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Lewis Hamilton – Boy to Man

September 26, 2012

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Sunday mornings for F1 teams in 2006 were generally slow and tedious. With cars normally ready to go, other than a spot of pit stop practice we had nothing much other than GP2 action on the garage tv’s to keep us entertained before things got busy after lunch. At the Turkish GP of that year, GP2’s sprint race did exactly that.
By the end of that 23 lap race, not only was the entire F1 pit lane completely spellbound, but Formula One had been force fed a large dose of a young lad with a yellow crash helmet called Lewis Hamilton.

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If you’re not familiar with it, look up the video, but suffice to say it was brilliant. After an early spin left him languishing at the back, he just got the bit by his teeth and went for it, literally tearing through field to somehow take second place with a couple of corners to go. This was in a formula, unlike F1, where everyone competes in the same cars! When I look back now, that race showcased many characteristics that have since won him a world title, arguably lost him a few more, but love or loath him, always made him very difficult not to watch.
It’s been well documented that Lewis’ sights had been set on F1 for many years and on occasions throughout the 2006 season he would pop into our garage for a look around. Back then he was a very young, very humble figure, desperately keen to learn about the sport. He’d regularly duck in from pitlane after a GP2 session for a look at our cars and ask question upon question, taking in as much information as he could. I remember thinking how refreshing it was to see a racing driver with so much enthusiasm for what we, as mechanics, were doing and the technical aspect of the cars. Most of us in the team didn’t really know anything about him at that stage and those who did would simply describe him as “that kid that McLaren supports in GP2”. That was soon to change.
At the end of 2006, with Kimi off to Ferrari, McLaren made the announcement that everyone, none more so than us, was waiting for and Lewis became a Formula One racer. We were first formally introduced at a training camp in Finland just after the news went public and although I’m sure he tried hard to contain it, the excitement was in the most part pleasantly unbridled. To say he was still coming to terms with the whole thing’s an understatement. It was really great to see this young kid’s dream unfolding before our eyes and he seemed, although a little shy at first, to fit in very well in what must have been a fairly daunting group of people…his new McLaren team mates.
For all the romance of the story, the truth is that many within the team saw the appointment as a huge risk. This team’s one of the oldest, most successful teams in the history of the sport and is a place where only the very best drivers were granted the opportunity to race it’s cars. I don’t think anyone would have been surprised had Ron announced he was placing Lewis at a smaller team for a year to learn the ropes and if proven successful, recall him down the line once he was experienced enough both inside and outside the car.
Within the team, we had two car crews of mechanics and engineers etc, and two new drivers coming in. At first there was no decision as to which crew would inherit which of them, but it was certainly no secret inside MTC as to everyone’s preference. One’s a double world champion, the current world champion, with years of experience in the sport and the other’s, well he’s just ‘that kid that McLaren supports in GP2′.
At a team like McLaren, everyone involved was used to winning, we worked hard for it, but we arrogantly expected it. Fernando was always going to deliver, so working on his side of the garage would almost certainly guarantee a level of success, something which mechanics and engineers crave as much as the driver himself. Conversely the team of people assigned to Lewis’ car would head into the unknown with a complete rookie learning everything that F1 brings, in a car and team which should be fighting for both world championships. Best case was assumed to be that he could learn from Fernando and perhaps score points in as many races as possible. Many, however, feared a season of struggles and crash repairs and although never mentioned publicly, an internal tussle began for the claim to Alonso’s 2007 car. Privately, certain prominent individuals from each crew made their feelings clear to management about who they wanted to run, each staking their own claims of ‘number one’ status and rights to the number one driver.
In the end the decision was made, it was accepted by all and everyone got on with their jobs, although on reflection, the idea of a struggle not to be involved with Hamilton’s car, obviously now seems a hasty and somewhat ill judged one.
Over the first few months I watched the Lewis Hamilton fairytale begin to unfold before me. Lewis chatted to us all in the garages during pre-season testing like an excited schoolboy describing his most amazing Christmas presents, as he told, in disbelief, of the photo shoots, helicopter journeys and personal assistants which had suddenly become part of his life. One particularly poignant early moment I recall was him appearing at an event where a giant billboard style poster of his face sat prominently, high up on the front of the building overhead. He was driven to the venue and upon getting out of the vehicle someone put their arm around him and pointed up. Thoroughly overwhelmed and taken aback by the sight, Lewis was humbled like I’ve never seen him since and it felt to me like perhaps a significant moment on his new journey.
Of course at McLaren, the child like enthusiasm and amazement was something unseen before in a race driver. We were used to drivers arriving at the team as full blown celebrities already, generally well established for years beforehand and often complete with a certain level of Formula One arrogance. Lewis was a breath of fresh air.
At tests and the first few grand prix, not only did it become clear he was fast, but he approached everything with an open willingness to learn and to be taught. He studied Fernando’s data of course, but significantly, asked him questions, sought opinions and looked to him for advice as the new kid on the block. Fernando duly played the role of leader and the pair worked well together in the very early stages of the season. Lewis’ introduction to grand prix racing was looking good and had the team smiling with a sense of relief and justification, but also we felt a new sense of gratification as he clearly not only appreciated our work, but seemed completely overwhelmed by the lengths we went to in order to give him the best shot at a good result. He was truly grateful and couldn’t help but show it and the team warmed to him.
One of the most interesting and fascinating things for me about observing Lewis over the last four years has been watching the transition from relative unknown, to household name and international superstar. It’s very rare to be close enough to someone from the very beginning to see the process unfold, but with Lewis it all happened very quickly.
In the space of a few short months every motor racing fan across the globe knew who he was. He had money, but barely required any as he was given pretty much everything he needed or wanted by sponsors, the team, or anyone else suddenly now clambering to be associated with him. His every need was taken care of by someone, from carrying bags and cleaning crash helmets, to instructions on what to say to the media and organising his daily diary.
I’ve since drawn conclusions that it must be incredibly hard not to change as a person with that level of constant attention, but at the time I recall feeling disappointed that within a few months of really getting to know him, some of the endearing qualities which we’d all found so refreshing at the team had begun to fade.
By the time Monaco came round, only the 5th race of his inaugural season, his confidence, both in and out of the car, had reached new levels. Things bubbled over into frustration during the closing stages of the race at being told to remain in second place, rather than risk all trying to overtake his teammate when the two were comfortably out in front.
The frustration was obviously understandable, he’s a racing driver and I’ve never known one to be happy about being told to settle for second place when first was a definite possibility. However, the way he shouted and screamed at the team over the radio and stomped around sulking afterwards, many saw perhaps as a telling sign of things to come.
Lewis won the next two races of the season, his first in Formula One and very gradually, as he began to see himself as a championship contender rather than the apprentice, his focus changed from learning the ropes and being led, to demanding perfection and leading the engineering direction himself. With those traits taking over, the ‘pleases’, ‘thank yous’ and general ‘hellos’ seemed to become fewer and further between.
After relations between our two drivers reached breaking point during that infamous qualifying session in Hungary, the team saw, what some of us perceived to be, Lewis using the media to build a picture of himself as the innocent ‘team’ player in the whole affair. When the tv cameras arrived in our garage before each race from then on, there was often a very public display of shaking hands with every member of the team on both sides of the garage before climbing into his car. If there were no cameras, we barely saw him. We’d all seen Lewis play his part in the rows with Fernando, he certainly wasn’t innocent, so he quickly managed to alienate some people with the sudden showing of love when it suited him and when he knew the world was watching.
Having said all that, niceness and politeness don’t win championships and I’m certainly not suggesting he’s not both of those things, but despite a few thinking it was all a bit soon to be playing the ‘prima donna’ superstar, Lewis was still a nice young man and most importantly, he was bloody quick in our racing car.
With a few years having now passed, I put most of it down to the inexperience he often refused to admit to himself he had during that first year. I suspect he was badly advised for some of it and despite initially setting out to learn and gain experience, found himself unexpectedly challenging the world champion for race wins and eventually the title. By the end of 2007, he’d learnt a lot. Some good, some not so, but there’s absolutely no doubting what he managed to achieve on the circuit in his rookie season.
In his personal life, he’s had a lot to get used to over 4 years, things that most of us can’t even imagine and things we’ll never have to go through. How many other cases have we seen in this new world of ‘instant fame’ that fall by the wayside or go off the rails because they can’t handle the pressure? Lewis, like most F1 drivers, is intelligent. He’s a sensible guy, who’s had to learn a lot very quickly and all in all you’ve got to say he’s done it well. There’ve been ups and downs, some more public than others, and we all witnessed those bubble over to affect his racing particularly in 2011. Yes, the line between ‘celebrity’ and his real job’s blurred during spells, but it does seem he’s refocussed and in 2012, I think he’s has taken a giant leap forward in terms of maturity in his racecar and at work in general. He’s pragmatic about results, regained respect inside the team where it may have been lost and the experiences since that first season have all formed the Lewis Hamilton we see today. He may no longer be bubbling with schoolboy enthusiasm or perhaps quite as humble, but that was never going to last forever. What he is, is an incredible racing driver, incredibly driven and now with over 100 GP’s and a world title in his arsenal to draw on. He still has the out and out racer’s mentality we love to watch, but now combines a sensible approach to the season as a whole and that’s perhaps what the truly great drivers have as part of their make up.
I firmly feel there’ll be more world titles and that we’ll be talking about Lewis Hamilton for many years to come as a truly great racing driver.

Originally published at http://www.pitlanemagazine.co.uk

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From → Formula One

2 Comments
  1. Gary Alce permalink

    What a fantastic insight into Lewis, and what happened in 2007 and beyond. I have sent this to every F1 fan I know. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and perception.

  2. Yannick permalink

    Great read, real insight. By the way, it’s Sunday mornings, not morning’s, in your first sentence, no apostrophe needed.

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