THE 2017 GENERATION OF CARS
“They brought exactly what I expected in that the racing was worse. But in terms of driving they’ve been a big step in the right direction, more enjoyable. Another step like this would be good – bring some of the noise back. There are some great qualities but we need to put better bits in. Following other cars has been worse, naturally. They know the issue and I think they should utilise us and speak to us. Some of these guys on the board haven’t driven an F1 car and don‘t really feel why it’s so hard to get past. But they’re also very smart and know stuff we don’t.
“The Suzuka Esses in these cars were just insane. Physically, they really challenge you but I want that. The human body’s quite remarkable because you can build the strength. So if we make the cars another 3sec faster it’s going to be a challenge but F1 should push you to the limit physically. I love that. That’s where we should be.”
THE RIVALRY WITH SEBASTIAN VETTEL
Were Vettel’s incidents in Baku, Singapore and Mexico pressure errors? “I don’t know. It’s difficult because anything I say would just be an assumption. But you just keep your foot down, keep the pressure on and when the other shows no sign of weakness … that’s really difficult for them. Look at Federer and Nadal; at some point in the game one will see a slight weakness in the other – even if just half a per cent. That’s what they try to capitalise on and which makes the difference and that’s how it’s been this year. The key is to be the most solid driver here.”
Has he learned anything about Vettel this year? “Of course. I don’t want to say exactly what but you can see it [for yourself]. He shouldn’t shy away from that and will learn from experience, as we all do. I imagine next year he’s going to be coming back all guns blazing, but I don’t think there’s anything I can’t achieve if I put the work in.
“When you watch Usain Bolt out of the start blocks, he’s just a little bit slower than the others, he’s just behind and then creeps back. That’s how my season’s been.”
HOW DOES HE ASSESS HIS THREE TOP RIVALS?
“The four strongest drivers I think are me, Fernando, Sebastian, Max. I really hope we are all in the fight next year. You look at them all slightly differently, they all have different characteristics. Sebastian from this year, I could say I need to give him more space. Not in a negative way. Max takes a lot of risks – also you have to give him more space. Fernando is the toughest there is, you need the utmost respect for him and really have to play your cards right. You can race physically closer with him it would seem. His racecraft is mighty. Max’s racecraft is very impressive – he’s doing wonderful things and is going to grow so much. It won’t be a problem – it’ll just be freaking tough. What a contest. Even I’d pay to see that! There are millimetres of difference between us all, even if it can look bigger outside.”
THE MERCEDES W08
“This year people talked about us having the best car and for sure it’s been good, but it’s got a lot of… There are a lot of fundamental issues in the car that pop up like they did in Hungary, that I’m fighting to overcome. I feel like in these moments I’ve been able to extract more.
“This has been the toughest car to understand in my F1 career. Some of the issues we’ve had have been with us for years and we still have them and are only just realising we need to do something. I’m hoping for next year some of these go – but other things will pop up. The new regulations, the wider scale, magnifies the issue and there’s also been a different tyre dynamic. The 2008 McLaren was a difficult car. The 2009 car was horrible, not a good car. This is a great car but it has been tricky getting it to work.
“You start a weekend with the potential you have and the potential the car has and during the weekend you want to reach your potential and over-exceed, squeeze out those extra drops that no one else can get. That’s where I feel my value is.
“Often if you go in the wrong direction you don’t even get to the car’s potential, the car just won’t allow you to squeeze out that extra bit. Understanding the car has really allowed me to get more potential from myself. Even in the races where we’ve struggled, we’ve come out with more than we’d hoped.”
“The exciting thing is being on the limit. It’s getting out there and discovering the limit faster than everyone else and then, when you get to that limit, playing with it, balancing on the edge and controlling it. I love that.”
Once he’s found that point at a given corner in practice, does he ever just bank it and bring it out only in Q3? “For sure. That’s part of what practice is for. Which is how you see often in qualifying I can pull out a little bit more. You keep those things. I love the qualifying because you’re always trying to pull out another card. You can’t always do it.”
THE SEASON’S DYNAMIC
“You do try to step it up, especially in the second part of the season, and I feel that I was able to step up a gear. Silverstone was like you’d been sailing without wind, but suddenly you pick up the gust. It felt like we’d dealt [Vettel] a blow by turning the wick up there, like when Anthony Joshua gets the right hit and the guy’s on the back foot after that. I had that feeling there. We went to Hungary and weren’t quick enough, but it didn’t unnerve us. It was a special weekend because the difficulties we went through plus the scenario we went through [handing the place back to Bottas at the end] as a team really solidified our dynamics and sent such a positive ripple effect.
“It was like, ‘Okay, this is what we’re here to do, this is how we’re going to operate, these are our core values.’ So while we didn’t win in Hungary it was a very important race and was a huge win in terms of our unity.
“I enjoyed my summer break, had a fantastic time. I’m very sensible with how I balance my time in terms of my energy. So I’d blow out at the beginning, then you do your recovery and training and arrive just with a nice balance. I couldn’t have hoped for better. Came back, started on the right foot and felt strong. The Hungary experience really just added a good amount to the foundation of the relationship with the team, with the engineers as well. We just worked better from then on. I did some studying during the summer and assessed my understanding of the car, to analyse where I’d been with it and just basically jotting down ‘This is what the car wants, this is how I gotta drive it’.”
“My thoughts about it change like the weather. It’s about trying to find the balance. I’ve currently got another year with the team and I do want to continue, but I’m at that point where there’s that nagging question: ‘If you leave you’re gonna miss it – next year, five years from now, you’ll miss it.’
So there’s a saying: you stay as long as you can – I’m not quite sure about that but there is a lot of life left beyond F1. Things that I’ve missed in life.
I was talking to my best friend the other day about things that I look forward to, like living in one place, getting a routine, seeing my friends and family. Each year I stay in the sport I delay those things.
But from 40 onwards there’s so much time for it. My auntie died from cancer. On her last day she said: ‘I’ve worked every day with the plan of stopping one day and doing all these different things [and] then I ran out of time’. So I have that in the back of my mind. So I do live my life day by day and try to live it to the maximum. So that’s what I’m fighting with – I want to keep racing but I want to do other things too. I want my cake and I want to eat it. I just want to make sure I choose the right things at the right time.
Retirement isn’t something I fear. You could say it’s because I’m financially secure but it’s not that. I have discovered these other strengths and qualities and I don’t mind going to start in a company at the bottom, if that’s what I end up doing. I don’t mind doing an internship. I’m excited about learning new crafts. It’s risky and I like the idea of that. It’s exciting… what am I going to do?”