Formula 1 was in need of a new superstar after Michael Schumacher’s retirement at the end of the 2006 season.
The pit lane contained no shortage of talent and intrigue for the start of the new era in 2007 – Kimi Raikkonen had inherited Schumacher’s throne at Ferrari over the winter, succeeded at McLaren by Fernando Alonso – but the sport was missing a certain something.
With Michael no longer around, who was left with the requisite pulling power to make F1 appeal to the masses?
Step forward Lewis Hamilton, whose first act as a Formula 1 driver was to swing around the outside of his reigning double World Champion team-mate at the start of the Australian Grand Prix.
The watching world nodded in unison: McLaren had unearthed a gem.
As first impressions go, few in sport have ever struck between the eyes quite as violently as that of a 22-year-old Hamilton.
The immense potential hinted at through Ron Dennis’s support of him as a child – through the footage of him recovering from an early spin to reach the podium in a GP2 race in Istanbul, effectively Race Zero of his F1 career – was instantly realised.
Immediately marking himself as a match for Fernando and Kimi, and with the promise of only getting better with experience, Hamilton would finish on the podium in each of his first nine races, winning from pole position on consecutive weekends in Montreal and Indianapolis.
So dazzling was Hamilton’s instant impact that even had he never driven another lap after 2007 – with or without the World Championship he ultimately lost in a Shanghai gravel trap – he would still be regarded as one of the greatest talents to have ever graced F1.
Denied by a single point at the end of his debut year, he would win his first title by the same margin in 2008, a campaign never quite as fluid but featuring the spectacular highs of his wet-weather wins at Monaco and Silverstone.
The dramatic circumstances of his success over Felipe Massa at Interlagos, overtaking Timo Glock on the last corner of the last lap of the last race, had the undeniable feel of destiny and seemed to cement his reputation as ‘Roy of the Rovers’ in a racing car.
It would be a mistake, however, to think Hamilton’s ascent to greatness always seemed inevitable as, for a disturbing stretch of his career following that first Championship, he dared to let his talent go to waste.
He landed in F1 not long after the era of golden generation football teams, when the great unwashed were often led to believe elite athletes breathed a rarefied air.
Dennis’ determination to protect his protégé – no interviews on the grid here, please and thank you – may have insulated Hamilton but instilled a lack of warmth, the barriers built back then never fully falling even as the world entered the social media age.
Compare and contrast the boys next door of the modern world, a band of brothers livestreaming their sim-racing adventures from the sanctuary of their bedrooms, to McLaren’s handling of Hamilton in the early days.
Different times and, as such, Hamilton did his growing up – and yes, made his mistakes – in the full view of the public and there was a period when it seemed his performance on any given race weekend was dependent on his relationship status.
Combined with McLaren’s chronic failure to sustain a title challenge, a friction developed between Dennis and Hamilton who – in stark contrast to F1’s answer to Prince Charming, Jenson Button, on the opposite side of the garage – increasingly carried the air of an adolescent aching to be allowed to discover his identity.
His move to Mercedes at the end of 2012 – to replace Schumacher, retiring for the second time after an underwhelming three-year comeback – would prove to be one of the most inspired decisions in sporting history.
Yet despite Mercedes’ confidence of mastering the new hybrid era – the dream was famously sold to Hamilton by Ross Brawn and Niki Lauda with respective visits to his mother’s house and a Singapore hotel room – even he may admit the move was based mostly on his exasperation with his existing environment.
In Toto Wolff, he would meet at Mercedes a member of the modern breed of emotionally intelligent leaders in sport equipped with the courage to let Lewis be Lewis.
Dennis remarked shortly after Hamilton won his third title in 2015 that he wouldn’t have been allowed to behave “the way he is” if he was still under his supervision.
Wolff’s trust in his driver – treating him as an adult, friend and colleague rather than an employee – was rewarded with an unprecedented level of success.
Yet still, with his style constantly cramped by Nico Rosberg using to his advantage all the emotional baggage that comes with a childhood friend becoming a sworn enemy, Hamilton was not quite complete.
His defeat by five points to Rosberg in 2016 was blamed on an engine failure while leading in Malaysia and while Hamilton did suffer a high proportion of Mercedes’ reliability problems that season, a swarm of poor starts also cost valuable points.
The day the bad starts finally stopped was the day he could no longer afford any more after Rosberg’s victory in Japan meant he could afford to finish second at each of the final four races and still win the title.
Why, you wondered, had it taken Lewis until then to find the solution to something that had plagued him from the very start of the season?
In that sense, 2016 was Hamilton’s greatest defeat – the moment he realised natural talent alone was not enough, that nothing could be left to chance when bad luck could bite so brutally.
With Rosberg retired and replaced by Valtteri Bottas – fast enough to push but never to threaten him – the clouds parted and a world opened up before Hamilton who, finally with the full support of the Mercedes machine behind him, rapidly evolved into a driver without weakness.
Once F1’s great leveller, races in the rain made his advantage over the opposition, normally considerable, seem borderline unfair as team and driver grew together to reach a state of total harmony.
As Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari were worn down in consecutive years in 2017 and ’18, the sight of Hamilton in a Mercedes had become just as formidable as any to have come before – from Schumacher in a Ferrari to Ayrton Senna in a McLaren.
Crucially, however, Hamilton’s success has been achieved through different means and there are some who believe his greatest accomplishment of all will only become evident in the next generation of racing drivers.
Never one to knowingly initiate contact with another car – hard without straying into the territory of unfair – Hamilton is considered to have undone much of the damage done to driving standards by the uncompromising and unadulterated aggression of Senna and Schumacher.
As his tense title fight with Max Verstappen climaxed in 2021, Hamilton (notwithstanding the events of Silverstone, a day both should reflect on with regret for different reasons) began to describe his preparedness to avoid a collision as a point of pride.
A purer racer, with a deeper and more innocent appreciation for the thrill of close competition, you will seldom see.
Despite his desperation to associate himself with Senna, from the yellow helmet at the beginning of his career to his vow to keep “carrying the baton” after drawing level with Senna’s tally of three titles, as his success has swelled the parallels with Schumacher have become impossible to ignore.
Hamilton would secure his record-equalling seventh World Championship upon F1’s return to Turkey in November 2020, but his true crowning moment came five weeks earlier.
After matching Schumacher’s record of 91 grand prix victories – another once considered insurmountable – at the Nurburgring, he was presented with one of Michael’s race-worn helmets by his son Mick.
As the German national anthem rang triumphantly around the Ring once more, that bright-red helmet sitting at Hamilton’s feet throughout the podium ceremony, you could almost sense the presence of Schumacher’s spirit – his approval, even.
“Records,” as Michael once said, “are there to be broken.”
Safe to say F1 found the superstar it was looking for…
Read next – Michael Schumacher: The beating heart of Ferrari
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