The Long Read: Lewis Hamilton and the McLaren years

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown period has been a tough time for most of us and tougher still for some others.

Fortunately for me, I have been lucky enough to remain (fairly) busy throughout. However, as others that have been furloughed or seen their freelance workload reduced can attest to, there has been little to fill your day with for much of 2020. And with pubs, restaurants, bowling alleys, shops, arcades, nightclubs, museums and aquariums closed down for long periods of time, we have been forced to be creative.

Luckily, as a Formula 1 fan in the UK, I have had the F1TV archive to entertain myself with. As such, at the start of the lockdown in March, I set about re-watching every Grand Prix since Lewis Hamilton made his debut at Albert Park in 2007. I chose this as a place to start as it coincided nicely with the start of my F1-watching life.

I remember a few bits and bobs from the Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher title eras, but 2007 was when I feel I really became cognizant of the sport in any sort of meaningful way. In particular, I focused on his six years at McLaren, the half of his career that I have found largely under-discussed since he became established as a dominant force in the sport.

Now, my initial memory of the specifics of that era was pretty hazy, especially given that I was only 11 when he made his debut in Melbourne. However, I have a decent recollection of most races and of course, subsequent research and discussion meant that nothing I was witnessing was necessarily new. Instead, I was there to improve my understanding of how each season played out in a more detailed and genuine way than you can get by looking purely at the data or race highlights.

While this piece and the inspiration for it is Hamilton and his time spent at McLaren specifically, there were plenty of other drivers, figures and storylines that made this an enjoyable exercise. There could perhaps be a similar piece written about the journeys of Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel, Robert Kubica or Nico Rosberg through the same time period that would be equally, and perhaps more, interesting. But my focus is on Hamilton and the first six years of his career.

My first observation when starting this project was how hilarious the old ITV F1 intro was. While this is not available on F1TV, I did seek out some old build up and qualifying footage to fill in the picture a little and gain an understanding of what the commentariat of the time was discussing. The intro though is really funny as many will remember, with Moby soundtracking a sequence where a select number of the drivers appear while standing in intense poses, or in David Coulthard’s case, wearing a dinner jacket in Monte Carlo.

When you get to the racing though, the product has not changed too much. Of course, the engines were different, the graphics weren’t as good and there was no DRS, but I found the 2007 and 2008 seasons really enjoyable to watch. There was less overtaking without DRS, but the battles were tense and stretched out over a number of laps, while the pit stop and refuelling battles gave you something to think about at all times. Because of this, the races sometimes became predictable after the final stop but that is hardly different from today.

In terms of Hamilton, it was really impressive to watch just how quickly he got up to speed. His teammate Alonso out-qualified him for the first few races of 2007, but once he took his first pole position in Canada, he was on pole for six of the next 11 races. Felipe Massa tended to have the edge over Kimi Raikkonen in the Ferrari early on, but it was great to see a genuine fight between four drivers in very equal machinery. There were some races, like Silverstone, where Alonso and Raikkonen’s experience showed up in terms of tyre management, but in Canada and the USA Hamilton was able to control the race from the front.

Hamilton McLaren

The European Grand Prix of that year was a particularly memorable race (albeit not for Hamilton) and his overtake on Raikkonen into the first chicane at Monza was one of the best moves of the season. However, the second half of the year became dominated by Spygate and the ongoing feud between Hamilton and Alonso, with the two drivers separated by just two points going into the final three rounds of the season.

The Japanese Grand Prix was the 15th round of the year and held at a soaking wet Fuji Speedway, this was perhaps my lasting impression of the campaign. With Hamilton on pole ahead of Alonso, it was an epic battle between the two in the most treacherous of conditions. Re-watching this, it only makes you wish that they had stayed as teammates for a few more seasons.

In the end, Alonso crashed out after aquaplaning and Hamilton won from future teammate Heikki Kovalainen in the Renault. It was a fantastic race that left Hamilton 12 points ahead of Alonso in the lead of the championship.

However, as we all know, things unravelled for the Brit while in the lead at the Chinese Grand Prix, after he and the team decided not to pit despite his tyres being totally worn down. With worse for wear rubber, Hamilton beached his car on the entry to the pit lane and was unable to finish the race, squandering his chances of sealing the title in his rookie year with a race to spare.

The Brazilian Grand Prix was a similarly painful affair for the rookie, who suffered engine issues after making a bad start. Only able to finish seventh, Raikkonen stole the title from under the nose of Hamilton and shortly after, Alonso left the team.

Overall, this was a brilliant season to re-watch with a really high standard of driving and incredible drama at the end. It does not quite match the craziness of 2010 or 2012, but it was really enjoyable to witness Hamilton and Alonso head to head. Anyone that has only seen Hamilton in a dominant Mercedes would be advised to watch this, as it shows an entirely different iteration of him as a driver, while also demonstrating his incredible wheel to wheel skills.

Hamilton China 2007 McLaren retires

The 2008 season was a different story though and while Hamilton managed to get over the line and win his first championship, his driving was not as precise as it was during his rookie year. Perhaps the lack of a competitive teammate caused him to take his eye off the ball, but he made a series of un-Hamilton-like mistakes. Canada is a great example of this, where he threw away a great shot at a win after ploughing into the back of Raikkonen in the pitlane. This, of course, aided Kubica in earning his only F1 win, but it was a strange error to make just one race after his brilliant maiden Monaco Grand Prix victory.

In addition to Monaco, there were other exceptional victories with his performance at Silverstone still considered one of his outstanding drives. BMW Sauber was very competitive for the first half of the season and Massa stepped up his game, so while there were more mistakes, this was certainly an impressive championship to win. Hamilton showed great speed along the way, taking seven pole positions and five wins, and was unlucky to have a race win stripped at Spa-Francorchamps in controversial circumstances. However, he did have to rely on plenty of fortune in order to win the title on the final corner of the final race at Interlagos.

His luck soon ran out though and McLaren started the 2009 season on the back foot. F1 in the UK had moved from ITV across to BBC, while Coulthard had swapped the cockpit for the pitlane as a pundit, with Vettel replacing him at Red Bull. However, the biggest story was the relative fortunes of British drivers Hamilton and Button. Driving for the recently established Brawn team, Button put his car on pole in Australia and won six of the opening seven races, while the reigning champ was stuck at the back of the grid for the first time in his career.

It took the Woking-based team until almost the halfway point of the season to build a car that could compete at the front in any meaningful way and Hamilton was growing visibly frustrated. The young Brit had to wait until the Hungaroring to secure his first podium of the season, a win from fourth on the grid, but he still managed to finish the season fifth in the standings behind the Brawn and Red Bull drivers, having picked up a second win in Singapore.

Overall, it is a difficult season to assess and is pretty anomalous when looking across his entire career. When given a car that was in any way capable of competing, he was able to battle at the front and win races, but he also spent half the season in a car unable to finish in the points. His two wins were some of his most impressive and challenging though, and his drive to second place in Valencia was outstanding. More than anything this season proves how dependent any driver is on their equipment, just as Alonso’s second spell at McLaren did. But it also showed the difference an outstanding driver can make.

Moving onto 2010 and Formula 1 was truly really entering a golden age. With Michael Schumacher returning to the sport at the newly-formed Mercedes team alongside Rosberg, the grid boasted four existing world champions and two future ones. Alonso had moved across to Ferrari to partner Massa, Raikkonen had departed for the World Rally Championship and Button had joined Hamilton at McLaren. Going into the season, Red Bull was certainly favourite, and that proved to be correct, but driver error and poor reliability meant the standings would remain close throughout.

For my mind, Hamilton produced some of his best driving during the 2010 season and managed to remain in the championship hunt until the last race, despite finishing the season with the third-fastest car. After Button made a fast start with two strategy-assisted wins in wet-to-dry conditions at Australia and China, Hamilton delivered a series of excellent performances. Winning three races between Turkey and Belgium, he led the championship with six races remaining, despite suffering mechanical failures in Spain and Hungary while second and fourth respectively.

However, consecutive DNFs at Monza and Singapore all but cost Hamilton his shot at the title. On both occasions, he was involved in contact while going for a risky move and each time he was forced to retire. Not only did this allow the Red Bull’s to gain ground, but it also saw Alonso win both races in an improved Ferrari. He then lost further ground at Suzuka after losing third gear while hunting down Alonso for the final spot on the podium, which meant that by the time the title fight reached Abu Dhabi, his chances of adding championship number two were slim.

Vettel won his maiden title in Abu Dhabi after a strategy error by Ferrari left Alonso stuck behind the Renault of Vitaly Petrov. Despite not leading the championship until the end of the final race and enduring a campaign littered with mechanical issues, as well as a few driver errors, this proved the lift-off for the German in a run of four consecutive titles, where Red Bull became the dominant force.

What followed for Hamilton in 2011 was undoubtedly the worst season of his career, as off-the-track turmoil and on-track incidents left him looking angry and frustrated. He still produced some brilliant drives when on-song, including an inspired win at the Nurburgring, but with the Red Bull of Vettel dominant at the head of the field, he was too often sloppy and even occasionally simply off the pace.

Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button

A lost win in Hungary due to a sub-optimal strategy choice prior to the summer break seemed to irk Hamilton and the second half of 2011 was the nadir of his 14-year spell in Formula 1. He was on the podium just twice in the final eight races of the season and for the first time in his career, doubts seemed to grow about whether he would fulfil the obvious potential he showed during his first four years in the sport.

He came back refreshed at the start of 2012 though and drove very well for much of his final year with McLaren. Outqualifying his teammate Button 16 to four over the season, both drivers were undermined throughout the year by slow pitstops, bad strategy calls and reliability issues. Now into his sixth-year with McLaren, Hamilton took seven pole positions, more than any other driver, but was never truly in the championship fight because of the failings of his team (he was forced to retire out of the lead due to mechanical failures twice).

His retirement in Singapore while leading the race seemed to be the final straw and shortly after that race, it was announced he would be joining Mercedes for the 2013 season. He finished the year with four wins, a tally bettered by only world champion Vettel, but ultimately it was a fourth consecutive year of disappointment for the Brit. In hindsight, it is easy to make assumptions about the pitch that Niki Lauda was able to deliver in order to persuade him to jump ship, but at the time it was a highly disputed decision and it was one that could easily not have worked out.

The end of the Hamilton and McLaren era has come to be seen as something of a disappointment, but I think it is often mischaracterised. While I have heard some suggest that he struggled for form during this period, it is more accurate to say that he remained a constant threat for race wins and one of the best drivers on the grid in every year barring 2011. While Alonso and Vettel largely enjoyed number one status in their respective teams, Hamilton and Button were on level footing in the eyes of the team throughout their time together, disadvantaging both in the title race. As good as Hamilton has been since leaving McLaren and joining Mercedes, I get the feeling that the period between 2009 and 2012 is often under-appreciated.

In many ways, I find these years far more interesting to analyse than the time that has followed at Mercedes. While 2013 was a transition year, he has been the dominant force since 2014, barring his slip up in 2016. The rivalry with Rosberg was certainly fascinating and I think the German is a driver that has been historically underrated, but since 2017 Hamilton’s dominance has become something of a given.

All in all, I found this to be a hugely rewarding experience. It reminded me of some of the great races and reinforced my belief that however boring a Grand Prix may appear on the surface there is always something that can pique your attention. Furthermore, Hamilton provided so many dramatic moments during this time with McLaren that were great to re-live. His championship in 2008 was even more incredible and improbable than his defeat in 2007, while his ability to put his car on pole position against the odds is a spectacle that has been somewhat lost since his move to Mercedes. With the pandemic not yet in our rearview mirror, perhaps there will be time for me to look at the period between 2013 and 2020 in more detail. For the readers’ sake, let’s hope not.

Hamilton McLaren