On Sunday August 2, 2020, Lewis Hamilton was piloting his black Mercedes Formula 1 car around the final laps of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone when his front-left tyre exploded. It was a scorching summer day in the heart of England. Beyond the titanium ring of the car’s protective halo device, Hamilton could see picture-book clouds scudding across a brilliant blue sky, broken only by the angular shapes of grandstands kept empty by the pandemic.
But the conditions – the heat, and a risky strategy brought on by an early crash – were wreaking havoc with the 20 vehicles that had started the fourth race of the truncated 2020 season. F1 cars are temperamental beasts and, in the current era of the sport, drivers must carefully manage the conditions and temperature of their tyres. Too cold, and the rubber remains stiff –
it fails to provide the grip they need, sliding over the road surface like a puck on ice. Too hot, and it starts to degrade – wearing away too quickly, bubbling and blistering like burnt skin. Already, two of Hamilton’s rivals – including his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas – had suffered front-left punctures and been forced to limp back to the pit lane.
A few minutes earlier, Hamilton’s race engineer Peter Bonnington – a bespectacled man nicknamed “Bono” – had radioed him from the pits: “OK Lewis, so another car has a puncture, so just look after your tyres as best you can.” There was a 30-second gap between Hamilton, leading the race, and Max Verstappen, a young Dutch driver for Red Bull known for his aggressive style, in second place. Hamilton could afford to nurse his car, #44, to the finish line.
But, on the last lap, as he approached a twisting left-hand corner called Brooklands – slowing down from around 290kph to 150kph with a firm press of the brake pedal – a strange sensation reached him via the carbon fibre seat, which is custom-moulded to his body at the start of each season. His tyre had gone, too. “My heart just dropped,” he says. “In that moment, you have to concede that the fact is you might lose the race.”
As Hamilton struggled to finish – an experience he compares to limping the last stretch of a 100m sprint with a pulled calf muscle – the on-board camera captured the tyre’s rapid disintegration. The gap to Verstappen was down to 25 seconds, and the car was shaking – the rubber threatening to hula off the rim of the wheel. Twenty seconds, through the sweeping curves of Maggots and Becketts where, 14 years earlier,
Hamilton’s speed had wowed onlookers during his first ever stint in an F1 car. He still remembers the smell of the borrowed race suit. Seventeen seconds, and as Hamilton accelerated down the Hangar Straight, the exposed metal of the wheel rim scraped on the asphalt, creating a shower of sparks. Nine seconds, and when he hit the brakes to turn right into Stowe corner, his mirrors were shaking so badly that he could barely see the red-and-blue shape of the Red Bull closing in.
When he crossed the line – going 160kph on three wheels – Verstappen was still six seconds behind, and Hamilton was fighting so hard to keep the car on track that he missed the chequered flag altogether. “Is that the last lap?” he asked Bonnington. It was his seventh Grand Prix win at Silverstone, his 87th overall. By the end of 2020, Hamilton had overtaken Michael Schumacher’s record for total race wins,
claiming 95 Grand Prix victories, and equaled his haul of world championships by winning his seventh title. He’d won the public vote for BBC Sports Personality of the Year for the second time (he’s also been nominated on four other occasions), and been named in the New Year’s Honours List. In a short ceremony at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II will tap him on both shoulders with a ceremonial sword, and he will arise Sir Lewis Hamilton.