Lewis Hamilton (Interview – Mike Hayden, September 2000)
Formula A European Champion
I received my first kart for Christmas 1992. On my 8th birthday which was on the 7th January 1993, I entered my first race at Rye House at Hoddesdon in the Poplars Cadet class and came home with my first 1st place novice trophy. I subsequently went on to win all of my six novice races. I then won my first ever race on full yellow plates at Clay Pigeon Kart Club six months later.”
So started the karting career of Lewis Hamilton. During each of the last seven years he has competed in at least one major championship, whether here in the U.K. or abroad. The trophy cabinet is second to none for this young British ace with a truly impressive record that few drivers will ever be able to match, let alone beat.
Arguably the most significant achievement of the Hamilton career to date from a ‘sit up and take note’ of my progress point of view, was clinching the European title at Valence in June, with one round of the championship still remaining. Surprisingly though, it is not the Valence race that Lewis considers to be the most important of his victories. “My most significant race and probably the one that got things rolling, was the last round of the Cadet Championship in 1995 at Shenington when I won the Cadet British/National Championship.” I remember watching the young Lewis in a round of the Championship that year and being mightily impressed with the fire and commitment he displayed. Every now and then you witness such an event and it always leaves an impression of a driver with the potential to go places. I also visited the PH track mid-week with one of my sons during the same year, only to find Lewis testing a new kart when we arrived. It made the visit into a major occasion for my son who looked upon Lewis with something akin to hero worship. “Is he a good racing driver dad?” was the comment made. The reply was an easy one. “Yes but one day he will be even better!” In the intervening years Lewis has proved the point many times over.
To be a top karter though means leaving the UK and the sad part about this is that the British public cannot watch the top British drivers in action, unless they are able to venture overseas for those important races. Lewis had done all he possibly could on this side of the Channel, which meant that Europe was the only way forward, as he followed in the footsteps of Matthew Davies, Daniel Wheldon, Jenson Button and Anthony Davidson, who all came out of the Cadet class as out and out race winners. “I have been racing in Europe for over two years now. The main reason we went to Europe was an offer from the Italian Top Kart Comer team of a full works drive in 1999. We found the Europeans, particularly the Italians, very passionate and professional about their karting. One major thing we noticed in Italy was the high regard and respect for the drivers, their teams and their families and the respectful way karters are treated in general when compared to say racing in the Super 1. My choice this year (2000) was to either stay with Top Kart Comer as a Formula A works driver (a privilege in itself since there are so few in the lower class) or to be part of my own team with Nice Rosberg. My manager, Ron Dennis of McLaren Fl, offered me the choice to own part of my own team and it seemed more attractive to be a team owner/driver.”
For Lewis this connection, “Is still unbelievable. I am managed by Ron Dennis of McLaren Fl and I race in a team with Keke Rosberg’s (the 1982 Fl World Champion) son Nico and I occasionally spend holidays with the Rosbergs in Monaco or wherever they go. I still have to pinch myself each morning! I am very much left to my own devices with my father continuing to manage me on a day-today basis, very much as he has been doing ever since I started in karts. There is no pressure from McLaren or Mercedes-Benz, just incredible support.”
Being associated with Ron Dennis slips easily off of Lewis’ tongue and in no way does he use the connection to score points. There can be little doubt though that having the guidance of such an important individual within the motorsport hierarchy will certainly teach Lewis a considerable amount when it comes to the way he projects himself on the world stage. At a time when he is not even old enough to race in Formula A in the UK, the European Formula A Champion has no need to worry. lithe UK doesn’t want him, there are plenty of places and people all the more willing to accommodate such talent. It is just that his absence happens to be our loss! As Anthony, Lewis’ father said, “Lewis trounced them in Europe and yet the MSA are stopping him from racing his British colleagues in Formula A because he is not old enough. Everybody needs to race good drivers and to be able to race over here would be good for both Lewis and the other good drivers in Formula A.”
The move into Formula A is a big step and chassis/engine choice can easily make or break a young driver’s career. In the final reckoning this was not too much of a problem. ‘The choice of equipment,” Lewis recalled, “was based on years of experience of our team manager Dino Chiesa, who in the past has run people like Giorgio Pantano, Alex Zanardi and Danilo Rossi, so we were confident he knew the equipment. I always feel confident when I am racing.”
After such a strong season the team were aware that a potential European title was on the cards when they prepared for the Valence weekend. The easiest way to maintain a strong perspective is to treat the race like any other. Lewis: We arrived at Thursday lunchtime and had (therefore) missed Wednesday’s testing and three of the sessions on Thursday morning. I had never been to the track before so I had to try and learn it as quickly as possible. The first session was 12 laps and within the first 10 laps I was on the pace. On Friday I made a mistake in qualifying which lost me about 1/10th and put me 12th on the grid. I was to race six heats, five on Saturday and one on Sunday. I won four heats out of the six and I was 5th in one other.” (Tyres invariably play their part in European competition and when it rains, one tyre above all others usually shines. So when the rain fell, the Dunlops were found to be at least 2 seconds quicker than the Bridgestones). “I was the highest placed Bridgestone driver,” offered Lewis, “and for the last heat which was on Sunday it had rained but the track was beginning to dry up and we selected slicks. Unfortunately the track didn’t dry up quick enough and I fell hack to 14th position. For the first final it rained again and therefore the Dunlop drivers had the advantage. The first four placed drivers were all on Dunlops, I managed to hold 5th place. In the second final the track had dried. I started 5th and by lap 2 I was in the lead. I finished with a 7 second lead,” and with it the European crown.
Given the degree of success to date it would be easy to fall into the trap of trying to rush up the ladder. Neither Lewis nor his advisers see this happening. “I don’t want to rush to Fl but would rather it came at the right time if it comes at all. If all goes well 1 think realistically within 4 to 5 years” and this would make Lewis 21 years of age. I still pushed the F1 angle though, curious if his relationship with McLaren Mercedes was likely to allow him easier access to the Grand Prix cars, or more specifically the two-seater. “Most definitely. Ron did try to get me in the car at the German Grand Prix but the track insurers would not allow it.” Sounds to me as though the wait might soon be over!
Young racing drivers have a need for inspiration, encouragement, and motivation. It is an area where Lewis has not been left wanting, but at the same time his family have ensured his feet have remained firmly on the ground. This is obvious from the answers to my questions and displays a level of maturity that would make any parents happy with what they had done. After watching some of the Cadet dads at a recent race meeting, those fathers could do with an Anthony Hamilton to show them how to behave when their sons are out on the track. “My dad and my family have been my inspiration throughout all these years. When you think about what my family have had to do and have been through to get me where I am today. Included in this is obviously Ron Dennis who has been incredible. Ron offered to support me three years ago and he is still as interested now as he was then. Without his backing I most certainly wouldn’t be in karts today. We couldn’t afford it. I want to continue racing as long as I can and hope that one day I will be in Formula 1. Where supporters are concerned, I still have GAM, No Fear, and Grand Prix Racewear as sponsors. They have been with me for the past three years. My dad has been a very good manager finding the right sponsors with long-term interests at the right time for me to continue racing.”
Education has not been overlooked in the pursuit of speed either, and again this is where the family have ensured that Lewis retains his sense of priorities. As his father said several years ago, Lewis had to do his homework after school or he could not go racing. Lewis: “1 have a private tutor for 1 hour each morning before I go to school. This is so I can catch up on any missed school work as my dad and Ron are particularly keen that I continue to do well in school and maybe go on to university, time and racing permitting. I start my GCSEs next year.”
2001? “I will be in Super A next with my own team `mbrn.com’. I’m not certain when I will make the move to cars. I will leave that decision up to my dad and Ron Dennis. When the time is right I will know.” Mature beyond his years!