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Lewis Hamilton: From Stevenage to superstar

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Hamilton - Turkey 2020
Credit: LAT Images

To six-year-old Lewis Hamilton racing remote-controlled toy cars on a dreary day in Slough, winning a Formula 1 race was nothing but a pipe-dream. Twenty-nine years later, that same Stevenage-born racer would stand on the top step of the podium for the ninety-fourth time after becoming the most successful F1 driver ever to race in the sport- cementing his place amongst the all-time legends. His record may be marred by critics, but the stats don’t lie, and his path to the top was anything but a smooth-ride.

Whilst it’s impossible to know whether or not he is the greatest of all time in a sport like Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton has undoubtedly rewritten the history books and changed the face of what a Formula 1 driver can and should look like. He’s the first and only black athlete to ever compete in a world championship grand prix, and his relentless ferocity has paved the way in inspiring the next generation of unlikely youngsters to join his name. Not only this, he has defied racism, discrimination and intolerance all throughout his career to overcome barriers and push the boundaries in the most spectacular fashion- winning in every aspect of his professional life.

After taking the top spot at the Turkish Grand Prix, starting from sixth and racing in gruelling conditions, Hamilton officially dashed Valtteri Bottas’ fading title hopes and equalled the godly Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world titles – a feat which many thought would never be achieved. But Lewis’ fairytale story started with far more humble beginnings than one would have thought.

The early days

Hamilton’s first taste of racing came at just five years-old, when his father bought him a remote-controlled car for his birthday to keep him occupied on visits to his house. Lewis garnered a natural affinity for cars from the get-go, and it wasn’t long before he began competing and testing his mettle against other drivers. One year later, he went on to narrowly finish second in the national BRCA championship against experienced competition made up of people almost five times his age. He didn’t know it yet, but this was to mark the start of a long and illustrious career at the top, and his passion for racing would only grow as the years went on.

But, even at the age of six, Hamilton was subjected to abuse. Being the only black face at his local racing club, he frequently experienced stares and hateful comments – something which he said made him ‘really upset’ when it first happened. He also fell victim to bullying and violence at school, prompting him to take karate lessons in order to defend himself.

Still, Lewis persisted in doing what he loved, and after success in RC cars his father Anthony scraped together the money to buy him his first go-kart for Christmas – albeit second-hand. Almost immediately Hamilton excelled, and shortly after his karting debut in 1993, he had won various races and cadet-class championships. He showcased his natural ability and talent and began to hone his driving style to fit what suited him best on track, and two years later he approached, then McLaren F1 Team boss, Ron Dennis to ask for an autograph and, rather optimistically, a drive in one of his championship-winning cars in the future. Dennis obliged, telling Hamilton to ‘phone him back in nine years to sort something out’, and later went on to sign the Brit to the McLaren driver development programme.

Hamilton delivering a stunning performance in 1998 to win from the back of the grid in karting

The success continued, and Lewis romped through the ranks of international karting; becoming the European Champion in 2000 after achieving maximum points. The youngster raced and won against many of his future colleagues in Formula 1, such as Nico Rosberg and Vitantonio Liuzzi, and in a one-off return to karting for the reigning champion Michael Schumacher, Hamilton finished just four places behind. It was a sign of tremendous prosperity and teased off the greatness to come.

Rising through the ranks

After dominating inside a kart, it was finally time for Lewis to take to a real race car, and in 2001 his single seater career began in the British Formula Renault Winter Series. It wasn’t the fairytale start he was hoping for, though, as the young rookie binned it on his third lap in the car during testing and crashed; but in typical Hamilton fashion he picked himself up and threw everything at the championship to take fifth in his rookie season, leading to a full-time drive in next year’s Formula Renault UK. He would finish third overall in the standings with some stellar performances, but then the real wonders would come a year later when he eventually won the championship with two races to spare.

Lewis progressed ever onwards and upwards in motorsport, and dominated almost all the categories he entered; he had an excellent track record of winning championships in only the first or second years of competition, and this would subsist on many occasions to come. His supremacy was highlighted rather profoundly when he won an unbelievable fifteen out of the twenty races in the Euro Formula Three Series, and it was this particular extraordinary accomplishment that featured him in Autosport’s “Top 50 Drivers of 2005”.

It was no surprise that this astonishing feat earned Hamilton a seat in the prestigious GP2 Series (now known as Formula 2), and he was now pitted against the hungriest and fiercest competitors on the planet. Lewis harnessed all of his raw speed, talent and passion to take five wins and a number of podiums which would eventually crown him champion after his closest rival Nelson Piquet Jr. could not beat him at the end of the season. His monumental championship victory coincided with the departure of McLaren’s Juan Pablo Montoya, and almost as if the stars had aligned in perfect unison, Hamilton was signed to race for the team for 2007 as Ron Dennis fulfilled his promise from all those years before.

Hamilton in GP2 discussing his future

Racing in the big league

Credit: McLaren Media Centre

Hamilton had realised his childhood dream: He was racing in Formula 1. But the grind was far from over, and the pining young Brit set about doing the impossible and winning the world title like he ambitioned. His task was set to be an enormous challenge, as he joined Vodafone McLaren Mercedes and partnered the reigning two-time world champion Fernando Alonso – a man with a reputation for scintillating precision and cut-throat driving, not least when it came to fighting against his team-mate.

When the first race of the season in Australia rolled around, the world got it’s first glimpse at the supersonic speed and ruthless race craft that Lewis Hamilton possessed. He qualified just behind Alonso, but in the race Lewis quickly pounced on him with a daredevil move into turn one of lap one. Shell-shocked and star struck, audiences from across the globe watched as rookie Hamilton beat a seasoned pro to take his maiden Formula 1 podium in only his first race.

This spectacle was perhaps the penny-drop moment for those watching from across the world. Lewis Hamilton was not going to be your ordinary ‘run-of-the-mill’ Formula 1 driver that conceded positions and bided his time, he was a force to be reckoned with right from the outset and one to watch for years to come.

It took him a mere six races competing in the pinnacle of motorsport for his first victory, and Canada signalled a turning point in the championship: People began to realise Hamilton could go on to win the title, and in doing so, he would become the first and only driver ever to be crowned the victor in their first season. His prowess did not falter as the year unfolded, and the championship fight went right down to the wire.

Though at the penultimate race in China, disaster struck and Lewis’ title hopes were left in the dust alongside his beached McLaren, as he understeered into the gravel trap in an attempt to pit his stricken car onto fresh tyres. Hamilton was distraught, but his challenge was mighty, and the Brit had made a sizeable dent in the egos of his competitors to establish himself as an unavoidable and unmistakable adversary.

Inevitably however, Hamilton would go on to dominate the next season. Taking phenomenal, career-defining wins such as his famed wet-weather Silverstone victory, it was no secret Lewis would once again find himself in the title fight, and as the season finale in Brazil rolled around it was all to play for: Home hero Felipe Massa versus rising young gun Lewis Hamilton.

The race transpired completely to Lewis’ misfortune. Massa led brilliantly throughout the race whilst Hamilton lingered unfavourably in positions that would not gift him the world championship. It was looking like another year of what-ifs for Lewis and another year of bliss for Ferrari. But, in perhaps the most memorable and mythical climax Formula 1 has ever seen, the unthinkable happened.

At the last corner, on the last lap of the last race of the season, Hamilton squirmed past a slow car to take fifth and steal the title of Massa in extraordinary fashion. The unbelievable scenes can only be visualised with one line of commentary that has stuck like glue in the minds of Formula 1 fans the world over:
“Is that Glock?”

The 2008 season finale in Brazil

But, after such glorious highs in 2007 and 2008, McLaren could not give Hamilton a championship-winning car for the next four years, and the now-seasoned pro of the sport decided to part ways with the team he had essentially grown up with. In a shock move, Lewis moved to the relatively unsuccessful Mercedes team after crucially being convinced by Formula 1 icon Niki Lauda. Many criticised the move, not knowing the era of ascendancy they would soon witness from a man who had just made the wisest decision of any driver in Formula 1.

The Silver War

Credit: Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team / Daimler AG

Rather ironically, Hamilton’s venture to Mercedes was one that filled the seat of his past idol Michael Schumacher – a man whose achievements were quite a way away for then one-time world champion Lewis. He partnered his childhood friend/rival Nico Rosberg, who was written-off as a second driver at best and set about exploring the potential of his new team. Although, after being nowhere near title-winners Red Bull Racing off the back of their fourth consecutive title, and only narrowly beating team-mate Rosberg, Hamilton soon registered the magnitude of the task at hand.

However, in 2014 Mercedes pulled it out of the bag. They capitalised on the new regulations to design a car so ridiculously fast it wiped the floor with the competition, and Hamilton was now left to contend with Nico for his second world title. Rosberg wasn’t the easy competitor that Lewis envisaged, and their battles race after race dubbed the era ‘the silver war’. It was almost neck-and-neck all year long until Hamilton unleashed his trademark season finale prowess and delivered a masterclass in Abu Dhabi to win what was an ascendant second championship.

Credit: Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team / Daimler AG

Hamilton would replicate his success in the 2015 season and become a triple world-champion- equalling his childhood hero Ayrton Senna. He had achieved such brilliance, yet it was only the beginning.

But things were about to get a whole lot trickier, as an infuriated Rosberg who had come runner-up twice to his team-mate began to severely pressurise Hamilton in 2016. Friendship was off the cards now, as the two grew further and further apart after every race weekend and the tension was rising to boiling point until finally it royally overflowed in Spain. The two were relentlessly jostling for the lead on the first lap when a spectacular lapse of judgement from both drivers resulted in a double DNF for Mercedes and a calamitously weak driver relationship that jeopardised the team’s success.

Unluckily for Lewis, though, a host of mechanical failures including a notorious engine-blowout in Malaysia would mean that Rosberg would eventually triumph for the first time in Abu Dhabi to become the 2016 world drivers’ champion. It hit Hamilton hard, but after Nico announced he was retiring for good just weeks after, he seemed to be duly poised to resume his authority in the proceeding years.

Dominance beyond measure

After Rosberg exited the sport in 2017, Hamilton did nothing but excel. He hardly put a foot wrong and he was back in his groove- winning the fourth championship of his career with absolutely no threat from elsewhere. Vettel’s Ferrari machine tried their utmost to contend with the mighty Mercedes-Hamilton pairing to no avail, and the years to come brought nothing more than trophies for a now-enlightened Lewis. He had reached a state of nirvana. Be it rain or shine, from front or behind, Hamilton was never one to count out and his sheer internal mastery highlighted how truly attune he was to the deafening noise of Formula 1.

2018 and 2019 saw the Briton absolutely decimate the field and push the boundaries of imagination, as Hamilton took another two championships to add to his ever-growing collection. He showed no signs of stopping and his sheer consistency set himself apart from any other champion before him.

And yet, he still persists. In the face of the fiercest criticism a driver has ever faced in the sport, Lewis Hamilton still defies the odds and delivers time after time after time. 2020 has seen him break every single record in the book – wins, laps led, consecutive points finishes, you name it. A great racer and a noble competitor, his passion and love for motorsport has prevailed above all.

Credit: LAT Images

As he becomes the greatest Formula 1 driver ever to have lived by tallying a record seven titles, it’s simply impossible to recognise the sheer scale of what Lewis Hamilton has accomplished. Emerging from the shadows as an unlikely champion from a working-class and back background, he has revolutionised the face of the sport and inspired millions of young people to pursue their dreams- campaigning not only for equal opportunities but for human rights and environmental change. His path to the top was rocky and uncertain, but his relentless determination pushed him all the way. His tale is unfinished, and there is seeming no limit to what he could achieve next, but throughout all his success he is still the humble boy from Stevenage who changed the world of F1 forever.

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