Lewis Hamilton's tryst with Formula 1: How the seven-time champion carved a legacy for himself
Unlike most Formula 1 drivers, Hamilton didn't have a racer dad, a famous surname or rich parents. A chance encounter with former McLaren supremo Ron Dennis at the age of 13 paved the way forward, and clichéd as it sounds, the rest is literally history.
The 2020 Turkish Grand Prix concluded with a scene we’ve seen in Formula 1 numerous times in these past seasons – Lewis Hamilton taking the chequered flag as the winner of a Grand Prix. But this was no ordinary race victory, it was a race victory for the record books, as Hamilton claimed the 2020 Formula 1 World Championship and equalised Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven world titles. We will all remember this moment as the coronation of a champion and sporting history being written. As the sporting world erupted, a visibly teary Hamilton declared, “We dreamed of this when I was young, when we were watching the Grands Prix and this is way, way beyond our dreams...”
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) November 15, 2020
A dream come true
It almost feels like Hamilton's entire tryst with Formula 1 has been nothing less than a dream. Hamilton came from humble beginnings in Stevenage – a world far removed from the glitzy world of Formula 1. Unlike most Formula 1 drivers, he didn't have a racer dad, a famous surname or rich parents. A chance encounter with former McLaren supremo Ron Dennis at the age of 13 paved the way forward, and clichéd as it sounds, the rest is literally history.
When Michael Schumacher retired, most expected his record to stand tall for many decades, if not forever. But Hamilton took the sport by storm, picking away at one glorious Schumacher record after another: maximum pole positions (2017), maximum race wins (2019), and now, the holiest record of them all – maximum world championships, a record he shares with the German.
The making of a champion
This brings us to the question that the world of Formula 1 will continue to discuss for countless years to come, what makes Hamilton the invincible racer that he is? Of course, the starting point is unbelievable amounts of talent. As an outsider, there's really no way to enter the sport apart from being exceptionally quick. This talent was on show at the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix, for example, when Hamilton claimed victory after starting in sixth place in what was probably his best championship-winning race ever. For once, his Mercedes racing car wasn’t the class of the field and victory was achieved after digging deep into his talent and experience.
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 15, 2020
The beauty of Hamilton's talent is that it is not an erratic flash in the pan, he is able to deliver results with mind blowing perfection and consistency. In a sport marked by variations and vacillations, the predictability of Hamilton's success is special. As Mercedes Technical Director James Allison, said on the At The Controls Podcast, "... he has been at the extraordinary level of perfection for year after year after year. We know if our car isn’t quick enough, it’s not because he is having an off day. He doesn’t have off days, it’s because we screwed up.”
This has contributed to his longevity, which is a critical factor in creating all-time records such as this one. Testament to this is the fact that he is the only driver to have won a race in every Formula 1 season he's competed in (a total of 14 seasons since 2007). The 2020 Turkish Grand Prix marks a record 47th consecutive race where he's scored points, and has now scored points in 80 of the last 81 Grands Prix. In the current landscape of F1, no driver can strive for records without a race-winning car at their disposal. Hamilton’s partnership with the Mercedes team has been extraordinary in this regard. Allison explained that, "Lewis is properly integrated in this team the same way Michael was in his Ferrari days."
A look into the mind of Hamilton, the champion is incomplete without acknowledging his steely determination, overpowering sense of purpose and ability to 'win mentally' irrespective of the actual racing circumstances. To quote Hamilton as he reflected on his seven world titles, "I know often I say ‘it’s beyond my wildest dreams’ but I think my whole life, secretly, I probably have dreamt as high as this, you know, but it felt so far-fetched." As they say, luck favours the bold, and Hamilton has also had his fair share of good fortune over these years. There is no better example than the 2020 British Grand Prix, where he managed to win with only three wheels on his car.
"Can someone like Lewis go on and get seven world titles?"
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 15, 2020
Comparisons with Schumacher
A natural outcome of Hamilton equalising Schumacher’s all-time record is endless comparisons between the two greats. These comparisons are usually futile, since both drivers raced in very different eras and competitive landscapes. To quote Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff, "In any sport, and also in motor racing, there were people that stood out. In motor racing it was Fangio, it was Senna, Michael of course, Sebastian in the 2010s, and now Lewis. I don’t think you can compare them really because every time had different competitors and needed different skill sets."
Close rival and quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel offered a similarly contextual view, saying, "I think it's always difficult to compare. How can you possibly compare Fangio, Stirling Moss to our generation? You can't. Maybe we would be useless because we would all be s***ting ourselves in those cars. Maybe they would be useless in our cars because they're way too fast. Who knows? But it doesn't matter, I think every era has its driver or its drivers and Lewis is certainly the greatest of our era. To me, certainly emotionally, Michael will always be the most…the greatest driver but there's no doubt that Lewis is the greatest in terms of what he has achieved. He's equalled the championships, he's won more races, he has a lot more pole positions so I think he's done everything you can ask for. I think today is the best proof."
From a lucky conker, to conquering the world 👑
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 15, 2020
What this means for F1
For far too long, F1 was a 'rich white man's sport' - referring to both the participants and the viewers of the sport. Hamilton is the first and only Black world champion in the history of the sport, which does plenty for representation. As beautifully expressed by Hamilton, "I remember being a kid and watching TV when I was and watching all these Grands Prix and loving cars and not necessarily having someone looked like me in the sport...There could be lot of kids out there who still look at all these different industries but perhaps not see someone who looks like them. But you can be a trailblazer and create your own path for others to follow." Hamilton's humble beginnings and the fact that he's a self-made champion also makes him relatable and hence aspirational. As we wrote in our previous Firstpost column, he is the people's champion – what a marvellous sight to see 'one of us' break into the highest echelons of a notoriously elitist sport!
Hamilton is also the champion that Formula 1 desperately needs, as he has pushed the sport to look outwards from its bubble. Over time, his off-track exploits have shifted from partying with Hollywood celebrities to becoming an advocate and activist for causes that matter, like his use of the global platform of Formula 1 to further the Black Lives Matter and End Racism campaigns. This is a refreshing change for a sport that has traditionally had its head above the clouds, or plainly steered away from controversial or political subjects. Hamilton explained his stance on this, saying, "I am working to push to hold ourselves accountable as a sport, to realise we've got to face and not ignore the human rights issues that are around in the countries that we go to…"
The road ahead
Despite his consistency on track, Hamilton carries a glorious whiff of unpredictability. It often feels like he's a mere heartbeat away from exchanging racing for one of his other passions. His current contract with Mercedes expires at the end of this season, and negotiations for an extension are ongoing. Hamilton has expressed his desire to stick around (for now). While nobody can say with certainty what the future holds, Hamilton's mere presence on the grid is reason enough to bet on him. Should he continue racing, many more glorious milestones await the racer. As Wolff opined, "Lewis is still in his career and he can maybe achieve more in terms of sheer records." For now, we can simply thank Lewis Hamilton for being the legend that gave the world something to cheer about in an otherwise dismal year.
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