At the time of writing this, I have not long seen Lewis Hamilton become world champion for the second time in his career, after a long and dramatic 2014 season. But what I do recall of his early years, and what do I think of his career so far?
When Hamilton first entered Formula 1 he was fortunate enough to do so at a McLaren team that, despite a poor 2006, were confident going into 2007 that they could be competitive. Hamilton was paired with then-world champion Fernando Alonso, and would remarkably finish on the podium in his first nine races, including four second places and two wins. I remember thinking that he was looking like championship material already, and his record as a rookie was remarkable.
It began to look like, incredibly, Hamilton might win the title in his first season. Going into the Chinese Grand Prix, he was in a position to clinch the title with a race to spare, but a strategy error saw Hamilton stay out on degrading tyres with the consequence that his race ended after 30 laps. At the final race in Brazil, Hamilton suffered gearbox problems early on that stranded him toward the back of the grid. He would recover to finish 7th but needed 5th for the title, losing by a single point to Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. He did beat his teammate Alonso on countback, quite the achievement!
During the course of 2007, Hamilton’s relationship with Alonso, initially quite good, soured. The Spaniard felt, as the more experienced and reigning world champion, that he should have preferential treatment and also support from Hamilton, but McLaren refused to impose team orders on either man and allowed them to race. In Hungary, Alonso held up Hamilton in the pit lane during qualifying, denying Hamilton the chance to record a final flying lap, and the team, rather interestingly, mentioned that Hamilton had ignored orders to allow Alonso past him during an earlier phase of qualifying.
Tensions had also surfaced earlier in the year, at Monaco, when Hamilton claimed he had not been allowed to challenge Alonso for the win.
In the end, Alonso left McLaren after just one year, and Hamilton was partnered by promising Finn Heikki Kovalainen.
The First Title
(Hamilton racing in Australia in 2008. He would briefly hold the title of youngest world champion)
To be honest, I don’t remember the 2008 season all that well. I remember it chiefly because Hamilton took the title, albeit doing so by taking things right down to the wire, as he did in 2007. He won the first race in Australia, and would take four more wins, heading into the final race needing 5th or better if his closest challenger, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, won the race.
In changeable weather, Massa did indeed win the race, but Hamilton, who had so narrowly missed out the year before, would pass a struggling Timo Glock on virtually the final corner to get fifth place, and with it, his first F1 crown.
I’ve seen hints that Hamilton didn’t deserve the 2008 title, and that he owed it down to misfortune for Massa. Well, Massa took himself out of the first two races, which is hardly Hamilton’s fault. Massa also made mistakes in Britain to finish outside the points whilst Hamilton drove supremely to win in a rain-soaked race. The first time that Hamilton received what could be considered good future was when an engine failure cost Massa a win at Hungary, and he was a little unlucky himself not to claim more points from that race, given tyre problems. At Singapore, it was the Ferrari team that cocked up Massa’s pit stop, so again, that could be considered fortunate for Hamilton. Yes, Hamilton made his share of mistakes that are his responsibility alone (such as in Canada), but he also ended up with no points from Japan thanks to Massa colliding with him. They both made mistakes during 2008 and in the end, on balance, Hamilton did enough to come out on top.
Ups and Downs
2009 was a difficult year for Hamilton. The McLaren team were one of several to be caught out by changes to regulations that handed the initiative to previously slower cars, and although he would two races (Hungary and Singapore), he finished down in fifth in the championship.
2010 was better, and a good car saw Hamilton, now joined by reigning champion Jenson Button, put together a serious title charge. Unfortunately for him, the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso and the Red Bulls of Vettel and Webber had the edge, and though he went into the final race with a mathematical chance of winning the title, Hamilton needed all his rivals to effectively fail to finish, which was never likely. He had to settle for fourth, but at least he’d been closer!
The Most Horrible Year
2011 was a nightmare for Hamilton. Off the track, he had relationship dramas, and his head was not generally in a good place, with this affecting his performances on the track. He would have several collisions with Ferrari’s Massa, creating tension between the pair. Most of these were due to errors of judgement from Hamilton, who would only produce his best in fits and spurts throughout the year.
Renewed but Unreliable
In 2012 Hamilton came back refreshed and in a much better mindset for F1. He would be quite consistent to begin with, finished 3rd in the first three races, and winning in Canada. However, team errors and reliability issues prevented him from making a concerted title challenge – retirements costing him potential wins in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, whilst, through no fault of his own, he was wiped out at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix and might have finished on the podium in Brazil if not for another accident caused by another driver.
During 2012, rumours began to surface that Hamilton was considering leaving McLaren, the team that had effectively nurtured him since before his F1 days. When he announced he was joining Mercedes, I have to confess to thinking ‘well, we won’t see him competing at the front for a while’. Mercedes had a reasonable car but it was tough on tyres and didn’t have the raw pace of other cars, and it seemed like a risky move. In hindsight though, it would prove to be the best move.
The Silver Arrows
The first half of 2013 was a frustrating one for both Hamilton and his teammate, Nico Rosberg. The car continued to be very hard on its tyres, despite delivering great pace over a few laps. The pair would often qualify strongly, only to finish lower down the order, as they sought to conserve their tyres. I was personally able to attend the British Grand Prix, where I watched Hamilton finish 4th despite a spectacular tyre failure early on (that potentially cost him a win), and he would win at Hungary (a track that by now it was clear Hamilton enjoyed). He would finish ahead of Rosberg in the world championship standings, despite one less win, by virtue of tremendous consistency.
2014 – Title number Two
Heading into the 2014 F1 season, one thing had become clear – Mercedes had a car that was comfortably the best on the grid. The engine was the best, and the overall design of the new, turbo-charged car, was very strong. At the first race in Australia, Hamilton put the car on pole, but an early mechanical fault forced him to retire, and he was immediately 25 points down on race winner (and teammate) Rosberg.
People will be quick to point out that the Mercedes was by far and away the quickest car, and that neither Hamilton or Rosberg faced any competition from anyone apart from each other, but regardless of this, 2014 produced Hamilton’s best performances so far. After failing to finish the first race, Hamilton would out-race Rosberg to win the next four races, and also out-raced Rosberg in a total of nine of the fourteen races the pair of them both finished. He took eleven wins to five, battling hard all the way. A worthy champion!