Austin, Texas: Rubbing tears from his eyes in the cockpit, Lewis Hamilton struggled to absorb the feat he had just accomplished.
Here in Austin, Texas, the heart of cowboy country, he had performed not his first rodeo, or his second, but his sixth.
In his 13th season at the pinnacle of motor racing, Britain’s greatest driver has inscribed his name among the immortals of all sport as a six-time Formula One world champion.
It is a quite giddying number of titles: one more than Juan Manuel Fangio, twice as many as Sir Jackie Stewart. As he draped himself beside his car in the Union flag last night, he looked every inch the icon.
“It’s an honour to be up here with these greats,” Hamilton said.
He is quickly approaching the legacy of the great Michael Schumacher’s seven titles.
His chances of catching him, once thought to be impossible, now look very, very good.
“Reaching Michael was never a target for me,” Hamilton said.
“I definitely thought that getting anywhere near Michael was just so far-fetched. I remember having my one (championship) for a long period of time. And then getting the second and it was so far away. Now it seems so close and yet is so far away ...
“And I don’t want to build up the idea of trying to get to Michael’s seven, because at the moment, I’ve got to enjoy right now,” Hamilton said.
Fittingly, it was a performance full of the qualities that he has made his signature. Where lesser mortals might have resorted to autopilot, knowing that they needed to finish only eighth to make sure of the ultimate prize, Hamilton, with 83 wins already to his name, displayed a cussedness worthy of a driver chasing his very first. Even the second place that he delivered behind Valtteri Bottas at the US Grand Prix came only after a relentless fight for victory. “My dad told me, when I was six or seven years old, never to give up,” he grinned. “That’s the family motto.”
Father Anthony, who has presided over each stage of Hamilton’s quest for greatness, could not conceal the strength of feeling as he watched his son enrich his legend. “It’s an unbelievable moment,” he said. “Six championships, whoever would believe it? It means the world to him.”
While a red carpet was rolled out for visiting celebrities, a personal space was designated for Hamilton in parc ferme. “2019 world champion,” the sign read. “Unauthorised vehicles will be removed.” Such was the deference to Hamilton in the paddock, any rogue parking was unlikely. Even Matthew McConaughey, his Oscar-winning friend and an Austin resident, was on hand to salute him.
So, too, were many more of his family: his mother Carmen, his stepmother, stepfather, his uncle George, even his aunt from Trinidad. After a feat on this scale, Hamilton wanted to share the joy as widely as possible. “It’s just overwhelming,” he said. “I feel so much emotion.” As for the message to his team, he adapted it straight from the title of the Maya Angelou poem tattooed across his back: “Still we rise, guys. I really can’t believe it.”
The alarm for his rivals is that Hamilton shows not the faintest sign of relenting. While most drivers two months shy of their 35th birthday might talk openly of retirement, he will line up again next year with the finest car, expressing every intention of carrying on beyond F1’s imminent rules revolution in 2021. “As an athlete, I feel as fresh as can be,” he said. “It’s an honour to be up there with the greats — and I’ll keep pushing.”
In the mind of Toto Wolff, his team principal and the man at the helm for five of his six title triumphs, there is no limit to the milestones he could yet reach. “Personally, I think there is no limit,” Wolff said. “He is still very motivated and you can see that he wants to win every single race. We need to provide him with a good car. So long as that is the case, I believe he can go for more.”
Realistically, the only impediment to Hamilton’s coronation was the sharply uphill run to the first corner, often a choke point to anybody starting from the third row on the grid. Wisely, he kept his distance from Max Verstappen, whom he has recently accused of “torpedo” driving, taking a sensible line to sweep past Charles Leclerc on the outside. Shooting through Austin’s signature S-bends, he also leapfrogged Sebastian Vettel, who was struggling with suspension problems.
As Vettel limped back to the pits, Hamilton made hay while the sun shone.
_ The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019