It was a cold and damp day in November, 2001, on a quiet race track in rural Leicestershire, when John Booth – a battle-hardened racer from an old pit village in South Yorkshire – witnessed something quite special.
Booth had been running the rule over potential drivers for his Rotherham-based Manor Motorsport team for the last decade and there was nothing to suggest today would be anything out of the ordinary.
He was there because an old motor-racing chum of his, Martin Whitmarsh, had asked him to take a look at a 16-year-old from a council estate in Hertfordshire who had taken the karting world by storm.
Lewis Hamilton was his name and Booth, standing on the pit wall, was about to be blown away.
“He must have been 15-16; certainly didn’t have a driving licence,” recalls Booth.
“McLaren wanted to test him and because he was so young we had to rent Mallory Park exclusively. Now, bearing in mind he’s never even driven a car before, never mind a race car, he was right on the pace from the third lap and that’s when you thought ‘wow, this kid is a bit special’.
The level he’s operating at now is incredible – he’s gone up a gear. With everything he’s won before you wouldn’t think it possible to sustain that level of determination but he has.John Booth on Lewis Hamilton
“He actually had a fairly major shunt that day. We got the car repaired; he went back out again and was just as quick straight away. He had the confidence and the speed straight away.”
Later, when Whitmarsh asked Booth if Hamilton could drive for Manor in the Formula Renault series the following year, the Yorkshireman jumped at the chance to work with a young man who had already been ensconsed in the McLaren family since the age of 10. “I’d known Martin Whitmarsh for quite a while, and they were too busy to look after the junior driver programme. They trusted us, we trusted them and it seemed like a natural fit,” continues Booth.
“Lewis was very young, 16 at the time, but he had that self-belief about him. Drivers always appear confident but there’s only a few that have absolute confidence and self-belief and he had that from day one.
“These guys have been karting from seven or eight years old so when he came to us at 16, he’d already been racing at a very high level for a lot of years.”
Hamilton drove for Booth for three years, the first two of those in Formula Renault and then in the Formula 3 Euroseries in 2004, after Hamilton’s title the previous season helped Manor graduate.
As well as a title, there were many race wins and a lot of happy memories along the way.
“Too many of those moments to recall,” smiles Booth now. “There were a lot of special moments. He’s always been very talkative, very sociable and a very confident young fella.”
Hamilton took that confidence with him as his career accelerated towards Formula 1, making the kind of impact on the world’s most famous grid as he had on Booth and those few mechanics who stood watching this complete novice tear around Mallory Park those few years earlier.
In his first race in F1, he took the podium, and some would argue a rivalry defined by jealousy on the part of team-mate Fernando Alonso cost him a world title in that first year of 2007.
He would have to wait only 12 further months to be crowned Formula 1 world champion and tomorrow night at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico, he need only finish fifth to secure a fourth title.
“I thought he would have won even more titles than he has,” observes Booth, in relation to that narrow defeat in 2007 and last year’s bitter loss to Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg.
“The level he’s operating at now is incredible – he’s gone up a gear.
“With everything he’s won before you wouldn’t think it possible to sustain that level of determination but he has.”
Hamilton will be crowned champion tomorrow night – winning a third world title in four years – is he finishes fifth or higher. If Sebastian Vettel finishes second, Hamilton is champion if he comes ninth; and, if Vettel fails to make the top two, then the Briton is king of the hill regardless.
Whether confirmation comes in Mexico, or in Brazil or Abu Dhabi next month, Hamilton will join an exclusive club of five drivers to have won the title on more than three occasions; Vettel and Alain Prost four times, Juan Manuel Fangio five and Michael Schumacher on seven.
So is Schumacher’s record attainable? “I don’t see any sign of him losing his hunger or giving up, he’s got 10 years left in him,” says Booth, who eventually followed Hamilton into Formula 1, spending six years from 2010-15 with the team he helped build.
“Schumacher had a dominant car for all those years and if Lewis keeps a dominant car then those seven world titles are within reach.
“There’s a certain amount of needing to be in the right place at the right time in Formula 1, which Schumacher always had.
“There’s a lot of politics, and that’s why Lewis manages himself. He’s a very smart cookie.
“I think taking that management responsibility on his own shoulders has helped him. It’s matured him. He’s always been quick – he was winning races in his first year in F1 – he’s really matured as well now.”
If Hamilton were to stop at four, to do a Rosberg and retire a world champion, what place would he take in the sport’s history? “He’s right up there,” adds Booth. “Drivers will only shine if they’ve got the right environment, ie a competitive car, so it’s always difficult to make comparisons but he’s right up there with those guys.
“On the other hand, knowing Lewis, he’ll follow his instincts and if he’s ready for a change, he’ll change.
“He won’t stay just to get the record, he’ll stay as long as he’s enjoying it and he’s competitive.”
Watching it all with great affection will be Booth. His ascent to the top was not as smooth, but he is happier for those six years he spent on the Formula 1 grid.
“There were a lot of highs and some very dark lows,” says Booth, who dipped back in as a consultant with Toro Rosso last year and is now back with Manor in the World Endurance Series.
“I learnt a lot in those years. I’m glad to have had them as much for discovering as much about myself as anything else.”