Lewis Hamilton was roundly criticised when he announced that he was leaving McLaren, the team that had moulded him since his early teens, to join rival Mercedes. The change has been beneficial, though, in more ways than one
Writer Adam Cooper
Lewis Hamilton is in a relaxed mood as we sit in the open lounge area on top of the Mercedes hospitality building in Abu Dhabi, a quiet refuge from the bustling paddock below.
He’s a relatively late arrival from India. Most of his peers could hardly wait to leave Delhi for the UAE, rushing to the airport on the Sunday night after the race. Lewis travelled instead to Calcutta in his new role as an ambassador for Save the Children. He has a genuine affection for kids, always apparent when he stops in the paddock for a picture or an autograph, and the extended Indian trip was an eye-opener.
“People try so hard to make you welcome and they do their best,” he says, with a smile. “They’ve got beautiful kids there, too.”
His latest charity role adds yet another layer to the complex personality that is Lewis Hamilton, a man who currently describes himself on Twitter, sincerely and seriously, as ‘F1 driver, artist, singer/songwriter/musician.’
Many people were sceptical when it was announced that Lewis would be leaving McLaren for Mercedes – even his own father had advised him to stay with the team that had been his home since he was first picked up by Ron Dennis as a 13-year-old kart racer.
A year on, no one is questioning his decision to head for pastures new… although not even Lewis could have predicted the tumble that McLaren’s fortunes would take in 2013. And, equally, he insists that he didn’t expect to win a race for Mercedes-Benz, nor earn a string of pole positions.
Nevertheless, Hamilton’s overriding feeling about this year is that he has underperformed, in that his qualifying pace was rarely converted into a decent result. Before and after the summer change of tyre spec, he often struggled more than team-mate Nico Rosberg to get the most out of the Pirellis and, rightly or wrongly, he blames himself for that.
“Things have been above expectations this year in terms of the team’s performance, and how I’ve got along with everyone,” he says. “All those things are ticked off, they’re great, but from my side of things I’m not 100 per cent happy with my performance. I can’t pinpoint exactly why. There have been some good races. The times when the car was really good, Monaco for example, I should have been on top of it, but I really struggled. I’ve been struggling mostly with the car and the electronics and everything.”
In some ways winning the Hungarian GP was a bonus. What a lot of people failed to grasp last year is that Lewis had seen the bigger picture of the upcoming turbo era. He appreciated the strength of the technical team that Ross Brawn had put together – and understood that there were obvious benefits of driving for a works team that shared its ownership with the engine supplier.
“When I made the decision,” he says, “I knew where the team was going. I knew the plans they had, where the wind tunnel development was going, all that kind of stuff. And also I was conscious that next year we’d have a new engine from Mercedes. It just seemed like the right place to be, especially with the rules changing as well. There were tons of things that I had to consider. I’m proud that I made the choice, but it was difficult. Even my family said I should stay – my dad told me to remain with McLaren!
“Just to arrive at the first race and be in the mix… Jeez, I’d prepared myself to be perhaps about 10th or something like that at the start of the season, just in case it was really bad, and it was way better. It’s been a real blessing to come here – and also for it to turn out so positive after people were so negative about the move. I really just have to lift it up to God.
“There’s a reason why I felt the way I felt, to make those decisions.”
You don’t need to be a shrink to view Hamilton’s departure from McLaren as an escape from the apron strings of the team that groomed him.
“I feel like I definitely have more freedom at Mercedes,” he says, before rephrasing his words. “It’s not necessarily freedom, it’s just that we had so many partners there. We had tons and tons of partners, 45 or something, and if you imagine for every partner you had to do five appearances… It was hardcore! Here we have fewer.
“McLaren’s mentality is they’ve really got to source the money from sponsors, whereas here with Mercedes and Petronas the team hasn’t got 50 sponsors to bring the budget in, so it’s just a different mentality. Also they really understand that a driver needs to arrive fresh, clear in the head, fit and ready, that’s the most important thing. It’s just a slightly different approach, and one that fits me a little bit better.”
It’s not just a change of sponsor workload that has played a role in clearing Hamilton’s head. Lewis has always had a complicated private life, one that reflects his emotional personality. His on/off relationship with singer Nicole Scherzinger is rarely far from the headlines, and things have not always run smoothly with father and former manager Anthony. He readily admits that at times he’s been distracted.
“Definitely,” he says. “I don’t feel that it’s affected me this year – I think I’ve grown a lot. Through even the toughest part of this year, I won in Hungary. But in previous years I really struggled. Particularly part-way through 2010, and I would say in 2011 mostly, I was a disaster – I was a nervous wreck that year.”
So girlfriend issues can potentially affect his demeanour over a race weekend? He laughs.
“I don’t have any girlfriend issues, I’m one of the most eligible bachelors now! Well, it doesn’t help to have negative energy around you, and to carry it around with you like baggage without even realising it’s there. But I don’t feel that this year I’ve had any baggage, so I’ve been able to go through the year enjoying it, really. Small patches of the year were tough, but everyone goes through those experiences.
“I think I’ve just matured a lot. I pray a lot, and over the last five years I’ve been bringing more and more God into my life, and that’s been making a difference this year more than ever. And that’s why I’m so happy every day.”
That happiness is often communicated to the public via Hamilton’s busy Twitter feed, filled with messages of love and peace, mixed with quotes from Gandhi and other sources of inspiration. Purists may find some of it a little grating, but it’s a reflection of the real Lewis.
“I read a lot about Bob Marley and his approach to life, and he felt like he could create peace by creating this beautiful music, and through that music share and spread love. I really respect that kind of approach. I guess I’m in the position where I can speak to several different people, say ‘Have a great day, keep your head up and try to think positively’. And if I can make a difference to one person, that’s a cool thing to be able to do.”
Isn’t he worried that he’s a little over-exposed on Twitter and elsewhere?
“No… Look at Sebastian, he doesn’t show anything. I guess people don’t fully know him as well as maybe you do or I do from the little time I get to spend with him. People really knew Ayrton, I think, and I’d like people to know me. I wear my heart on my sleeve. It gets me in trouble a lot of the time, but that’s the way it is and I’m not going to hold back because sometimes negativity comes with that.
“I like to share the experiences I have. I come from a very normal background, and so many people from where I was from would love to be doing what I’m doing, so I like to share those experiences. Not to put it in their faces or anything, but to show them what you can do, and what’s possible.”
He has a genuine respect for his fans: “For me it’s just crazy, because I grew up in this small town Stevenage, which is nowhere. Who would have thought that I’d have people consciously going to buy my T-shirt or wearing my cap or making a banner with my name on it? I’m just so grateful for that kind of thing, the effort that people make. There’s so much positive energy out there.”
He had a win and poles, but what Lewis didn’t do in 2013 was fight for the World Championship. His first and only title in 2008 is starting to seem a long time ago. There have been signs of frustration after another afternoon driving his socks off for relatively little reward while up ahead Vettel has logged yet another victory with apparent ease. Lewis downplays any negative feelings.
“It’s not frustrating,” he says. “I wouldn’t use frustrating as the word. It’s just, interesting… There are so many great drivers here. Many of them can win the World Championship, some of them have come and gone, and never had a car like I had in 2008, they didn’t have a car like Sebastian has, or Michael had, or Fernando had.
“And there are drivers that never made it into F1 that also had the potential to do that. Marc Hynes [1999 British F3 champion and one of Lewis’s few close friends in racing] was massively talented; arguably he could have come in and done a great job, and there are other people like that as well.
“You never know how the rest of the years are going to go. Fernando might stop before he wins another World Championship. That would be weird for me, because he’s such a great driver. Like Kimi for example… If Kimi leaves the sport with only one World Championship I’d be really surprised, because growing up watching him in F1 he was spectacular. But that’s the way the sport is, you just have to kind of step back and change your mindset. If you’re lucky enough to have a year when you have a car that allows you to do something, you just have to grab it with both hands.
“When I came into F1 I didn’t have any expectations. When I watched F1 before I got here I was always wondering, ‘Can I fight with Fernando, can I fight with Michael?’ I was sure I could if I had the chance. And then when I got there I fought with them, or at least with Fernando. I definitely didn’t expect to have the big drop in performance in 2009, and then I didn’t expect the following years to be so bad. In my career, every year I was at the front. Actually, one year in karting was really bad, but it was a good learning year. When we had a competitive car I was always at the front.
“It’s been interesting, if not perfect, but I’ve been fortunate first just to stay in F1, to have the wins that I’ve had each year and the success that I’ve had, to be able to move to a new team and continue to have success, being able to have my family, being able to travel, all those kinds of things. I think I just have to count my blessings.”
He’s insists that he’s not envious of Vettel’s run of success.
“It would have been nice to fight with him during these years. I guess I had my time. I was very, very fortunate when I came into the sport, not many people get to come in and be in a top team and have a chance to fight for the World Championship in the first year, and I was very, very fortunate to do that. Most others haven’t. And then it’s been his time to shine – it’s been a long period for him to shine. I hope that at some stage I have my time again.”
Will that chance come in 2014? It’s still anyone’s guess as to how the formbook will look come Melbourne and, typically, Lewis is erring on the side of caution.
“I don’t know how it’s going to be, it might not go so well. But they will still be two incredible learning years. I get to work with a great group of people and I should learn a lot during that period. But ultimately the goal is to train my arse off this winter, so next year I’m fitter than I’ve ever been, in the best mental head space and hopefully one of the best cars.”
He then checks himself momentarily and adds a fascinating postscript.
“I actually don’t want to have the best car by a long way. I’d like to be able to fight with Fernando, be similar in pace, but through driving a little bit better finish ahead of him. And the same with Vettel, maybe, that would be cool. I don’t want to win because I’m that much faster, you know what I mean?”