Lewis Hamilton first offered a sign that he could be something special one corner into his first Grand Prix; since, his speed and sense of timing could soon see him become the best driver in F1 history.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER
What if you could be both lucky and good? Lewis Hamilton has emphatically proved himself to be the latter; 73 Formula One wins and five world titles have this Great Briton on the podium in any conversation debating the ‘best-ever’ question in the world’s highest-profile motorsport category.
But fortunate? If being in the right place at the right time is any indicator of success, Hamilton is the modern-day master of F1; combine ferocious talent with infallible timing, and the result is a period of dominance that, by the end of 2019, the 70-year story of the sport may have never seen.
Mercedes arrived in Melbourne for this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix with Ferrari in its crosshairs; not just at the first race of the year, after the Scuderia established itself as the team to beat after 2019 pre-season testing in Barcelona last month, but in the sport’s history books. From 1999-2004, a Michael Schumacher-led Ferrari led the famous Italian team on a red rampage, annexing six F1 constructors’ titles and five drivers’ championships in succession to turn what had been a ‘big three’ along with Williams and McLaren into a one Prancing Horse race.
By the end of this season, Hamilton and the Silver Arrows can match that haul, and in a manner that could see the 34-year-old on the way to overhauling Schumacher-set records that seemed unattainable when the German great took the chequered flag for the final time at the end of 2012. Or were they?
It took all of 249 metres, the distance from the start-finish line to the first corner at Albert Park, for Hamilton to offer a portent of what might follow in his Grand Prix debut in Melbourne in 2007. The McLaren rookie turned heads when he qualified fourth on Saturday; fast-forward 24 hours, and Hamilton finished on the podium in third, ambushing McLaren teammate and reigning two-time world champion Fernando Alonso into the tight first turn, his first corner of his first lap of his first F1 race. Even now, it’s a memory that Hamilton holds dear.
“I remember the build-up to the Grand Prix and all the pressure, so in that way the first corner couldn’t have gone better,” he said.
“If I’d started first, it wouldn’t have been as epic. I started fourth, went back to fifth, and came out third into turn one, and overtook the two-time world champion at the time. As a rookie, it couldn’t have been better.
“I thought there was no way to stay inside so I went left, and managed to out-brake everyone and get a couple of places.
“I had Fernando behind me for a long time and it’s pretty tough when you have a two-time champion behind you, especially in the first race.
“In many ways that was the first stepping stone to being where I am today, the first chapter of the story. To be in F1 is a dream, but to go in your first race and have a third is something that you don’t expect.”
As he prepares to start his 13th Formula One season this afternoon, Hamilton has every reason to expect that – and more – after being the lynchpin of Mercedes’ masterclass ever since F1 ditched normally-aspirated V8 engines for V6 turbo hybrid power plants in 2014.
Today’s cars are the fastest, if not the loudest, in F1 history, and Hamilton has used his to devastating effect over the past five years, which have yielded four championships to add to his sole success at McLaren in 2008. He’s rapidly assembling a set of statistics that make for depressing reading for the rest of the field.
Of the 100 races contested since the new era dawned in Melbourne 2014, Mercedes has won 74, Hamilton taking 51 of them. For context, Alain Prost, the French great who won four world titles, won 51 in his entire career. Prost’s bitter rival Ayrton Senna, the driver who inspired Hamilton as a karting prodigy and whose striking yellow helmet colour the Briton adopted when he made it to F1, won 10 fewer Grands Prix before his death at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.
Prost, like Senna, did plenty of his winning for McLaren, the once-great team that has fallen on hard times after – and perhaps not coincidentally – Hamilton left for Mercedes at the end of the 2012 season. That 2012 finale in Brazil, won by Hamilton’s teammate and compatriot Jenson Button, was the most recent of McLaren’s 182 Grand Prix victories; not since Australia 2014, where Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification opened the door for Button to join rookie teammate Kevin Magnussen on the podium, has a McLaren driver finished a single race inside the top three.
McLaren has used Mercedes, Honda and now Renault engines in the years since Hamilton’s departure and re-employed double world champion Alonso after his stint at Ferrari went sour in 2014, but has taken a pair of podium finishes in the time Hamilton has amassed 85 top-three results and four championships, the two British giants heading in opposite directions.
Hamilton equalled Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio as a five-time world champion last year, an achievement that left the often-loquacious Mercedes man struggling to find the right words, while praising the efforts of his team to help him match the sport’s earliest maestro.
“When you think of Fangio, who for me is the godfather of racing drivers, he had five world championships and I have five as well … it doesn’t connect at the moment,” he said.
“It doesn’t feel real, but I am humbled and grateful to all the people around me, because there have been a lot of them along the journey.
“I feel like I can drive anything and I feel I can take the car to places that nobody else can, but to do that, you have to get the car in the right place. That means you’ve got to work with the team, help unleash what’s great within them so that you can unleash the greatness in yourself.”
Can that greatness eventually become greatest? Nico Rosberg, who retired immediately after edging teammate and former childhood friend Hamilton to the world title in 2016, cast his mind towards Schumacher’s 91 victories and seven titles the moment Hamilton took his fifth crown in Mexico last October.
“He can seriously go for Schumacher’s records now,” Rosberg, who now works as a pundit for Sky Sports in the UK, said.
“He’s got two more years on the contract, and ‘Schumi’ is only two titles away, under 20 race wins away. That’s possible in two years.
“It’s amazing. He can really try to become statistically the best of all-time, which is unreal. But it is a possibility, and I’m sure he’s going to be motivated by that.”