Birthplace: Stevenage, United
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Lewis Hamilton set himself on a path to Formula One when he introduced himself to McLaren team boss Ron Dennis at an award ceremony in 1995.
The nine year-old walked up to Dennis, asked for his autograph and then said: “Hi. I’m Lewis Hamilton. I won the British Championship and one day I want to be racing your cars.”
It earned Hamilton the patronage and support of one of the top Formula One teams which, 13 years later, resulted in an F1 drive.
Before all that there was the small matter of graduating through the lower echelons of motorsport, which Hamilton achieved with considerable aplomb and some astonishing successes.
Hamilton’s first contact with a form of motor sport came through driving remote controlled (RC) cars. His father Anthony bought him one in 1991 and aged six Hamilton was runner-up in a national RC racing championship. “I was racing these remote-controlled cars and winning club championships against adults,” remembered Hamilton. After that Anthony wondered if Lewis’s skills might transfer to full-size motorsport.
He began karting aged eight and two years later won the British karting championship (cadet class) and STP karting championship.
Hamilton remained in cadet class karting in 1996, winning the Champions of the Future series and becoming Sky TV KartMasters Champion and Five Nations Champion.
The following season he raced in Junior Yamaha and won the Champions of the Future series again, plus the Super One series, and was British Champion again.
At their first meeting Dennis had written in Hamilton’s autograph book, “Phone me in nine years, we’ll sort something out then.” In 1998 he was officially signed to the McLaren Driver Development Support programme. At 13, he was the youngest such driver to have been contracted by an F1 team. The contract guaranteed financial and technical support and even included a future option for entry into Formula One.
That year he graduated to the Junior Intercontinental A level and finished second in the McLaren Mercedes Champions of the Future and raced in the Italian Open Championship, finishing fourth.
More Junior Intercontinental A success came in 1999. He was Vice European Champion, Trophy de Pomposa winner and finished fourth in the Italian Open Championship again.
That year he also raced in Intercontinental A and won the Italian “Industrials” Championship.
The next year of karting brought an even greater haul of wins. He was European Champion in Formula A, winning all four rounds.
To that he added the World Cup Championship in Japan, was World Number One, won the Elf Masters at Bercy in France and the second round of the Italian Open. Recognising his success the British Racing Drivers’ Club made him a ‘Rising Star’ Member.
In 2001 he came up against Michael Schumacher who made a guest appearance at the German’s home track at Kerpen. Hamilton finished behind the Ferrari star, who by then had four world championships to his name.
This marked the end of his karting apprenticeship and he stepped up into car racing. But his first test in a racing car for Manor Motorsport didn’t begin well, as team boss John Booth explains: “McLaren asked us to give Lewis a test in our Formula Renault and tell them what we thought. We took him to a general test day at Mallory Park. He;d never driven a car before, not even a road car – and he crashed our Renault after three laps! But the boys put it back together again, and he went back out and went very quickly. It hadn’t fazed him in the slightest.”
He finished fifth overall in the British Formula Renault Winter Series. In 2002 he finished third in Formula Renault UK with Manor Motorsport, winning three races plus one Formula Renault Eurocup race. He scored 274 points to champion Danny Watts’ 333, and was five points adrift of second-placed Jamie Green.
He remained in the series the following year but took until the fifth round, at Silverstone, to take his first win. But from here on he dominated, winning all but one of the next ten races. Hamilton stormed to the title with ten wins, nine fastest laps, eleven pole positions, and 419 points to runner-up Alex Lloyd’s 371. Having wrapped up the championship early he skipped the last two races.
Hamilton also made an ill-starred appearance in the final round of the British Formula Three championship with Manor. He went off in the first race and, in the second, collided with team mate Tor Graves and having been knocked unconscious was taken to Sidcup Hospital.
Nonetheless he would race Formula Three in 2004 but in the European series (‘Euroseries’) rather than the British Championship. He stayed with Manor for their first appearance in the series and won one round, at the Norising. This left him fifth overall behind champion Green, Alexandre Premat, Nicolas Lapierre and Nico Rosberg.
That year he also won the Bahrain F3 Superprix and race one of the Macau F3 Grand Prix. He had his first test in a McLaren F1 car in December, alongside Green and Lloyd.
Hamilton switched teams to champions ASM for 2005, which was a prelude to another destruction of the opposition just as he had in Formula Renault two years earlier. He won 15 of the 20 races (plus a 16th at Spa-Francorchamps after which he and several other drivers were disqualified for technical reasons), beating team mate Adrian Sutil to the championship by 172 points to 94.
That same year he won the F3 Marlboro Masters in Zandvoort, in the Netherlands, from pole position. He also won both the prestigious Monaco F3 Grand Prix races from pole position and both the Pau F3 Grand Prix in France from pole position.
This left GP2 as the most practical route to Formula One, and Hamilton joined champions ART (sister outfit to his F3 team ASM) who had just helped Rosberg on his way to F1. There he would face Premat, who was with the outfit for a second season.
But his main championship rival would be another driver in his second year of GP2 – Nelson Piquet Jnr. The very first round set the tone for the season with Piquet winning from Hamilton.
The Briton found form quickly and won his first race at round five, at the Nurburgring. But this was more than just a win. It was a crushing display of superiority where, lapping over a second quicker than his rivals, even a penalty for speeding in the pit lane couldn’t stop Hamilton.
At Monte-Carlo he won again and he won both his home rounds at Silverstone. There he delivered a crucial blow to Piquet by flying past the Brazilian – and Clivio Piccione – in a celebrated move at the 150mph Becketts complex which saw the crowd roar in approval.
Piquet rallied later in the year but couldn’t keep Hamilton from the title. It came in unusual circumstances following the penultimate race at Monza when he inherited a bonus point for fastest lap from Giorgio Pantano, who was penalised for a yellow flag infringement.
The time was ripe for Hamilton to graduate to Formula One.
A vacant slot existed at McLaren for 2007 alongside Fernando Alonso following the departures of Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya. But few expected Dennis to fill the space with Hamilton, as McLaren had not started a season with a rookie driver since employing Michael Andretti in 1993 – who struggled terribly.
Despite facing competition from Pedro de la Rosa, who had substituted for Montoya in 2006, and fellow McLaren tester Gary Paffett, it was Hamilton who got the drive. He was told on September 30th but the news wasn’t made public until November 24th as McLaren did not want the announcement to be overshadowed by Michael Schumacher’s retirement.
Dennis explained his decision was simply because he did not feel any drivers other than F1′s ‘big three’ (Alonso, Schumacher and Raikkonen) were sufficiently impressive:
We reviewed the whole grid and when we looked at the drivers other than the top three there was no-one that really shone. [Hamilton] has been in the family for a long time and he deserves the opportunity we’re giving him.
Although much attention surrounded Hamilton’s ethnic background on his arrival in F1, he largely steered clear of commenting about it at length. In October 2007 he told Black History Month magazine:
Outside of Formula 1 my heroes are foremost my father, then Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Being black is not a negative. It’s a positive, if anything, because I’m different. In the future it can open doors to different cultures and that is what motor sport is trying to do anyway.
[Winning the championship] will show that not only white people can do it, but also black people, Indians, Japanese and Chinese. It will be good to mean something.
During practice for the 2008 season there was controversy following an incident where several Spanish fans shouted racial abuse at Hamilton during testing. The sports governing body, the FIA, launched a campaign against racism in response.
Hamilton’s astonishing debut season brought him instant fame beyond the motor racing world. He finished on the podium at his first race and kept it up for nine races in a row, winning at Montreal and Indianapolis.
That propelled him into the lead of the world championship by 12 points before Alonso mounted a fightback.
But the season turned nasty – McLaren were accused of obtaining and using Ferrari information illegally. At the Hungarian Grand Prix Hamilton ignored an instruction to allow Alonso past in qualifying, and the Spaniard reacted by holding Hamilton up in the pits so the Briton couldn’t get his final qualifying lap in.
Alonso was punished, and it later emerged that on the same weekend he had threatened Dennis that he would expose his own role in the spying affair unless he was given number one status in the team over Hamilton.
Dennis refused, the working relationship between Alonso and the team crumbled, and McLaren were hit with a massive fine and exclusion from the constructors’ championship while Alonso edged closer to Hamilton in the drivers’ standings.
Hamilton seemed to have Alonso beat after winning in the wet at Fuji as his team mate crashed out. But Hamilton suffered a string of calamities, some self-inflicted, in the final two races, handing the title to Kimi Raikkonen. He retired from the Chinese Grand Prix when he slid off on worn tyres, and his gearbox cut out during the Brazilian Grand Prix, causing him to slip down the field and finish seventh.
Even then there was a brief hope that he might become champion on appeal after several teams were suspected of using illegally cool fuel in the final race, but the appeal was rejected.
Hamilton remained at McLaren for 2008, with Alonso leaving to be replaced by Heikki Kovalainen. Hamilton’s response to the disappointment of losing the championship at Interlagos was to win the very next race: the 2008 season-opener at Melbourne.
But Hamilton was less composed in his second season than he had been in his first. Serious mistakes spoiled his races at Bahrain, Canada, France and Japan.
These low points were interspersed with moments of genuine class – especially when it rained. At a soaked Silverstone he thrashed the opposition, crossing the finishing line a full minute before anyone else on the same lap.
Controversy dogged his title campaign, Hamilton picking up five separate penalties during the course of the season. Some of these were open-and-shut affairs: blocking traffic at Singapore, cutting the track at Magny-Cours. Others were controversial, none more so than at Spa, where he became only the second F1 driver ever to be stripped of a win post-race because of a driving infraction.
After a similar setback at Fuji he bounced back to dominate the Chinese Grand Prix, which set him up perfectly for a shot at the title in the final race. Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of 2007 he drove an ultra-conservative race at Interlagos, which ironically almost cost him the title again, before that famous last-lap switch secured the championship by a single point.
McLaren started 2009 well off the pace with the MP4-24 and it was clear from an early stage Hamilton would not be able to defend his title.
They soon found themselves in even more trouble as they were accused of lying during the first race of the season. The stewards decided Hamilton and his team had misled them bout how Trulli had ended up in front of Hamilton during a safety car period at the end of the race. Hamilton was disqualified from the results and made a frank apology to the world’s media at the next race in Malaysia.
It took half a season for the car to come good. When it did, Hamilton was back at the front, winning easily in Hungary at Singapore. By the end of the year he had climbed up to a wholly creditable fifth in the championship behind the Brawn and Red Bull drivers.
He bounced back in 2010 with the more competitive MP4-25 at his disposal. He led at the halfway point in the season after wins in Turkey and Canada.
A third win followed in Belgium but his championship campaign hit trouble shortly afterwards with collisions putting him out in Italy and Singapore.
He stayed in contention until the final round, where he finished second, leaving him fourth in the championship.
While Vettel tightened his stranglehold on Formula 1, Hamilton took three wins in a scrappy, error-strewn campaign.
The season began promisingly enough with second place at Melbourne. This was an immense relief for the team which had suffered numerous problems with its new MP4-26 in testing.
Hamilton won the third race of the year in China in fine fashion, picking off his team mate, then hunting down and passing Vettel. It looked like business as usual for him.
But as the season went on it became increasingly clear Button was able to to get similar performance out of the new-specification Pirelli tyres without taking as much life out of them as Hamilton, Worse, Hamilton became involved in a string of incidents, many of them completely unnecessary.
He tangled with Webber and Button in Canada, Massa and Pastor Maldonado in Monaco. He clipped Komaui Kobayashi while passing him at Spa, spearing into the barriers.
Time and again Hamilton bounced off Massa’s Ferrari. He ran clean into the back of his rival in Singapore, prompting an angry outburst from Massa. He was summoned to the stewards time and again, and made matters worse at the Monaco Grand Prix with an ill-judged joke about the stewards pursuing him because of his skin colour. He later apologised.
Among the blunders there were moments when he was at the top of his game. Such as his consummate victory in Germany, outdoing Alonso and Webber in a tense, wheel-to-wheel battle. In Korea he became the only driver to break Red Bull’s monopoly on pole position.
But even as the season drew to its close Hamilton was running behind his team mate on the track. For the first time ever, he was also beaten in the points standings by the driver he shared a team with.
With the MP4-27 McLaren produced a car quick enough to win in 2012. But a strong of reliability problems and operational errors meant he was out of realistic contention long before the end of the season.
Hamilton was unable to convert pole position in the opening races into victories. Another chance was lost in Sub when he was sent to the back of the grid after running out of fuel during qualifying.
His first win of the season came in Canada and although further victories followed in Hungary, Italy and America, he to often found himself out of the points through no fault of his own.
As Hamilton neared the end of his five-year deal with McLaren there was much speculation over his future. To the surprise of many, he announced after the Singapore Grand Prix he would end his association with McLaren and join Mercedes.
Hamilton ended season-long speculation about his future by announcing in late September he would move to Mercedes for 2013. It proved to be a well-timed move: while McLaren slumped to fifth in the world championship that year, Mercedes won three times and took second in the championship.
Only one of those wins was scored by Hamilton – the others were taken by Nico Rosberg at Monaco and Silverstone. But Hamilton led the latter before becoming the first of several drivers to suffer a tyre blow-out.
He took pole position five times during the year, but was only able to convert it into victory in Hungary, as Mercedes struggled with tyre wear in the first half of the season. By the latter half of the year he was still not entirely happy with the balance of his car, yet narrowly beat Rosberg in the points.
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Books about Lewis Hamilton
- “My Story” (Lewis Hamilton, 2007)
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- “Lewis Hamilton – The Story So Far” (Gareth Rogers, 2007)
- “Lewis Hamilton: A Dream Comes True” (Brian Belton, 2007)
Images © McLaren/Hoch Zwei, F3 Euroseries, GP2, Mercedes/Hoch Zwei