Joining a pantheon of greats, Britain’s Lewis Hamilton now has as many F1 World Championship [four] as Alain Prost and his 2017 rival, Sebastian Vettel. Clinching the 2017 series title with two races to go, Jennie Gow reflects on a season which very nearly threatened to get away from the man who now stands amongst the sport’s very best.
“Pinch me! No, I mean really pinch me!”
It’s not the reaction I had expected after Lewis Hamilton cruised to victory at the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, but he was just about to become the first Briton to win four Formula One World Championship titles, and even he couldn’t quite believe it.
As he stepped into the media pen, the excitement and sense of achievement was clear for all to see. And by the time he reached me, there was a touch of emotion there, too.
Lewis has had to fight hard to win this 2017 World Championship. Pushed to the limit, at least across the first part of the season, by a rejuvenated Ferrari team who – spearheaded by Germany’s Sebastian Vettel – pranced their way into the opening races in sparkling form. Winning in Melbourne, Bahrain and then Monaco, Vettel led the standings by a commanding 25 points after six races.
But since then, the turnaround for Lewis has been spectacular. From the moment the media turned on him, questioning his commitment to F1 after his no-show at the sport’s F1 London Live event in July, he has taken his driving to another level. It’s almost as if he was speaking to his doubters, saying, ‘How dare you think that you can tame me! I am Lewis Hamilton…!’
At Silverstone, he walked into the circuit and shrugged off the criticism, letting his driving do the talking in the form of a stunning pole position and a dominant race performance. He was untouchable on track. For me, it marked the real turning point of the season.
So often, Lewis has been let down by his fragile emotional state. At times, you could almost physically see him getting into a tailspin, and he didn’t know how to get back from that dark place that seemed to cloud his driving and his public persona.
That Lewis seemed to have disappeared into the ether following this year’s Austrian Grand Prix. Finishing 4th in the race after qualifying on the second row, at the media conference after the race, he was bereft. It was as if his driving had been so poor – at least, in his own mind – that he couldn’t find the words to talk to us.
And so, just four days before his arrival at his home race at Silverstone, he packed his bags and headed off on holiday to Mykonos – to sail on a yacht and get away from the F1 spotlight, which all too many times has tried to put Lewis in a box and control him. Whatever happened on holiday, it worked. Hamilton came back feeling free and emotionally strong, untethered of negativity and baggage. Lewis was in a good place.
Needless to say, his victory at the British Grand Prix was spectacular.
And, since then, he has only finished outside the top-two once, and that was a 4th place in Hungary, a track where Mercedes had reasonably expected to do badly.
As fans, we headed into the summer break on course for what was looking to be a spectacular end to the season. Vettel was on top – 14 points ahead of Hamilton, with nine races to go. Game on.
But what we didn’t realise at that time was that Hamilton was about to go on one of his irresistible streaks; that his Mercedes would be infallible and that Ferrari’s Vettel was about to come seriously unstuck.
If Hamilton’s Spa pole and victory weren’t quite enough to announce his return to form, then cue Italy – the home of Ferrari – where the Briton hammered home his superiority like never before. As the rain poured down on Saturday, Hamilton was once again unstoppable. Poor Vettel, in front of his team’s home fans, couldn’t even come close. Another win from pole – this one history making, as he became the all-time greatest qualifier – saw him take the lead in the championship for the first time in 2017. A slender three points separated the pair. But, psychologically, the blow had been struck.
Singapore proved to be another milestone. On a track we knew would suit the Ferraris, Sebastian took pole position, with Hamilton seemingly worlds away, in 5th.
But sometimes, things just aren’t meant to go your way. Charging out of the blocks, Vettel found himself out of the race almost before it had begun; wrecked by a collision with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and his Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen. As Vettel’s car limped around the first turn, spraying blue fluid from its gut before finally limping to a halt unceremoniously, I wonder if Vettel knew at the time that he had blown it.
Granted, his title challenge was not yet over. But he hadn’t won a race since Hungary, and he must have known his chances were slipping away.
As the German did his best to get his season back on track, Hamilton just seemed to relax and blossom more and more. It was fascinating to see him take command. At Sepang, he almost bounded into the paddock.
And in Japan, another retirement for Vettel saw Hamilton win again, before adding insult to injury in Austin, where Hamilton looked more at home then I have ever seen him at a racetrack.
So what has changed?
Well, for starters he has a new teammate. Perhaps it has helps that he has, in essence, blown Valtteri Bottas away in the latter part of the season. Or maybe it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference, because Lewis Hamilton is now the star of the Lewis Hamilton show. Whatever the difference, from last year to this, Lewis is unmistakable.
And now – having been pinched by me last week at the United States Grand Prix, the moment is finally here. Lewis Hamilton is the 2017 World Champion and the most successful Briton ever to race in the sport of Formula One.
For the next few days, weeks and even months, he may have to pinch himself some more. Because no matter how good you are, I wonder if you ever really see yourself as being the best of all-time?
From his humble roots in little old Stevenage, to signing with McLaren, and then finding his freedom with Mercedes, it has been an emotional ride for Lewis and his family. His mother Carmen and father Anthony have both shared so much of his journey with him. From Karting Kid to World Motorsport King, I’m sure right now they are both very proud of their little boy.
So what’s next for Lewis? Well, the last time he won the title early, it’s fair to say he took his foot off the gas. The following season – in 2016 – he turned up and was found lacking. Will he make the same mistake again? Somehow, I doubt it. Lewis now matches Sebastian Vettel on 4 titles. What better incentive is there to see out this season in spectacular form, and to come back fighting the Ferraris and who knows who else, in 2018. Could we see a fifth British F1 title on the cards next year? I can’t wait to find out. I might just have to pinch myself…!