It isn’t often the pivotal moment of Grand Prix takes place before the race has even begun, but the warm up lap of the 1994 British Grand Prix may have inadvertently changed the shape of Formula One.
As the field made their way to the grid, Michael Schumacher inexplicably decided to overtake arch rival Damon Hill who had qualified ahead of him. Michael’s actions were blatantly against the rules and he was given a stop-go penalty during the race for his efforts.
Then it got interesting. In another flagrant misdemeanour, Schumacher ignored the black flags waved at him for over ten laps before serving his penalty. Again he attracted the attention of FIA officials and after the Grand Prix, Schumacher received a two race ban. Michael was forced to sit out of the Portuguese and Italian events, leaving Damon Hill to win both. It meant the world championship would go down to the wire.
It was essential at the end of 1994 to have an entertaining championship. Whenever the title race becomes a little predictable casual viewers turn away in droves. Although it is always good to have an exciting Formula One season, it was necessary after the sport lost its biggest drawcard, Ayrton Senna.
The Brazilian’s death sent shockwaves throughout the sporting world, and it meant Formula One no longer had a well known superstar at the helm. Michael Schumacher had only won four races at the time of Ayrton’s death, and was nowhere near the iconic status he later assumed.
Not only had the sport lost its most popular figure, but Schumacher started walking away with the ‘94 title. It did not bode well for the popularity of Grand Prix racing.
Bernie Ecclestone knew it was a critical time for F1, and set about luring Nigel Mansell back from Indycar. Along with Senna and Prost, Mansell had been one of Formula One’s most recognisable heroes for years. The sport needed a big name, and Nigel was the man Ecclestone looked to. He sorted out a deal between Nigel, Renault, and Williams, resulting in four special appearances for the 1992 World Champion. Apparently Bernie also had a hand in helping Mansell secure a McLaren drive the following year.
He needn’t have bothered. Schumacher’s indiscretion at Silverstone made the championship battle a thriller and viewers worldwide stayed glued to their sets. The German’s rivalry with Damon Hill lasted several years, and it helped Formula One recover from the tragedy of San Marino.
The same thing has happened to a lesser extent this year with the loss of Michael Schumacher. His influence on Grand Prix racing was phenomenal. In sixteen years he won seven world titles and was in contention for another four. He won at least one race every year since 1992, and did so during F1’s most popular era. He became the face of Formula One and his association with Ferrari made him a sporting megastar. Everyone’s grandma knows the name ‘Schumacher’.
It is no surprise therefore, that Schumacher’s retirement has left a void in the sport. The man who has been at the top of Grands Prix for over a decade is no longer there.
Luckily for millions of fans around the world Formula One has never been better. Unlike 1994 there are already two established stars fighting to assume the great man’s throne. Both Raikkonen and Alonso have awesome speed, and have the potential to become F1 greats. The battle between them to become the next king of Formula One is more than enough to keep fans enthralled.
It was a little lucky for the sport that both title protagonists changed teams for 2007, adding some extra intrigue. Not only was there a new pecking order, but it would be decided in new colours.
There have been 24 Formula One World Champions but only one of them is racing today. The career of every driver must end eventually and when it’s time for a champion to say goodbye, there will be a new one ready to say hello.
The arrival of one man in 2007 has made that all the more evident. Welcome Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton’s debut in the first post-Schumacher championship is incredibly timely. Right now, the sport needs him. Not only has Schumacher disappeared but there hasn’t been a remarkably fast British driver since Nigel Mansell all those years ago. England is arguably the home of F1 since most of the teams and people who govern the sport reside there. More world champions have come from England than any other country, so it is excellent for a nation so vital to the sport to have a superstar at the top. Hamilton’s sudden popularity may just have saved the British Grand Prix.
Lewis has been incredibly fortunate. He benefited from Massa’s gearbox in Australia, Kimi’s detuned engine in Malaysia, and Alonso’s first corner mistake at Barcelona. He can also be thankful McLaren build very strong suspension arms because he was very lucky not to have ended his Monaco race in the barriers. This good fortune has flattered his skill, and if lady luck and gone another way he might have left a very different impression.
Still, you don’t grab five consecutive podiums on debut if you’re not awesome, and he is definitely that.
Hamilton showed plenty of speed at Monaco although his driving perhaps lacked discipline during the race. The beautiful powerslides we saw in qualifying became tank-slappers on Sunday and he seemed much less controlled. Lewis admitted to losing concentration a few times and his lap times fluctuated greatly. Hamilton had gone very close to pole position but was unable to drive consistently fast over 78 laps.
Importantly though, the outright speed was there. Consistency will come with experience so Lewis can take satisfaction in knowing he is more than skilled enough to drive a Grand Prix car quickly. Very quickly. His raw pace is phenomenal and very few people on the planet have the same level of talent.
The 22 year old Brit is the next Michael Schumacher. Not necessarily in terms of results but in terms of presence. Kimi and Fernando may go on to win more titles, but ‘Lewis Hamilton’ is the next big name in Formula One. He is young, polished, and popular, and is now an established Grand Prix contender. Already this year he is forcing Alonso to dig deeper than he has ever had to before, and it can’t be long before Lewis takes victory himself.
Not only has he helped fill the Michael Schumacher shaped hole in F1, but Hamilton has also come at a time when much of the Grand Prix press is negative.
Controversial new rules, the loss of traditional venues, and arguments over commercial revenues have regularly soured F1 headlines of late. This combined with stories about boring races and ‘unfair advantages’ have provided more pessimistic media coverage for Formula One than any other motorsport.
In contrast to that, Hamilton’s rise to the top has given everyone a great story to celebrate. From the moment he introduced himself to Ron Dennis aged twelve, to the father who took a second job to support his karting, Hamilton’s success is a genuine fairytale. The youngest World Championship leader in history also has the distinction of being the first black Formula One driver, and his clean cut image gives him unlimited marketing potential.
When Hamilton started in go-karts his dad was naturally concerned for safety and painted his helmet yellow so Lewis could be easily spotted anywhere on the circuit. I bet his dad never thought one day that helmet would be encrusted with diamonds on the front row at Monaco.
Hamilton has already done a few awesome things in Grand Prix machinery. At the first corner of his first race he overtook two cars, and only a few weeks later he outraced the might of Ferrari. These performances have come at a very opportune time for Formula One, and thankfully there will be plenty more of them to follow.
One day long into the future Lewis Hamilton will disappear, and someone else will emerge to take his place.
Hopefully that season will be as good as this one.