London - Lewis Hamilton took to social media this weekend to capture his 106th flight of the year. Destination: the United States of America and a possible appointment with history.
This coming Sunday at the Circuit of the Americas, 24km and a thousand religious billboards southeast of downtown Austin, the 33-year-old Briton will attempt to emulate Juan Manuel Fangio, the Argentine racer of legend, as a five-times world champion. Only Michael Schumacher, the obsessive German who is stricken at home in Switzerland after suffering a terrible head injury while skiing in 2013, would stand ahead of him in the accountancy of motor-racing greatness.
The further maths is that Hamilton needs to score eight points more than Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel at the US Grand Prix to clinch the championship with three rounds to spare. Or, to put it another way, if Hamilton wins, then the German must finish second, or it is all over.
But leaving aside the permutations of the points, we should record the wider phenomenon of a new serenity about Hamilton in 2018.
The three phases of Hamilton's career
As one who has watched his journey from the start of his Formula One career, I suggest we can now divide his career into three phases. The first was Lewis as a shiny, neat, word-perfect, highly commercial protege created by two driven perfectionists in Ron Dennis, his backer at McLaren, and Anthony, his father, manager and symbiotic other half. Hamilton’s talent was natural but he was polished within an inch of his sanity.
Then there were the years after he dispensed with his father’s services, in 2010, a necessary fracture but a painful one. Hamilton, who had wanted for nothing but freedom since hitching his future to McLaren as a teenager, suddenly had to go in search of the person he wanted to be.
He turned to tattoos, where his father would have forbidden them. He enlisted glitzy management, namely David Beckham’s then agent, Simon Fuller. He moved from Switzerland to Monaco. His friends were rappers. He was wriggling out of the straitjacket of conformity he had worn during his rise. As I wrote at the time about Fuller, he was the management Hamilton wanted, but not the management he needed.
That second phase, taking in McLaren and Mercedes and encompassing both no titles in six years and then three in the four years just gone, lasted until this season.
Then began the third Hamilton age: a man more at ease with himself. That has meant, for the first time, that he has barely courted controversy in a whole year with some injudicious word or deed. Perhaps his immediately truculent response to losing to Vettel at Silverstone was the closest we saw to the Hamilton of the second phase. But, still, not one proper Twitter rumpus to report.
We may have spoken too soon, and we should not be too naive here, for Hamilton will never entirely change his spots. But even if he ‘strays’ in the next few weeks, it will remain the case that the level of maturity he is now displaying is palpably different from that which has gone before, and it is feeding into the form of his life, perhaps the form of any driver’s life.
Patience and verve
He goes into the American race standing indisputably among the golden handful of Formula One stars who have ever lived, including those such as Ayrton Senna and Jim Clark, who died before they could assail Fangio and Schumacher’s statistical supremacy.
Anyone who doubts that lofty claim should look at Hamilton’s performance in winning at Monza. It married patience with verve. Vettel lost his head, tangled with Hamilton and damaged his car. In inferior machinery, Hamilton passed the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen eight laps from the end. It had been a Ferrari front row, at their home track, yet Hamilton had prevailed with Vettel fourth.
"Ferrari have got a problem," said Damon Hill, the 1996 champion, "and it is called Lewis Hamilton."
And when they went to Singapore for the next round, Hamilton produced his 70th career pole lap so magical that it sent jaws crashing to the asphalt. That bulb-lit street circuit was meant to be Ferrari’s track, but Hamilton colonised it with silver stardust. Vettel’s student-on-a-gap-year demeanour evaporated. Ferrari imploded. Vettel has made seven telling mistakes this season, but those team and driver errors should not diminish the extraordinary virtuosity Hamilton was unfurling before a bewitched world, or at least those of it who can still find the sport on a TV station near them.
"Unquestionably the best of his era"
John Watson, who won five races in the Seventies and Eighties and remains one of the sport’s most astute and forceful pundits, says of Hamilton: "He is unquestionably the best of his era." That recognises what is at stake this season: a fight for supremacy in their time between the Brit and the German, the only two current performers who have won four titles each.
Hamilton has always held up Senna as his idol. "Senna was beyond human in qualifying, though Nigel Mansell was probably the better racer," said Watson. "The cars then were unbelievable and Senna was mesmerising. But Hamilton is every bit as good as Senna, and racing so well. He is not taking risks. He has the capacity to commit to an overtake or produce a quick lap by digging deep into his reserves, as Schumacher did, but mostly he is driving within himself, leaving spare capacity that he can deploy when on the back foot. But he is not often on the back foot."
Away from racing, Hamilton has finally found an outlet for his desire to be creative and to be recognised for it: his collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger in designing a clothes range - TOMMYXLEWIS. He also seems to have discovered, by trial and error, how much extra-curricular activity is a welcome relief and how much a draining distraction.
He is increasingly reconciled with his father, as evidenced by recently posting footage of them playing tennis together during a visit to England. All the stars are aligned.
At Mercedes, he has signed a two-year extension worth £80 million (R1.5bn) until the end of the 2020 season. He has also matured as a team leader, avowedly applying the lessons he has learned over the years. And he is an unforgiving self-critic.
One Mercedes insider said Hamilton more than before is entirely trusting himself to motivate others, pushing back and challenging where necessary. Mercedes trusts him. He trusts them.
He goes out knowing that if he fails it is likely to be his fault, so he makes sure he delivers. He must then not let himself, or the team, down. This is in contrast to Ferrari, where Vettel does not appear to have total confidence in his technical gurus and their strategy. That provides him with an excuse before he turns a wheel. Vettel’s doubts, of course, are magnified by Hamilton’s magisterial driving.
"It is not as if Lewis is suddenly doing half an hour longer in his debriefs," said a Mercedes team-mate. "There is just an extra poise to him, a harmony in himself and between him and the team."
Now the circus is off to the outskirts of Texas and a circuit on which Hamilton’s record is second to none. He goes in search of a seventh victory in the last eight races of this increasingly one-sided campaign. However you look at it, the momentum unquestionably lies with a contented sportsman at the peak of his remarkable talents.