Hamilton has a long way to go to become a great of Schumacher’s stature. But his performances in his debut season have been very impressive – he still leads the championship with three rounds to go.
They may never meet on an F1 track, but they have raced once before – when a 16 year-old Hamilton took on Schumacher in karts in October 2001.
A famous television advert for a sportswear company several years ago featured a roster of top footballers having a kick-around with scores of amateur players on Hackney Marshes in London.
But how often do professional sportsmen do the same thing in real life? Well, Michael Schumacher did in 2001.
Fresh from winning his fourth World Championship he jetted back from the final round at Suzuka in Japan and headed straight for the gym – he needed to trim three kilos from his already slender frame to be competitive in World Karting Championship final that was being held at his father Rolf’s circuit in Kerpen.
“I am of course aware that these guys against whom I will be racing drive every day, and I maybe only three times a year, but that entices me even more,” he said.
Hamilton, aged 16, was at a pivotal point in his young career. He had already secured the backing of McLaren several years earlier, now he was poised to make the switch from karting to racing. He had begun testing for Manor Motorsport in preparation for that winter’s British Formula Renault series.
He would leave a fine pedigree in karting behind, having won the European Formula A champion in 2000 and the Formula A World Cup the same year.
Practice, qualifying and heats
In the last practice session before the sequence of heats and finals got underway, Schumacher was quickest of all. He set a new lap record for the circuit with a time of 43.956 seconds.
But qualifying on Saturday brought an unwelcome change of fortune for the German. The drivers were split into two different groups and Schumacher’s session was hit by rain, leaving him 22nd.
That afternoon Schumacher and Hamilton were in the same race together, the Briton finishing second behind Vitantonio Liuzzi. Schumacher climbed through the field to finish eighth, having run as high as sixth, ending the race 9.5s behind the winner.
On the second heat on Sunday Schumacher and Hamilton finished in the opposite order – Schumacher 15th, Hamilton 26th. That meant they would start the first of the finals from 16th and 26th respectively.
The first final began brightly for Schumacher as he moved up the order to take third place. But on lap 15 he appeared to brake too deep into a tight corner, spinning the kart and stalling the engine. Several attempts to restart the kart failed, leaving him 25th overall.
Hamilton, meanwhile, rose from 26th on the grid to finish seventh.
In the final race Schumacher made a flying start and by the end of lap one was seventh, having passed Hamilton’s team mate Nico Rosberg. Rosberg latched onto the back of Schumacher’s kart and followed his experienced compatriot as he rose up through the ranks.
By lap 11 – just under half race distance – Schumacher was up to fourth with Rosberg sixth and Hamilton ninth. Then leader Franck Perera and second placed Maro Ardigo clashed, leaving a furious Perera in the gravel being restrained by a marshal.
Ardigo took the win with Schumacher third – but after Ardi was disqualified the German was promoted to second behind Sauro Cesetti, with Rosberg third and Hamilton seventh.
Asked about the race afterwards, Hamilton replied with the kind of nonplussed coolness we have come to associate with him: “I never really had a chance to get near Schumacher, which was a shame because I’d have like to have beaten him around a few corners. I could see him in the distance in the second race, but to be fair it didn’t really make much of a difference to me.”
Several other drivers were racing that day that are worth mentioning. Liuzzi won the World Karting Championship that year and eventually became Formula 3000 champion in 2004 before making his F1 debut with Red Bull.
Rosberg won the 2005 GP2 championship and started F1 with Williams the following year.
Estonian Marko Asmer, fourth in the final race, has just won the British Formula Three championship and is targeting a move to F1. And Giedo van der Garde, who retired on the seventh lap, is McLaren’s ‘other’ development driver. He is one of Spyker’s four test drivers, and is currently languishing well down the order in the World Series by Renault.
But what did Schumacher make of Hamilton? “He’s a quality driver, very strong and only 16. If he keeps this up I’m sure he will reach F1. It’s something special to see a kid of his age out on the circuit. He’s clearly got the right racing mentality.”
Photo: Daimler Chrysler