Lewis Hamilton being anything other than an F1 star seems crazy for a modern audience – but even the greats have to prove themselves early on.
In many ways, Hamilton is not a typical F1 driver. A typical F1 driver’s dad for example does not work three jobs for his son to compete, a typical F1 driver does not have one of the best rookie seasons in history, a typical F1 driver does not win 103 races and a typical F1 driver certainly does not win seven World Championships.
Regardless of how his career ends, Hamilton is one of the all-time greats of Formula 1 history. We are going to take an in-depth look at the race that officially put him on the map: the 2008 British Grand Prix.
Hamilton entered the sport in 2007 having first caught the eye of McLaren owner Ron Dennis in 1995, when a confident, young boy strode up to the McLaren chief at an awards show and told him he would race in a McLaren car one day.
It was a bold prediction and no doubt one someone in Dennis’ position had heard a hundred times before, but even one of the sport’s wisest heads would not have predicted what Hamilton would go on to achieve.
The young Briton secured the McLaren drive for 2007 having won the 2006 GP2 Series and no one was quite ready for how quickly he would hit the ground running. Fernando Alonso had just moved across from Renault, perhaps sensing that he would be the clear lead driver against an inexperienced rookie team-mate, yet supremacy is not what the Spaniard found.
Hamilton was quick, excitingly quick, and finished on the podium in the first nine races including wins in Canada and the US.
The start to the season was not a flash in the pan either. Hamilton would win twice more before the year was out but ended one point behind winner Kimi Raikkonen and ahead of two-time champion Alonso on countback.
Even if he did miss out on the title, it was the best rookie season in memory but it is not uncommon for drivers to have an incredible year and then fade away into mediocrity.
Question marks still remained over Hamilton. Yes he was good, but multiple-championship-winning good? That was yet to be answered.
2008 began with a new team-mate by his side in the form of Heikki Kovalainen and Hamilton achieved the perfect start with victory at the season-opener in Australia. Felipe Massa, who would later prove to be Hamilton’s main title threat, meanwhile retired in the opening two grands prix.
But it was not the all-conquering season that his later title wins became known for.
He finished 13th in Bahrain having hit the Renault of his former colleague Alonso. He won his first European race in Monaco but followed that up with an embarrassing retirement in Canada, before a P10 at Magny-Cours meant that, going into Silverstone, Hamilton trailed leader Massa by 10 points and was fourth in the championship.
Hamilton was in a bullish mood after the French race in which he received a penalty for overtaking Sebastian Vettel by missing a chicane. “There’s nothing you can do that can distract me,” he said. “You can keep on giving me penalties, whatever you want. I’ll keep battling, and trying to come back with a result.”
It was the first sign of the ‘us against the world’ mentality that would serve him and Mercedes so well in the future but in 2008, there were real question marks about this young talent.
The scene was set for Silverstone
The first punch went to Massa who set the fastest time in FP1, Hamilton trailed his team-mate. FP2 saw Massa slip to eighth but still Hamilton could not improve on his P3. FP3 saw the McLaren driver slip further down to P5.
There was very little sign of this being anything other than another race weekend to forget for Hamilton. That suspicion only grew after qualifying. Hamilton would start P4 having finished 0.786s behind his own team-mate Kovalainen. Massa may have qualified P9 but it was not only the Brazilian ahead of Hamilton in the standings, but Robert Kubica and Raikkonen as well who was starting one spot ahead of the McLaren driver.
So when Hamilton sat in his MP4-23 in P4, three places back from where he had been at the same race last year, he may have been one of the only people out of 85,000 in attendance that believed a win was possible.
From the first second, he soon had more believers.
The start to the 2008 race remains one of Hamilton’s best ever. The conditions were a typically British summertime day. Wet, misty and very changeable. The top three struggled for grip as the five red lights went out. The number 22 car didn’t.
The three front runners bunched on the outside heading into Copse but Hamilton opted for the inside line and it almost very nearly spelled disaster. The rear of his McLaren kicked out widely but Hamilton kept it tamed. He found grip when no-one else could and as they made the short sprint to Copse, Hamilton moved into the lead.
Kovalainen fought back, retaking the lead before Maggots but behind the front two, spinning chaos ensued. Mark Webber was the first to go, next was Massa, sending the championship leader tumbling down the order.
Come lap 5 and the two were still battling and, as they headed into Stowe, Hamilton again moved away from the racing line and onto the wet surface in an overtake that resembled Nigel Mansell’s move on Nelson Piquet 21 years earlier.
Kovalainen then proved to not be in as much control as Hamilton as he too spun and slipped down the grid.
The next battle was one of strategy with Raikkonen closing in on Hamilton but the pair made differing calls as they headed into the pits. Both topped up on fuel but only Hamilton received a new set of inters, with Ferrari gambling that the weather would continue to ease off and left Raikkonen on the same tyres.
But it should have come as no surprise that the man born 50 miles away, and had spent the majority of his life up until that point racing at Silverstone, was better at predicting the weather patterns. In came another spell of rain and back went Raikkonen who lost eight seconds a lap to Hamilton.
And after that, Hamilton was in a race of his own. Building the lead lap after lap, the only thing that could have stopped him was the heavy rain and it very nearly did when he cut across the grass as the skies blackened over middle England.
But wet races are when the greats separate themselves from the rest. It seems every legend has a wet race where they have excelled and in 2008, Hamilton had his.
In an era where one driver rarely finished so far ahead of the rest of the pack, Hamilton crossed the line over a minute ahead of any other driver.
At the time, there were questions of his commitment to F1 but those doubts were answered. With the victory, he moved joint top on points and never gave the lead up again.
What it meant for Lewis Hamilton’s future
Doubt about Hamilton evaporated much the same way the standing water did as the sun finally emerged at Silverstone. Victory at his home race was something Hamilton had desired and it formed a bond that has never been broken.
“There’s something about racing in your home country that affects you,” he said in the aftermath. “The constant support of the crowd gives you a boost throughout the whole weekend.
“It’s not something you experience anywhere else, but it does make you that bit more determined to succeed.”
Hamilton’s love affair with the British crowd is still just as strong now as it was then but, more than a bonding exercise, 2008 Silverstone was a game changer for the driver.
Any suggestion that he was a one-season wonder had been cast aside and as we all know now, he was on the way to his first of a record-equalling seven World titles.
There have been plenty of spectacular wins in Hamilton’s 103-strong collection but you would be hard pressed to find a more important one than this.