Lewis Hamilton said he counts Michael Schumacher’s crash helmet among his most valuable possessions ahead of his attempt to equal the German’s win record.
On the eve of Sunday’s potentially historic Russian Grand Prix here at the Sochi Autodrom, Hamilton cast his mind back eight years to Schumacher’s second-from-last race behind the wheel of a Formula One machine.
“My fondest memory of Michael was in Abu Dhabi when we exchanged helmets,” said the 35-year-old who replaced Schumacher at Mercedes the following season.
“That was really big for me – for him to take a moment out of his day to do that. It is the most valuable helmet that I have.
“I met him for the first time at his kart track in Kerpen, Germany and, as a kid, it was amazing to be on the same track with him. I managed to speak to him but I can’t remember what about because I was so young.
“I didn’t really have a relationship with him. We didn’t have any deep conversations. I just had pure admiration.”
Schumacher, whose condition following his skiing accident in 2013 is a closely guarded secret, recorded his 91st and final victory in Shanghai on October 1, 2006.
Just over six months later, with Schumacher in retirement, Hamilton announced himself on the global stage by racing past his double world championship-winning team-mate Fernando Alonso off the start-line on his debut in Melbourne.
Hamilton finished third, and was then on the podium for the following four races before claiming win number one of 90 in just his sixth appearance in Canada.
Fast-forward 13 years and Hamilton is on the brink of matching a record that many thought would stand the test of time.
Sebastian Vettel, the quadruple world champion, said: “It has always been a number that appeared to be impossible to reach but Lewis’ track record over the years has allowed him to get closer and now it is only a question of time that he reaches it.
“On one hand I will be sad because Michael is still my hero, but on the other hand I will always be happy for Lewis because he deserves all the success he has had.”
Hamilton, who heads into Sunday’s 10th of 17 rounds with a 55-point championship lead over Valtteri Bottas, is on course to match Schumacher’s record haul of seven titles, too. Indeed, by the close of this year, he will be the most decorated driver in the sport’s history.
Hamilton added: “If I match the win record, I cannot tell you how it is going to feel, what it is going to mean, or if it will mean anything at all. Right now, there are other bigger issues happening in the world right now.”
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Hamilton was referring to his personal fight against racism. However, the Englishman will be told on Friday evening by F1 bosses that the political message he displayed on the podium in Mugello will no longer be allowed.
Hamilton collected his trophy wearing a T-shirt which read: ‘Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’.
Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman, was shot dead by police in her Louisville home in March.
Hamilton’s preparations did not get off to a perfect start on Friday after he finished a surprise 19th in the opening running before trailing team-mate Bottas by 0.2 seconds later in the day.
There were a smattering of Union Flags in support for Hamilton along the pit straight here, with tens of thousands of fans returning to Formula One’s grandstands for the first time this season.