In 2007, Lewis Hamilton exploded into Formula One with McLaren, finishing on the podium at his first nine races (at the time, tied for the third-longest podium streak in F1 history) and taking victory in just his sixth grand prix. In honour of his 31st birthday, on January 7, we are looking back at that first win, the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix.
It's hard to believe, but the 2016 season will already be Hamilton's 10th in F1 (and he has won at least one grand prix in each of his first nine). But back in 2007, he was a 22-year-old rookie battling a team-mate in Fernando Alonso who was fresh off two world championships.
In the first five races of the season, though, Hamilton proved he was not there to serve as Alonso's understudy. When they arrived in Montreal, the young Brit had finished ahead of his team-mate at two of the previous three races, and they were tied for the lead in the drivers' standings. "It was simply a matter of when that breakthrough success would materialise," Simon Arron remembered in a Motor Sport column.
At the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on that Saturday in 2007, Hamilton snagged his first pole position, and it wasn't particularly close. His Q3 time of 1:15.707 was nearly half of a second quicker than second-place man Alonso's.
If Alonso was disappointed to qualify behind his team-mate, he hid it well. Asked in the post-qualifying press conference whether he had any advice for Hamilton, starting from pole for the first time, the Spaniard responded, "No advice. Don't be too aggressive in the first corner and let me go through."
When the race began on Sunday afternoon, though, Alonso could have used some of his own advice. He attempted to pass Hamilton into the first turn and ran wide, allowing BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld to sneak through and damage his car in the process.
Although Hamilton was easily able to keep Heidfeld at bay, the race was anything but straightforward. The safety car had already been deployed once, to remove Adrian Sutil's crashed Spyker, when Heidfeld's team-mate, Robert Kubica, clipped Jarno Trulli's Toyota on the run down to the hairpin on Lap 26. Kubica's car was launched into the concrete barrier at 300 kph and rolled several times across the track.
I was sitting with a friend in the grandstand at the exit of Turn 2, at the opposite end of the circuit and, suddenly, the entire crowd was silenced. With only the replays to go by, we did not know the extent of Kubica's injuries and, as I have written before, we feared the worst.
After a further seven laps under the safety car, the race restarted and, once again, Hamilton maintained his lead. Two more safety cars in what was proving to be a bumper car-style race did nothing to hinder him. Alonso, meanwhile, with the damage to his car suffered on the first lap, was falling back through the field.
On Lap 67 of 70, in what may be the only example of a Super Aguri ever overtaking another car, Takuma Sato passed Alonso and dropped the Spaniard to seventh place, where he stayed. Hamilton finished more than four seconds ahead of Heidfeld, and Alexander Wurz scored the final podium of his career, finishing third for Williams.
"That was lots of go-karting experience there," Hamilton's father, Anthony, told Sports Illustrated's Alexander Wolff after the race, referring to the number of accidents and crashes. "You get that in karting, and you've got to keep your head straight."
As we crossed the track to get close to the podium, we were still uncertain about Kubica's condition. My most vivid memory from the post-race celebration is not anything Hamilton did on the podium, but rather a girl standing on a concrete barrier separating the pit exit from the circuit and slowly waving a Polish flag back and forth in silent tribute.
Thankfully, Kubica was not seriously injured. He missed just one race recovering from a sprained ankle and a concussion, allowing Sebastian Vettel to make his F1 debut at the U.S. Grand Prix.
In the post-race press conference, Hamilton was understandably fired up. "It has been a fantastic day," he said. "This is history. To come here, my first time in Canada…it’s really been a fantastic season already. We’ve had six podiums, and I've been ready for the win for quite some time. It was just a matter of when and where."
Alonso, meanwhile, was not nearly as good-natured as he had been on Saturday, refusing to congratulate his team-mate and saying Hamilton was "very lucky" to win the race, per ESPN F1.
Yes, the rookie had benefitted from the first safety car, having made a pit stop just before it was called, while Alonso was forced to stop while the pit lane was closed and received a 10-second stop-and-go penalty. Yet Hamilton also drove a clean race on a day when so many (including Alonso) did not, and he had already demonstrated his speed around the Montreal circuit during qualifying.
"It was a great achievement," then-McLaren mechanic Marc Priestley wrote in an email, "but perhaps also confirmed to us that we had a problem with our two drivers competing against each other, something we’d already experienced earlier that season."
Indeed, team principal Ron Dennis soon found himself defending the team from accusations that it was favouring Hamilton over Alonso. In the end, the team's refusal to prioritize one driver over another likely cost one of them the drivers' title, as Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen nipped both McLaren men by a single point after winning the final two races of the season.
Of course, Hamilton has gone on to win 43 races and three world championships, fulfilling the promise of that warm June day in Montreal—and just now, at 31, he may be reaching his peak.
Follow me on Twitter for updates when I publish new articles and for other (mostly) F1-related news and banter: