Greatness may beckon for Lewis Hamilton at this weekend’s Turkish Grand Prix but the world champion bears the weight well. Victory at Istanbul Park would ensure Hamilton becomes Formula One’s most successful driver in securing his seventh world championship to match the record set by Michael Schumacher.
When considering the journey that brought him here the British driver had cause to reflect on the lessons learned since his first title and why he believes his greatest triumph will not come on track but in trying to make a difference on a broader stage than that which he has strode with such authority for 14 years.
F1 has not raced in Turkey since 2011 and Istanbul Park is a grand challenge welcomed back with enthusiasm across the paddock. It ranges from the glorious and likely to be flat sweep though turn eight, across a series of technically demanding corners that are pleasingly conducive to offering overtaking opportunities, although practice on Friday proved a testing experience for every team.
Hamilton won here for McLaren in 2010 and should he do so again on Sunday the seventh title will be his. So commanding is his position, just finishing in front of his Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, will also seal it. The Finn must outscore Hamilton by eight points to delay the inevitable. If he takes the win and Hamilton is second, Bottas would still require the point for fastest lap to do so.
Yet much as F1 will likely be honouring one of the sport’s greatest drivers in Turkey, Hamilton has this season proved he possesses depth and character beyond the track. Such has been his embrace of anti-racism and strident pursuit of improving diversity, it has placed even his remarkable success in perspective.
“The title doesn’t necessarily impact on people’s lives,” he said. “I am much prouder of doing the work outside, trying to improve conditions for people round the world. Everyone has the right to equality and quality education and equal human rights. That is the most important thing to me.”
This has been, even by the world champion’s high standards, a masterful season. With nine wins from 13 races and in the form of his life, Hamilton has not allowed another driver so much as a look in. Having won his first championship in 2008, a closely-fought scrap with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa that was clinched on the final corners of the final lap at the final race of the season in Brazil, he has since surpassed Schumacher’s records of both poles and races wins. Now at 35 years old his skills are finely-honed like no other and, as a seasoned campaigner, he is entirely unfazed by his imminent entry into the history books.
“The goal here is to win the race, I keep that as the focus,” he said. “When I was fighting for my first world championship, the build-up to those races towards the end and the pressure that was there, that was not needed. If I knew then what I know now I would have easily won that championship in the end but hindsight is a great thing.”
Tunnel vision shapes his mentality here then but he can be expected, as he has in the past, to enjoy the moment should he deliver on Sunday.
“Over the years I have learned not to add pressure that’s unnecessary,” he said. “Maybe then that’s why sometimes it’s a shock. All of a sudden it hits you because you have not thought about it so much and it hits you.”
Hamilton has still yet to sign a new contract with Mercedes for next season and had cast some doubt on whether he would do so at the last round in Imola but in Turkey the team principal, Toto Wolff, said he remained confident a deal would be done to extend his career with the team.
Hamilton appeared to support that position. “Nothing is set in stone. It is just about talking about it. I don’t feel like I’m finished,” he said. “I love racing and the challenge and I don’t think that is going to change any time soon.”
Max Verstappen led first practice for Red Bull on a very green track that has been newly resurfaced and was offering very little grip with Hamilton in 15th. In the more representative afternoon session but with the track still proving slippery, Verstappen was quickest in front of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in second with Bottas and Hamilton third and fourth respectively.
The drivers’ disappointment at the track surface was clear. Tyres were not coming into their operating window and lap times were three seconds slower than those of 2011. “This track is such a fantastic circuit, and I really don’t fully understand when they spend millions to redo a surface of a track,” Hamilton said. “It’s terrifying the whole way around.”