Senior McLaren personnel say that the sky is the limit for Lewis Hamilton now that the Briton has got his first World Championship under his belt.
Having missed out by just a point in 2007, Hamilton turned the tables on Felipe Massa and Ferrari in Brazil to become the youngest World Champion in history, while also matching the feat of Jacques Villeneuve in winning in his second year at the top level of the sport.
“He deserved to win it last year and to win it this year is something special,” Ron Dennis told Motor Sport. “It was a nail-biting and very satisfying World Championship. It means a lot. We’ve come a long way in a short distance. To be part of his career from being a young boy to seeing him the youngest-ever World Champion is a wonderful experience. I’m so pleased for Lewis, but also very pleased for the team.”
In two seasons Hamilton has scored nine Grand Prix wins and taken 13 pole positions. He has been on the podium 22 times in his 35 starts, and has scored 207 points. Remarkably, the 23-year-old has yet to suffer a retirement due to any kind of technical problem or team error. His only non-finishes have been as a result of his crashes in the pit entry in China in 2007, and at the pit exit in Canada this season.
“He’s very, very special,” said McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh. “Under enormous pressure he delivered for the team, and for himself. There were millions of Brazilians who understandably had the dream of Massa winning the World Championship, and they shared those emotions with us during the course of that weekend! That put enormous pressure on someone who’s still very young.
“On top of the pressure that clearly mounts from having just missed out on the year before, to then find yourself in that position, where potentially the slightest error and you’re going to be condemned to second place for another year, was tough. We all had that in our minds going into Brazil, and over the course of the weekend Lewis didn’t panic. He could easily have panicked and made a mistake at various stages of the race.
“And it was difficult for the team and our psyche to race for fifth place. I have to say it wasn’t a very enjoyable experience! It could easily have gone terribly wrong for us. I’m delighted for everyone who worked so hard and for Lewis obviously that we got it right in the end.”
Whitmarsh believes Hamilton’s true potential has yet to be seen: “He may well turn out to be one of the most gifted racing drivers ever. He’s developing as a human being, developing as a complete article. Brazil was a demonstration of that, and he’ll only come away stronger and better.
“This is the start of a fabulous career. To be rookie of the year and just miss out in your first year, and then win it – he has just a phenomenal career ahead of him. He will now come into next year’s World Championship with the self- assurance of a World Champion.
“In my opinion he’s got all the natural, raw talent that we’ve known about for years, and he’s just going to get better and better. I think he’s going to draw a lot out of winning the championship and having the right number on his car next year. He will be of greater stature and more comfortable next year.”
Whitmarsh admitted that McLaren had endured some tough times over the past decade, having failed to win a title since Mika Häkkinen’s second success back in 1999. Aside from ’07’s disappointment, the team twice missed out at a late stage with Kimi Räikkönen.
“After the near-misses there’s been enormous pressure on the team. Everyone at Woking and Brixworth has worked so hard. Now it’s just released a lot of that pressure. We’ve had some tough breaks in the last few years, and to win this one feels very good indeed. It’s been a roller coaster ride.”
McLaren Racing MD Jonathan Neale agreed that it wasn’t easy for the team to recover from the frustrations of 2007, and particularly the spy scandal.
“Last year was last year,” said Neale. “It made us stronger. We all learned a bit, we moved on. We’ve been really consistent pushing through the course of this year, stayed disciplined, stayed focused. There have been distractions over the past couple of years, but I’m really pleased that we had the discipline and the confidence to push on and finish it.
“It’s fantastic. We love motor sport, and Brazil was what F1 is all about. It had everything. What a great way to finish the season – that was the most exciting fifth place we’ve ever had! At the end it was a real nail-biter, but Lewis hung in there. He’s got more points than any other driver over the last two years. He’s been a consistent performer all the way through. He has real talent, and he is what it says on the tin – racing driver. This is just the beginning, there’s much more to come.”
Hamilton’s success in Brazil was particularly poignant for McLaren’s veteran head of race operations Steve Hallam, who was enjoying his last race with the team before heading for a new career in NASCAR.
“It was a wonderful way to end. The race was just something that you couldn’t imagine in your wildest dreams, unfolding like that. The last couple of laps were anxious, shall we say. We were contenders down to the last race in 2003, and we were contenders in ’05 and ’07. In 2008 we pulled it off. It’s just great. Lewis is right at the beginning of his career. He’ll just go from strength to strength now.” Adam Cooper