Victorious in Belgium and Italy, Lewis Hamilton has returned from the summer break with a spring in his step and a glint in his eye, and now leads the Formula One World Championship by 3 points ahead of title rival Sebastian Vettel. Jennie Gow lauds the performances of the Briton as he became the sport’s newest record holder – that of the highest ever pole sitter.
Thirteen races in and, finally, Lewis Hamilton has taken the lead in the 2017 F1 World Drivers’ Championship. It might be an unlucky number for some – just ask Pastor Maldonado, who finished his F1 career with the race number 13 – but, for the man from Stevenage, the thirteenth race was to be one of his finest hours.
In the homeland of Ferrari, and with the Tifosi desperate to cheer home one of their own, Hamilton didn’t just take victory – he stormed into the Italians’ back garden and thoroughly danced all over their daffodils.
The boos rang out as the Briton strode confidently onto the podium – such a unique setting for the victorious to celebrate. Hung precariously over the pit lane and start/finish straight, the Monza podium is one of the most iconic in world motorsport. Fans flood onto the track as soon as the race finishes and, by the time the drivers walk out onto the gantry, no matter which team or driver has won, there is a sea of red beneath them.
For any Ferrari driver making that famous journey, they are cheered and whistled and celebrated as a hero.
Think back to Fernando Alonso in 2010. The scene was one of jubilation as the Tifosi crowned their superstar. Seven years later, whilst Lewis brought as many of his own fans as he could, the scene that welcome him was one reserved for a man the Italians love to hate. Yes, some applauded. But the overriding sound was that of boos and cat calls. How dare this young Brit come into their homeland and rain on their parade? (More about the rain later!)
However, Hamilton quite enjoys the role of pantomime villain and, going forward, he may well take more power from that moment than the Tifosi might otherwise intend. If you’re a Ferrari fan, one could even argue that the last thing that Hamilton needs right now is more power. Coming back from the summer break, Lewis is a man on a mission. Can anyone stop him now? He certainly appears to be in a psychologically strong place as the season moves from the easy-going European races to the gruelling long-haul battles.
So, what has changed for Hamilton? Having watched him this season at Russia, Monaco and Austria – the races where he has failed to make the most of the weekend – he seems to be a totally different man. Usually Lewis can be surly, pensive and, at times, just plain moody. Take Austria, for example. After a poor qualifying, he came to speak to the media with a dark cloud hanging over his head. I asked him at the time why he was so down – he said that he was disappointed with himself and knew that he should have done better.
It seems like a million years ago since that a troubled Hamilton rocked up to a race. After his holiday to Mykonos, criticised by so many for being reckless and ‘just plain stupid’, he hasn’t looked back.
Whatever they do in Greece, it obviously works for the Brit.
At Silverstone, he was a man reborn. Strutting into the paddock with a swagger that only the really happy and successful have. From practice, to qualifying on pole with a sensational lap, to winning the race and being hoisted above the crowd as they lifted him in celebration, he was unstoppable – living up to his reputation as the very best driver in the world.
Next stop was Hungary, where he knew he would be compromised – at that point, the Mercedes just wouldn’t behave whilst the Ferrari looked unstoppable. The ‘Diva’, as Lewis has called his car this year, had her hissy-fit and Sebastian Vettel had the upper hand; a 14 point lead over his title rival and a nice three week break to look back on a job well done.
However, with his jet-setting and holidaying, partying and training Hamilton clearly had the perfect break away from the sport. He came back energised and ‘looking for blood’ – his words, not mine! He almost bounced into the Belgium paddock. A few years ago, so miserable was Hamilton at McLaren, that he published the team’s data on Twitter – a big ‘no-no’ for any driver. Now, with Valtteri Bottas as his wing-man and a seemingly happy camp at Mercedes, he appears refreshed and raring to go.
“I come here with the aim of getting maximum points from the next two races and closing the gap in the Championship”, is what Lewis Hamilton told me ahead of the Spa Grand Prix. And that’s exactly what he did, and in some style. He blitzed the opposition in Belgium with his 68th career pole position and, in his 200th Grand Prix, he led from start to finish. Half the job done.
Fast forward a week and we come to Italy; a track at which Hamilton had already won three times, and had previously recorded five pole positions. The Monza track is also one which the current Mercedes car is almost made for. On Friday, the two Mercedes looked rapid and unlikely to be challenged by anyone else… and then something extraordinary happened.
The longest qualifying session in the history of the sport.
It took almost four hours for 20 men to decide where the drivers would be starting the race from the following day (and almost half of those actually started elsewhere due to the farcical grid penalty system). The rain teemed down for hour upon hour as we kept waiting for Charlie Whiting, the Race Director, to make a decision about the session. Would it be rained off or would we finally get going?
Get going, it did. And when the cars finally pulled out of the pits, it was clear what Lewis Hamilton’s intentions were – he was on fire. Bang! In went the quickest time. Bang! Again, the timing screens lit up with Hamilton’s name. Then, on the final run, with just seconds to go before the clock ran out, at which point his efforts would all be in vain, Hamilton rounded the final corner just in time to set one more, inch-perfect, mesmerising lap. It was faultless. And what a place to break the all-time record for the most amount of pole positions of any F1 driver, ever. Breath-taking!
With his weekend in Italy, Lewis has carved his name into the history books. I would suggest he has also further made his mark as the sport’s best ever single lap driver. To be able to put the perfect lap together when it matters, is an art at which many have tried and failed. The fact that Lewis has been able to do it with a third fewer races under his belt than the great Michael Schumacher is testament to how good the Briton is when it comes to qualifying.
However, as the season continues, Hamilton won’t have it all his way. He faces more of a challenge in Singapore, a track that doesn’t suit the Mercedes and a race that, last year, he just never really got into the groove of.
Can Lewis Hamilton win the title for a 4th time this season? No doubt, Vettel and Ferrari will push him all the way. And we, the fans, will be lucky enough to enjoy the ride.