Motorsport can be a cruel world. A driver’s future in the industry often hangs by a thread as funding can be hard to find and drivers have no choice but to move to more affordable championships. Seven-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton’s fate might have been very different had he not completed one of the greatest comebacks in feeder series history all the way back in 2006. F1 Feeder Series looks at how the Istanbul sprint race of the 2006 GP2 Series showed Hamilton’s potential to the world.
Hamilton’s path to Formula 1 was never an easy one. After competing in F3 Euro Series in 2004 as part of the McLaren Young Driver Programme, the British driver could have never made it to a bigger stage. A conflict between his father Anthony and McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh over a possible promotion to GP2 for the 2005 season resulted in the termination of his contract by McLaren, leaving the young driver without a crucial source of funding.
Hamilton could have ended up with Williams, but BMW’s refusal to fund him made the deal collapse. He went back to McLaren, where a new contract was ready for him if he agreed to compete again in the F3 Euro Series in 2005.
A dominant F3 Euro Series season in which he won 15 of 20 races led Hamilton to a promotion to GP2 Series for the 2006 season with ART Grand Prix. Aged 21, the British rookie had to compete with a strong grid featuring future F1 drivers like Nelson Piquet Jr, Timo Glock and Lucas Di Grassi.
Halfway through the season, Hamilton led the way, becoming one of the favourites for the title along with Piquet. Victory at Monaco and in both races at home in Silverstone took him to a 26-point lead over Piquet before Round 9 of 11 in Hungary, when things started to collapse in his title conquest.
After a perfect weekend when he secured pole position, two wins and two fastest laps, Piquet managed to reduce the gap to 11 points heading into Turkey. The pressure was even stronger for Hamilton after the Brazilian had taken the pole position and won the feature race in Istanbul, reducing the gap to only 6 points with three races left in the season.
The making of a legend
The 27th of August 2006 will remain forever one of the most memorable days of Hamilton’s racing career. After seeing the championship gap reduced once again by Piquet’s win in the feature race, Hamilton asks his team to trim the wing angle of the car – a set-up specification that improves straight-line speed, used at high-speed circuits like Monza. But with the numerous corners at the Istanbul Park circuit, ART’s mechanics warn the young driver that he will lose downforce and end up spinning.
Hamilton takes the risk.
Trusted by his team, Hamilton starts in seventh, with Piquet next to him in eighth. He knows that he had 23 laps to beat his rival and work his way up the field. However, nothing goes as planned for the ART driver. On Lap 2, Hamilton loses control of his car in the Turn 4 and spins, almost ending his race. Having dropped to 19th place, he starts one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the second tier.
After managing to pass three drivers before the end of Lap 2, Hamilton is already 10th by Lap 6, eighth by Lap 10 and fifth by Lap 14. Fourth-placed Piquet is in arm’s reach, and Hamilton’s overtake on his Brazilian rival on Lap 16 spurs an epic battle among the pair of them and Glock in third.
In the end, the German can’t do anything against Hamilton, who manages to overtake him and fellow countryman Adam Carroll on the last lap to finish second in controlled fashion behind Andreas Zuber. Not only does Hamilton manage to go from P19 to P2, but he also sets an impressive fastest lap 0.854 seconds quicker than that of anyone else.
With Glock managing to hold off Piquet for fourth, Hamilton leaves Turkey with a 10-point lead over Piquet in the championship before the final round in Monza, where he clinches the title.
A few months after this race, McLaren announced Hamilton in their F1 line-up alongside Fernando Alonso for the 2007 season, and the rest is history.
When Istanbul Park returned to the F1 calendar in 2020 after an absence of nine years, what happened almost felt like it was written in the stars. Fourteen years after the race that defined his young career, Hamilton clinched his seventh title to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of the most F1 drivers’ championships. The circle is complete for Hamilton, whose career could’ve ended before it even truly began.
Header photo credit: ART Grand Prix / GP2 Series
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