Lewis Hamilton joined one of sport’s most exclusive clubs on Sunday when he became just the third driver to win a fifth Formula One world title.
His fourth-place finish at the Mexico Grand Prix lifted him into the company of the sport’s true greats, joining seven-time champion Michael Schumacher and fellow five-time winner Juan-Manuel Fangio – who he describes as “The Godfather” – in the F1 pantheon.
To have won more than men like Australia’s Jack Brabham, fellow Briton Jackie Stewart, Austrian Niki Lauda and Brazilians Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, as well as modern day rival Sebastian Vettel, is a spectacular statement of achievement.
The son of a black father and a white mother, who survived a broken home in his youth, Hamilton, 33, grew up on a municipal housing estate in Stevenage where his father Anthony at one time held down three jobs to fund his son’s embryonic racing career in karts.
His journey was unprivileged and without luxury, but it was clear from an early age that he had an outstanding gift for speed and all the gutsy natural instincts of a born racer.
In 1995, aged 10, and wearing a jacket and shoes borrowed from his predecessor as British Formula Cadet karting champion, he went to a glittering awards ceremony in London where he met McLaren’s then boss Ron Dennis.
He asked for an autograph and told him: “One day I want to race for you.” Dennis replied: “Phone me in nine years and I’ll sort you a deal.”
The McLaren chief did not wait that long. After less than three years, he agreed to support Hamilton’s passage through the junior formulas en route to his F1 debut with his team in 2007.
Bold, determined and individual, he almost won the title in his first record-breaking season as he reeled off nine successive podiums from his debut in Melbourne, rocking the establishment along the way with his speed and his style.
On and off the track, he was fast, somewhat mercurial and occasionally tempestuous and this combination led to a fierce rivalry with team-mate and two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who left McLaren at the end of the year.
That was a signal of how tough it was to be for all his future team-mates as Hamilton, who narrowly missed out on the 2007 title, returned to triumph in 2008 with a dramatic last-gasp fifth-place finish in Brazil.
He also showed frustration as McLaren failed to deliver the speed to beat Vettel and Red Bull, who reeled off four straight title triumphs from 2010 to 2013, by when Hamilton had departed for Mercedes.
‘He wants to optimise’
Escaping the management regime of Dennis and his father, Hamilton found freedom at Mercedes alongside team-mate German Nico Rosberg, his teenage karting friend and rival.
This enabled Hamilton to express himself with a headline-grabbing trans-Atlantic lifestyle, mixing with musicians and “fashionistas”.
He showed little love for any duty to obey conventions and, for many observers, gave his sport a welcome injection of freshness and diversity as champion again in 2014 and 2015.
Rosberg broke Hamilton’s sequence of supremacy in 2016 and then retired, leaving the Englishman to return this year and, helped by Ferrari’s October failings, deliver another season of record-breaking success.
He arrived in Austin this weekend with a record 132 pole positions to his name and 71 wins.
His former McLaren team-mate Jenson Button summed up Hamilton’s pure speed when he said: “For me, over one lap, I don’t think there is anyone as quick as Lewis and I don’t think there ever has been.”
That speed, which has always been a natural talent, had last season been allied to a more mature attitude to his job as team leader in the post-Rosberg era at Mercedes.
Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff summed up: “He is never satisfied. He never settles. He is never happy with where he is as a racing driver and a human being. He wants to optimise, to develop and he is very much part of the leadership of the team.”
Having achieved so much as his sport’s outstanding man of the moment and best-known ambassador, it is now likely that Hamilton’s humanity – and his sensitivity to social issues – will emerge more frequently.
His own career and his quest for self-expression and freedom have shaped his advice for young drivers.
“What I can definitely advise any kid that’s out there trying to race is don’t listen to people who tell you that you need a mental coach or you need someone to help control your mind,” he said.
“You need to let it run wild and free and discover yourself. It is all about discovery. And only you can do it.”