Lewis Hamilton, having vanquished the living, has now turned his eager attention to defeating the dead. Sunday’s Singapore Grand Prix could see him pull level with his idol, Ayrton Senna, on 41 victories. It would be the realisation of a giddy ambition that has possessed him for 25 of his 30 years.
Raiding the pantheon is, perhaps, the only challenge left to this most dominating of racing drivers, who has taken 11 poles and seven victories from the first 12 races of the season, and who leads the world championship by 53 points.
His Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg is often described as his arch rival; he is, in the same way that Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote are arch rivals. There is usually only one winner.
So for Hamilton the serious tests that remain are to make it to the front row of more celestial grids, to be ranked with Jim Clark as Britain’s greatest F1 driver, and alongside Senna, who was arguably the finest of them all.
“My first memory of Ayrton was being at home with my dad on a race weekend,” he recalled here, in yet another homage to his hero. “I was in a one-bedroom apartment, watching on the sofa.
“I was about five years old. It was probably just the colour of the [McLaren] car. I liked the way the car looked and I liked the way he drove. As a boy growing up in Stevenage, I would come home from school and put on a video of Ayrton.” Years later, he says, “I liked the way that he stood up for himself and his beliefs. There was a certain shine in his eyes. He knew he was going to win, knew he was the best.”
The attraction is hardy surprising. Senna appealed to Hamilton’s pure racing heart. Both men might have been inspired towards their tenacious, wheel-to-wheel driving watching the chariots in the film Ben-Hur. Not that we get very much wheel-to-wheel stuff with Hamilton these days.
When he does draw alongside Senna (and Sebastian Vettel) on 41 race wins there will be only Alain Prost (51) and Michael Schumacher (91) ahead of him. But, it seems, their records do not concern him.
“There will be no one else that I look to,” he said. “There will be goals that I set myself but there won’t be anyone else who I will be looking to emulate, or match. I’ve always wanted to emulate Ayrton. I wanted to be like him. If I was to achieve the same amount at some stage, even this weekend, it would be very emotional.”
Warming to his fervent theme, he added: “If Ayrton hadn’t passed away he would have continued to win many more races, many more championships. Once I am level with him, I feel like I will be carrying the baton on, like a relay race. I feel like I’ll be carrying the baton for both of us, hoping I’ll be able to continue with the strength that I’ve had up until now.”
He made it sound almost like a gig: Lewis and Ayrton, a picture that could go with those of him spending recent time with Kanye West, Lionel Richie and Keith Richards. It is sometimes difficult to take Hamilton entirely seriously when he is in the middle of one of his relentless, unembarrassed self-promotions. When he is in a racing car, however, it is a different business.
Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal who has not always been one of his most gushing admirers, said on Friday: “Lewis has this great, raw natural ability. He’s able to turn up, jump in and deliver. He’s obviously got great natural ability and an instinctive feel to be able to do that.” Precisely.
In the darkness of Singapore, Hamilton cannot be expected to go gentle into that good night as he attempts to go wheel-to-wheel with Senna. He has won here twice before, in 2009 and, en route to his second world championship, last year.
Another victory here will be among the most emotional of an already largely fulfilled career. Beyond that is his even more coveted desire to match Senna’s three world titles. That, too, is a given. But what can he possibly do for an encore?
This article was written by Paul Weaver in Singapore, for theguardian.com on Friday 18th September 2015 21.59 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010