James Lawton: Hamilton still on track to greatness
The boy wonder's quest for championship glory may have fallen short at the last, but his inexorable rise in an unforgiving sport is testament to both unparalleled talent and implacable belief
Monday 22 October 2007
Was there ever a stranger kind of glory than that which finally eluded Lewis Hamilton, so close to the grave of his boyhood hero Ayrton Senna? Not, it has to be said, within the borders of anything that might be described loosely as competitive sport.
Right up to the final act in Sao Paulo there was a sense that the 22-year-old from Hertfordshire was being led, lap by relentless lap, along a plotline that the hierarchy of Formula One had scripted out of deference to his phenomenal arrival – part star, part prophet of a sport that so badly needed reinvigoration after the departure of Michael Schumacher.
Sure, Fernando Alonso, a double world champion, and Kimi Raikkonen, had the talent and the competitive edge to make an intriguing battle of the Schumacher succession and there were some new young dashers on the scene, Nico Rosberg, son of a world champion and brimming with speed genes, and some said that the Pole Robert Kubica was just a truly competitive car away from making his own dazzling mark.
But then in the opinion of such ageing titans of the track as Sir Stirling Moss and Sir Jackie Stewart there was something unique about the smiling kid from Stevenage, who like his idol Senna, had come to live for the adrenalin that floods in when you are racing not for career progress but to announce that you are quite simply the best in the world.
That Hamilton should have come so close to such a status so quickly, so seamlessly, that he has been able to restrict his mistakes to such a bare minimum and then, when they came, to treat them not as harbingers of failure but the merest passing inconvenience, is the reason we now have to cut our way through the extraordinary background of the industrial espionage and £50m fine inflicted on his team McLaren.
It is why we have to say that along with the asterisk which must accompany all of Hamilton's wins this season, there is something that has been written quite indelibly.
It is that Moss and Stewart are doing something more than recognising mere passing celebrity – and a fortuitous set of circumstances which made Hamilton not a breath-taking prospect but a cold, hard certainty to be a key figure in the sport which has obsessed him since his toddling days.
If it is impossible to celebrate all, perhaps even a majority, of the circumstances that have shot him to such prominence, it is not reasonable to challenge the unswerving reality that has accompanied him to the podium so many times this benighted season.
It is that quite relentlessly he has displayed the quality which separates all the outstanding achievers in any sport from the rest. He is a young man of durable brilliance. His ambition is a still pool that apparently cannot be disrupted.
So many rocks have been hurled into it in the last month or so, but the surface remains as smooth as a glacier. Yes, there is an icy quality to young Lewis. People talk about his easy and uncomplicated charm, but then with what authority? How well does anyone really know Lewis Hamilton?
No doubt his father and patron Anthony is the expert and his pleasant, open face locks into rock-jawed resolution when he declares: "People have wondered whether Lewis would crack in the hard times which come to every competitor but I try to tell them that when they ask the question they reveal that they just don't know him.
"He has lived his life with one thing in mind, to be where he is now and you can be sure he will never be easily deterred – or distracted.
"Yes, I accept that the real test comes when you get the bad breaks, but he has a few of these now and he has just got stronger."
Hamilton rides crisis with such apparent ease he might be piloting the family car to the supermarket. In Brazil these last few days he has been emphatic that the disaster in Shanghai, where a shredded tyre left him stranded in the pit lane – and still another race away from the world title – has been no more than a psychological flesh wound. "I did wonder how it would affect me but I can say honestly it has left me stronger."
While his rival Alonso has erupted from one bout of rage to another, railed against his team – on occasion no doubt with some reason – Hamilton has never shown the hint of an inclination not to play the party game.
But then why would he? From the first races of the season, he became the self-elected chosen one of Formula One.
He wasn't learning a trade at its most demanding level, he was engulfing it with an innocent but overwhelming ambition and natural talent. Now some of that innocence has been lost along with the shredded tyre and the occasional points. Hamilton knows he is favoured – knows, too, that he is equipped to take advantage.
So there we had him before yesterday's race, exchanging pleasantries with the rival, Alonso, he was supposed to hate. Nothing had changed in their relationship, he declared, and if you could believe that, you could believe anything, including the outrageous proposition that a 22-year-old rookie could do in a few months something that eluded the brilliant Moss in a lifetime of technical brilliance and unsurpassable courage and nerve.
Yesterday was his deepest test so far but whatever its outcome, Hamilton slipped easily into his cockpit with the knowledge that no one in his sport had travelled so far remotely as quickly.
That he has done so in a "sport" which has so systematically shed itself of credibility, that operates in a permanent state of civil war and appalling compromise, he makes it, almost uncannily, appear to be somebody else's dirty business.
He is the star with a Garbo-like inclination to be left alone – even threatening to exile himself in Switzerland – on all occasions except those that come with the job.
His homage to Senna over recent days has been in several ways a journey into a new world. He said he had been touched to be staying just a short distance from his hero's tomb.
This suggests a little of the mysticism that was such a part of the Brazilian's fanatical pursuit of success, yet there has been little previous evidence in Hamilton of anything other than an unbreakable practicality in dealing with his situation.
He had arrived, whatever the outcome of yesterday's racing, at the place he had always wanted to be, and whatever compromises had been involved, they had been smoothed away each time he drove off in what has been often the fastest car on earth.
Frequently, Senna declared that he drew his strength directly from God. Hamilton, no doubt, would confess to having influential friends a little closer to home. But there is a reason for such preferment and it flows from something more than the lottery of being picked out from the pool of young drivers who each year present themselves, as desperately as casual fruit pickers, for employment.
It is that Lewis Hamilton has more than special talent. He has an implacable belief in himself. Without that, his story would hardly make sense.
Last race losers Other Britons who lost in the final event of the world championship
1958 Stirling Moss
The greatest driver never to win the world championship actually saw his hopes dashed at the final hurdle a few times, but never more cruelly that in the Moroccan Grand Prix in 1958. Moss needed to win the race and hope his countryman Mike Hawthorn finished worse than runner-up. The former he duly did, while Hawthorn seemed booked in for third. But Moss knew he was beat as in second was Phil Hill, Hawthorn's Ferrari team-mate. Hill pulled over, let Hawthorn take second and the crown and so deny the most popular British driver of all time.
1962 Jim Clark
Before winning seven out of the 10 races to clinch his first crown in 1963, Clark, the flying Scotsman, had to endure the agony of losing out to his rival Graham Hill the previous year. After a ding-dong season, it came down to the last Grand Prix in South Africa. What made it worse for Clark was that only an oil leak on the 62nd lap denied him. Clark took it badly before bouncing back the next year.
Graham Hill had felt the last-race agonies at the hands of John Surtees in 1964 but four years later was back at the same Mexico track holding his nerve to break another young Scot's heart. Stewart had shown just how good he was with a peerless victory in the torrential rain at the Nurbringing, but the wily Hill proved too experienced for him with a nerveless final-day triumph.
1986 Nigel Mansell
The biggest hard-luck story of all. Mansell arrived at Adelaide with a six-point lead over Alain Prost, a seven-point lead over Nelson Piquet and only needed to finish third in his Williams-Honda. All was going well with 19 laps remaining – and then a wheel blew up. "It was like a bomb going off," said Mansell, who took a long time to recover from the disappointment. In the event, Prost prevailed.
1994 Damon Hill
The race that spawned one of the biggest controversies in F1 history, Hill was the unlucky loser. The Englishman just needed to finish ahead of Michael Schumacher, who had just a one point lead going into Adelaide, and when he went to overtake the German on the 36th lap it appeared the championship was his for the taking. But then Schumacher collided with Hill and both were forced out of the race. The arguments raged as to whether Schumacher did it deliberately. They still do.
1999 Eddie Irvine
After Ferrari's appeal reinstated the Ulsterman's win in the preceding Grand Prix in Malaysia to gave him a three-point lead, the stage was set for a first Tifosi triumph for 20 years in Suzuka. However, Mika Hakkinen dominated the race to seal the title, with Irvine forced to settle for a distant third place and runner-up spot in the championship. It was the nearest the garrulous Irvine ever got to the title.
Story of the season How the crown was won
Australian Grand Prix (Melbourne, 18/03/2007)
1 Raikkonen 2 Alonso 3 Hamilton
Hamilton became the first driver since Jacques Villeneuve to earn a podium position at his maiden Grand Prix. Raikkonen won from pole, with Alonso well behind in second.
Malaysian Grand Prix (Sepang, 08/04/2007)
1 Alonso 2 Hamilton 3 Raikkonen
Alonso and Hamilton recorded McLaren's first one-two since the 2005 Brazilian Grand Prix. Hamilton held off third-placed Raikkonen for much of the race.
Bahrain Grand Prix (Sakir, 15/04/2007)
1 Massa 2 Hamilton 3 Raikkonen
Massa won off pole while Hamilton, in second, became the first formula one driver to reach the podium in his first three races. Raikkonen managed third, Alonso fifth.
Spanish Grand Prix (Barcelona, 13/05/2007)
1 Massa 2 Hamilton 3 Alonso Retired Raikkonen
Massa, Hamilton and Alonso race in procession to the finish, Raikkonen's retirement on lap nine was the only real action after the first corner.
Monaco Grand Prix (Monte Carlo, 27/05/2007)
1 Alonso 2 Hamilton 8 Raikkonen
A one-two for McLaren, team orders leading Alonso home ahead of Hamilton. Raikkonen qualified poorly in 16th but recovered to gain a point.
Canadian Grand Prix (Montreal, 10/06/2007)
1 Hamilton 5 Raikkonen 7 Alonso
Hamilton coped with numerous Safety Car interventions to win his first Grand Prix on his sixth attempt. Alonso limped to seventh behind Raikkonen's damaged Ferrari in fifth.
US Grand Prix (Indianapolis, 17/06/2007)
1 Hamilton 2 Alonso 3 Massa 4 Raikkonen
Hamilton resisted pressure from Alonso for a second win in succession. Massa followed with Raikkonen in fourth.
French Grand Prix (Magny Cours, 01/07/2007)
1 Raikkonen 2 Massa 3 Hamilton 7 Alonso
Ferrari recovered lost ground with a one-two, Raikkonen taking the victory. Hamilton was a distant third, with Alonso seventh after gearbox trouble in qualifying.
British Grand Prix (Silverstone, 08/07/2007)
1 Raikkonen 2 Alonso 3 Hamilton
Hamilton began the race on pole but ended a distant third, losing out to eventual winner Raikkonen and second-placed Alonso during the pit stops.
European Grand Prix (Nuremburg, 22/07/2007)
1 Alonso 2 Massa 9 Hamilton Retired Raikkonen
Alonso pipped Massa to victory in wet conditions. Hamilton finished ninth after a crash in qualifying. Raikkonen retired on lap 34.
Hungarian Grand Prix (Budapest, 05/08/2007)
1 Hamilton 2 Raikkonen 4 Alonso
Hamilton withstood pressure from Raikkonen, winning from pole, with the Finn right behind in second. Alonso could only manage fourth.
Turkish Grand Prix (Istanbul, 26/08/2007)
1 Massa 2 Raikkonen 3 Alonso 5 Hamilton
Raikkonen passed Hamilton at the start to secure an easy Ferrari one-two behind Massa. Alonso followed 20 seconds back while Hamilton recovered from a puncture to finish fifth.
Italian Grand Prix (Monza, 09/09/2007)
1 Alonso 2 Hamilton 3 Raikkonen
Alonso won comfortably off pole, with second-placed Hamilton unable to challenge after the first lap. Raikkonen was third following a Safety Car intervention.
Belgian Grand Prix (Spa-Francorchamps, 16/09/2007)
1 Raikkonen 2 Massa 3 Alonso
Ferrari cruised to a one-two, Raikkonen the winner. Alonso joined them on the podium with Hamilton fourth.
Japanese Grand Prix (Oyama, 30/09/2007)
1 Hamilton 2 Kovalainen 3 Raikkonen Retired Alonso
Hamilton won in torrential rain to close in on the Championship title. Raikkonen was third after starting on unsuitable tyres. Alonso retired.
Chinese Grand Prix (Shanghai, 07/10/2007)
1 Alonso 2 Raikkonen 3 Massa Retired Hamilton
Hamilton took pole and led for 24 laps before crashing out, allowing Raikkonen to win. Alonso came second to throw the Championship wide open again.
Brazilian Grand Prix (Sao Paulo, 21/10/2007)
1 Raikkonen 2 Massa 3 Alonso 7 Hamilton
Hamilton suffered technical problems early on and never recovered, leaving Raikkonen to secure a victory which, with Alonso in third, earned him the championship title by a point, 110 to Alonso and Hamilton's 109.
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