Eighteen races. Seventeen countries. Eight months. Seven different race winners. Five continents. After all that, it was not until the final corner of the final race that Lewis Hamilton clinched his first Formula One world championship in one of...
Eighteen races. Seventeen countries. Eight months. Seven different race winners. Five continents. After all that, it was not until the final corner of the final race that Lewis Hamilton clinched his first Formula One world championship in one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory.
The young Briton came into Formula One with high expectations, stepping into a top race seat at McLaren after winning the GP2 Series title in 2006 -- and having been signed to the McLaren young drivers program a full ten years ago, at the tender young age of 13.
That first F1 season almost brought him the title in his rookie year, something that has yet to be accomplished by any F1 (bar the inaugural Formula One season in 1950).
Entering the final race in Brazil last year, Hamilton held a four-point lead over his teammate Fernando Alonso, and was seven points ahead of his Ferrari rival, Kimi Raikkonen. However, the McLarens were well off the Ferrari pace, and with a combination of a driving mistake and a gearbox malfunction, the best he could do was seventh, leaving the championship to Raikkonen by a single-point margin.
It was again the same seven-point lead over Felipe Massa's Ferrari this year -- though this time his teammate, Heikki Kovalainen, was not in the frame -- and this time the stars were aligned. Hamilton drove a smart, cautious race, and the McLarens were competitive.
Still, the unpredictable Interlagos weather took Hamilton's title hopes away on the penultimate lap, as Timo Glock stayed on dry tyres, and Sebastian Vettel passed Hamilton, only to give it back on the second-to-last corner as Glock rapidly fell backwards with no traction on a wet track.
So Hamilton has already been within reach of two titles, and has clinched one of them: no mean feat for a 23-year-old. While Hamilton still has some maturing to do, that only underscores his potential for even greater success in the future.
However, one of his strengths has been his mental ability to withstand those failures, and to return even stronger. "Always take the positives from a bad weekend," is what his father Anthony would tell him after an unsuccessful karting weekend, and Hamilton has taken that to heart.
In the third race of the season, in Bahrain, Hamilton ran into the back of Alonso's Renault, but returned to the podium three weeks later in Spain. After the Canadian GP pit lane incident and the subsequent penalties in France, Hamilton once again showed his mental strength with a victory at his home Grand Prix at Silverstone. And after the incidents of the Japanese Grand Prix, he once again returned with a victory at the next race, the Chinese Grand Prix.
A lesser driver might have been demoralized by any of these incidents, but Hamilton showed that he has not only the racecraft, but also the mental toughness required to be a true Formula One superstar.
This year's McLaren was, no doubt, a top-notch combination, at some tracks faster than its Italian competition, and at others somewhat behind. When he is at his best, Hamilton can extract stunning performances from the car.
However, the combination of his aggressive driving style and the handling of the McLaren MP4-23 would often result in more rapid tire wear than that experienced by his Ferrari rivals, Massa and Raikkonen. The grooved tyres used in Formula One until this season have been particularly susceptible to wear and graining, resulting in a drop-off in performance toward the end of a stint, or the need for a change in pit stop strategy.
The new regulations coming into force for the 2009 season, with conventional slick tyres and smaller wings will significantly change the handling of the cars. The increased surface area of the slicks may be just what the doctor ordered for McLaren and Hamilton, extending the life of the tyres without the need for adjustments in driving style.
With the upcoming rule changes, and Hamilton's increasing maturity, this writer has no doubt that Hamilton will be a championship contender for years to come, and will surely add to one or more titles to his championship tally before he eventually decides to hang up his driving gloves.