Feature: When Hamilton ruled GP2 - Part 1

Feature: When Hamilton ruled GP2 - Part 1

21 May 2016 – It has been a decade since Lewis Hamilton swept to the GP2 Series crown and secured a promotion to Formula 1 with McLaren. GPUpdate.net speaks to those closest to the Briton in his year of title glory.

"Everyone wanted to talk to him, everyone was interested, he was a megastar, he was already destined for such greatness and there was an inevitability about that," says Will Buxton, recalling Hamilton's arrival at GP2's Valencia launch party.

Hamilton graduated to GP2 in place of reigning champion Nico Rosberg at ART Grand Prix. GP2 was the next stage for the McLaren-backed youngster, and the crack ART team the logical place, with Hamilton having romped to 15 Formula 3 wins for the sister ASM squad in 2005.

GP2 was set to be the final step on Hamilton's route to Formula 1 and, after long-term guidance from McLaren, despite almost being dropped in 2004, he was expected to triumph over his contemporaries.

The first couple of rounds, though, proved tricky. A Valencian podium was followed by disqualification at Imola due to a Safety Car mix up in the Feature Race, though his performance in the Sprint race captured attention.

"He fought from 24th to 10th place in a race with no pit-stops, at Imola, where you can't pass!" comments Buxton, then GP2's Director of Communications. "So that was a sign of how quick he was going to be and then the next race at the European Grand Prix he put in back-to-back wins."

That double triumph at the Nürburgring led to another podium in Spain, despite a last lap clash with team-mate Alexandre Premat, before Hamilton owned the streets of Monaco with a dominant display.

"There was something about that red and white car flashing through the chicane with the yellow helmet and you did this double take, it was very cool, and he was just in another world in Monaco, he seemed so at one with the car and the track, it was serene," Buxton says.

Frédéric Guyot was Hamilton's race engineer throughout 2006 and was left impressed by a driver who had a "really good attitude", and oozed confidence, citing the Monaco performance as one of his best.

"He was really open and knew what he wanted but didn't care so much about the set-up which was not a problem, as the comments he gave us were really good and our job was to translate it into set-up changes," Guyot explains.

"He was really open especially on data compared to his team-mate, who was a really good reference.  If you showed him Alex was quicker somewhere he was never complaining about the car but just said 'don't worry, I will push more and it will be OK.'

"It was really easy to work with him. It was my first year in GP2 and he always had a positive approach and always tried to make sure he got the maximum of each person working with him by being positive.

"He was the strongest on braking I had [ever worked with]. He could not believe he could be beaten in one corner so you could be sure the next time it was fixed."

The title remained the primary goal for Hamilton but, as would become a trait throughout his Formula 1 career, the speed was laced with entertainment, and there were two rounds at which Hamilton truly announced himself to the motorsport world.

The first came at Silverstone, where home fans were crying out for a new hero; it had been a decade since Damon Hill's title triumph, while David Coulthard and Jenson Button were lumbered with midfield machinery. Off-track, Hamilton was making an impression, as Buxton explains.

"Lewis had so much pressure on him that weekend, and every time I tried to find him I'd go to the team and say 'where's Lewis', 'oh I don't know'. Behind the GP2 paddock there was the access road, all the fans walk up and down it, and Lewis spent practically the whole weekend standing at the fence. People walked past going 'hey that's Lewis' and he signed autographs and talked to kids and fans – he was very gracious with his time, very aware people wanted to see him and talk to him, as he was at home."

On-track, it was in the Sprint Race where Hamilton stunned onlookers. Having started from eighth after triumphing in the Feature Race, he picked off rivals, before completing a double pass on Clivio Piccione and title rival Nelson Piquet Jr. into the heralded Maggotts/Becketts complex.

Silverstone erupted.

Buxton adds: "It was astonishing. We're all sitting there cheering and screaming, the crowd's going wild, [his father] Anthony Hamilton is watching it on the screens in the McLaren garage just going 'yes, yes, yes', and all the McLaren boys are watching and you can see them smiling as they're like 'this is our boy, we're going to have this kid racing for us at some point'."

Hamilton went on to take the lead of the race from Felix Porteiro before mid-distance, despite two laps behind the Safety Car, and Britain had its new star.

"That's the moment for me that he became Lewis, he became this star in front of the British public. They were there for Grand Prix Sunday and he'd put in the move that just cemented him for the fans – 'this kid is mega'."
McLaren was also watching Hamilton's progress in GP2 with a keen eye; after Silverstone it demanded all of Hamilton's media requests to be passed through the team for approval, while his distinctive afro hairstyle was gone in favour of a buzz cut. Formula 1 was on the horizon, but there was still a title to be won.

Hamilton's 21-point advantage grew to 26 across the next two rounds in France and Germany, as he and Piquet Jr. exchanged difficult weekends, but Hamilton encountered more woe in Hungary. Having spun off in practice, Hamilton lost control once more in qualifying and had to start from the back.

Guyot describes that Friday as "probably the worst day in the season", though Hamilton recovered to finish 10th in the Feature Race, going on to claim second in a wet Sprint Race. It proved his guile once more, yet Piquet Jr. had delivered the first perfect weekend in GP2 history: pole position, both race wins, both fastest laps, every point on offer.

Hamilton's championship advantage had been more than halved across the course of a single round, with two remaining.

Tomorrow: Part 2 - With Hamilton on the back foot, the championship heads to Istanbul, Turkey...


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