When Lewis Hamilton first decided as a young child that he wanted to drive in Formula One, he had no black role models in the sport.
Instead, he found his inspiration elsewhere: boxer Muhammad Ali.
“I think he was just a unique, iconic individual who had a character unlike anyone else’s. And everyone aspired to be like him,” Hamilton said on Sunday after picking up his second victory of the Formula One season by winning the Canadian Grand Prix for the second straight year.
“I wish I could have spoken with the charisma that he would have, or the comedic side that he had, that confidence that he could carry into a fight and outwit and outsmart his opponents,” Hamilton said after dedicating the victory to Ali, who died last week.
“And then there are the things that he stood for … politically, believing in who you are and not letting anyone dictate who you have to be. As a kid, when I saw that, I think I was like: `This is the guy I want to be like.”’
Ali was a three-time world heavyweight champion. Hamilton, the first black driver to compete full-time for the Formula One championship, could claim his fourth F1 crown if he keeps going like this.
And if his Mercedes teammate keeps going in the opposite direction.
Nico Rosberg won the first four races of the year to establish a 43-point lead in the standings. But he and Hamilton crashed out in the first lap in Barcelona, two races ago, and Rosberg came in seventh two weeks ago in Monaco; Hamilton’s victory there trimmed the lead from 43 points to 24.
Now the gap is down to nine points after Hamilton and Rosberg, starting 1-2 on the grid, bumped again at the start and the German fell back to 10th before the very first turn on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
“I was very (angry) in the moment, but that’s racing. In the end, it’s my job to make sure I’m in front after a battle like that next time,” said Rosberg, who finished fifth. “It was very costly for me because I lost a lot of places, and from then it was an uphill battle trying to fight back.”
Hamilton said he engaged the clutch and the car didn’t react. In an instant, Sebastian Vettel squeezed around both Mercedes to take the lead. “I just went for it,” said Vettel, who won in Montreal in 2013 en route to his fourth straight world championship.
Vettel remained in front until Ferrari decided to use a two-stop strategy, giving it up the first time on Lap 17 and then _ after Hamilton made his only stop on Lap 24 _ again on the 37th lap. Vettel spent the rest of the race unsuccessfully trying to catch up.
It was the 45th career Formula One victory for Hamilton, who finished the 70 laps on the 2.71-mile (4.363-km) Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 1 hour, 31 minutes, 5.296 seconds, about 5 seconds ahead of Vettel.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” the 31-year-old from Britain radioed to his crew. “That was for Muhammad Ali.”
Hamilton, who said he couldn’t stop thinking about Ali over the last 15 laps, then climbed onto the top of his car and began shadow-boxing before jumping to the pavement for a bit of the Ali Shuffle.
“I never really dedicate wins to anyone, but it’s someone that’s really inspired me so much throughout my life,” Hamilton said. “I was driving, and I was just thinking of him, and thinking maybe he would be watching the race, I don’t know. So that’s to him and his family. Rest in peace.”
Williams’ Valtteri Bottas was third _ his best finish of the season and his sixth time collecting points in seven races. Red Bull rookie Max Verstappen, the only non-Mercedes driver to pick up a win this year, was fourth.
With the victory, Hamilton cut Rosberg’s lead in the championship standings from 24 points to nine, 116-107. Vettel moved into third in the points race, with 78, and said he doesn’t second-guess the team’s calculation that fresher tires would help him catch Hamilton.
“I will always defend our strategies,” said Vettel, who won here in 2013 on his way to a fourth straight Formula One championship. “That’s a decision we do as a team. Kept in hindsight, it’s always easy.”
Kimi Raikkonen, in the other Ferrari, finished sixth, and Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo finished seventh a week after a pit stop fiasco cost him an almost-certain victory.
Jenson Button, who won here in 2011 with a last lap pass of Vettel in the rain, lost power on Lap 11 and pulled out of the race. His McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso started 10th and finished 11th, holding on at the end in the hope that he would pick up a point if one of the cars ahead found trouble.
“Bluntly, today was a day to forget,” McLaren race director Eric Boullier said.