For many sports fans, 2020 will be a year to forget in the the wake of the coronavirus pandemic but for Lewis Hamilton however, the darkest 12 months for a generation could still play out to become his grandest yet in Formula 1.
As the Briton goes in search of his seventh World Drivers’ Championship this season, the 35-year-old looks to draw level with arguably the sport’s greatest driver in Michael Schumacher, at the summit of the Formula 1 peak.
With the much-delayed season beginning in earnest this weekend in Austria, a possible 18 races between July and December stand between the six-time champion and a fourth-successive world title. So can Hamilton further etch his place in the sporting annuls before a decidedly gloomy year is out?
Hamilton seeks super seven
With a tale that began like it had for all of F1’s good and great in Formula 3 and GP2, Hamilton was always set to become one of the very best to take the driving seat.
Finishing a mere point behind Kimi Raikkonen in his record-breaking rookie season for McLaren in 2007, the then 23-year-old went to the wire in Brazil once more 12 months later, as his fifth-placed finish at Interlagos saw him pip Felipe Massa to became the first Briton since Damon Hill in 1996 to claim the title – via his infamous overtake of Timo Glock on the final bend.
As Jenson Button made it two years in a row for the Brits in the paddock, Mercedes AMG then bought out the winning Brawn GP in 2010, whilst Hamilton remained with McLaren but struggled to regain his best form under the struggling reliability of the Surrey manufacturer.
After four years in the wilderness, Hamilton then moved to Mercedes with Nika Lauda at the helm of operations and a year later won his second F1 crown, followed by a third the year later.
During a heated 2016 campaign, teammate Nico Rosberg then dethroned Hamilton after a rocky relationship with his latest German foe, before the Briton – now in his thirties – proved his very best once more with titles number four, five and six, culminating in Abu Dhabi’s celebratory track donuts last year.
His task in 2020 however, whilst not only being in wholly differing surroundings could be his stiffest yet, with the season set to be crammed into a calendar trimmed by three months due to the pandemic.
Not that consistency has been an issue for the Briton having sat on the F1 throne since 2017. However, as the pretenders to said perch pursue in growing numbers – not least a hungry Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen and Mercedes’ number two Valtteri Bottas – for Hamilton to make history would be perhaps his finest hour yet.
Striving for history 16 years on
When Schumacher won his seventh F1 championship in 2004 – his fifth-successive title with then-dominant Ferrari – few expected the German great’s exploits to be even come close to being equalled.
16 years on then, Hamilton in 2020 has the chance to draw level with the man who claimed 91 race wins during his career and who like Schumacher with Scuderia, has blazed a trail through the sport during Mercedes’ now six-year reign at the top.
Robbed of years of battle between the relentless German and Ayrton Senna after the Brazilian’s untimely and tragic death at Imola in 1994, Hamilton has always spoken of his desire to emulate his South American idol, and to draw level with seven-time champion – who he himself states is the greatest – would be the perfect homage.
The British driver’s path to further glory in the past three years have played out in intriguing fashion with Sebastian Vettel – the man who conversely idolised Schumacher – but whom the Mercedes’ number one has largely beaten off the competition of, in the initial race to reach five world championships and then beyond.
Inspiration amidst uncertainty?
In the age of COVID-19, it may be churlish to be considering one of sports’ great tales in the coming months but in the midst of such surreal circumstance and not least without fan attendance, Hamilton must look for the inspiration within.
For a man who has overcome criticism over his public persona and attributed arrogance, the Stevenage driver has in the past six years doused the hopes of numerous racers with many a bottle of post-race bubbles, and now must harness all his wins, records and career footnotes the season ahead.
That begins with the Austrian GP and whilst a trip to Spielberg in early summer is nothing alien to the Briton, what greets him in the alpine region will be a source of great uncertainty.
Hamilton has often been seen as something of an enigma in the Formula 1 fraternity; standing somehow alone in an environment of fierce competition but simply put, should he once more stand at the summit of F1 in December as planned, few will be able to doubt his credentials as a true sporting icon.
The 2020 Formula 1 season begins this weekend in Austria, at the Red Bull Ring, Spielberg.
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