When Michael Schumacher scored his 91st and final grand prix victory, it was impossible to imagine anyone getting anywhere near his record. Yet just 14 years after he crossed the finish line in China on 1 October 2006, a man who would only make his Formula 1 debut a few months later has now officially surpassed the German on race wins, and surely soon on world titles as well – and there isn’t even a flicker of surprise about that.
For some time, it has seemed only a question of when, not if, Lewis Hamilton will statistically become the greatest of them all. The 35-year-old sure has come a long way since Martin Whitmarsh first met a strikingly confident karting prodigy. As McLaren boss Ron Dennis’s loyal and trusted lieutenant, Whitmarsh gained an insight into the vulnerabilities of a superstar in the making, then played a leading role in guiding the precocious talent through the pitfalls of his early F1 career.
Whitmarsh doesn’t pretend to know Hamilton like he used to, although it’s surely significant that he has been personally invited to join the six-time world champion’s new commission to investigate diversity in motorsport. Now on the other side of a successful F1 career that included a spell as McLaren team principal (until Dennis manoeuvred him out of the company that he loved so dearly in 2014), Whitmarsh simply watches Hamilton’s rise with pride. He’s a bystander, perhaps, but one more deeply and personally informed than most. Here he talks us through Hamilton’s career to date.
“Lewis was very young when I first met him. He had this earnest and focused desire to win, an air of self-confidence. Whether it was instructed by his father or was a natural inclination, he had a desire to crush your hand when he shook it and look you in the eye. I didn’t have too much involvement in his karting, but I got involved during his transition from karts into cars. He was polite and determined and wanted to make an impression.”
“His transition into cars wasn’t easy. He had grown up and been very successful in karts, but it was an interesting phase when he came to Formula Renault, because he didn’t have quite the same self-assurance. I remember calling him after races when I knew he had immense pressure from himself and from his father. I felt it was appropriate to support him, to tell him that we believed in him and that it was a long path.”
Separation and reunion
Hamilton won the Formula Renault UK title at his second attempt, then graduated with Manor Motorsport to the Formula 3 Euroseries. At the end of a promising first year, he and his father wanted to push on to the new GP2 series – but Whitmarsh urged caution.
“We had a lot of friction and disagreement. He wanted to go to GP2 and I wanted him to do another year of F3. I didn’t feel there was a rush, and he needed to rediscover that self-assurance he had had in karting. I wanted Lewis to have the pressure of a second season. In your rookie year, you can excuse yourself, because there are always those with more experience. If you stay back, you are the favourite, you have to deliver. In that second F3 season, he restored that old reassurance.