A decade into his F1 career, Lewis Hamilton hasn’t taken his foot off the throttle.
Lewis Hamilton was an interloper. When he began his karting career in 1993, the compulsively competitive eight-year-old would consistently beat the other kids on the track, only to have their moms come up and tell him that he wasn’t good enough. Racing was a white-dominated sport for wealthy participants. Hamilton was neither. Undoubtedly, those disparaging comments had racists undertones. Ironically, when he began his F1 career in 2007, he was the first black driver in the history of the sport.
Hamilton grew up rough. His parents separated when he was two. By the time he was 12, he went to stay with his father, Anthony, in a tiny one-bed apartment in North London along with his step-mother and her son. Anthony worked at up to three jobs at a time and re-mortgaged the house to finance his son’s racing career. The two travelled around the UK participating in every karting race they could. It’s where he perfected the skill of hitting the brakes at the last moment while going into a corner – a technique to ensure maximum speed that he still uses today. They had the worst trailer, travelled in the cheapest car and had the simplest go-kart compared to the other well-heeled participants, but that didn’t stop Hamilton from winning every time.
In 1995, at the age of 10, during an awards ceremony at one of the karting events, he met McLaren’s racing chief, Ron Dennis. The plucky boy told the F1 veteran that he wanted to race his cars one day. Incredibly, three years later Dennis signed on Hamilton to the Young Driver’s Programme.
Hamilton caught his big break at the inaugural race of the 2007 Grand Prix in Australia. Defending double world champion Fernando Alonso had just moved to McLaren from Renault and Hamilton was brought in to play the role of a wingman – rather than challenger – to his teammate. The 22-year-old F1 debutant had other plans. Not only did he finish his first-ever F1 race on the podium, but also came frustratingly close to winning the world championship that year too. He lost out to Kimi Räikkönen by a single point. Alonso finished third.
The following year, with his confidence peaking, Hamilton had an incredible season. He won the world title on the final corner, of the final lap, in the final race of the season becoming the youngest driver to win a world championship. An F1 superstar was born.
The making of a champion
There’ve been very good drivers who weren’t showmen (Michael Schumacher) and consummate playboys (James Hunt) who weren’t consistent winners. Hamilton was both. By carefully curating Brand Hamilton – the man who sits in the front row of London Collections Men, then hops back onto his Bombardier CL 600 private jet to fly halfway around the world to win a race and then fly back to catch up with Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney backstage at another fashion show – he has turned into a paparazzi darling. Hopscotching between his residences in Colorado, Monaco and Switzerland, his pals include A-listers from Pharrell Williams, Jay Z, Gigi Hadid, Justin Bieber and the Kardashians; all of who regularly pepper his Instagram feed. His on-off-on-off-again relationship with the glamorous Nicole Scherzinger provided plenty of fertile fodder for gossip rags from The Sun to the Daily Mail to regurgitate daily in explicit detail.
Hamilton, it can be argued, has had a transcendental effect on the sport. Think of him as an ambassador for F1. Even if you haven’t watched a single NBA game in your life, or couldn’t care less about football and never followed a single golf championship, names like Michael Jordan, David Beckham or Tiger Woods aren’t unfamiliar. That’s the case with Hamilton too, who entered the sport in 2007 at a time when the absolute dominance of Schumacher reduced F1 to a predictable and boring phenomenon. Schumacher had just announced his retirement at the end of 2006 season, and Hamilton was the fresh-faced party-hard image-conscious racer that the sport needed. According to a report in TIME magazine, F1’s revenue was up 53 per cent to $1.83 billion at the end of July last year compared to when Hamilton entered F1.
It’s no surprise then that erstwhile F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone famously called Hamilton the “best world champion we’ve had” – high-praise indeed from the whip- in-chief who made and broke world champions over the nearly four decades that he was at the helm. “As a driver, he is absolutely outstanding – as good as there’s ever been. Apart from the talent, he’s a good guy, he gets out on the street and supports and promotes Formula One. He is box office, 100 per cent.”
One of his biggest box-office moments came in 2013 when he decided to move from McLaren to Mercedes. McLaren’s racing chief wasn’t happy. The parting between the two was acrimonious. But with Mercedes believed to have inked a $100 million three-year contract for their incoming driver, there was no looking back. He was paired with Nico Rosberg – the two grew up competing against one another in the karting series.
Beginning 2014, having settled into his car, Hamilton began to justify the mini commercial empire that was spun around F1’s leading man. He romped home to a comfortable championship win with his teammate finishing second. In 2015, Hamilton repeated his stellar performance and bagged his third championship title, equalling his childhood hero Ayrton Senna’s record. That year, Hamilton was offered another three-year deal with Mercedes, reportedly worth $135 million. By accepting it, he became the highest paid British sportsman in Formula One history.
By the time the 2016 season began, it was Rosberg’s time to shine. Hamilton made it clear though that the gloves were off. He was there to compete and win races, not make friends. The two began to duke it out on the track, much to Mercedes’ chagrin. They crashed hard into each other hard in the opening lap of the Spanish GP, wrecking both cars. Mercedes’ non-executive chairman Niki Lauda stepped in and threatened to sever both their contracts if it ever happened again. That didn’t stop them from colliding into each other once again two months later in the final lap of the Austrian race.
Evidently, Rosberg and Hamilton had eroded nearly all goodwill with their team. But the fact that at least one of the two drivers – at times both – were on the podium in every single race except the Spanish GP that year, was enough for Mercedes to bite their tongue and tolerate the behaviour of the sparring drivers. Hamilton even turned on his own team by saying that the engine trouble that he suffered in three races – Rosberg didn’t face any – wasn’t happenstance. Toto Wolff, the team’s racing boss, had a soft corner for Hamilton though and wasn’t ready to read the riot act to either driver. Wolff’s patience paid off and although Hamilton lost the championship to Rosberg, the team ended at the top of the constructor’s championship at the end of the season.
Hamilton isn’t above courting controversies. In the final race of the Abu Dhabi GP last year, while leading the race with Rosberg on his tail, he deliberately slowed the pace of the race. For him to win the championship, he needed to finish first and Rosberg had to finish fourth or lower. Hamilton defied team orders over the radio to pick up the pace and although Rosberg eventually finished second, Hamilton wasn’t gracious in defeat and defended his right to control the pace of the race.
Earlier this year, at the Azerbaijan GP, he deliberately braked hard when the safety car was out so that he could bunch up the field. A furious Sebastian Vettel who was right behind him had to brake hard and was clearly unhappy with Hamilton’s driving style. While none of these moves amount to cheating, neither were they entirely fair play.
The home stretch
Following Rosberg’s surprise announcement of his retirement straight after he won the world championship last year, Hamilton has a new teammate in Valtteri Bottas this year. At the time of going to press, with only the Brazilian and Abu Dhabi GP left, Hamilton is leading the driver’s championship. In the decade he has spent in the fastest sport on the planet, he has notched 63 wins and has been on the podium on 117 occasions. If he wins the 2017 F1 championship – and the deck is dealt in his favour – his fourth world championship win will mean that only Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher have won more championships than him.
Brand Hamilton is in rude health. The interloper is now a player.