Only two men have won the British Grand Prix five times; Jim Clark and Alain Prost. Lewis Hamilton is gunning to join them on Sunday.
His first victory at Silverstone came in the wet in 2008, a year and a half into his prodigious F1 career. In a decade filled with remarkable performances this remains, without question, one of his very best. In conditions as slippery as a Vaselined eel and with horrendous visibility, while other drivers were struggling just to stay on the black bits Hamilton put the hammer down, crossing the line one minute and eight seconds ahead of anyone else. He’d lapped all but two other cars. He was, simply, in a different league.
I was stood right opposite the man with the chequered flag, staring along the finish line with photographer Angus Leadley Brown. Up until this point, Angus had largely taken pictures of skateboarders doing tricks, not F1 cars. He had with him a synchroballistic camera which was designed during the Cold War to measure the speed and acceleration of missiles. It seemed a suitable tool for tracking Lewis Hamilton.
Despite the leaner years that followed at McLaren, Lewis may now be on target to break the records set by Michael Schumacher which we thought would never be broken. There is still a fair way to go before he can match Michael’s indomitable 91 wins, but the German’s record of 68 pole positions hangs in the balance, with Hamilton currently on 66.
A hat-trick of Silverstone wins with Mercedes-AMG means that regardless of whether Sebastian Vettel leads the championship, it’s the homegrown hero that’s the favourite with the bookmakers as well as the fans.
There was always an air of destiny around Hamilton. By the time I first got to meet him, upon his arrival in GP2, F1’s feeder series which he won at his first attempt in 2006, it felt like I already knew him. He’d been omnipresent in motor racing magazines for a decade. It wasn’t a question of ‘if’ he’d be an F1 world champion, it was when. He was signed by McLaren at the age of 12 and put through a unique programme to create the ultimate racing driver. This was Jason Bourne level stuff; spot the kid with potential and mould him into a killing machine – on the race track, at least.
The opportunities McLaren, and specifically the team principal Ron Dennis and his number two, Martin Whitmarsh, gave him were unprecedented. But it came with the kind of pressure that, for a teenager, would have mullered the likes of One Direction, the cast of Harry Potter, and other youngsters in the public eye. Lewis grafted, developing his talent rather than relying on it, but by the time he graduated to F1 he’d missed out on a childhood.
I recently put it to him, as we cruised surreally around Dalston in the back of a massive white Maybach, that his upbringing was like The Truman Show. “That’s a cool interpretation, it was a bit like that,” he agreed. “I was groomed and restricted and felt that was the only space I was allowed to be in”. McLaren gave birth to Hamilton, but like all offspring there comes a time they must leave the nest, lest their growth be permanently stunted. Ron was binding his personal development like a bonsai tree, maximising Lewis’ performance yet clipping his wings. He couldn’t be himself. The tattoos, the chains, the A-list embrace, that all happened once he went to Mercedes.
Lewis is a great bunch of guys; you’re never really sure which one you’re going to meet. I’ve witnessed him interact with journalists, Fortune 100 CEOs and Grammy winners, and it’s a different character each time. Yet since he moved to Mercedes he has blossomed, he is finding his feet, and he’s slowly discovering who he is. “I’m very much an outsider,” he confirmed as we drove around the East End. “I’ve been finding out who I’m comfortable being. I’ve started to take down some of the shields that had been put up around me.”
The decision to leave McLaren, in September 2012, was as much a statement of intent as it was a career decision; Lewis would be calling the shots from now on. It was also an inspired move; Mercedes have gone on to win three titles in a row, while the once mighty McLaren have sunk into irrelevance, beset with boardroom coups and rubbish engines. Not long afterwards, Lewis gave his management leave and took complete control of his life, negotiating his own £100 million pay packet. He also switched his lonely home in Switzerland for a glitzier lifestyle in Monaco, got himself a customized metallic red Challenger jet, bought an estate in Colorado filled with high-octane toys (he calls this “the Megazone”) and threw himself full-scale into a life that befits a young man worth nine figures. That is to say, he started schmoozing with the Kardashians. And possibly sleeping with their friends.
This, of course, sounds like nails on a chalk board to the conservative and earnest types that employ F1 drivers or write about them. They only want to see their drivers at The Grand Prix Ball, not the Met Ball. Drivers, Lewis feels, are put in a box and attempts to crawl out are frowned upon. “We shouldn’t feel like we need to shrink ourselves in order that other people feel comfortable.”
There is the question of hunger, though. Ayrton Senna, who is Hamilton’s hero and the driver to whom he’s most frequently compared, earned three world titles before he was killed. Three was the magic number for Hamilton, and he moved heaven and earth to make sure he won that third title, at the United States Grand Prix in 2015. Then he took his foot off the throttle. Friend-turned-foe Nico Rosberg dominated the last three rounds of the season, even though his shot at the title was gone. Then, last year, Lewis underestimated team-mate Rosberg, thought he could cruise and collect another title and was denied, painfully.
Rosberg’s magic number was one, the same as his dad, Keke. He gave it everything in 2016. Had he not succeeded, he’d probably have had a nervous breakdown. He knew Lewis was the greater natural talent, and he knew the only way to beat him was to work harder. That’s what he did; no holidays, no parties, just hours and hours with engineers pouring over telemetry maps and reams of technical data. In the Senna versus Prost analogy that’s been triggered by every rivalry since, Nico was the professor.
Having achieved his goal, Rosberg retired and Hamilton figured 2017 would be a breeze. Not so. The threat of a motivated Sebastian Vettel, driving the best Ferrari since Schumi’s world-beating F2004, has re-awoken Lewis’ most competitive instincts. He needs to shut down distractions. Lewis knows what works for him, and having downtime surrounded by people who don’t know the difference between oversteer and understeer allows him to recalibrate. But he cannot take his eye off the prize for a 1000th of a second or else Vettel will drink his milkshake.
The rivalry, which was largely positive – a bromance, even – turned sour in Azerbaijan, but that just stokes the narrative of what is developing into a vintage season. The key, for Lewis, is having a worthy rival in a similarly fast but different car; that is what he relishes. The recipe for this summer is delicious.
“When you’re competing against your team-mate your cards are always in view,” explains Lewis. “When you’re racing against another team you’re just trying to be at your best all the time, up against an unknown. It’s like doing a maths test; if you have the cheat sheet already you’re not learning and not challenging yourself. But if you’re trying to figure it out for yourself that is how you can discover how far you can go. And that’s why I love the challenge of racing against another team.”
What could dictate whether Hamilton succeeds in becoming the most successful driver ever, in terms of race wins, will be the timing of his retirement. He’s told me about how he’s got plans; there are other things he’d like to do. Unlike Vettel, he doesn’t see his professional life ending with the chequered flag and a synchroballistic camera trained on him. “There’s a lot more to me than just driving. Driving, while it’s what I do best, is not a huge part of me, in the sense that I have a lot more to offer.
“Some drivers have retired and come back, some have stayed racing into old age. I respect why they would do so, because we’ve been racing all our lives. How do you step away from something you’ve loved for so long? For many, it’s the only life they know. As far as I’m aware, all the other drivers I’m racing against only do racing, and when they stop, like… I don’t want to be trapped in that position. I’m going to be doing stuff, don’t worry about me. I’m experimenting and trying to learn new things, growing personally and maximizing the opportunities that I have.”
Looking at the statistics, Lewis has the opportunity to finish his career heading all the big ones, should he so choose. This weekend he may, along with Clark and Prost, be at the top of the British Grand Prix winners’ table. But there’s a significant record he already holds; the most grands prix entered with a single engine manufacturer – Mercedes. He’s been loyal to the three-pointed-star since he was 11, when he raced in the McLaren Mercedes Champions of the Future karting series. I wonder, for his next challenge, having won a minimum of three titles with two different teams, whether we might still see him in a Ferrari.
Should he retire soon, in his early 30s, it’ll leave the door open for Vettel to smash all those records and finish his career atop the standings, ahead of Hamilton and his childhood hero Schumacher, even. But should Lewis and Seb find themselves together at the prancing horse it would lead to the canonization of one and the systematic destruction of the other. I can’t really see it ending well, but I sense that it is the one challenge that, beyond winning a fourth crown this season, Hamilton has the appetite for, in F1. He said recently, and curiously, “I love Ferrari” and I think they’d probably love him too. Why wouldn’t they? He’s the best in the business.
And why wouldn’t F1’s new owners Liberty Media twist every arm and sign every cheque to make it happen? Lewis Hamilton, together with the Scuderia, would be box office gold. Till then, there’s every chance of making history this weekend with Mercedes.