How differently Formula One history might have turned out but for Lewis Hamilton standing outside his mother’s house directing in a guest who was to change his life.
There would have been no 96th pole position achieved here, ahead of the Russian Grand Prix, in dramatic circumstances.
Nor Sunday’s potential landmark drive to match Michael Schumacher’s record 91 victories, a feat once so distant but now just 53 clean laps away.
Lewis Hamilton will equal Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 victories with a win in Sochi
Nor would Hamilton — as we reveal on Sunday — be close to agreeing a new three-year deal to remain at Mercedes until the eve of his 39th birthday. For he might never have joined them to start with.
But we go from Sochi on the Black Sea coast to mum Carmen’s house in Knebworth, Hertfordshire, on the day Ross Brawn, then team principal of the team which was to go on to dominate Formula One, turned up for secret talks to entice Lewis away from McLaren.
Brawn, now F1’s head of motorsport, reveals the inside story of that courtship, saying: ‘Those early talks were one-to-ones at his mum’s house. We wanted to keep it a little bit quiet, so as not to antagonise Ron (Dennis, the McLaren chairman). So I used to drive there and meet Lewis.
‘I remember the first time I couldn’t find my way. Lewis told me to keep driving and I found him in the middle of the road, waving me into his mother’s drive. That’s not very discreet, is it? A semi-clandestine meeting and he is out there for anyone to see!’
Lewis Hamilton waves to the 30,000 fans present during qualifying at Russian Grand Prix
Brawn outlined his ambitions, while Bernie Ecclestone pulled some strings behind the scenes. And Hamilton, after 21 wins at McLaren, made one of the biggest decisions of his life to move.
With Hamilton now on the brink of his 70th victory in Silver Arrow machinery, Brawn draws on his experience of the two most successful drivers in history.
As technical director of Benetton and Ferrari, he was a mastermind of Schumacher’s seven world titles and set the blueprint for Hamilton’s success, despite making way for Toto Wolff a year after the British driver’s arrival.
Ross Brawn recalls the meeting with Lewis Hamilton to complete the Mercedes move
Brawn admits he ‘cannot think of more different characters’ than Hamilton and Schumacher
‘In terms of the sharp end, in the car, they are clearly both exceptional talents,’ he said. ‘Out of the car, I cannot think of more different characters. When I started working with Lewis I was shocked by him. I had been used to Michael and his single-minded approach. He had very few distractions and was very much family- orientated.
‘So Lewis’s lifestyle, with the travelling, the music, the fashion shows, was odd to me. He was much more flamboyant. Yet Lewis has proved, and everybody now acknowledges this, that these other things are part of his success.
‘It was easy to see the dedication in Michael but not so easy with Lewis — outwardly, I mean. He hid it. But once you got used to his style, you could see a total desire to succeed in motor racing. And they could both do things in racing cars that very few people can: produce the exceptional lap.
The Briton secured pole for the 96th time in his career despite a couple of obstacles in Q2
‘Alain Prost was a very successful racing driver but you wouldn’t say his one-lap speed was amazing. However, these two guys, Lewis and Michael, find something from you don’t know where. Their colleagues in the pit lane just stand there thinking, “Wow”.’
Hamilton’s ability to find speed that trumps the rest was evidenced again here where, for the first time this season, fans returned — some 30,000 of them. Only in Russia, where Covid is fake news!
Hamilton’s 96th pole came despite a couple of obstacles in Q2. First, his time was wiped because he ran off the track. That plunged him down to 16th. His problems intensified as he tried to set a lap quick enough to crack into Q2, only for Sebastian Vettel to spin and hit the tyre wall to bring about a red flag.
There would be two minutes and 15 seconds remaining once the Ferrari was cleared away and qualifying restarted.
Hamilton queued up eighth in the pit lane ready for the resumption. He had to get in an out-lap before the clock ran out to have even a shot at registering another time.
He ran wide in his anxiety, and it was touch and go whether he would make it. He did, with a second-and-a-half to spare. He duly catapulted himself up to fourth. Then came the inevitable pole, more than 0.5sec ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen with Mercedes’ No 2 Valtteri Bottas in third.
But winning will not be straightforward. Unlike his rivals, Hamilton will start on the less durable soft tyres as a consequence of his Q2 difficulties.
He also has to hold off Verstappen in the long, 900-yard chase into the opening bends.
Hamilton’s pole on Saturday in Sochi came despite a couple of obstacles in qualifying two
Returning to the two greats: which of them, I wonder, was the more vulnerable — Lewis, who often wears his heart on his sleeve, or Schumacher, who tried during his long career, not always successfully, to hide his emotions from the world?
Brawn replies immediately. ‘Michael, funnily enough. On first appearances you would say he was stronger, and even appeared arrogant, but he had a lot of insecurities. That is why he was so obsessed with his driving.
‘He could not work out why he was so lucky. He needed the right sort of people around him, a reassuring group — people like Jean Todt, myself, Rory (Byrne) — whereas I don’t think Lewis is so dependent on people.
‘The other passions in Lewis’s life may give him a bit of extra longevity. Michael was a bit worn out by 2006, when he stopped with Ferrari. Lewis is driving as well as I can remember or have ever seen.
‘By all accounts Mercedes are looking at another agreement with him for three more years.’
That is ample time not only to beat Schumacher’s records but to drive clean out of sight.