Born in County Cork, Ireland in 1920, Hamilton was raised in relative obscurity. Prior to his twentieth birthday England was already embroiled in the Second World War. As a result, Hamilton would spend the war years as part of the Fleet Air Arm flying Lysanders.
After the war came to an end, Hamilton opened a car garage. The mood of the European continent, though devastated by the war, was beginning to lighten. Many extravagant pursuits that had come to an end because of the war had begun to resume. One of them was auto racing. During the intervening years between the war's end and the start of the new decade, Hamilton started racing in local events. He would work at his garage throughout the week, and then, would compete in sprint and hillclimb races on the weekend.
In 1948, Hamilton made the jump to the upper levels of grand prix racing. Hamilton went out and purchased a Maserati 6CM and headed to Zandvoort, Netherlands to take part in the 40 lap grand prix event held on the 7th of August that year.
Despite being inexperienced in the upper-classes of grand prix racing, Hamilton made a rather impressive debut. He appeared right at home going around the 2.6 mile road course and ended up finishing the race 4th, one lap down to race-winner Prince Bira in another Maserati. Tony Rolt would finish 2nd in an Alfa Romeo and Reg Parnell came in 3rd in a Maserati 4CLT.
This race would be one of the first meetings between Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton. Almost immediately, the two became good friends. This friendship would prove to be a winning and dominant combination in the years to come.
After the impressive debut, things turned sour for the Irishman. His last race in 1948 was at Silverstone and was the first official British Grand Prix. Twenty-six drivers and cars qualified for the race. Louis Chiron had earned the pole in his Talbot-Lago T26C. Emanuel de Graffenried and Philippe Etancelin started the race 2nd and 3rd respectively. Hamilton started the race further down in the field.
Unlike Zandvoort, the British Grand Prix would not hold a splendid result for Hamilton. The race distance was 65 laps of the 3.675 mile road course. The course that year would use, for the first and last time, the intersecting runways within the taxiways that surrounded the airbase. While Luigi Villoresi went on to score the victory, followed by Alberto Ascari and Bob Gerard, Duncan Hamilton's race ended much earlier on. There would be no impressive finish for Hamilton this time.
In fact, Hamilton's grand prix career would struggle from Silverstone on. Headed into 1949, the frustrating performances continued to hound Hamilton. Throughout the 1949 grand prix season he would only suffer one retirement, but he would score no finish higher than 9th the whole year, and that he was able to do twice. Both of those results happened at Goodwood at the beginning and end of 1949.
Although he wasn't having much success on the track, his reputation off the track was really starting to grow. He and friend Tony Rolt were oft seen at pubs in fine celebratory moods. It was these off-track episodes that helped foster Hamilton's, perhaps greater, history of off-the-track antics. One of the more famous stories of Hamilton included being so sloshing drunk he fell from a lightpost. Thankfully for him, his fall was broken by a policeman that happened to be walking by right at the moment he fell.
Though he was struggling in the upper-classes of grand prix racing, Hamilton continued to perform exceedingly well in the minor grand prix formulas. In fact, his one bright spot for 1949, perhaps other than the partying, was a 2nd place result he earned in a Formula Libre race at Goodwood in the middle-part of September.
Heading into 1950, Duncan's racing schedule picked up. Though he would compete in a fewer number of grand prix races, Hamilton expanded his racing experience into a series in which he would become most recognizable and successful.
After a victory at the Goodwood Easter Formula Libre race in early April, Hamilton paired with his old friend Rolt to take part in the 1950 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In preparation for what was the 18th 24 Hour of Le Mans run, Rolt and Hamilton had a specially-made Nash-Healey made for them. Half of the sixty entries failed to make it to the end of the race on Sunday afternoon. By Sunday afternoon, Louis Rosier and his son had completed 256 laps of the public road course. They had maintained an average speed of 89.5 mph and had won the race by a lap over Meyrat and Mairesse. Allard and Cole rounded off the podium in their Allard J2 Cadillac. Rolt and Hamilton put in a wonderful performance and were able to finish the race 4th overall and 3rd in class.
Overall, Hamilton enjoyed Le Mans. And, having a co-driver like Tony Rolt, offered Duncan the faith to know he had a chance to be successful each and every time to the two entered the race.
After Le Mans, Hamilton pulled out his Maserati 6CM for what was to be his first grand prix race of 1950. Afterward, he would have rather stayed at Le Mans and just kept partying.
In the middle of July, Duncan travelled the short distance away from the French coast to the English island of Jersey for the non-championship 4th Junior Car Club Jersey Road Race held on a 3.2 mile street course that ran through St. Helier.
The race was mostly comprised of private entrants and small teams as most of the larger teams began to strictly race in Formula One events. David Hampshire had the pole for the race in his own Maserati 6CM. Hamilton, driving another 6CM, was only able to start the race from 12th on the grid.
As the race got started, it seemed Hamilton was stuck right where he qualified. Though he would finish the race, Hamilton didn't move. He started the race 12th and that was where he ended it.
Needing a boost on the track, Hamilton went back to sports cars and participated in the Silverstone International race in August. Driving a Healey Silverstone, Hamilton would receive the boost he needed.
Driving the Healey Silverstone in the S3.0 category, Hamilton finished the race 3rd overall behind Peter Walker and his friend Tony Rolt. However, both Walker and Rolt were driving in a different category. Therefore, Hamilton scored the class victory with his 3rd place overall. Duncan had managed to maintain an average speed just two miles an hour slower than Peter Walker in his Jaguar XK120.
Between his first and last upper-class grand prix events, Hamilton scored the 3rd place overall finish at Silverstone in August. Then, in September, he would take part in two minor Formula Libre races. He would go on to win both of them.
The first in which he would win was the Wakefield Trophy Formula Libre race, held at Curragh in Ireland. The Irishman performed beautifully before the home crowd as he held off another Irishman, Joe Kelly, for the win. Oscar Moore finished the race 3rd.
The other victory Hamilton scored happened the same day of his final grand prix race for 1950. The race was the Goodwood International Formula Libre race. Driving his Maserati 6CM, Hamilton beat out Gerry Ruddock in the five lap event by merely one second. Peter Whitehead came in 3rd with his ERA R10B.
It became abundantly clear after Formula One's first season of official existence, the smaller teams and private entrants, while still able to take part, would stand a much lesser chance of ever really being able to compete for race victories. This deterred many from either entering Formula One races, or, staying in the series. At the time, there were a number of non-championship races that were offering decent prize money and competition. As a result, Hamilton's '51 calendar would be absolutely filled with non-championship grand prix and sports car races.
Hamilton's '51 season started out in late-March at Goodwood for the 3rd Richmond Trophy race. The short, 12 lap, race started out with Graham Whitehead on the pole. Ashmore, Bira and Parnell finished-off the four-wide front row. Hamilton, driving an ERA B, would qualify 5th.
Whitehead slipped down the order from the very start of the race. Bira would come up and challenge for the lead. Brian Shawe-Taylor, who started 6th, was also able to move into the top-three. Hamilton was embroiled in battles throughout the short race. In the end, Prince Bira would end up taking the win. Shawe-Taylor would hold on to finish 2nd. Hamilton would be able to hold Johnny Claes at bay to finish on the podium in 3rd.
A little over a month after Goodwood, Hamilton would show the racing world that, though he appeared to be only a master at heavy drinking and story-telling, if he was out on a track in the rain there were few that were better.
Silverstone, England in May is a recipe for bad weather. Some might say any time is a recipe for bad weather at Silverstone. But, the 5th of May in 1951 would be remembered in grand prix history for the absolute abundance of water the heavens offered that race weekend.
Hamilton took part in two races that weekend. One was the Silverstone International Production Car race and the other was the 3rd BRDC International Trophy race. The International Production Car race was a one hour long event. Twenty-nine cars qualified for the event. Hamilton ended up sharing the duties of driving with another good friend Philip Fotheringham-Parker. The two were entered driving a Jaguar XK120.
At the end of the hour, Stirling Moss had been able to complete 30 laps of the 2.88 mile road course and took the win in a Jaguar XK120. Another Jaguar XK120, driven by Dodson, finished 2nd, one lap down to Moss. Hamilton and Fotheringham-Parker made it three Jaguar XK120s in a row when they finished 3rd. They trailed Dodson to the line by twenty-two seconds. In all, Jaguar XK120s swept the first-five finishing spots in the race.
Later on, the 3rd BRDC International Trophy race took place. The 35 lap final race was preceded by two 15-lap heat races. Hamilton, driving a Talbot-Lago T26C, was in the first heat, as well as his good friend Tony Rolt. Things were not looking good for Hamilton after the heat race. Juan Manuel Fangio beat Reg Parnell. And, Felice Bonetto finished 3rd. Duncan finished one lap down in 11th.
After the conclusion of the second heat race, the starting grid for the final race was set. Grid positions were determined by the fastest time each driver had managed to set during the practice time prior to each respective heat race. Despite finishing 11th in his heat, Hamilton had managed to set a time during his heat's practice session that was 9th fastest overall. This put him on the inside of the four-wide third row.
Prior to the race starting the rain began to fall. By the time the race started, it was an absolute deluge. This is when Hamilton came to shine. Reg Parnell seemed unaffected by the maelstrom of water. The same couldn't be said of the Argentinean Fangio. Driving his Alfa Romeo 159, Fangio was struggling. Hamilton was one who, like Parnell, seemed to be unaffected by the wet conditions and masterfully controlled his car to come home in 2nd place when the race was stopped after six laps due to flooding on the track. Parnell had won the race, finishing nineteen seconds in front of Hamilton. Graham Whitehead had been lapped by Parnell and finished 3rd. The struggling Fangio could only finish 4th.
After a 5th place finish in the Formula Libre race at Goodwood one week later, Hamilton headed back to his native Ireland for the non-championship 5th Ulster Trophy race. However, Northern Ireland would prove to be not so kind to him.
The 5th Ulster Trophy race was a 27 lap race of the 7.41 road course around Dundrod. With the exception of Giuseppe Farina and a couple of other continentals, most of the talent that made up the field was from the British Isles.
Giuseppe Farina had the pole, while Hamilton started all the way down in 12th. The race wouldn't get any better than where he started. Three laps into the race the camshaft broke on Duncan's Talbot-Lago T26C and his race came to an end. Giuseppe Farina would end up winning. The top-four starters finished exactly as they started.
Hamilton would suffer another retirement two weeks later when he took part in the Circuito do Porto sports car race. Part way through the forty-five lap race his Jaguar XK120 let him down and he was out of the race.
An opportunity to overcome the back-to-back disappointing race results presented itself toward the end of June. One of Hamilton's first experiences around sports cars came at the previous year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. Hamilton was back, looking for another splendid result.
Once again paired with his friend Tony Rolt, Hamilton and Rolt also returned to the race with their special Nash-Healey in which they had finished 4th with the previous year. The race got underway at four in the afternoon on Saturday. The public road course was wet due to steadily falling rain. Five laps into the wet race, French driver Lariviere lost control of his Ferrari 212 and crashed heavily. He would end up dying from the injuries he suffered. This, emotionally, put a dark cloud over the event.
Many of the entrants seemed unable to get past 50 laps completed. All kinds of mechanical, electrical and engine problems were springing up all over the place. Hamilton and Rolt appeared to be totally unaffected by any type of problems. As the rain gave way, and the sun arose Sunday morning, Hamilton and Rolt were still in the race.
When the clock indicated four in the afternoon on Sunday, Peter Walker and Whitehead had earned the overall victory having completed 267 laps. They had managed to complete nine more laps than 2nd place Meyrat and Mairesse. 3rd place finishers Macklin and Thompson were a further lap behind. Hamilton and Rolt would end up finishing the race in 6th. Though 6th overall, the pairing were 4th place in class. This was another strong showing for Hamilton at the long distance event. He was proving himself to be fast with great endurance, which were necessary elements to be successful in the longer distance races.
Not too long after the pleasing result at Le Mans, Duncan prepared to take part in what was to be his first Formula One event. He headed back across the English Channel and on to Silverstone in order to take part in Formula One's fifth round of the championship that year.
The last time Hamilton had been at Silverstone the track was more like a lake and of better use to ducks and swans than the high performance grand prix cars of the day. However, the day had proved to be a good one, weather-wise. He had bested Fangio in the rain and finished 2nd. Hamilton would need help from some other source as he got set to take part in the British Grand Prix under sunny skies and dry weather.
Entered under his own name, Hamilton brought his T26C with him. Cracking the top-ten was incredibly difficult with the presence of Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. Hamilton couldn't do it and started the race from 11th on the starting grid. The two Argentineans, Froilan Gonzalez and Fangio started the race 1st and 2nd.
The lead swapped hands a couple of times early on, but once Gonzalez took over he checked out. Fangio led the only form of pursuit there was to try and reel in Jose. It didn't work. Gonzalez earned his and Ferrari's first Formula One victory. Fangio finished 2nd and Villoresi finished 3rd, two laps down to the Argentineans. Hamilton just could not match the pace. Though he would finish the race, Duncan would finish nine laps down in 12th place.
It seemed there was nothing he could do to do battle with the likes of Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. After the frustrating first Formula One race Duncan returned to the site where it had all started for him. At the end of July, Hamilton travelled to Zandvoort, Netherlands to take part in the Grand Prix of the Netherlands.
Many smaller teams and private entrants enjoyed the thought of not having to contest with either Ferrari, or, Alfa Romeo. It would be an opportunity to earn a truly wonderful result. It wouldn't look too good for Hamilton at the start of the race, however.
Although the field was void of Ferrari and Alfa Romeo, the best Hamilton could muster during qualifying was a time that would earn him an 11th place starting spot on the grid. This would not deter him all that much.
The race was 90 laps of the 2.60 road course and provided Duncan the time needed to make his way up through the field. Unfortunately, nobody could match the pace of Louis Rosier. In what looked like his own personal demonstration run, Rosier ended up lapping the entire field on his way to victory. Philippe Etancelin finished 2nd and Stirling Moss 3rd. Hamilton had been able to put together a solid performance and was able to finish 5th.
At the end of July, Hamilton took part in another historic race. It was his second Formula One race, but it was on the 14 mile long Nordschleife course at the Nurburgring. Twenty-two drivers qualified for the 20 lap German Grand Prix. Although the track was twisty, and long, the average speed over a given lap remained rather high. This favored cars that had the power, but it also favored cars that were well balanced and handled well. Hamilton's Talbot-Lago handled quite well and he was able to use this to earn a very good starting spot on the grid.
Ferraris and Alfa Romeos swept the first eight spots on the starting grid. 9th place on the grid went to Robert Manzon driving for Equipe Gordini in the nimble, but quick, Simca-Gordini T15. The highest placed private entrant drove a Talbot T26C and it belonged to Duncan Hamilton. He had managed to put together a truly splendid lap and earned a 10th place starting spot. All of the excitement left twelve laps into the race, however.
Giuseppe Farina, Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio and Jose Froilan Gonzalez were battling it out for the lead throughout the first few laps of the race. Then, Ascari and Fangio pulled away from the rest of the field and made it a two-way battle. Five drivers were out of the race before having passed 10 laps into the race; four were out before the fifth lap. Hamilton's promising race came to an end on the 12th lap due to an oil pressure problem. So much promise was for naught. Ascari ended up winning the race by almost a minute over Fangio. Another four and a half minutes behind Ascari, Gonzalez finally finished 3rd. Hamilton left without having won, led a single lap or finishing in the points. Thus ended Hamilton's first foray into Formula One.
The failure at Germany was a sign of things to come for Duncan in the upper-classes of grand prix racing. He took part in only two more grand prix in 1951. One was the Grand Prix of Albi on the 5th of August. Hamilton qualified poorly, and then, was the first driver out of the race. In fact, he wasn't even able to start the race due to a problem with the HWM/Alta he was driving for HW Motors.
Toward the end of September, Hamilton thought he would try his hand at a grand prix race just one more time before the end of the year. He had entered his T26C in the 15 lap 4th Goodwood Trophy race. Once again, Hamilton qualified rather poorly for the event. His race would, however, last longer than his last grand prix race at Albi had managed to. In fact, his race would last two laps longer. On the second lap around the 2.38 mile road course Hamilton's race came to an end due to car problems.
Although Hamilton's experiences in grand prix were not going all that well, in sports cars it was a different story entirely. Hamilton almost couldn't lose.
A week after the failed start at Albi, the West Essex Car Club had organized the National Boreham sports car race. Hamilton entered the race with a Jaguar XK120. The event consisted of a couple different races. By the end of the event, Hamilton had won both races in his Jaguar.
Then, a week later, Hamilton entered another sports car event called the National Goodwood. This too was comprised of a couple of different races. Though he was unable to win either one of the races Hamilton's performance was still very impressive. Hamilton had been able to finish 2nd at both of the races.
A couple of weeks before his last race of '51, Hamilton had travelled to Ireland to take part in the Wakefield Trophy Formula Libre race at Curragh. The field was filled with thirty-seven starters. Hamilton came to the race driving for HW Motors alongside Stirling Moss, Tom Meyer and Oscar Moore. HWM would end up providing Hamilton his ride during the next season's Formula One events. HWM proved to be good preparers of race cars as Stirling Moss would go on to earn the victory at the Wakefield Trophy race. Duncan Hamilton would put another HW Motors car on the podium by finishing the race 3rd.
Although Hamilton was unable to earn any points toward the championship, and, had proven to be more greatly talented for the long-distance races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he would still compete in a couple of Formula One events throughout the following couple of years driving for HWM. This larger-than-life character had been able to earn a couple of victories in sports car races. His on-the-edge driving style, and way in which he lived his life, made Hamilton the epitome of what many believe the life early grand prix driver was. He was an amazing story-teller, both in person and by observation.