Lewis Hamilton became the youngest ever F1 champ in 2008. So what does this year hold for the racing prodigy?
When Lewis Carl Hamilton collected his MBE from the Queen of England in March, he described it as ‘one of the most overwhelming experiences I’ve ever had’ – quite an accolade for a 24-year-old who has achieved so much. Like any self-respecting international sportsman he lives in the tax haven of Switzerland and has a glamorous girlfriend – lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls, Nicole Scherzinger. Unlike most sportsmen, however, he is rarely out of the company of his family – his father, Anthony, is his manager, and his half-brother, Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy, is often the first person to congratulate or commiserate with Lewis after a race.
Born January 7, 1985, in the Hertfordshire town of Stevenage in the UK, and named after US sprinter Carl Lewis, it seemed destined that Hamilton would have speed in his future. At the age of 10 he approached McLaren team boss Ron Dennis at a major awards ceremony and simply announced: ‘I want to race for you one day.’ In less than three years he had signed with the team’s young driver programme.
Hamilton’s father was responsible for much of his son’s interest in racing; he bought him his first radio-controlled car (Lewis won a major championship with it the following year), and also a go-kart one Christmas, which saw Lewis throw himself into karting competitions, winning at national and international levels. In 2001, he moved on to cars, with a drive in the Formula Renault winter series, winning the main Formula Renault championship at his second attempt in 2003. This led to a Formula 3 drive, and he was now on the fast track to an F1 seat.
Hamilton’s career hit a minor snag in 2004 when an argument with McLaren saw the team drop the talented youngster, but differences were eventually resolved and he returned to them in 2007. In the interim, Hamilton was approached by the Williams team, who very nearly signed the young driver.
By 2006 Lewis had secured a seat with top GP2 Team ART and began racing on the same tracks as F1 greats in this support category. He immediately grabbed the world’s attention with his unique talents, and he won the championship at his first attempt.
Finally, in 2007, Hamilton became the youngest driver to secure an F1 seat and took his place at McLaren-Mercedes just 13 years after the audacious youngster approached Ron Dennis. This would be one of the toughest years in his career, however, as he was partnered with the feisty Spaniard Fernando Alonso, who had just decamped from his long-time team Renault.
In his first Grand Prix in Australia, Hamilton qualified an impressive fourth, and then went on to take third position, becoming the 13th driver ever to score a podium position in his first F1 race. In Bahrain and Spain, he finished second, both times behind Felipe Massa, but in doing so became the youngest driver to lead the world championship.
His first win wasn’t far away, coming just a few races later in Canada, and he followed it by another victory in the US Grand Prix. Those who didn’t realise how special Hamilton was were quickly finding out, and former world champion and team-mate Alonso clearly felt threatened, forging a bitter rivalry between the two.
The rift came to a head at the Hungarian Grand Prix when the Spaniard, having posted the fastest time, blocked his team mate’s exit from the pits, thereby stopping him improving on his qualifying time. The race officials demoted Alonso five places down the grid and docked McLaren any constructors’ championship points gained from the race. Hamilton had the last laugh as he crossed the finish line in first place.
So the young gun entered the last race of the season in Brazil four points ahead of his bitter rival, but tragedy struck with a series of incidents, and Kimi Raikkonen won the championship with Hamilton second by just one point. The following year was better for Hamilton, though – Alonso left the team by mutual consent and was replaced by young Finnish driver Heikki Kovalainen. Hamilton won at the first race in Australia, and finished fifth in Malaysia, but his 2008 visit to Bahrain will always be remembered for his huge crash in practice, destroying his McLaren and forcing him to start the race in a spare car. After a disastrous race, which included hitting former team-mate Alonso, he finished in 13th place.
The rest of the 2008 season saw many ups and downs – Hamilton finished third in Spain and second in Turkey, then crashed into the back of Raikkonen in Canada, who was stopped at a red light at the end of the pits. In France he finished 13th again, then first in the UK, and it all rested on the final race in Brazil to decide the championship.
The task was not so huge this time; he needed only to finish fifth to turn his seven-point advantage into a championship win. But in what fans have come to recognise as true Hamilton style, he kept them waiting until the last moment; when title contender Massa crossed the line, Lewis was sixth and it looked like Massa would win, but seconds later everything changed as Hamilton slipped past Timo Glock to snatch fifth – becoming the youngest ever F1 World Champion.
Hamilton quickly released an autobiography – a touch unusual for a 24-year-old when most young men his age are just settling into their first job – and he has been the subject of many other books, magazine features and TV documentaries, just two years after breaking on to the international motorsport stage Lewis Hamilton is a household name. It only waits to be seen where he can go from here, and if his fans will still be sitting on the edge of their seats come the 2009 season finale in Abu Dhabi in November.