he could learn the systems, but the rest is down to natural ability and force of nature. It was extraordinary.”
Since his championship victory in 2008 – which was famously sealed on the last corner of the last lap in the last race – he has occasionally struggled with uncompetitive cars, mistakes have crept into his driving which was so flawless when he first arrived, and last year he slumped into a depression which appeared to affect him both on and off the track. It’s a worrying trait that he is going some way to making amends for this season.
“Lewis isn’t happy when he’s not winning,” admits Neale. “He’s certainly never going to back off chasing someone to preserve the car. Lewis is still learning and it’s the great drivers who carry on learning. He’s not the finished deal, but then neither is Jenson.
“He’s still going through a learning process; it’s been commented on a lot, but it’s been gradual. He’s adapted progressively. It’s very easy – as we all know – when you’re on a roll to build a virtuous spiral and that confidence will get you a long way. Likewise when it goes the other way you can get a dose of the jitters. When you’ve got the white heat of public scrutiny and media attention on you… that’s an enormous pressure on young people. I don’tmean that in a patronising way to Lewis at all – I’m nearly twice his age! The innate talent was in there, but you’ve still got to survive the ravages of the pitlane. And that’s hard.”
After his world title in 2008 it prompted Sir Jackie Stewart to tell Motor Sport that he could be the next Jim Clark. Anything less than consecutive titles would seem, to many, a disappointment. But four seasons on, he’s still waiting for that second title.
A rejuvenated Hamilton in 2012 could set that straight – if McLaren can give him a consistently competitive car. Beyond this year, will he remain at McLaren? Rumours are swirling that Red Bull, Mercedes or Ferrari could sign him. At the age of 27, Lewis should be hitting his peak – and his next career decision could be the biggest he’ll ever make.
“Lewis is up there with the best of all the McLaren drivers,” says Neale. “He’s by far and away not the finished package yet, but we’re starting to see a new element to his game and the canniness that we saw in Fernando and Mika [Häkkinen]. His car control is very good, his will to win is unrivalled. If he decides to be in the sport for a long period of time he will be amazing. You’ll look back in a decade’s time and think ‘where were you when Lewis…’. He’s that good.”
GRANDS PRIX: 97*
POLE POSITIONS: 21
FASTEST LAPS: 11
KARTING: 1995-2000 numerous titles including 2000 European Formula A Champion and 2000 World Cup Champion and World Number One. 2000 European Karting Champion
SINGLE SEATERS: 2003 Formula Renault 2.0 UK Champion, 2005 Formula 3 Euro Series Champion, and 2006 GP2 Champion *as of Canadian GP 2012