Feature: Reflecting on Hamilton's F1 bow

Feature: Reflecting on Hamilton's F1 bow

18 March 2017 – Lewis Hamilton has emerged as one of the most successful F1 drivers in history, with 53 wins, 61 pole positions and three titles to his name from 188 starts. He made his very first appearance 10 years ago today (Saturday), when he lined up for McLaren at the Australian Grand Prix. GPUpdate.net reflects on his debut.

Hamilton had been under McLaren's wing for several years and his stunning title-winning GP2 campaign in 2006, allied with the fact McLaren had a vacancy alongside incoming double World Champion Fernando Alonso, meant he was installed as favourite to join the roster for 2007.

Hamilton, who learned of his promotion in September 2006, two months before the news was made public, racked up mileage across the winter, ensuring he arrived in F1 as a well-prepared rookie.

Naturally, there was substantial focus on Hamilton, touted as the next young talent, racing for a team which had not taken on a rookie in over a decade, alongside the reigning champion. 

McLaren, too, had been preparing for the arrival of Alonso, whose signing was announced in December 2005, ensuring that it would be in a position deliver the Spaniard a third straight title.

As a result, McLaren and Ferrari soon emerged as the leading contenders, with reigning World Champion team Renault regressing amid the switch to Bridgestone tyres and the loss of Alonso. 

Hamilton, upon his first visit to Albert Park, quickly adapted to the tricky street circuit in his sleek chrome-and-red MP4-22, which had retained the distinctive 'horns' adopted by its predecessors.

Hamilton was fourth quickest in the opening damp practice session before claiming third across the next two sessions, setting him up for the three-part qualifying shootout.

He was a contender in all three segments but ultimately wound up fourth, with Ferrari's Kimi Räikkönen on pole, Alonso second, and Nick Heidfeld third for BMW. Hamilton was nonetheless lifted by his performance, describing a second-row grid spot as "overwhelming".

The field lined up in near-perfect conditions beneath the late summer sun in Australia but Hamilton's initial getaway was so-so, allowing fifth-placed starter Robert Kubica to jump ahead, as the top three pulled clear.

Kubica forced Hamilton towards the inside of the circuit, boxing the McLaren driver in as the leading pack prepared to brake for the right-hander at Turn 1.

Räikkönen held on to the lead, but Heidfeld and Alonso duelled for second position, with the Spaniard having to back off on the inside line.

Hamilton, meanwhile, had instinctively swept to the outside, dared to be later on the brakes than Kubica and in the process negotiated his way around the compromised Alonso.

Just 10 seconds into his first race, Hamilton had already made an impression.

The start was to be the high point of a fairly tame curtain-raiser to the 2007 season; Räikkönen and Ferrari's superiority was such that he cruised clear, and had a 15-second lead before the first round of stops even took place, the win effectively already in the bag.

Heidfeld's BMW eventually slipped away from contention, courtesy of running the softer tyres during a short first stint, leaving the McLaren pair to contend for second position.

Räikkönen's earlier stop enabled Hamilton to lead the Grand Prix, a rare feat for a debutant, and in being fuelled heavier than Alonso, he was able to run a lap longer.

Consequently, Hamilton re-emerged from his stop a second ahead of Alonso, continuing the trend of the first stint, when the champion had shadowed the young upstart around the sun-kissed Melbourne track, the glistening MP4-22s lapping line astern. 

Hamilton and Alonso continued metres apart for the next stint until the next round of stops, when it was Hamilton's turn to be called in first. His prospects were hurt as he got stuck behind the lapped Super Aguri of Takuma Sato through the final sector and into the pit lane.

Alonso managed to stay out for an additional two laps on low fuel, aided by a clear circuit, while his stop was 1.7 seconds quicker than Hamilton's service.

As Alonso exited the pit lane, Hamilton was rounding the final corner – Alonso duly moved up to second, Hamilton down to third. 

The three-second gap gradually grew across the remainder of the stint but Hamilton was nonetheless able to claim a podium on his debut, the first driver to achieve the feat since Jacques Villeneuve in 1996.

"I'm absolutely ecstatic – the result is more than I ever dreamed of achieving on my Grand Prix debut," said Hamilton after the race.

"I made a good start but the BMWs were quick off the line and Kubica managed to get past. There was no room on the inside so I got on the left and managed to out-brake both Kubica and Fernando coming into the first corner to take third.

"The race was intense, and I was working very hard. I made a few mistakes but nothing major and really enjoyed myself. It was great to lead the race for a few laps, but I knew it was only a temporary thing.

"Fernando got past me at the second pit-stop as he was able to stay out a bit longer and I lost some time behind backmarkers."

It was the first of 104 podiums – and counting – as Hamilton began life in Formula 1 at the sharp-end of the pack, where he would remain for the following decade. Next weekend, at the same circuit, he will begin his quest for a fourth world crown.

Written by: Phillip Horton

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