In 2006, aged 21, Hamilton partnered Alexandre Prémat, who already had a years experience in GP2, at ART who were the defending champions after winning the title with Nico Rosberg from the previous season. Hamilton was instantly competitive at the first round in Valencia and finished 2nd to Nelson Piquet Jr. Hamilton rounded off a solid opening weekend with 6th in the reverse grid sprint race and lay second in the championship behind Piquet by the modest margin of 7 points. However, he endured a difficult weekend in Imola, where he was disqualified from the feature race for passing the safety car, and in the sprint race he failed to score points. Piquet took advantage to stretch the lead out to 16 points over Hamilton whom would be his eventual championship rival.
However, Hamilton bounced back from Imola emphatically at the Nürburgring. He qualified in 4th place and shot into the lead by the end of the first sector after the front row made a terrible getaway. The gap started expanding at well over a second a lap as Hamilton decided to open a large gap going into the pitstop phase. He pitted on Lap 11 of 35 and after the stops played out he was leading comfortably from his teammate who emerged in 2nd. However, Lewis was then handed a drive through penalty for speeding in the pitlane, causing him to fall behind Prémat. However , Lewis caught and passed Prémat with 12 laps to go and eventually won by a margin of over 15 seconds in his first GP2 win.In the sprint race, Hamilton produced an equally mesmerising performance, starting from 8th due to the reverse grid he fought his way back up to first and took the lead with just under 6 laps to go, going on to make it back to back wins in Germany. This utterly dominant weekend took him level with Piquet.
Piquet did bounce back with pole in Barcalona but slipped back to 4th in the race behind Hamilton who finished 2nd. It was roles reversed in the reverse grid race with Hamilton finishing 4th and Piquet 2nd, however the additional points for pole meant Piquet reclaimed the lead in the championship heading to Monaco where Hamilton won a race of attrition from pole with just 11 finishers in a grid of 26. Among them was Piquet meaning Lewis retook the lead of the championship with a lead of 11 points. On to Silverstone, Hamilton qualified in 2nd and took the lead from Ulsterman Adam Carrol at the start to take a dominant feature race win extend his advantage. And in race two he made some sensational overtakes including a famous double overtake into maggots to take a third consecutive win and take a commanding 22-point lead in the championship.
However, at the next round at Magny-Cours Piquet began to rally his championship challenge. Hamilton failed to score points in the feature race whilst Piquet came 4th and in the sprint race Piquet secured 2nd place although Hamilton managed to limit the damage by coming through the field to finish 4th. Hamilton looked to make a comeback at Hockenheim by coming 2nd in the feature race and 3rd in the sprint race whilst Piquet failed to score a point all weekend after finishing low in the feature race and failing to make the start of the sprint race. Once again Hamilton looked unbeatable. But once again Piquet responded. At the next round at the Hungaroring, Nelson Piquet made history by becoming the first ever driver to complete a perfect weekend in GP2 by taking pole for the feature race, fastest lap in each race as well as winning both races. Hamilton meanwhile finished outside the points in the feature race but managed to come back to 2nd in the sprint race. However, Piquet’s perfect weekend left Hamilton’s championship lead decimated coming from 26 down to just 11. Further damage was then done at the first round in Turkey where Piquet was looking as though he was set to repeat his feat in Hungary by taking pole, fastest lap and the win in the first race whilst Hamilton finished 2nd which cut the lead down to just 6 points. At this point, Piquet was looking unstoppable and it was doubted that Hamilton would hold onto his slender lead.
Will Buxton recalled, in his blog on Lewis Hamilton, the weekend in Istanbul:
“The Turkey weekend came off the back of the Briton’s worst event of the whole season. … Hamilton had to take the initiative back. But it was Piquet who again took pole and again took the race win and fastest lap… by half a second. Hamilton, for a moment, seemed lost. His emotions had got the better of him in Hungary, something which can still blight his momentum today, and in Turkey all those years ago it looked set to derail his championship charge.” Buxton also recalled what actions Hamilton took on the night before the sprint race in Turkey. “He knew he had to do something so, overnight, he asked ART to trim all the wing off the car they could and put it basically into Monza spec. The team thought he was crazy, warning him he’d spin without the downforce.”
However, the team went through with the changes and Hamilton started the sprint race in 7th ahead of Piquet in 8th by virtue of the top 8 reverse grid system in GP2. After losing out on the first lap to Piquet, on the second lap, Hamilton looked to have cracked as he spun his ART in the tight corners of the first sector in Istanbul where the downforce is needed most. The incident sent Hamilton almost to the back of the 26 car field. It looked like his once enormous lead before Hungary would finally be wiped out. However, the spin, according to Buxton, was a blessing in disguise. “In spinning so early, Hamilton had learned where the limit of adhesion lay. It was a mark he would not overstep again.” With the low downforce settings, Hamilton had significantly more straight-line sped and almost immediately started streaming back through the field. By the end of lap 12, just 10 laps and a massive amount of action later in the 23 lap race, Hamilton took 6th place and was already back into a point scoring position with 11 laps to go. His charge did not go unnoticed in the pitlane… “I stood, alongside my girlfriend in the Super Aguri garage, watching in awe. One by one every engineer, every mechanic stopped what they were doing and stared at the screen agog. They applauded every lap that followed. It was a scene replicated up and down the F1 pitlane.” In just another 3 laps of setting the timing screens ablaze with green and purple, Hamilton had caught up with Piquet and Glock who were duelling for 3rd. After several laps of enthralling side by side action with Glock and Piquet and many passes and repasses, Hamilton finally made his way through the battling pair and passed Glock for 3rd at the start of lap 20. After spinning on the second lap, Hamilton was somehow ahead of Piquet with several laps to spare. On the final lap, Hamilton breezed past Andy Carrol to take 2nd place going into the last combination of corners, and finished with the fastest lap as well, on the last lap, to put himself in total control of the championship going into the final round in Monza. After the race, Hamilton received many plaudits for his comeback performance and his ability with a low drag setup to not only keep the car on the track through the high downforce corners of Istanbul but also to gain time in those sections. “Time and again through the multi-apex Turn 8 he’d start to lose the rear but would emerge on opposite lock, almost drifting the ART through the corner.” said an impressed Will Buxton, “Many put that drive down to Lewis Hamilton’s guts. Most, put it down to his superior driving feel… that natural ability that had always set him out as a special unique talent. But very few put it down to his intelligence, first in going against the team in choosing the low downforce option and second in adapting his driving-style within a lap to suit the set-up he had not tested.”
At the end of the weekend, Hamilton went into Monza with a 9 point lead. Piquet took pole in qualifying to gain a point for pole position which reduced the gap to 8 points. By virtue of Hamilton having 5 wins in the season, Piquet needed to be within 6 points or less of Hamilton to still be in contention in the sprint race. However, Piquet lost the lead of the race from pole and finished 2nd behind Giorgio Pantano with Hamilton finishing 3rd. This reduced the gap to 6 points meaning the championship would still be alive going into the sprint race with Piquet needing to win the race and get the fastest lap and for Hamilton not to score any points. However, Giorgio Pantano, who originally took the fastest lap in the feature race was stripped of the fastest lap for a yellow flag infringement meaning the point for fastest lap went to Lewis Hamilton instead. This meant that, in the most unusual and anti-climatic of circumstances, Lewis Hamilton won the GP2 title with a race to spare. In the final race Hamilton ended up finishing 2nd with the fastest lap (earned in the normal way this time) and Piquet finished in 6th meaning Hamilton won the GP2 championship by 12 points in the end over Piquet. Such was the dominance of the pair during the season, the 3rd place driver that year, Alexandre Prémat, finished a further 36 points behind.
Hamilton’s endeavours in GP2 that year put him right into contention for the race seat with McLaren for 2007, in the end Hamilton was chosen instead of Pedro de la Rosa and Gary Paffet to partner Fernando Alonso. The decision was announced on the 24th November although Hamilton was told on 30th September. Hamilton had finally made it to Formula 1.