The Road to Champion

November 03, 2017

- Grant Whittington

Formula 1 is seen as a glamourous sport, with drivers earning millions of pounds and living a lifestyle that most of us can only dream of while indulging their passion for racing cars.

But success does not come overnight and for all those lucky ones that we see racing at Monaco or Silverstone there are plenty more who fall by the wayside and never make it.

However it is open to debate as to whether luck is involved as the drivers who now line up on the F1 grids around the world have all come up through the different racing ranks to earn their spot in the elite.

Lewis Hamilton is currently the hottest property in the sport having earned his fourth world title in 2017, and his is a well-worn path to the top.

Having been bitten by the racing bug after being given a remote control car to race as a kid, the Stevenage-born star began kart racing at the age of eight.

While the machines may seem lightweight in comparison to their F1 cousins, speeds of 160mph are reached and it was during his seven years at this level that Hamilton developed his rivalry with future Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg.

The duo are a similar age and came up through the system together, honing their skills on the track before moving on to even faster cars.

In Hamilton’s case that was the British Formula Renault Championship and it was not long before the Brit landed his first title in 2003.

Driving for Manor Motorsport, Hamilton also finished fifth in the 2004 Formula 3 Euro Series and won the Bahrain Superprix the same year.

He claimed the Formula 3 championship the following year and was edging ever closer to his ambition of driving in Formula 1, with five race wins en route to the 2006 GP2 Series title.

As a precocious 10 year old, Hamilton approached McLaren F1 team boss Ron Dennis for an autograph, and told him that one day he wanted to race one of his cars and that dream came true in 2007.

Partnering two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, Hamilton put down a marker with four race wins and a second-place championship finish in his rookie campaign.

Inevitably the world title followed the following year and the rest is history and his duel with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel may be one of the highlights of the sport over the next few years.

The German also has four world titles on his CV and excelled as a teenager, winning the 2004 Formula BMW ADAC championship by claiming 18 of the 20 races.

While Hamilton stayed with the same team for many years during the early part of his career, Vettel switched around to gain as much experience as possible and was runner up in the 2006 Formula 3 Euro Series while also working as a test driver for the Sauber F1 team.

Cutting his teeth with Toro Rosso, he then switched to the Red Bull senior outfit and secured an incredible four straight F1 titles between 2010 and 2013, as the hard yards travelled in preparing for the the sport paid off.

Deciding on a career in motorsport and ultimately Formula 1 is a risky business due to the finances involved but a few drivers have had the advantage of coming from racing families.

Nico Rosberg is the son of 1982 F1 champion Keke Rosberg and so had an obvious route into the sport at a young age.

He was winning races as early as 2002 in the Formula BMW ADAC class and also drove for Team Rosberg in 2004, finishing fourth in the Formula 3 Series.

Although a friend of Hamilton growing up, the pair were fierce rivals as well and they were always destined to clash after the German initially signed for Williams.

Seven seasons with Mercedes culminated in the 2016 F1 title before he opted to call it a day at the relatively young age of 31.

The risks of the sport are obvious and Rosberg decided not to push his luck too far and get out while on top.

It does seem that the average age of the Formula 1 driver is decreasing and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen took this to the extreme when making his debut at the age of 17.

Eyebrows were raised and many thought it wrong as he appeared to have been fast-tracked into the sport, having watched his father, Jos, race in more than 100 Grands Prix.

However the youngster had shown promise in Formula 3 and three Grand Prix wins prove that he can take the pressure of the high-octane sport.

Many feel he is a world champion in waiting and will eventually land a drive with a team capable of winning the title.

Being a driven individual (no pun intended) is an essential part of a Formula 1 driver’s character as there is no place on the track for the feint-hearted, and if you are not 100 percent committed then failure is inevitable.

The drivers may enjoy the trappings of success and mix with stars from the world of show business but it is all down to the sacrifices they and their families have made along the way.

Hamilton’s father was forced to give up his full-time job in IT to work as a contractor in order to free up time to devote to his son’s passion, and it is that kind of dedication that separates winners from those who finish down among the also-rans.

Formula 1 is viewed by some as an elitist sport undertaken by ‘rich kids’ and, while there may be some truth in that, Hamilton has shown that it is possible to cross boundaries and be successful without being born with a silver spoon.

Ron Dennis wrote on the autograph he gave Hamilton that the 10-year-old should ‘phone him in nine years’ time’ to talk about driving for his team, but it actually happened the other way around as the McLaren chief called him.

Talent will always shine through but it is the heart and desire of a driver that makes him a champion.

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