Few drivers have entered Formula One racing with as big a bang as Lewis Hamilton, whose sensational maiden season in 2007 – in which he lost out on the world championship by a single point – remains one of the most remarkable rookie campaigns in history.
In the intervening period the supremely gifted British driver has won three world championships and established himself as one of the most complete drivers on the grid: a terrific qualifier, a tenacious racer and a fierce wheel-to-wheel combatant with a deadly eye for an overtake. Put simply, when it comes to driving a Formula One car, there are very few areas in which Hamilton does not excel.
Hamilton attributes much of his success to his humble upbringing in Stevenage, the English town in which he began racing as a hobby. Winning came naturally to the young driver and soon he was cutting his teeth in national events. By the age of 10 – with a little less than two years’ experience – he was crowned the youngest-ever winner of the British Cadet Kart championship.
Equipped with an assured racing style that belied his years, it wasn’t long before Hamilton’s trophy cabinet was groaning under the weight of more karting titles. Hamilton made sure that Ron Dennis was one of the first to notice his swift rise through the ranks and in 1998 the McLaren boss signed him to the team’s young driver programme. Indeed, Dennis’s belief in Hamilton’s talents was such that the contract even included an option on the 13 year-old should he ever make it into Formula One racing.
At this stage, however, it was McLaren’s financial support that proved the bigger blessing for Hamilton, who up to that point had been supported by his dutiful father – and future manager – Anthony, who worked several jobs to keep his son racing. At once able to compete on a much larger stage, Hamilton Jnr won a multitude of European karting titles with ease. And by the age of 15 he was grabbing further headlines, this time for being crowned the sport’s youngest number one – a record he still retains.
Although his subsequent move to the F3 Euroseries was less straightforward, Hamilton eventually found his feet, improving on fifth in the standings in his first year to win the title in his second. Driving for the dominant ASM team undoubtedly helped, but, with 15 race wins to his name, Hamilton whitewashed the opposition.
His foray into GP2 in 2006 proved equally thrilling. At his very best, Hamilton stunned onlookers with a string of spectacular performances. Outshining his more experienced team mate Alexandre Premat and a resurgent Nelson Piquet Jr with his bold driving style, he won the title and, perhaps more importantly, the Formula One paddock’s admiration.
With his race pace and skillful consistency drawing comparisons to a young Fernando Alonso, long-time guardians McLaren – shy of a second driver to pair up with said Spaniard (and incoming champion) Alonso for the 2007 season – decided late in 2006 to see how their protege would cope in a Formula One car. They were not disappointed and rewarded Hamilton’s impressive testing times and mature approach with a race seat.
It was an out-of-character move for a traditionally conservative squad, but one which quickly paid dividends for team and driver alike. Hamilton won four Grands Prix in his debut season and led the championship for much of the year, developing an intense rivalry with Alonso both on and off the circuit. Only a mixture of bad luck and inexperience in the final two rounds deprived him of the title.
It was an opportunity missed, but one which he put right the following season. With Alonso having returned to Renault, Hamilton again led the table for the bulk of the season, ultimately beating Ferrari’s Felipe Massa to the crown by a single point after a tense title showdown at the finale in Brazil, in which he famously took the fifth place he needed on the final corner of the final lap. Aged just 23, he thus usurped Alonso as Formula One’s youngest-ever champion.
His title defence was a tougher affair. He started 2009 with a car woefully short on downforce and pace, and suffered the ignominy of disqualification in Australia after being judged to have deliberately misled race stewards. With the will of a true champion, however, he never gave in and gradually turned his season around. July’s Hungarian Grand Prix saw him back on the top step of the podium. That was followed by another win in Singapore and a further three podiums – enough to propel him to fifth in the final standings and make him a hot tip for championship contention in 2010.
And so it proved. Although Hamilton had some storming drives stymied by dubious strategy calls in the season’s early races, successive wins in Turkey and Canada saw him stake a serious claim for a second drivers’ crown. However, with McLaren’s MP4-25 increasingly outpaced by its Red Bull and Ferrari rivals, he lost his championship lead at round 14 in Italy and never regained it. He went into the Abu Dhabi finale with an outside shot at the title, but ultimately finished fourth in the table, albeit comfortably clear of new team mate Jenson Button.
The 2011 season was to be the toughest of Hamilton’s Formula One career. Frustrated by a car that initially lacked race-winning potential, a series of uncharacteristic errors – seemingly always involving Ferrari’s Felipe Massa – led to several stewards visits and an increasingly difficult relationship with the media, one not helped by their growing interest in his admittedly troubled personal life. To add to his woes, Button had found his feet at McLaren and although Hamilton matched his compatriot’s three season wins with victories in China, Germany and Abu Dhabi, at the end of the year he found himself only fifth overall, three places behind his colleague. It was the first time Hamilton had been beaten by a team mate over the course of an F1 campaign.
2012 would prove to be another unsatisfying year for Hamilton with unreliability ruining his championship bid. On the plus side, he delivered a much more composed season behind the wheel, his devastating speed helping him to seven pole positions and four impressive victories in Canada, Hungary, Italy and the United States. Such form indicated why Mercedes were so happy to sign the Briton for the 2013 season onwards.
Hamilton did not disappoint his new employers, as he enjoyed a relatively seamless transition to only his second F1 team. Victory in Hungary, plus a further four podiums and five pole positions carried him to fourth in the 2013 drivers’ championship, two places above new team mate Nico Rosberg.
In 2014 things got even better for Hamilton who, armed with the hugely dominant Mercedes F1 W05 Hybrid, saw off the challenge of team mate Rosberg and several moments of adversity to win 11 races and clinch his second world drivers’ crown. He carried that momentum into 2015, winning 10 times to become a three-time world champion and the first Briton to secure back-to-back titles.