In our exclusive interview, Lewis Hamilton reveals how the hard times of 2009 will make him a better driver for the future
By Adam Cooper
Nobody knows Lewis Hamilton better than his father, Anthony. He’s been there from the beginning, watching as the chubby-faced child grew into a global sporting megastar, a young man whose every move is watched and analysed by fans and the media. He’s shared the highs, and he’s shared the lows.
And this season the Hamiltons have experienced a roller coaster ride of emotions. Fresh from his sensational title win in Brazil last year, Lewis began this season with a hopelessly uncompetitive car. A ray of hope in Australia was extinguished by the ‘lie-gate’ controversy, and thereafter the inadequacies of the MP4-24 in its initial guise were cruelly exposed. More than once Lewis was caught tooling around at the back of the field.
Things move quickly in this sport, however, and by late July the car was good enough to propel Hamilton to victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix. That extraordinary success was followed by another in Singapore, as well as a string of pole positions.
McLaren certainly had momentum on its side as the 2009 season drew to a close, and that must bode well for next year. And worryingly for the opposition, the best of Lewis is arguably yet to come. As far as his dad is concerned, the outgoing World Champion has benefited hugely from tackling the challenges he faced this year – and he will be all the stronger for it in the future.
“I think this has probably been one of Lewis’s best years,” says Hamilton Sr. “You arrive in the first couple of years in a blaze of glory – and it really was a blaze of glory, wasn’t it? You win the championship, and then you come and start your third year and the car’s not so good.
“Well, that for me is where you really start learning. The pressure’s off, to a degree. There was another star that people were looking at, so that left us alone really to concentrate on what we needed to do to mature into the business. So I think this year’s been a good year for Lewis, personally.”
So does the man himself agree with the theory that, ultimately, he’ll benefit from this season’s adversity?
“I like to think that way,” says Lewis as he ponders the question. “I have learned a huge amount this year and as a team, how we work together, I think we’ve learned quite a lot. There’s still going to be many things we’ll learn next year, and I have no doubt there will be mistakes. But I’ve got to try and do everything I can to minimise them.
“Bit by bit, you learn how to balance your life a little bit better. Sometimes you unbalance it, making changes. Sometimes you correct it.”
He pauses, before elaborating on what he has addressed in his method of working: “Arriving at the track, how I deal with myself over the weekend, reducing the amount of energy used for certain things, looking after myself, my training.
“And on track, how hard I can and can’t push. In Monza I learned don’t push 110 per cent on the last lap of the race! Bit by bit you keep on learning and keep putting it into a jar, and at some stage you can use it all together.”
If there was a key moment for Hamilton in ’09, it was the Australian controversy. It cost team manager David Ryan his job – and Ron Dennis his right to attend Grands Prix – while Hamilton’s own reputation also took a battering. Anthony has no doubts about the impact of the affair: “Being dragged into something that wasn’t of [Lewis’s] making. That was probably the lowest point in his life…”
Typically, Lewis has tried to learn from what was a nightmare experience. “I haven’t adjusted my approach,” he says. “But I’m a lot more wary of what’s going on around me and things that are said to me. I’ve tried to be a lot more cautious of my actions.”
Inevitably there have been comparisons between Australia and the Nelson Piquet Singapore ‘crash-gate’ scandal, at least in terms of what they say about the pressures on drivers to do as they’re told. Lewis doesn’t agree: “You can’t compare the two scenarios. But you work as a team. You have to trust the people around you to advise you in the right direction.
That only applies to me. I don’t think he was advised. So you have to ask what he was thinking at the time, because I wouldn’t have made that decision…”
Now, especially with a couple of wins under his belt, Lewis can look back on the first half of this season with a clearer perspective. At the time, it was anything but easy. In testing the MP4-24 was a complete disaster, its lack of downforce suggesting that the team had got its sums seriously wrong. In Melbourne its pace didn’t seem too bad, but in reality McLaren was flattered by an opposition that had not yet got up to speed.
“I think we just did a better job than everyone else apart from Brawn in the first race,” says Hamilton. “Everyone fell off and made mistakes. The cars weren’t reliable. The second race the cars still weren’t reliable, then the weather intervened. In the third race people started to pick up the pace, like the Toyotas, and then bit by bit people made fewer mistakes and it became more of a reality just how bad our car was. Simple as.
“We were at the back for a solid period of time, because more people were finishing races, more people were getting the performance out of their car. And we had no more to give. Eventually we got the update package that mattered and we were back up competing at the front. But it’s been hard to stay at the front.”
Those troubled mid-season races were painful. Did he struggle to cope mentally with finding himself at the back of the field for perhaps the first time in his career?
“It doesn’t do your head in, it’s just not a great feeling. You do everything you can to prepare for the season better than you did the previous year, when you had the package to challenge for the World Championship. Then you arrive and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t get out and push the car any faster. There’s nothing you can do but try to will your team on and encourage improvement and try to inspire people.
“When you’re starting dead last, you have to find the inspiration for yourself, to pull yourself back up somehow, do some overtaking manoeuvres that people enjoy, make your way up the grid. That’s what I tried to do.”
At one point even the optimistic Hamilton couldn’t see much light at the end of the McLaren wind tunnel: “I think we all had our doubts at some stage or another. At the end of the day no one got to drive what I was driving, apart from Heikki [Kovalainen]. We were very polite in how we commented on just how bad it was. It was tough to drive something so drastically different to the previous year, and also to see where we had gone wrong, because other people had done it right. We knew that if anyone could correct it, we could. But it was just too late, unfortunately.”
On home ground at Silverstone, Lewis started a dire 18th. The message from the McLaren camp that weekend was that it was time to abandon this season, to focus fully on next year’s car. Interviewed on the grid, Anthony Hamilton put it succinctly – it was no good flogging a dead horse.
In fact the team was busy working on yet another update package, which was rushed into action for the next race at the Nürburgring. From his first lap on the Friday, Lewis found the car transformed. He qualified a surprise fifth on the grid, and had he not been involved in a first-lap brush with Mark Webber, he would easily have finished on the podium. It was an extraordinary turnaround and next time out, in Budapest, he won.
“I’m still living off that weekend!” he says. “It was a great weekend, a great experience, to be able to overtake one of the leading cars… But again I didn’t feel that we were the fastest, I feel we did a better job than the others.
“All of a sudden the Red Bull dropped off the pace through the weekend, the Brawn couldn’t get its tyres warm supposedly, which I find hard to understand. There’s heat all over the place, so I’m sure there was heat on those tyres… But we were a little bit better than we were in the previous race, and everyone else didn’t do as good a job.”
After Hungary Hamilton was a contender for pole or a win at nearly every circuit, although Spa was a bit of a mess. Even in revised form the MP4-24 didn’t enjoy fast sweeping curves, and yet Lewis hustled his way to third at Suzuka.
One thing was crystal clear: as the car improved, so the overall performance differential between Hamilton and Kovalainen increased. The better the car, the more Lewis seemed to get out of it relative to his struggling team-mate.
“When you do finally get the package underneath you then there is obviously an optimal setting which helps you drive the car to the limit,” he says. “When it comes to that, some drivers are able to extract more from their engineers, their car and their team than others.”
Hamilton has benefited all season from McLaren’s compact and very effective KERS system. It’s the sort of gizmo that’s tailor-made for the best drivers – those who have the mental capacity to deal with the distraction of having extra buttons and controls, and have the wit to use them creatively.
“It’s been a nice toy to have considering it wasn’t that great in the beginning,” he says. “Now I’m able to enjoy both the car and the KERS button, and use it to my advantage. And the great thing is that when we set out to use it we wanted to have the best KERS system, and we do have the best KERS system.”
The intriguing thing is that, even allowing for the poor pace of the car in the early races, Hamilton could still be finishing higher in the championship than he actually is. For starters, you can consider the lost third place in Australia, the qualifying crash when he was poised for a good weekend in Monaco, the Nürburgring puncture and the last-lap Monza crash when he was lying third. It doesn’t take long to amass enough points to put Lewis an easy fourth in the standings, ahead of Webber. Such an outcome didn’t seem likely at any stage between the car’s January launch and the awful British GP showing in June. But since second is the first loser, fourth place isn’t of much interest to him.
“There’s a good few points in there that would have kept us higher in the championship. But the only difference that would make for us is the feeling in the team, the momentum that hopefully we can carry into next year. Internally, in terms of results, it doesn’t have a huge impact on us. We want to win championships, and we want to win constructors’ championships.”
He’s already won one championship and established his place in the history books. So does Lewis have any dreams left to fulfil?
“My dream is to have a competitive car each year with which I can become a better racing driver year by year – and win more and more championships and more and more races. And have a growing fan base and be a part of a sport that’s growing, not getting worse.”
It’s an interesting answer, and the last part suggests that he shares a concern about the health of F1 that you might not expect from a driver. They are, after all, supposed to be focused on their own little worlds.
“I don’t watch it from an outside point of view, so I don’t know how good the show is, I don’t know if it’s as good as when I was watching before I got to F1. All I can say is that when I get in the car I still love racing it, and we still put on a great show regardless. This is racing, this is F1.”
There’s no doubt that Lewis Hamilton, even when he’s not fighting for the World Championship, remains the ultimate ambassador for the sport. And after the trials of 2009, he can only be stronger next year.
The last word goes to father Anthony: “It teaches you all the lessons that you don’t learn when you race at the front, doesn’t it? You learn how to cope with adversity, work as a team. If you look at the team now, after everything that’s happened, we’ve got great harmony. I have to say it’s been a pretty good year for us. We’ve won a few races, and the team has learned from its mistakes. And so has Lewis. With any luck next year’s car will be good. And so will the driver…”