Formula 1 – World Champion at the second attempt
Any thoughts Hamilton would make a quiet F1 bow and play a supporting role to new team-mate Fernando Alonso were dismissed at the first Grand Prix of 2007. A record nine successive podium finishes in his first nine F1 races included dominant breakthrough victories at Montréal and Indianapolis that gave the precocious newcomer the championship lead. Helped by hours in McLaren’s simulator as he learned unfamiliar circuits, he won in Hungary and Japan to all-but clinch the World Championship in his rookie year. In the event, that unprecedented achievement slipped from his grasp with tyre failure in China and a gearbox glitch in Brazil. Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen snatched an unlikely title with Hamilton finishing as runner-up. A single point covered the top three with Alonso equalling the Englishman’s score but third on countback.
For all that success, 2007 was overshadowed by revelations that disgruntled Ferrari test team manager Nigel Stepney had passed a dossier on its F2007 to McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan. “Spygate” eventually resulted in the team’s exclusion from the constructors’ championship and a $100million fine. In addition to the scandal, Alonso’s relationship with Hamilton and senior team management deteriorated so badly that he left after a single season.
The fine margins between success and failure were amply illustrated by Hamilton’s first two F1 seasons. Having missed out by a single point 12 months earlier, Hamilton snatched the 2008 World Championship on the final corner of the last lap of the deciding race. Five victories included having punctured a tyre at Monaco and a masterful display in the wet at Silverstone. However, he clashed with Alonso in Bahrain, crashed into Räikkönen in the Montréal pitlane and scattered the front-runners after an overly impetuous move at the start of the Japanese GP. A late rain shower near the end of the final round in Brazil put his title in jeopardy as his McLaren MP4/23-Mercedes-Benz dropped to sixth as he switched to rain tyres. Then, on the last lap, he made up the 13.144sec deficit to Timo Glock’s Toyota (which was still on dry rubber) to snatch the fifth place he required to become champion by a point and cut short the premature Ferrari celebrations.
World Champion at 23 and with a pop star girlfriend, Hamilton was now among Britain’s most marketable sportsmen. However, his title defence began with more unwanted controversy for he was disqualified from the 2009 Australian GP when found to have lied to the stewards. The McLaren MP4/24 lacked balance but Hamilton helped develop it sufficiently to win in Hungary and Singapore as he finished fifth overall.
Hamilton was joined at McLaren Mercedes in 2010 by the man who succeeded him as World Champion – Jenson Button – and the Englishmen’s contrasting styles complemented each other. Inevitably, Hamilton’s aggressive driving style led to occasions when he overstepped the mark – clashing with Felipe Massa on the opening lap in Italy and puncturing a tyre against Mark Webber’s Red Bull next time out in Singapore. But there were more days when he flattered the MP4/25. Hamilton took advantage when the Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber ran into each other in Turkey. Further victories in the next race in Canada (from pole position) and at Spa-Francorchamps helped maintain Hamilton’s interest in the championship until the final round. One of four drivers with a mathematical chance of the title in Abu Dhabi, he finished second behind new champion Vettel but was fourth in the final standings.
So far never beaten by a team-mate over a full season during his career in cars, 2011 was a difficult year for Hamilton in his private life and on the track. The tabloid newspapers were happy to detail the break-up with former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger and, whether true or not, that turmoil seemed to affect his judgment and performances in the car. He had a soon reported meeting with Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner about his future and repeated contact with Massa in Singapore and Japan drew the Brazilian’s ire. There were wins (China, Germany and Abu Dhabi) as Hamilton was classified fifth overall while team-mate Button finished as championship runner-up.
Hamilton was back to his best in 2012 in what was his final year with McLaren – his team since boyhood. He won the Canadian, Hungarian, Italian and United States GPs but further victories in Singapore and Abu Dhabi were lost when his MP4/27 failed him while in the lead. That scuppered another title challenge and Hamilton was classified fourth in the 2012 World Championship.