Lewis Carl Davidson Hamilton was born into a mixed race family on 7 January 1985, in Stevenage, a quiet English town north of London. His father Anthony, whose parents immigrated from Grenada in the West Indies in the 1950's, and his mother Carmen divorced when Lewis was about two years old. He lived with Carmen until he was 10 then moved in with Anthony, his wife Linda and their three-year-old son Nicolas. Remaining close to his mother, Lewis also formed a strong bond with his stepmother and credits them both with contributing to the caring, considerate side of his nature. He finds the cheerful bravery of his stepbrother, who suffers from cerebral palsy, inspirational. "I only have to think of Nic to feel motivated and put a smile on my face." His steely ambition and iron resolve come from the head of the family. "Even though he always told me to be courteous and polite, my focus and determination comes from, and has always been driven by, my dad."
Anthony Hamilton, his mentor and manager, worked day and night for years (at one time he held three different jobs) to further his son's racing career, which effectively began when eight-year-old Lewis was given a well-used go-kart that cost nearly as much as the family's modest monthly income. Soon the Hamiltons - Anthony, Linda, Nic and Lewis - were a fixture at karting events and the boy racer, wearing the familiar yellow helmet chosen by an anxious Anthony to better keep track of his speedy progress in crowded kart fields, began winning races and championships.
In 1995, a 10-year-old kart champion, wearing a borrowed suit and shoes, picked up two trophies at a motorsport awards ceremony in London. Brandishing an autograph book prepared by his father, he approached Ron Dennis, boss of the McLaren Mercedes Formula One team. "I said 'Hello Mr. Dennis, I'm Lewis Hamilton and one day I'd like to race for your team.' I asked him for his autograph and his phone number. He put them in my book and also wrote 'Call me in nine years.'"
The call was made just three years later and it was the Hamilton household's telephone that rang. It was Ron Dennis who presented Anthony with an offer to financially support his son's career for the forseeable future, with the proviso that Lewis should keep working hard at school. Lewis: "I just went upstairs to my room and got on with my homework. It was so unbelievable. I struggled to take it in."
While the family's financial struggle was over it put extra pressure on McLaren's teenage protege to meet ever higher expectations. As well as having to respond to envious critics who claimed he should be winning all the time, given his funding, it was imperative that Lewis continually prove himself worthy of his benefactor's investment. The need to achieve undoubtedly accelerated his progress through motorsport's ranks. After winning eight championships in six years of kart racing, he went on to win three major single seater titles, the most prestigious of which was the GP2 championship, where in 2006 he took five victories from 21 starts. But it was the young British charger's several spirited comeback performances, from the back of the pack to the podium, that particularly prompted McLaren to promote him to the Formula One team.
Certainly he was well prepared, though no one was prepared for the astonishing ease with which the precocious youngster stormed through the 2007 season. Consistently out-performing his celebrated team mate Fernando Alonso (who had won the first of his two driving titles, with Renault, when he was just 24), Lewis Hamilton barged onto the podium a dozen times, won four races, led the championship for five months and lost it by merely a single point in the final race to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen.
Their new recruit's dazzling debut was the only bright spot in a turbulent year for McLaren, whose two drivers became bitter adversaries. Their feud, exacerbated by Alonso's resentment of the British-based team's apparent focus an English upstart he had presumed would be his understudy, culminated in the slighted Spaniard's angry departure from a team already troubled by a notorious 'spy scandal.' Found guilty of possessing Ferrari technical secrets, McLaren was fined $100 million and stripped of all its points in a Constructors' Championship it would otherwise have won.
On assuming the role of team leader in 2008 (when Alonso returned to Renault) the boy wonder became even more of a marked man. En route to carving out five victories and scything his way to the podium on six other occasions, he incurred the wrath of several overtaken rivals who accused him of arrogance and dangerous driving. Hamilton insisted his hard-earned self-belief was wrongly interpreted and that his driving was firm but fair. But it wasn't without flaw and a combination of miscues and mishaps meant the championship was far from a foregone conclusion prior to the final Grand Prix, in Brazil. There, if Hamilton failed to finish at least fifth, Ferrari's Felipe Massa could take the title by winning his home race.
The grand finale, on a serpentine Interlagos circuit made more treacherous by rain, produced arguably the most thrilling climax in the annals of any sport. Local hero Massa mastered the chaotic conditions perfectly, crossing the finish line first and scoring the points necessary to become champion - which he was for the 38.907 seconds that passed before his title rival took the chequered flag in the fifth place he needed to finish on top of the world. With this final flourish, having overtaken another car with about 300 meters to go, Lewis Hamilton, aged 23 years and 300 days, became the youngest World Champion.
"Shoot!", he exclaimed while celebrating tearfully with his nearest and dearest, among them his glamorous pop singer girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger. "I'm ecstatic, very emotional, very thankful for my family, my team and everyone who has supported me in this fairy-tale story."
In the following seasons, though he continued to be one of the most aggressive drivers and a race winner, Hamilton failed to regain his championship form. His McLaren was not always a world-beater but in 2011 Hamilton blamed distractions in his private life (mainly a breakup with his girlfriend) for a loss of focus that he vowed to regain. In 2012, with his private life running smoothly, he drove hard and well and finished fourth in the standings with four wins. Before that campaign was over he announced he was leaving McLaren, the team that had been so much a part of his racing life for so long, and would in 2013 replace the retiring Michael Schumacher at Mercedes. In his new environment he was a regular frontrunner, securing several poles and podiums (including a race win) and finished a respectable fourth in the 2013 championship.
In 2014, when major regulation changes featured new hybrid power units in chassis with reduced downforce, Mercedes dominated the season, winning 16 of the 19 races and easily securing the Constructors’ Championship. Mercedes’ policy of letting its drivers race each other enabled team mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to engage in an enthralling season-long duel for the driving title. Adding extra human interest to the drama was the fact that Hamilton (champion in 2008) and Rosberg (whose father Keke was champion in 1982) had been friends and rivals since their karting days as teenagers. Now, as 29-year-old protagonists competing for honours at the pinnacle of motorsport, the intensity of their rivalry strained their friendship and tested their strength of character.
The championship, with Hamilton leading in points and Rosberg still in contention, was finally settled in the last race of the season, at Abu Dhabi, where double points were awarded, though the race winner and new champion didn’t need them. Rosberg, who started from pole (and won the inaugural Pole Position trophy) but finished out of the points with a car problem, was gracious in defeat, acknowledging that his team mate’s tally of 11 wins to Rosberg’s five meant Hamilton deserved to be the 2014 champion.
Clinching his second driving title (as well as becoming the most successful British Formula One driver, with 33 victories) was an emotional occasion for Lewis Hamilton, whose family and girlfriend shared his tearful triumph at Abu Dhabi. Struggling to put his feelings into words, he summed it up succinctly: “This is the greatest day of my life.”
Days of greatness were far from over for a driver yet to reach the peak of his powers. Off the track he relished his celebrity status, embraced pop culture, dabbled in music, became a style icon, hob-nobbed with the rich and famous.
His fame transcended his sport but the high-flying, tattooed hero with diamond ear studs never lost his driving ambition, his hunger to win. He worked hard at self-improvement, added a thinking dimension to his hard-charging instincts, made fewer mistakes and became an unstoppable force in 2015.
He dominated the season, making full use of his Mercedes F1 Team's car advantage and capping it off with a triple crown triumph secured via a storming victory in the 16th of the 19 races - an action-packed, drama-filled United States Grand Prix at Austin, Texas. On a wet to drying track wheel-to-wheel battles raged throughout the field, beginning with Hamilton pushing aside his polesitting Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg on the opening lap. Many driving errors were made but Hamilton never put a wheel wrong in winning his 10th race of the year - an historic 43rd career victory that vaulted him into third place in the all-time winners list behind Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost.
His third world championship - matching the tally of his boyhood hero Ayrton Senna - confirmed that Lewis Hamilton had joined the ranks of the sport's greatest drivers.
The three-time champion lost none of his natural speed (he had the most poles and wins) yet lost the 2016 championship (by five points) to his hard-trying Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg. Their huge car advantage and the team’s policy of letting them fight freely led to a sometimes acrimonious title battle. Hamilton had more mechanical problems and made some driving errors that suggested a wavering focus caused by his continuing pursuit of a celebrity lifestyle. He denied this, saying “I probably drove with more heart his year. It took a lot more heart and courage to face the challenges”.
Lewis Hamilton’s fourth Drivers’ Championship earned him a place among the top five most successful drivers of all time. He equalled the number of titles won by both Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel. Only Juan Manuel Fangio’s five championships and Michael Schumacher’s record of seven rank higher than the 32-year-old Englishman who in his 11th season came to be regarded as the best driver of his era.
His 2017 title triumph was the product of Hamilton raising his game and performing at a consistently higher level. He demonstrated superior speed (with 11 pole positions he extended his career total to 72, a F1 record), unerring precision (his only notable crash came during qualifying at Interlagos), relentless aggression (pushing himself with a deep-seated self-belief that he was unbeatable), exemplary racecraft (remaining steadfastly composed and controlled under pressure) and remarkable efficiency (he scored points in all 20 races, winning nine of them and finishing on the podium 13 times). Moreover, his tremendous pace and stylish verve behind the wheel were exciting for the sport.
It helped that the Mercedes F1 WO8 was generally the best car, and the well-managed team again functioning like a well-oiled machine won the Constructors’ Championship for the fourth season in succession. Hamilton and his easy-going new team mate Valtteri Bottas, replacing the retired reigning champion Nico Rosberg, were allowed to compete with each other. His defeat by Rosberg in their acrimonious 2016 battle bolstered Hamilton’s resolve to re-establish his superiority, which he did convincingly. Bottas won three races and finished third in the standings. That their relationship remained harmonious was a further example of Hamilton’s newfound serenity and contentment.
He derived satisfaction from his racing accomplishments and took obvious pleasure in embracing a colourful celebrity lifestyle that made him an even more popular personality. He cultivated a high profile presence on social media, remaining humble and profusely thanking his fans for supporting and inspiring him. His multitude of followers left little doubt that Lewis Hamilton’s fame exceeded that of any other F1 driver. Beyond that, as his former team mate and rival Nico Rosberg observed, “Lewis is one of the best of all time.”
Text - Gerald Donaldson