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The story of Lewis Hamilton, the habitual champion who keeps on rising

The Independent logo The Independent 30/10/2017 David Tremayne
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Lewis Hamilton has a phrase painted on the back of his helmet. It says: ‘Still I Rise’.

It refers to the famous poem by acclaimed black poet, memoirist and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Watch: Hamilton reflects on his 4th title (Provided by Sky Sports)

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He needed such motivation as he clawed his way to the 2014 and 2015 World Championships, and it sustained him through a rollercoaster 2016 season. Hamilton, the marmite figure that fans seem either to love or to hate, overcame huge adversity to get back in front. Then, arguably, engine failure while leading in Malaysia cost him a fourth title.

Some believe that beating a teammate in an intra-team contest is somehow devalued, yet the great Michael Schumacher never allowed Ferrari to employ team-mates who might challenge him at all.

And 2017 has seen Hamilton come back stronger than ever, and locked in a tremendous duel with Sebastian Vettel and the reborn Ferrari team. At times it’s not been difficult to imagine Angelou’s poem coursing through his head.

Ferrari won the opening race in Melbourne, leaving Hamilton to salvage second. Then he bounced back to beat Vettel in China, before the German repaid the compliment in Bahrain. In Russia Hamilton struggled with his car’s set-up, and was fourth as team-mate Valtteri Bottas beat Vettel.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

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Hamilton overcame a stellar challenge from Vettel and his Ferrari (Getty)

He is always at his most dangerous when his back is against the wall. He beat Vettel fair and square in Spain, overtaking him going into the first corner. But a fortnight later, in his beloved Monaco, his Mercedes’ innate handling problems on certain kinds of tracks left him a lowly seventh as Vettel won for the third time. Vettel 129 points, Hamilton 104.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I'll rise.

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Hamilton had to be at his best to oust Vettel (Getty)

He rose again in Canada with the dominant victory that he needed, but just as he seemed set to do the same again in Azerbaijan a loose headrest cost him the win, on the day when Vettel lost it under a Safety Car and deliberately drove into the side of him. If anyone was showing the strain, it wasn’t Hamilton. Bottas beat Vettel again in Austria, but again Hamilton could only muster a troubled fourth. Vettel 171, Hamilton 151.

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops.

Weakened by my soulful cries.

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Hamilton had to deal with a resurgent Red Bull as the season reached its climax (Getty)

He had only tears of joy as he won for the fourth time on his home ground and it was Vettel’s turn to struggle, and suddenly the gap was down to a single point after another great comeback. But in Hungary Ferrari were in a class of their own. Vettel won, Hamilton was only fourth. Going into the summer break, Vettel was back on top, with 207 points to Hamilton’s 188.

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don't you take it awful hard

'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines

Diggin' in my own back yard.

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Hamilton battled the elements on his way to the title (AFP)

After the summer break, he never finished lower than second, winning in Belgium, in Ferrari’s home ground at Monza, against expectations in Singapore, in Japan and in America, with a second to Max Verstappen in Malaysia on a day when the Mercedes was again struggling.

It said everything of his racer’s heart that he was not happy with the ninth place that secured him the title in Mexico, for as ever he had come here to win. But a fourth title places him in rare company, with Schumacher on seven, Juan Manuel Fangio on five, Alain Prost and Vettel on four.

So is he a great? Up there with the Fangios, the Jim Clarks the Jackie Stewarts, the Sennas, the Prosts and the Schumachers?

It’s almost an insult to ask the question, for manifestly he is for so many reasons.

You cannot gainsay a record 72 pole positions. Nor 62 race wins, which leave him second only to Schumacher on 91. Nor the fact that he has won on all of the great tracks - Spa, Monza, Silverstone, Monaco - and in all types of conditions, or that so many of his triumphs came after adversity. His victory in a wet British GP marked him out as a great as far back as 2008, and his clean driving style and personal ethics do likewise.

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I'll rise.

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Hamilton once again sits atop of the world after a rollercoaster year (Getty)

In 2016 he regained 62 points on team-mate Nico Rosberg in the greatest comeback in world championship history. But what about the reasons? How did he pull that off? Why wasn’t he crushed by all the adversity he faced?

You can always tell far more about a person when things are going wrong and the chips are really down. While winning is never easy, leading everyone home time and again, as Rosberg did on his own magic carpet ride for those seven races between Mexico 2015 and Russia 2016, is always a massive fillip. Watching a team-mate enjoying success like that, while 90 percent of your own problems are not of your making, is a real test of a man. Fighting back requires a significant degree of fortitude, allied to aggressive determination, unbreakable nerve and a bloody-minded refusal to give up. You might argue that those are the cornerstone of Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ philosophy. Certainly they are a crucial part of Hamilton’s.

Today he has matured to the point where he can cope with such adversity, without letting it get too deep into his psyche. He’s now too savvy to fall into the negativity trap of the ‘it’s not fair’ mindset. The stories of explosive decompression when things go wrong may not be too far wide of the mark, because no driver worth hiring is ever going to accept defeat with equanimity these days. Just consider how you might react if the thing you wanted most and had struggled to achieve was snatched away… But his mental approach has never been stronger.

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Hamilton closed out the season at the top of his game (AFP)

“When I was younger, if I had a bad race I was so hard on myself, it was a real negative,” he confesses. “I remember some races, I wouldn’t leave my hotel room for three or four days – not speaking to anyone, not being on my phone. I was just trying to get myself out of this dark place I’d be in. Then somehow I’d pop out of it and turn it into a positive. You’ve got to look at the situation, you’ve got to try and find the positives from it and leave the negatives behind.

“I’m only human. On those days I feel like it seems impossible. But you’ve just got to keep going, as painful as it can be and as hard as it can be. You might get over it quickly, sometimes it takes longer, but you’ve just got to keep going.

“Honestly, I feel I’m stronger now. I have those days where it feels like the world’s coming to an end, I’m never going to win this championship, blah, blah, blah. Look where I am now. If I had given up at any point… It shows you must never ever give up, no matter what."

Now he says he loves the mental challenge of the battle with himself.

"Only I know what’s going on in my head. I just find my way, and sometimes it takes longer to dig yourself out of something, it takes longer to understand. I never let anyone interfere with my mental process.”

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Hamilton has four world titles but is already eyeing a fifth (Getty)

Double world champion Emerson Fittipaldi describes him as “a fantastic ambassador for motor racing. He deserves the title, and is reaching a much wider audience, with his style of life. He is a super champion, and one of the greats, for sure. England should be very proud of him.”

And fellow champion Damon Hill, a man not given to hyperbole, says: “He’s got to that point in his career when he knows when to play each card. He’s got patience, intelligence and incredible, easy speed. He’s not fighting the car. And some of his laps have been close to perfection.

“He’s an incredible and special talent and a unique individual in the sport’s history. He’s redefined the way to go about being a Grand Prix driver, and he’s broken all the rules. That’s what defines a great, he’s a man who puts his own stamp on his career.

“F1 isn’t everything in Lewis’s life. He uses the other things he has to get himself in the right place when he’s racing. I think that’s really admirable and impressive. I’m pleased for him. He’s had a tough time, doing all his growing up in public. It’s not easy managing your own life in such a highly volatile environment.”

It was boxer Jack Dempsey who said: “A champion is somebody who gets up when they can’t.”

Hamilton has proved his ability to do just that so many times and that, perhaps more than anything, is what makes him a true great. Still he rises…

Gallery: How Hamilton surpassed Senna in 2017 (Provided by Read Sport) How Hamilton surpassed Senna in 2017: Lewis Hamilton has made it no secret that Ayrton Senna is one of his greatest inspirations. By clinching his fourth drivers’ championship in dramatic fashion in Mexico, Hamilton eclipses his hero.Hamilton made his Formula 1 debut in 2007 with McLaren, partnering defending double champion Fernando Alonso.He finished within a point of champion Kimi Raikkonen in his debut season, equalling Alonso’s points tally but beating the Spaniard on countback.Hamilton hit back in style a year later, scooping up his maiden title in a highly dramatic Brazilian Grand Prix.After four championship-less seasons with the British team, Hamilton made a bold move by signing for Mercedes for 2013 and beyond.2014 heralded his second championship victory, Hamilton beat his team-mate Nico Rosberg in the finale under the lights in Abu Dhabi.He followed that up with a second title for Mercedes in 2015, 59 points clear of Rosberg by the end of the season.After narrowly missing out in 2016, Hamilton hit back in 2017. This time he had Sebastian Vettel fighting him for the championship. Following a miserable run for Vettel, a once incredibly close title fight became a comfortable fourth title for Hamilton.Here’s how Hamilton picked up his fourth championship in 2017 to surpass Senna’s tally; How Hamilton surpassed Senna in 2017


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