When Michael Schumacher scored his 91st and final grand prix victory, it was impossible to imagine anyone getting anywhere near his record. Yet just 14 years after he crossed the finish line in China on 1 October 2006, a man who would only make his Formula 1 debut a few months later has now officially surpassed the German on race wins, and surely soon on world titles as well – and there isn’t even a flicker of surprise about that.
For some time, it has seemed only a question of when, not if, Lewis Hamilton will statistically become the greatest of them all. The 35-year-old sure has come a long way since Martin Whitmarsh first met a strikingly confident karting prodigy. As McLaren boss Ron Dennis’s loyal and trusted lieutenant, Whitmarsh gained an insight into the vulnerabilities of a superstar in the making, then played a leading role in guiding the precocious talent through the pitfalls of his early F1 career.
Whitmarsh doesn’t pretend to know Hamilton like he used to, although it’s surely significant that he has been personally invited to join the six-time world champion’s new commission to investigate diversity in motorsport. Now on the other side of a successful F1 career that included a spell as McLaren team principal (until Dennis manoeuvred him out of the company that he loved so dearly in 2014), Whitmarsh simply watches Hamilton’s rise with pride. He’s a bystander, perhaps, but one more deeply and personally informed than most. Here he talks us through Hamilton’s career to date.
“Lewis was very young when I first met him. He had this earnest and focused desire to win, an air of self-confidence. Whether it was instructed by his father or was a natural inclination, he had a desire to crush your hand when he shook it and look you in the eye. I didn’t have too much involvement in his karting, but I got involved during his transition from karts into cars. He was polite and determined and wanted to make an impression.”
“His transition into cars wasn’t easy. He had grown up and been very successful in karts, but it was an interesting phase when he came to Formula Renault, because he didn’t have quite the same self-assurance. I remember calling him after races when I knew he had immense pressure from himself and from his father. I felt it was appropriate to support him, to tell him that we believed in him and that it was a long path.”
Separation and reunion
Hamilton won the Formula Renault UK title at his second attempt, then graduated with Manor Motorsport to the Formula 3 Euroseries. At the end of a promising first year, he and his father wanted to push on to the new GP2 series – but Whitmarsh urged caution.
“We had a lot of friction and disagreement. He wanted to go to GP2 and I wanted him to do another year of F3. I didn’t feel there was a rush, and he needed to rediscover that self-assurance he had had in karting. I wanted Lewis to have the pressure of a second season. In your rookie year, you can excuse yourself, because there are always those with more experience. If you stay back, you are the favourite, you have to deliver. In that second F3 season, he restored that old reassurance.
“He didn’t want to do it. In fact, I released him from his contract. I tore it up in front of him and his father, saying: ‘We’re here to help; if you believe we’re injuring your career, it’s best you go.’ Fortunately, six weeks later they came back. I’m delighted they did! I moved Lewis from Manor to ASM [soon to become ART] and he dominated. He was then more prepared to graduate to GP2 with career momentum. Hopefully Lewis believes now it was the right call.”
Breaking into Formula 1
Hamilton blitzed the 2006 GP2 title, then McLaren offered him the chance of a lifetime – as team-mate in F1 to incoming champion Fernando Alonso.
“We signed Fernando first before we gave Lewis the other seat. I remember saying to him: ‘Your dad knows, but what about your mum?’ She was working in a factory. So I rang the factory and asked for a supervisor, who got Brenda off the factory line. I handed the phone over to Lewis and he said: ‘Mum, I’m an F1 driver now.’ A lovely moment. Then when we told Fernando, he said: ‘We’re meant to be fighting for the championship. How can we fight when we have a rookie in the other seat? You can’t be serious. We need someone to push me.’ We know how that one turned out.”
The greatest rookie season
“People forget that in the first nine races of his F1 career, Lewis was on the podium. From the start he was challenging Fernando, and Monaco was the real turning point. Then Canada was the breakthrough moment, when he won. It was lovely for me. I didn’t usually do podiums, but I did that one. But it was a downhill ride after that…”
Hamilton and Alonso fought each other through the summer as McLaren became embroiled in a scandal over stolen Ferrari designs that would lead to a team disqualification and an eye-watering $100 million fine. At season’s end, Hamilton and Alonso – who would leave the team in a fury – both failed to land the title as ex-McLaren driver Kimi Räikkönen snatched it for Ferrari in Brazil.
“Had we not been so pure in not favouring one over the other, we would have won the championship, but we threw it away in trying to give them both an equal chance. We said to Fernando: ‘You’re an experienced world champion, do you want to look yourself in the mirror and know we gifted it to you or do you want to win it?’ At the end of the year, we could also have gifted it to Lewis, but by doing neither we gifted it to Kimi.
I can laugh about it now; it has only taken 13 years! “We were so confident of winning the world championship that we had organised a celebratory party, and we all still went – apart from Fernando. It was a bizarre party.”
Champion, but only just
Hamilton became world champion in 2008, but only after taking the fifth place he needed at the final corner in the final race. Ahead of him, race winner Felipe Massa thought he was champion for Ferrari – for all of a handful of seconds. It remains the most dramatic season climax in F1 history.
“After such an extraordinary rookie season, suddenly Lewis was back to the pressure and expectation. He was no longer a rookie and he probably should have won the title in 2007, so he had to win it that year. It went to the last round, up against a Brazilian in Brazil. On the Saturday night, Lewis went to a sponsor function and someone threw a toy black cat onto the stage to give him bad luck. It really affected him. We all had that tension, that we couldn’t **** this up for a second year. The pressure was extraordinary. To deliver, and to deliver in the way he did on the last lap, is something we will always remember.”
Hamilton took a dozen more wins for McLaren from 2009 to 2012 but was outscored over those seasons by 2009 champion then team-mate Jenson Button. Comparative with Hamilton’s own high expectations, this was a career at risk of stalling.
“You see it in several world champions: you have dreamed every day and night about being a world champion and suddenly you’ve won it. You wake up the next morning and all that expectation, drive and excitement is gone. And you’re still quite young. So you have to regroup and want to do it again. It wasn’t instantaneous for Lewis. Jenson came in with such a great attitude [in 2010], was smart and intelligent, and it was difficult.
“Lewis was also running to an end in relationships with two dominant men in his life – neither of whom was me [his father, Anthony, who would cease managing him, and McLaren boss Dennis]. He wanted to make the big decisions himself and grow as a man, and that led to a move to Mercedes. He was sincere and pained by it, because he had inherent loyalty to the team and a little bit to me. But I understood the decision, and it turned out to be a good one. It has helped him grow, to reset in a new environment at a team that has devoted the focus, resource and attention he’s had since.”
On a run at Mercedes
Five world titles in six years (likely to soon be six in seven), a further 71 wins (and counting) and now Schumacher’s records are falling at his feet. As Whitmarsh says, Mercedes wasn’t a bad move.
“Over the past 30 years, I’ve been extremely lucky. When I joined McLaren, the drivers were Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna – a decent yardstick. I’ve got a huge soft spot for Mika Häkkinen, who grew up in the team and won two titles with us. I also have a lot of affection for Kimi Räikkönen and others who came along the way. But the two who are iconic and had that special aura were Ayrton and Lewis. Similar and different in some respects: both comparative loners, both intense and focused. Ayrton was different in that he had that mystical thing about him, contrived or real; take your pick.
“Lewis has this openness, which is extraordinary, given the life and the jibes he’s had and how public his growing up has been. He doesn’t always get it right, but he can recognise and admit it. That isn’t easy. I don’t have much to do with him now but, for a pretty cynical character, I’m overwhelmed by his sincerity and warmth. He’s grown in gravitas and composure in how he presents his values and views. I used to want him to just focus on being an extreme athlete; for him that was never enough.”
Hamilton’s top five F1 wins
2018 German GP, Hockenheim: Hamilton qualified only 14th because of a hydraulics issue, but rain gave him a chance in the race. He was fifth by lap 14, then Sebastian Vettel skated off out of the lead. The key decision not to pit helped to lift him up the order for one of his least likely victories.
2014 Bahrain GP, Sakhir: Nico Rosberg had the edge in the desert and took pole position, but Hamilton overtook at the start and fought one of his greatest defences. Rosberg was on better tyres at the end, but his team-mate was robust and just about fair as he held him off.
2012 United States GP, Austin: This was a classic duel with Vettel in his Red Bull pomp. The German was on pole, while Hamilton had to fight back after losing a place to Mark Webber. He closed on Vettel, who was held up by a backmarker, and then took a rare chance to pass (albeit with the help of DRS).
2018 Italian GP, Monza: Ferrari was on top, with Kimi Räikkonen and Vettel on the front row. But Hamilton made an audacious pass at the start, then took on the other red car. A great pass around the outside of Turn 1 confirmed victory and a humiliating home defeat for Ferrari.
2008 British GP, Silverstone: Hamilton qualified fourth, but heavy rain on Sunday allowed him to shine. He lapped everyone up to third place and finished more than a minute ahead of BMW Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld. It was a masterclass and a performance that reignited his title charge.