LEWIS Hamilton was magnificent in dominating a supremely tense Canadian Grand Prix to become a record-setting seventh winner in seven races. The 2008 world champion celebrated driving one more race for McLaren than his idol Ayrton Senna - 97 to 96 - but his much-needed success was certainly earned the hard way.
Beaten with worrying ease by Sebastian Vettel in practice, he appeared doomed as the Red Bull driver led him and Fernando Alonso into the first corner, and began to pull menacingly away. But then the tide began to turn and it was Vettel who had to stop sooner for new tyres, on the 16th lap.
"The team did a really great job with the pit stops and the strategy," Hamilton said. "I was really surprised I was able to look after the tyres and still push. I closed up on Seb in the first stint and never thought they'd have such tyre degradation. It was a real pleasure, and very rare."
Hamilton followed Vettel in a lap later, Alonso a lap later still. That shuffled the pack, with the Spaniard now leading the Englishman and the German. But Hamilton wasn't in the mood to be dictated to. He'd so nearly stalled in his stop, but now he was on fire. He used his DRS rear wing to fly past Alonso on the 20th lap, then he started banking fastest laps one after the other to build a lead of around three seconds, depending on lapped traffic.
And so it became a chess match. Who could make their rubber last longer? On the 50th lap, Hamilton dived into the pits for another fresh set of the soft-compound tyres, but that was when it sank in to outside observers that Ferrari, now leading, and Red Bull, had been planning one-stop races. They weren't going to change tyres again. But could they go another 20 laps on tyres known to drop the driver over a cliff once they'd passed their best?
"I had feeling they were dropping back so quickly they were definitely doing a one-stop, I said it to the team and they agreed," said Hamilton. "I had to make my second stop, otherwise I would have fallen back further than they did. But after my second stop I was able to catch Fernando at 1.5s a lap, and the great thing here is that you can overtake. I got absolutely everything out of the car today."
If anyone tells you Formula One is both boring and artificial, show them this race. Hamilton had put British hearts into mouths as yet another McLaren pit stop went wrong, this time with a momentary delay in attaching the right rear wheel. When he rejoined, he was 11 seconds behind Alonso, and was urged by his team to "give it everything you've got".
He did that all right. Lap by lap he punched in ever faster laps, shrinking the gap each time as Vettel began to close in on Alonso until by lap 61 he was up on the German. By the 62nd second place had changed hands and now Alonso's eyes were bugging out as he watched his mirrors with hawklike concentration.
In his heart he knew he was doomed, but all round the 64th lap he somehow fended off the McLaren, placing the Ferrari just where he needed to in the chicanes and down to the hairpin. But a lap after he'd rebuffed a lunge Hamilton made in the hairpin, he was forced to surrender under DRS down the back straight.
It was the win he so sorely needed after a season of consistency but only three podium finishes, in which McLaren have generally had the fastest car but not always been able to make the most of it.
Coincidentally, it was their 300th race with sponsor Mobil 1, and the result lifts Hamilton back into the lead of the world championship by two points from Alonso. However, there was a poignant contrast in the McLaren camp, for Jenson Button had an appalling outing and finished a lapped 16th.
"It's still sinking in, that it's five years since I won for the first time here," Hamilton said. "That was one of the most enjoyable races I've had, and the feeling inside is like exploding, really incredible. If I continue to have this feeling for many, many years, it will be fantastic."
As Hamilton sped on to his historic triumph, the torture was far from over for Alonso. Vettel baled in the 63rd lap, diving into the pits for fresh tyres. But while he was doing that he was overtaken by the flying Frenchman, Romain Grosjean, and Mexico's Sergio Perez.
On the 66th lap the Frenchman's Lotus shoved Alonso down to third place, then Perez took his Sauber past the Ferrari to exact a measure of revenge after their duel in Malaysia. Vettel also overtook him before the end.
FIA FORMULA 1 CANADIAN GRAND PRIX, MONTREAL, CANADA (70 Laps)
1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1hr 32mins 29.586secs
2 R Grosjean (Fr) Lotus F1 Team 1:32:32.099
3 S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 1:32:34.846
4 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:32:36.881
5 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:32:42.997
6 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:32:43.428
7 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:32:44.671
8 K Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus F1 Team 1:32:45.153
9 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari 1:32:54.018
10 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:32:54.858
11 P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:33:07.279
12 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Force India 1:33:15.822
13 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 1:33:16.638
14 D Ricciardo (Aus) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:33:34.061
15 J-E Vergne (Fr) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 lap
16 J Button (GB) McLaren at 1 lap 17BSenna (Br) Williams at
1 lap 18HKovalainen (Fin) Caterham at 1 lap 19VPetrov (Rus)
Caterham at 1 lap 20CPic (Fr) Marussia at 3 laps Not
classified; 21 T Glock (Ger) Marussia 56 laps completed; 22
MSchumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 43 laps completed; 23 P
de la Rosa (Sp) HRT-F1 24 laps completed; 24NKarthikeyan
(India) HRT-F1 22 laps completed.
Drivers Championship Standings
1 L Hamilton (GB)McLaren 88pts; 2 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 86; 3 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 85; 4 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 79; 5 N Rosberg(Ger) Mercedes GP 67; 6 K Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus F1 Team 55; 7 R Grosjean (Fr) Lotus F1 Team 53; 8 J Button (GB) McLaren 45; 9 S Perez(Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 37.