Lewis Hamilton’s first-ever racing car teammate has opened up on how the seven-time World Champion came across in his early years.
Matthew Howson, a successful racing driver and an LMP2 winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours, was Lewis Hamilton’s first-ever teammate in single-seater racing, with both signing up to race with Manor Motorsport in the Formula Renault Winter series.
While the paths of the two drivers would diverge significantly over the following years, Hamilton making it into F1 with McLaren after enjoying their backing and support through the junior ladder, Howson has opened up on his initial impressions of the eventual superstar.
Matthew Howson: Even in 2001, we all knew who Lewis Hamilton was
Appearing on the On Track GP podcast, Howson spoke about his brief time where his career overlapped with Hamilton’s and revealed that, even in those early days, everyone knew the young chap from Stevenage was one to watch.
“In 2001, I went to Formula Renault in the winter series with Manor Motorsport, and they were a very top team at that time,” he said.
“I still remember the first time they told me who my teammates were going to be, because the first name they gave me was a guy called Nelson van der Pol, who was a world karting champion.
“I was like, ‘That’s quite tough’. They said another chap called Ben Reeves, very young, so I was not really sure about him, and then someone called Lewis Hamilton.
“It’s a bit of a joke because, even then, we all knew who Lewis was. He had been blazing a trail in the karting and he had this link with McLaren, which obviously was McLaren-Mercedes at the time.
“I was moving into Manor Formula Renault, where Kimi Raikkonen had just left, he had just won the championship. So, all of a sudden, I found myself amongst all of these names. It was the first time Lewis ever raced a car, and he was my teammate.”
Matthew Howson: There were only a few flashes of how good Lewis Hamilton would be
Interestingly, Howson revealed that there was nothing in Hamilton’s on-track exploits at the time to hint at the prodigious talent he would eventually show, and that rumours of extra testing appeared wide of the mark.
“I think the thing about Lewis was that a lot of people said at the time, ‘Oh, he’s doing loads of extra testing’. And he wasn’t, or certainly not that I ever saw,” he said.
“McLaren and Ron Dennis played a big part in guiding his career, so I don’t think they wanted to give him an unfair advantage.
“They just wanted to put him in and see how he went. So I remember thinking, ‘Oh, well, I’m not sure he’s anything special’, because certainly, of the first few tests, he was just where you’d expect him to be.
“I was a little bit ahead of him because I’d done a year of Formula Ford 1600 so, not high level, but it was more car racing than Lewis had done. I don’t mean I expected to be quicker than him, but I thought I should have a chance.
“So nothing about his driving in the early tests we did suggested how good he was going to be, there were a couple of flashes. I think what was really clear from the beginning was how confident and self-assured he was, but not in an arrogant way – he had a good unit around him, and his dad was there with him. His brother Nicolas was there and was still in a wheelchair at that time.
“He was actually a very nice guy, Lewis was – very compassionate, and sort of cared about what you were doing.
“When it became clear in the earlier tests that I was a little bit quicker, there was then mutual respect for that. I always felt that compared to what anyone would think ‘Oh, he’s probably arrogant, he probably knows he’s going to Formula 1 and that’s why he’s so friendly’ – no, I think he’s just genuinely like that.
“So I think that’s a big character, it’s a sign of strength, not a weakness to be like that. When you look at his career, and how he’s gone through his Formula 1 years, that kind of personality that he has, which is very calm, very self-assured, has really been to his benefit.”