He is now F1’s most recognised star and one of global sport’s most marketable figures, but Lewis Hamilton was barely known outside of motorsport circles when he made his full F1 testing debut 10 years ago this week.
September 19, 2006 was the date the-then 21-year-old Hamilton took to the track in an official F1 test for the first time, at Silverstone in McLaren’s MP4-21.
Just 10 days after winning the GP2 title at Monza, Hamilton was handed what effectively amounted to an audition to land a race seat alongside McLaren’s incoming world champion, Fernando Alonso, for 2007.
Having been on the Woking team’s books since the age of 13, Hamilton had briefly driven their F1 car two years before at the British GP venue, but only for 21 laps on the shorter National Circuit as the team also tried out fellow young guns Jamie Green and Alex Lloyd.
The three-day group test at Silverstone in September 2006, featuring five other teams and a host of established drivers, was therefore Hamilton’s first shot at the big time.
Hamilton tested alongside Pedro de la Rosa, who at the time was one of McLaren’s two race drivers having replaced Juan-Pablo Montoya earlier that season. The Spanish veteran was also in contention for the 2007 drive, as was the team’s test driver Gary Paffett.
Hamilton’s three-day test was therefore a golden opportunity for the rising star, and Ron Dennis protege, to stake his claim.
Although the team had hired Alonso for 2007 more than a year ahead of his arrival from Renault, McLaren had been left with little option but to promote from within for the second seat. The departure of Kimi Raikkonen, who had been with the team since 2002, had been confirmed at Monza when Ferrari announced he would be replacing the retiring Michael Schumacher.
Having given notice of his prodigious talent in both F3 and GP2, Hamilton’s first test was the cover story on that week’s Autosport magazine amid the general feeling that Britain had a future racing superstar on its hands.
His first day in the car was one of familiarisation and he didn’t set a single timed lap.
On Day Two, however, he began to make his presence felt, setting the sixth fastest time of the day with a lap within a second of de la Rosa’s best.
Speaking in his book Lewis Hamilton: My Story published in 2007 at the end of his record-breaking first F1 season, Hamilton recalled: “The test at Silverstone was the best week of my life at the time. I enjoyed it so much. I felt the pressure, because it was my first test, but it was so cool.
“I worked my way through it. The thing that really struck me, after GP2, was the downforce in the high-speed corners. I was like, ‘Wow, this is Formula 1! I want this!'”
Hamilton didn’t have to wait long. Having been told by Dennis at the end of September he would indeed be Alonso’s team-mate, Lewis tested again for the team at Jerez in mid-October – finishing second-quickest to Schumacher.
Confirmation of his F1 promotion – and appointment as Fernando Alonso’s team-mate – was finally made public on November 24.
“It’s obviously going to be the biggest challenge of Lewis’s career so far but it’s one that we are sure he will be able to meet,” said Dennis. “He is coming into the paddock for the first time as a Formula 1 racing driver and will have to familiarise himself with the pressures of a Grand Prix weekend.
“However the confidence we have in Lewis’s abilities and talent is clear from our decision to give him the chance.”
After undergoing a rigorous winter regime both on and off track to prepare for his F1 bow, Hamilton arguably only took the three days of the Australian GP to confirm that talent to the wider world.
Fourth on the grid and a debut podium in the race laid the foundation for the glittering career which has followed over the next decade.