Lewis Hamilton – Formula 1's Most Popular Champion?
When Lewis Hamilton walked away from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year, defeated by his nemesis Nico Rosberg after a tense, nail-bitingly close season, he was expected to bounce back in 2017 with a bang. And boy, he did. 2017 has been Hamilton’s season all through — even when the Ferraris were prancing ahead and Sebastian Vettel was many points ahead in the championship — he was always cool, calm and in-charge.
Hamilton clinched the 2017 Drivers’ Championship after a title battle that lasted 18 races, contested over the 8 months. He now has four world titles to his credit, making him part of an elite club of highly successful F1 legends and also the most successful British driver of all time. Interestingly, while Hamilton took 11 years to win his four titles, Vettel won his in six years! Another highlight of Hamilton’s 2017 season was his pole position record — equalling the record of his hero Ayrton Senna, the legend Michael Schumacher and finally claiming the record for his own. His record stands at 72 poles. Can he reach a century of pole positions by the time he retires?
A remarkable story
What makes Hamilton’s story most remarkable is that he was an outsider to the world of motorsport — a sport notoriously elitist and elusive if you didn’t have a famous last name, an endless bank balance or a benevolent sponsor. Hamilton grew up in Stevenage on the wrong side of the tracks and yet managed to conquer a world far removed from his own with little other than immense skill, passion and boundless talent. We would not be surprised if Hollywood soon makes a movie bringing this fairytale to the silver screen.
How it all began
In 2007, Hamilton arrived in Formula 1 as Mclaren’s superfast junior driver and Ron Dennis’ protégé with several wins and championships in the junior formulae. In his debut year itself, Hamilton saw himself fighting for the Drivers’ Championship against Kimi Raikkonen and his team-mate Fernando Alonso. While he lost the championship to Raikkonen by one point, the promise he showed in his debut season had the paddock convinced that he would be the driver to watch in the time to come.
The making of a champion
Hamilton’s first-ever Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship win came in 2008, when he beat Ferrari’s Felipe Massa to the title at the last race of the season in Brazil. In fact, the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix will be remembered for Hamilton’s last-lap, last-corner overtake on Timo Glock to clinch 5th place and snatch the title from Massa. From 2009-2013, Hamilton had to contend with top-5 finishes in the Drivers’ Championship as Jenson Button (in the Brawn GP) and Sebastian Vettel (in Red Bull Racing) reigned supreme. The big turn in Hamilton’s career came when he decided to jump ship to Mercedes as a replacement to Michael Schumacher and when Formula 1 introduced the currently in use hybrid turbo power unit regulations.
Mercedes’ preparations and efforts to tackle the complex hybrid turbo regulations ensured that the German manufacturer started the 2014 season as favourites. In fact, the hybrid turbo era will be remembered as the Mercedes era in Formula 1 and the domination of Mercedes’ chassis-engine combination is what helped Hamilton achieve his superstardom in Formula 1.
Since 2014, the Hamilton-Mercedes combination has delivered pole positions, race wins, Grand Slams, fastest laps and Drivers’ Championships ever so consistently. They’ve gone on to equal and break historic Formula 1 records en route. Some of Hamilton’s records include maximum number of pole positions, most wins from pole position, most podium finishes in a season, most wins in a calendar month and so on. With the fourth title in the bag, Hamilton is now on par with Sebastian Vettel and Alain Prost (also quadruple World Champions).
The People’s Champion, Also The Most Popular?
In many ways, Hamilton is the rockstar the sport needs — singlehandedly, he is the sport’s single largest piece of PR machinery. In an era when Formula 1 is becoming more complex and seems to have lost touch with the ordinary fan, Hamilton has bucked the trend to do exactly the opposite. His presence on social media gives fans a generous, no-holds-barred view into his life, even as other drivers on the grid staunchly protect their privacy. For all these reasons, Hamilton is the people’s champion — one of them, who made it to the pinnacle of motorsport.
The 2017 Hamilton
There has been something different about Hamilton this season — he seems to have matured, losing his bratty edge (while retaining his insatiable spirit to party, as we saw when he skipped F1’s London exhibition event). He made some unconventional choices which had the paddock agog, such as managing his own fitness and then turning Vegan in the middle of the season. Amazingly so, he also seemed to be getting along well with his team-mate.
However, the biggest revelation of his gentlemanly side was at the Hungarian Grand Prix when Hamilton swapped places back with Bottas, sacrificing three valuable championship points although he was trailing in the battle to Vettel. In the end, those three points didn’t matter but earned him the sworn loyalty of Bottas (as an able wingman).
Is it the driver or the car?
Yes, much of Hamilton’s dominance and victories is thanks to the superiority of the Mercedes package. But that’s Formula 1 for you. The rules and the ecosystem of the sport allow for such dominance like we’ve seen in the past with Red Bull Racing and Ferrari. However, after Michael Schumacher, Hamilton is the only driver to have won the Drivers’ Championship with two different manufacturers – Mclaren and Mercedes.
There’s a lot of chatter about Hamilton and whether he is in the same league as Schumacher and Ayrton Senna. Massa and Alonso have showered praise on Hamilton, but that could be to talk down Sebastian Vettel and his achievements. Like in every sport, comparing greats from different generations is never straightforward. In which case, why not remember this era (2014-2017) as the Hamilton era?
This column was first published on Firstpost and was co-written with Mithila Mehta