Lewis Hamilton secured his third Formula 1 World Championship on Sunday with an ultimately unlikely win at the US Grand Prix. In the end, the effects of tropical storm Patricia – downgraded from hurricane hours before a 24-hour delayed qualifying session – influenced the race as much as any team tactics.
Hamilton’s championship makes him only the second Briton, after Sir Jackie Stewart more than 40 years ago, to have taken three Formula 1 world titles. Hamilton is, however, the first Englishman to secure the hat-trick, since Sir Jackie is a proud Scot, and the Stevenage-born 30-year-old is the first Brit to have won consecutive titles.
His 43rd win takes him into the lead amongst active drivers, though he still has fewer than half the race wins of record-holder Michael Schumacher (92 wins).
Hamilton is a divider of opinions, for sure. For some he will never measure up to the likes of Stewart and other British former greats. He is half Black, which may be more significant in this regard than many would be ready to admit. He is also becoming more and more indulgent in a celebrity lifestyle that is anathema to conservative British sensibilities.
To some he also lacks grace. He is exuberant in victory and certainly there are drivers better able to disregard adversity – both professional and personal. But his career judgement has proved impeccable.
He signed up with McLaren as a child and got chance in Formula 1 when the Woking team was at the top, narrowly failing to take the World Championship in his debut season. He won it in his second season, but many were keen to point out that few novice drivers find themselves in a top team so early in their careers – so no credit due there, then.
Subsequently a new kid on the block would somewhat undermine Hamilton’s achievements. Sebastian Vettel, who had to suffer the relative ignominy of starting with a minor outfit, worked his way into the by now dominant Red Bull Racing team and soon usurped Hamilton as the youngest ever World Champion. Worse still, the German repeated the feat three more times in a row.
Perhaps this was a contributory factor in Hamilton’s defection to the then new Mercedes works team. Although his McLaren cars had been using their engines throughout their relative decline, new rules meant cars would employ petrol/electric hybrid propulsion, and Hamilton clearly had faith in Mercedes’ ability to deliver a competitive powertrain.
He effectively left the ‘family’ he had been with for more than half his life to become central to a project to reprise the works’ Silver Arrows’ former glories; and he won ‘right off the bat’ as they are probably prone to say in Austin, Texas – scene of his latest triumph.
A year later and en route to back to back titles, one dares to say Hamilton might have been especially keen to seal the deal in the US, a place he seems to spend more of his down time than his actual home in Monaco and the place the many of the celebrities he is frequently photographed with call home. And seal it he did, despite the threat posed by the vestiges of Hurricane Patricia.
The final session of qualifying was to be curtailed due to the storm, leaving Hamilton’s teammate and one of only two rivals for the championship, Nico Rosberg, on pole position.
While Rosberg has qualified fastest in the previous two events, Hamilton has dominated the German for most of the rest of the season and is generally regarded as superior in damp conditions. So Rosberg on pole and Hamilton beside him augured well for the exciting battle both claim to relish.
Starting at a disadvantage didn’t seem to make a difference to the playboy Brit for very long, however, as he muscled his way to the front after the first corner, giving his teammate a less than cordial nudge off the track that sent him back three places into the bargain.
Assuming he would now win the race, to also take the world crown at Austin, Hamilton would need to finish ahead of Rosberg and fellow German Sebastian Vettel in that order. For his part, Vettel would have to finish second to take the championship race through to this weekend’s Mexico Grand Prix.
Using most grand prix this season as a basis, Hamilton three places ahead of Rosberg and eight places ahead of his other title rival Vettel, who started with a grid penalty, after lap one should have inspired the Englishman’s friends and family to start preparing the ice buckets. But the damp track still had a part to play.
All the drivers started the race on intermediate tyres, but knew it would not be long before the track dried enough to warrant slicks. Add into the mix that some drivers are more prone to mistakes, especially in the wet, than others and by the middle of the race Hamilton was suddenly on the back foot even though he himself hadn’t put a foot wrong.
Pressure from Red Bull Racing’s plucky Australian, Daniel Ricciardo, whose car set-up seemed more suited to the intermediate tyres’ characteristics than Hamilton’s (or Rosberg’s) Mercedes, meant that Hamilton had already lost the race lead to the Aussie by the time he needed to come in for slicks. This and various periods under safety car conditions following crashes or breakdowns somehow conspired to drop Hamilton behind Rosberg, whose team then brought him in for a second tyre change under advantageous safety car conditions while not offering Hamilton – now the second-placed car in the team – the same privilege.
Rosberg, now ten seconds ahead of Hamilton on the track and on fresher tyres, looked odds-on to take the race and extend the title battle, but the track conditions – and the inability of some drivers to master them – had a final curve ball to throw into the mix.
Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat falling victim to the track’s still wet run-offs brought out another safety car, which allowed Hamilton to close up a gap to Rosberg that would surely have been too great otherwise. When full-pace running resumed, the German, who has a history of coming off second best in track duels with the Hertfordshire man, seemed this time to recognise that his identical car should not fall prey to his racier teammate as easily as in the past.
However, the German was destined to find yet another way of capitulating. Within a few short minutes of a chequered flag that would see him theoretically back in contention for his first World Championship, he too found the track’s outer limits too challenging to negotiate and fell off just long enough to watch the back of Hamilton’s Silver Arrow disappear into the distance; a sight, it has to be said, he has not been unaccustomed to over the past two seasons.
All Hamilton needed now was for his car to stay reliable and for his vanquished colleague to keep the fast approaching Vettel behind him.
As Vettel closed the fairly substantial gap on Rosberg at a rate many found surprising, speculation was rife that Rosberg’s evident distaste for former friend Hamilton (the pair have progressed through the sport’s junior ranks almost in parallel) might take precedence over team unity and personal pride. For if Vettel passed Rosberg, Hamilton would have to wait at least another week to be crowned World Champion.
By the stony look on Rosberg’s face on the podium after the race, letting Vettel through may not have been the last thing on his mind. His unofficial understudy status is evidently starting to weigh heavily as he realises that a man he had every right to believe he could measure up to with identical equipment, just as he has in Formula 1’s feeder formulae, is proving himself to have become a superior racing driver, with the emphasis on racing.
So does Lewis Hamilton’s parity with Sir Jackie Stewart in terms of world crowns mean we can expect the Queen to lower her ceremonial sword upon his shoulder? Unlikely. Sir Jackie, an outspoken advocate for the improved safety that no doubt contributes to Hamilton’s on-the-edge driving style, had to wait until after his 62nd birthday in 2001 for his gong.
Who knows? The future King William, no stranger to fraternising with the odd celeb himself, might place sufficient value on hob-nobbing to deem the sexagenarian Hamilton worthy of a date at Buck House.