Feature: When Hamilton ruled GP2 - Part 2

Feature: When Hamilton ruled GP2 - Part 2

22 May 2016 – It has been a decade since Lewis Hamilton's GP2 triumph. In the final part of a special reflection, GPUpdate.net speaks to those closest to the Briton about the title showdown – and that famous drive in Istanbul.

"We get to Turkey," says Will Buxton, then GP2's Head of Communications. "We get into qualifying and again [Nelson] Piquet's on pole. Piquet wins race one, fastest lap and all of a sudden Lewis is like 's**t, the guy's going to do two perfect weekends in a row'. Lewis finished second to Piquet in race one."

The gap was down to six points, with three races remaining. If Hamilton had been riding the crest of a wave in June, he was under pressure in August.

Buxton continues: "Lewis went to the team and said 'you've got to trim the car, take all the aero off that you can, because if I'm going to take it to Piquet I've got to be able to pass, I need a ridiculous amount of straight line speed'. ART say to him 'this track has so many tough corners, if we take all the downforce off the car you'll spin'. Lewis said 'leave it with me. If I spin then I'll know where the level of adhesion is, I'll know where the grip is, but you've got to trust me, that I can do this, but I need the straight line speed'. 'OK, fine'. So they did it. Sure enough, start of the race, he spun."

Hamilton dropped down the order after looping his ART at Turn 4, while Piquet Jr. circulated among the front group, the championship battle now firmly on.

Hamilton was 14th by the third lap, and surged up the order, picking rivals off with a series of audacious moves, most prominently into the hairpin at the end of the back straight.

"Lewis had trimmed all the aero off the car that he possibly could, it wasn't Monza spec but it was close," says Buxton. "That's why on the straights he was picking people off like they weren't there. But the other thing is he was so confident on the brakes. Normally you'd have to brake a bit earlier as you're going that much faster but he's braking later than the guys who are going slower, and he's barely locking a wheel. He's not erratic, he's smooth, and he has this great fight with Timo Glock."

Glock was one of Hamilton's main rivals across the second half of the year after moving from BCN to iSport. While admitting "we didn't talk much because everyone was focused on getting the best out of the car", Glock had acknowledged Hamilton as one of the main contenders, culminating in that Istanbul Park battle.

"I had great battles with Lewis, especially in Turkey, we were wheel-to-wheel, battling for a couple of corners. It was hard but all the time fair. He was just charging through the field and nearly everyone didn't really fight him.

"The trouble for me was we had the wrong top gear because from Saturday to Sunday the wind direction changed; we didn't think it would be a big effect, so I was down on top speed and had to fight hard against Piquet. Then Lewis turned up and I had to battle the two of them.

"When Lewis attacked I was so pi**ed due to lack of top speed, I said 'OK you are going to have a hard time passing me'. That's what I tried and it turned out to be a great battle over a couple of corners side by side."

Hamilton eventually vanquished Glock, having also swept past Piquet Jr., and finished in second position. His fastest lap was 0.854s clear of the next best. "It was incredible pace, and he showed he was the best racer," surmises Frédéric Guyot, Hamilton's engineer throughout 2006.

Bruno Michel has been GP2's CEO since its inception in 2005 and believes Hamilton's drive in Turkey was the perfect combination of everything clicking together.

"It was the most amazing race I've ever seen; to be perfectly honest everybody thought he was cheating because he was doing so well, but the guy was completely outstanding," he said.

"I remember he started to be very impressive at the beginning [of the season], the category was new to him, he didn't have much experience, so he was not putting everything together at the same weekend. There was always something, maybe qualifying, maybe first corner, and I had very early in the season the feeling that the day the boy put everything together he would be unbeatable and that's what happened later on."

Hamilton had grabbed back the initiative in the title race and, while Piquet Jr. took another pole at Monza's season finale, Hamilton shadowed him in the race and finished third, as Giorgio Pantano won with fastest lap.

However, the Italian was stripped of fastest lap due to a yellow flag infringement and the additional points passed to Hamilton, giving him an insurmountable buffer over Piquet Jr. with only the Sprint Race left to run. Hamilton was the GP2 champion. 

"He just had more and more pressure through the year as the interest on him from McLaren and Formula 1 in general was bigger and bigger," explains Guyot.

"It made the mid-season quite difficult but he kept the focus and ended the season quite well, which showed he was mentally really strong."

Graduation to Formula 1, alongside Fernando Alonso, duly followed.

"Silverstone, for me, that's when McLaren decided to take Lewis into Formula 1," ponders Buxton. "If they hadn't made it then, I think Turkey 95 per cent made up their mind. I remember being in the Formula 1 pit lane watching it, no-one did any work in the garages. Every Formula 1 garage was just in awe. The guys still would have been working on the cars then as there wasn't parc ferme and they were just looking at the screen like 'who is this guy?' and whatever garage you walked past you didn't hear a wheel gun go, nothing was being filed or hammered, it was as silent as a pit lane can be. Everyone was just astonished with what they were seeing."

It was also a race which highlighted Hamilton's intelligence, an aspect which is not often referenced, amid the lazy pigeonholing of personalities. For example, early in the season, Hamilton asked Buxton how he could learn French, in order to communicate better with his mechanics, and listened to language CDs. These small details built up trust. "He didn't take it [his talent] for granted; there was never an air of 'I'm going to be a Formula 1 driver'."

This work ethic is heavily emphasised by then-ART boss Frédéric Vasseur when he discusses the leading drivers who passed through his outfit. "The common point is that they are a very strong leader," says Vasseur, now overseeing Renault's revival. "They are ready to have a big input in terms of motivation and keep everybody under pressure, for example, [Romain] Grosjean, [Nico] Hülkenberg, Rosberg, Hamilton, [Stoffel] Vandoorne last year, they have exactly the same approach, very strong with themselves first, but are demanding of others."

Hamilton would go on to win multiple Formula 1 races and titles across the following decade, while GP2 would uncover new, great champions. But that afternoon at Istanbul Park remains the pinnacle. Several drivers have dominated GP2, such as Hülkenberg and Vandoorne, while others buckled under the pressure of competition. As would become the case during his Formula 1 title-winning campaigns in 2008 and 2014, Hamilton demonstrated supreme pace, but also had to repeatedly bounce back from adversity and show belief amidst disaster throughout 2006, none more so than in Turkey.

"That Turkey race will always go down as one of the greatest GP2 races of all time, but what makes it great in hindsight is the backstory to it, and the risk that Lewis took in the knowledge that if he didn't get a result that day, the championship would start to slip away from him," Buxton says.

"He was so smart that day, but so gutsy, to take the risk and to say to his team 'trust me that I can do this', and the boys loved him and they had absolute faith in him and they went 'we'll do it', and that race, it not only put him back in charge of his destiny, but I think it cemented the belief in himself that he knew the call to make to go with the car, that he could brake harder, later than anyone and not chew up his tyres.

"It reconfirmed McLaren's faith that he was the right person to take that team into 2007 in Formula 1, and announced him to the world as someone with this incredible ability, the whole of the Formula 1 pit lane and to make them stand still and think 'this guy has got it'."

Now, 10 years on, Hamilton chases a fourth Formula 1 world title, while the next batch of youngsters are hoping to emulate his achievements.

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