A third F1 world title would secure legacy for Lewis Hamilton
AUSTIN, Texas — Thirty miles away from the Circuit of the Americas, with its iconic red, white and blue racing stripes and grandstands that will be filled with more than 100,000 fans for the United States Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton was being a kid again.
Formula One’s 30-year-old defending world champion was back where he loves to be, on a go-kart track tucked into a north Austin industrial park, zipping his racer through wicked turns and tight corners similar to those where he honed his craft in Britain.
First came the high-fives with a group of 10-year-olds. Then came the challenge.
”I’m going to beat you,” Travon Williams told Hamilton before passing him. ”I’m better than you.”
”I see myself in them,” Hamilton said. ”They are just like me, wanting to race and have fun. I’m pretty much like a big kid.”
The drive down memory lane was short. After a few laps, Hamilton was whisked into a small room for more than an hour of interviews set up by sponsor Epson, one of the corporations that has made Formula One as much a global business as a sport, and has helped make Hamilton a very wealthy global celebrity.
With the young racers still playing nearby, Hamilton was asked to size up his career. A win Sunday could clinch his second consecutive world title and third overall. If he doesn’t get it here, Hamilton has three more races left to win the 2015 championship. It would take a colossal, and improbable, season-ending collapse to deny him.
”I haven’t really been thinking about it,” Hamilton said. ”If I come to that hurdle and get over it, I’ll think about it.”
A third world title would start talk of a legacy for the first black driver in Formula One, who comes from humble beginnings. Hamilton’s father worked extra jobs to support his budding star, and the racer’s working-class London upbringing makes for a unique origin story in a sport that caters to the rich.
Three world titles would tie him with Brazilian legend Aryton Senna, as well as Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet. Only four drivers – Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel – have won more.
”Growing up, I always wanted to do something similar to Ayrton,” Hamilton said. ”We never knew we were going to make it to Formula One. It was never a given. Then I won the first championship and I was like, `I’d love to win it again, I think I’ve got it in me.’ Then I got my second and now I’m fighting for a third.”
Hamilton has been blazing a trail ever since he arrived in Formula One.
He nearly won the world title with McLaren as a rookie in 2007. His 2008 championship was decided on the final turn of the last race of the season. By 2014, he was dominating the grid with Mercedes while the rest of the field desperately sought to catch up to their new V6 hybrid engine technology.
Eleven wins in 2014 tied for second-most in a season. He has nine this season, and a 10th would make him the first driver in F1 history with consecutive seasons of 10 or more. His 42 career wins are a record for a British driver.
The recent domination has some pointing as much to Hamilton’s car as to his driving skills for his success.
”It’s another case of a dominating team with a top-line driver, whether his name was Vettel with Red Bull or Schumacher with Ferrari, it’s nothing new,” said three-time world champion Jackie Stewart. ”I’ll be very pleased for him. He’s done a great job and come from tough beginnings.”
Stewart won’t rank Hamilton among the legends just yet.
”Too soon,” Stewart said. ”There’s not too many great drivers. There’s a lot of very good ones. He’s now maybe one of these days going to drive a car that’s not going to win. How does he raise his game and (the team)? That’s the question.”
Hamilton bristles at suggestions his car has won more races than he has.
”People who have never driven the car might not think it’s hard to drive, but I can guarantee you it is,” he said.
Formula One is trying to expand its footprint in the U.S. and could have a bonafide crossover star in Hamilton, who spends a lot of down time in America with a social life that often hits the tabloid gossip pages back home.
At Thursday’s drivers’ news conference, the group was asked was how Formula One can build a new fan base among America’s black community. All eyes turned toward Hamilton.
He suggested Formula One partner with the NBA or NFL for fan outreach. His thoughts drifted back to where he came from and to Travon Williams, his young challenger at the north Austin kart track.
The future of F1 may be where Hamilton’s true legacy may lie.
”Yesterday, I was go-karting with some kids, there were two black kids with us. One passed me, the first time I’ve ever been on a track with a black kid,” Hamilton said. ”It was like seeing myself come by. It was kind of funny. It was good.”