This one meant a lot – and for Lewis Hamilton it was all about the context.
Not the context of being more than half a second quicker than Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas around Spa-Francorchamps, the archetypal drivers’ circuit. Although that was important.
No, it was what it said about the strength of Formula 1’s only black racing driver, on a day on which an iconic black actor had died, in a year in which the struggle of minorities for fairness and equality has finally come to the prominence it should have had long ago.
Chadwick Boseman, the American actor who died on Friday of colon cancer, was most famous for the movie Black Panther, a hugely significant landmark in film history for depicting a black man as a superhero.
When Hamilton woke up on Saturday morning in Belgium, he heard about the death of a man he had met, and who represented so much. After the initial shock and sadness, Hamilton headed into work wanting to make a point. And he did so powerfully, first on the track, and then off it.
His two laps in the final session of qualifying were things of beauty, the first 0.578 seconds clear of Bottas, the second 0.511secs up on the Finn’s improved time.
“Those laps were some of my… I couldn’t do any better, really,” Hamilton said. “It’s not always the case you are able to do that.
“We got the car in a really good place and then it was just about building. Each lap was just getting better and better.
“Q3, run two, because I had that gap in the first one I was able to extend a little bit further. I wasn’t expecting that but the lap was beautiful. I can’t wait to watch it back.
“It was a really special one for me. I wanted it to be perfect, to show strength. I wanted to be out front on my own. That’s what I chose, to make it significant, to make it important and impactful.
“Because today’s a special day, to be able to dedicate it to Chadwick. I feel very honoured to be able to do that.”
Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff described Hamilton’s qualifying as “extra-terrestrial again”, adding: “Like many other high performance people, we function well on adversity and I can relate to it because we have discussed it.
“We are all a little bit similar – the more that is thrown at you, the better you get. And we definitely see that with Lewis this season.
“With all the craziness that is happening in the world and all these tragedies, he has certainly been driven by these circumstances to provide his answers to what’s happening.
“He has the possibility of becoming the greatest champion in F1 and he is very much carrying that energy and responsibility that he wants to continue to be a role model and an inspiration for the many people who look up to him.”
‘Black Panther really moved a generation’
Hamilton went on to explain why the performance was so important, in the context of the film and its star, and this tumultuous year.
“I can totally understand why some people may not be able to understand it,” he said. “I remember as a kid, superheroes – they’re just super, aren’t they?
“I always said I wanted to be Ayrton Senna or Superman. Superman was my favourite being in the world because he had such good morals, saving people and strength and all the things humans wish we could have.
“But what I do remember was there was no action hero the same colour as me.
“In a lot of scenarios around the world, there is under-representation. Young kids sometimes – if you can’t see it, you sometimes think it’s not possible.
“What he did with Black Panther, it really moved a generation, not only the younger generation but also the older generation.
“It signified an incredible importance of a shift in the film industry. These young kids can now see it is possible to have a black super hero out there. It was a movie that had many black actors also.
“It is not the only great one he has done. He did so much in such a short space of time and he did it while he was fighting cancer and that just shows the strength he had.
“It is such an important time in history when we are still fighting police brutality and inequality and he was one of those shining stars that signified power and strength. It has been an emotional day.”
This has been another momentous week in the struggle for equality and against police brutality towards black men, particularly in the USA.
The death of George Floyd in May at the knee of a policeman profoundly moved Hamilton and led to F1’s drive against racism from the start of this season, in which Hamilton has been at the forefront.
Then, last Sunday, another incident, in which James Blake was shot seven times in the back by a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and was left paralysed.
Arriving in Belgium, Hamilton was asked if he had considered following the example of fellow sports stars in the States and boycotting the race.
“It is a shame that is what’s needed over there in order to get a reaction,” he said. “But that is in America, and I don’t know really if me doing anything here will particularly have any effect.”
Hamilton is making his point in his own way, and powerfully he did it, too.
The race ahead
Starting from pole, Hamilton is favourite for the win, but leading is not always the place a driver wants to be on the long run from La Source hairpin, through Eau Rouge, to the Les Combes chicane on lap one at Spa.
Hamilton lost the lead to Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari there in 2018, and he won’t want to do it again.
Behind him, Bottas knows his hopes of the championship are fading fast – he starts the race not only 43 points behind Hamilton, but also six adrift of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who came so close to beating Bottas to a place on the front row on Saturday.
Verstappen has now beaten Bottas in the past four consecutive races, which does not look good on the Finn, whose car is clearly faster. So there is honour at stake there as well as points.
Rain is also threatening, as it does so often at Spa, although Verstappen said: “Dry or wet it won’t make a difference, the result will be pretty similar.” He’s clearly not expecting to be able to mount much of a threat to Hamilton. But that won’t stop him trying.
Meanwhile, Wolff is wary of Daniel Ricciardo, outstanding in putting the Renault fourth, and running a low-downforce set-up that has made that car the fastest on the straights all weekend. He, too, will be a factor up that hill on lap one.
The red tractor
Ferrari said before arriving in Belgium that they were expecting a difficult weekend – one of the calendar’s most power-sensitive circuits was always going to pose difficulties for a car lacking straight-line speed.
But still it was a shock to see the red cars quite as slow as they were.
For a time, it appeared as if they might even not make it out of first qualifying – particularly when Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel finished final practice 17th and plumb last.
Leclerc, lacking a tow in the first session, very nearly didn’t – he was 15th and the last man to make it through. In the end, the Ferraris start the race in 13th and 14th places, Leclerc ahead as usual.
Lest we forget, Leclerc won this race from pole last year, and the two Ferraris locked out the front row.
This, then, was a stark reminder of how much Ferrari have lost in engine performance since first a rule clarification at the US Grand Prix last year that brought to an end a run of six poles, and then a secret settlement over the winter between the team and governing body the FIA, which said it had concerns that the Ferrari engine was not always running legally in 2019.
Ferrari dispute that claim, pointing out that if there was evidence that they had broken the rules, they would have been disqualified.
What can be said with certainty, though, is that whatever they got away with last year, they can’t this year. And to make matters worse, the car itself isn’t much cop either.
Leclerc and Vettel cut dejected figures after qualifying. But they know this will not be a one-off. Their home race at Monza next weekend is on a track that will suit the Ferrari even less.
Not only that, but engines are frozen for this season, with only reliability modifications permitted.
Teams are allowed one engine performance upgrade for the start of next season. Ferrari had better make it a good one, or they are staring at this for another year and more.
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