June 14, 2024
Lewis Hamilton

‘I’m in fighting spirits’ insists Hamilton after ‘strong’ first day in Canada

Lewis Hamilton, for so long the thorn in Ferrari’s side, takes to the track this weekend in Italy as a potential hero in waiting. The Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix at Imola will be Hamilton’s first race in front of the Ferrari faithful since he signed for the Scuderia in February and, while he is still driving a Mercedes, for the tifosi Hamilton embodies visions of a return to glory in scarlet.

Hamilton shocked Formula One and ­Mercedes when he announced he had done a deal to join Ferrari in 2025, the team he has battled with since his career began. The ­Scuderia last won the drivers’ ­championship in 2007, when Kimi Räikkönen pipped ­Hamilton to the title in the British driver’s debut season. A year later Hamilton denied Ferrari’s Felipe Massa the crown in a nail-biting finale in Brazil.

He has gone at it with Ferrari ever since, against Fernando Alonso while at McLaren, then repeatedly seeing off Sebastian Vettel with Mercedes. It has been spiky and testing and, much as the tifosi admired his talent, it was clear they did not much enjoy it at the expense of their drivers. ­Hamilton has won at Imola once, in 2020, and five times at Monza where, on the occasions when dominant with Mercedes, the fans would flood out before the chequered flag.

He said it was a childhood dream to drive for Ferrari and, under the rebuilding process being orchestrated by the team principal, Fred Vasseur, Hamilton will be part of the plan to end the Scuderia’s championship drought.

As befits a driver relishing a new challenge, he welcomed it at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, the circuit named in honour of the ­Scuderia’s founder and his son, though he was as yet unsure quite how the fans would react.

“There will be a big crowd here, there is always is, they come out in full force, the tifosi, I am looking ­forward to seeing them,” he said. “I think I’ve always had good ­support here in the past, racing is huge over here. I’m definitely excited to see people but I don’t know what to expect.”

In the fan zones, the answer was clear, with excitement, anticipation and huge enthusiasm from Ferrari fans for Hamilton’s arrival.

“It will be an incredible thing, we know Lewis is a seven-time world champion, a ­master of the sport, the ­greatest,” said Andrea Cagliari, a 17-year-old from Piedmont, who has followed F1 for a decade and was a baby when ­Ferrari last won. “I can’t wait for Bahrain 2025, Lewis is a really, really great driver.”

Nor were they alone. F1’s chief executive, Stefano Domenicali, who was team principal at Ferrari when they last won the constructors’ championship, in 2008, had no doubts.

“I expect a great welcome from the red fans for Lewis,” he said before this weekend’s meeting. “Lewis is an ironman, like Fernando Alonso. He is 100% excited and ready for the next challenge with Ferrari, I have no doubt about his motivation and preparation.”

For now the tifosi must wait as ­Hamilton sees out the year in a ­Mercedes that remains ­uncompetitive. Despite upgrades brought to Imola, the team ­principal, Toto Wolff, cautioned the car was still several races away from making a step forward to overcome its lack of downforce and handling issues exacerbated by having a very narrow operating window.

At Imola, then, it seems Ferrari, who have also brought a major update, will have little to fear from Hamilton as they look to stake their claim as the team best-placed to close down the championship leaders, Red Bull.

The race will also mark 30 years since Ayrton Senna was killed during the San Marino Grand Prix held here on 1 May in 1994. Senna went off on lap seven at Tamburello and struck the wall at 145mph. He was taken to hospital but was pronounced dead shortly afterwards. That he is still held in such high regard was evident across Imola.

Lewis Hamilton
This season’s Formula One drivers pay tribute to Ayrton Senna, who died at Imola in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Photograph: Andrej Isaković/AFP/Getty Images

The memorial to the Brazilian trackside, a simple bronze statue of the driver, head bowed in contemplation, is home to ­flowers and candles throughout the year. This weekend it has thronged with people and is festooned with tributes. The flags that are also ever present on the fence behind the statue stretch for 50 metres in both directions, almost all inscribed with a personal message.

These are heartfelt accolades and F1 too will recognise the three-time champion, with many drivers ­wearing Senna balaclavas and teams using the “Senna 30” logo on the cars. Before the race Vettel will take to the track in Senna’s 1993 McLaren MP4/8, the car in which the Brazilian took his astonishing victory in the wet at Donington.

It was far from smooth ­sailing for Ferrari’s new hope in ­practice, as ­Hamilton provoked the ­championship leader, Max ­Verstappen, into an angry ­reaction after accidentally blocking the ­Dutchman on a flying lap. ­Verstappen reacted by driving right in front of Hamilton’s car and gesticulating at him.

Hamilton held his hand up in ­apology acknowledging his error but Verstappen, frustrated by a car that was proving hard to set up and lacking grip and balance to manage only seventh in ­second practice, remained aggrieved. “It’s not the first time,” he said. “You always try to stay calm about it but it happened again.”

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc topped the first session, with his teammate Carlos Sainz in third and Mercedes’s George Russell in second. In the afternoon running, Leclerc was again on top with McLaren’s Oscar Piastri in second, RB’s Yuki Tsunoda in third and Hamilton fourth.

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