James Lawton: Hamilton triumphs on critical day
Lewis Hamilton drove through all the doubts and the rainstorm to claim his place in history yesterday. He did it with a marvellous self-control that took us to the very heart of a sport that for so long broke so many brilliant men, if it did not kill them.
He made us think of the depths and the heights a man must visit before calling himself the fastest in the world.
Some claimed the great Niki Lauda lost his nerve in a rainstorm at the Mount Fuji track when he drove his Ferrari into the pits and allowed Britain's James Hunt to take the 1976 world title by a single point.
Others said that it was a brave and correct decision by a man who earlier that year had come perilously close to terminal incineration at Nürburgring and had received the last rites from a priest.
That ultimate expression of pressure on a Formula One driver came nearly a decade before Lewis Hamilton was born and maybe gave a little perspective to the challenge which was met brilliantly by the 23-year-old from Stevenage yesterday.
But if times – and levels of personal risk – have changed radically since those days of ultimate drama, the Lauda experience was just one reminder that the essence of a world champion racer will always remain the same.
This, of course, is about so much more than superior reflexes and a natural talent to go fast.
It is about his ability to gather together all of his nerve and judgement and show that indeed he can shut out of his mind every doubt, every suggestion that when everything is before him, and reliant on his ability to produce the best of himself at the most important time of his career, he may just lack the most vital ingredient of all – a composure to go, with flawless nerve, from one moment of vital decision to the next.
That at Interlagos yesterday was the last hope of the alliance of self-interest – and some say pure and unadulterated jealousy – which through another spectacular Hamilton season has clung to the belief that all the cutting-edge virtuosity, the refusal to consider any option that might, whatever its hazards, not lead to his immediate advantage, would again unravel at the climactic moment.
That, they claimed with undeniable force, was pretty much what happened last year when Hamilton's chance to emulate his hero Ayrton Senna dissolved in a combination of personal error and mechanical imperfection in a car which had so comfortably outstripped all rivals for much of the season.
Yesterday Hamilton plainly knew better than anyone that, this side of the most clear-cut ambush by the gremlins of the pit lane, he faced a judgement which, if it went against him, he might never again outrun with all that superb absence of inhibition which has marked his extraordinary progress in Formula One – and which came so close to producing a record-shattering world title triumph at the first attempt.
He could easily imagine the thrust and the weight of the criticism. It would say he had failed to learn the hardest of his lessons; he had become a prisoner and not the conqueror of some of the extremes of his own self-belief.
Yesterday the imperative for Lewis Hamilton could not have been more explicit. He had to exert a complete hold over his own destiny. He could no longer charge with the abandon of so many of his most brilliant triumphs, no longer feed on the adrenalin that had so often flooded over him at a time in his career when most racers are learning not how to pursue the glory but the most basic means of survival.
Yesterday the charmed and brilliant racing career of Lewis Hamilton entered its most pivotal phase. He had to deliver the conclusive proof that he had become strong at the place that had been broken 12 months earlier, that when he said he felt so much better, so much more in tune with what was in front of him, he was doing more than whistling past the graveyard of his hopes.
In another way he was also racing for some kind of foundation against the uncertainties that are building around his sport, the most serious of which have been triggered by Ferrari's angry statement that they will withdraw from the sport if the president of the FIA Max Mosley's plan to standardise the Formula One engine shows serious signs of coming to pass.
It has been another knock against Hamilton that if his career has been phenomenal, if it has revealed precocity unseen since the early days of Senna and Michael Schumacher, it has also been underpinned by the superiority of his machinery. Would the loss of such an edge draw him back into the company of such other outstanding young drivers as Robert Kubica and Niko Rosberg?
Hamilton's admirers, who include such icons as Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart and Lauda, burnt away such shadows. They said that Hamilton came to Interlagos more than anything on the force of his own brilliance. A little arrogant? Perhaps. A touch bull-headed? But a racer of unique and rivetting force? Unquestionably.
Yet still, at the second time of asking, he had to show that when it mattered he could take hold of all that had created such promise – and show that it was real.
That he did so was the unshakeable evidence that Lewis Hamilton had both the heart – and, most vitally – the brain of a champion.