Decoding the enigma

Lewis Hamilton divides opinion like no other current Formula 1 driver. Somewhere between the deifying and the vitriol lies the truth behind this monumental – yet flawed – talent of the tracks

Lewis Hamilton is the most exciting performer on the Formula 1 grid. He’s also, without any question, the most divisive. Drama and controversy stalk him. For every fan that is excited by the audacious moves and phenomenal car control, there’s another that has a big downer on the personality behind the performer, who sees everything he does through that prism of dislike – even hatred in some cases if the various reader forum boards are any guide. The most obvious comparison in F1 history is Nigel Mansell, similarly combative, audacious, controversial, occasionally paranoid – and with a similar ham-fistedness in trying to project a certain image, something that gets picked up on as insincere, inauthentic. But it extends beyond that with Hamilton, who is perceived in public as spoilt, narcissistic – and not a team player.

Talking extensively – both on the record and off – with those who work and have worked with him over the years, and observation from close-up, reveals some of those perceptions as accurate, others as wildly wrong. But Hamilton, uniquely, has to answer these negative perceptions of his personality, seemingly isn’t allowed by the fans to exist only as a racing driver, a deliverer of performance. Those perceptions also impinge upon the assessment of his level as a racing driver, even though logically they have nothing to do with it.

His level? He is possessed of a natural talent beyond the norm even of a top F1 driver, is extravagantly gifted in the way only a handful of drivers have ever been. Neutral observers can see this very clearly and obviously. Those privileged to have had a close-up view of what it is he does in a car, some of the things he routinely achieves that would be seen as miraculous by others, can put meat upon the bones.

Mercedes-Benz team boss Paddy Lowe is on his second stint of working alongside him, having first encountered him during his time as McLaren technical director.

“Lewis is an extraordinary driver,” he says. “The first time we ran him at McLaren [as a rookie late in 2006], I recall the guys looking at the steering trace at the Silverstone test. The oversteer corrections in all the braking zones and corner entries were massive. We were waiting for his feedback and he didn’t mention that. We asked ‘How’s the car on entry?’ and he said, ‘Fine’. His natural car control was extraordinary. Most drivers would have been quite unhappy with such instability.”

He is more comfortable with corner entry oversteer probably than any other driver on the grid and uses that as an asset. In simple terms, because of the way the aerodynamics work, F1 cars tend naturally to oversteer in high-speed corners and understeer at low speed. The more comfortable a driver is with high-speed oversteer, the less understeer he needs to tolerate at low speeds – and the faster the car is around the lap. Illustrious team-mates have discovered much the same things as the data engineers.

“In my time at Ferrari,” says one senior ex-Scuderia man, “Lewis was the only other driver Fernando [Alonso] worried about. Yes, other drivers might have been in faster cars and he’d accept that. But on a Grand Prix weekend whenever you’d discuss the challenges, it was only ever Hamilton that Fernando referenced as being a threat, solely because of what he could deliver as a driver. I think Fernando had matured since 2007 when, as a team-mate, he’d been shocked that a rookie could be at his level, be a threat to him immediately and had not reacted well. With hindsight, he understood that Hamilton alone stands as something beyond the norm. I got the impression that there was no one else on Fernando’s radar as a rival.”

Jenson Button infamously moved into ‘Hamilton’s team’ at McLaren in 2010 as reigning world champion. He was very confident – and instantly successful there. But as the season wore on, and he studied the telemetry details, he happened upon a moment of revelation. His message to his dad was along the lines of, ‘If ever Lewis works out how to get the best from himself and the engineers, the rest of us might as well go home.’ Publicly he said, “Lewis is one of the fastest drivers the sport has ever seen.” Sitting alongside at an FIA press conference, a surprised Lewis looked across and said thanks. His surprise wasn’t in the assessment, just the public recognition of it.

“He is one of those drivers that, as an engineer, you want in your car,” adds Lowe, “because whatever he delivers you know he’s wrung the car’s neck and that’s the maximum of what it will do. There are not many drivers of that quality and for an engineer that’s the most satisfying aspect. It gives everyone confidence and such a great platform to work from. So he has massive talent and extraordinarily good racecraft and both were evident right from the start. Remember the number of drivers that got pissed off at being overtaken by him in the early days? He’s great in the team for the reason of his performance and ability to race. That captures the public eye as well, because they just love that fighting spirit. I don’t want to mention any contemporary drivers but someone like Nigel Mansell gave the same sort of reaction. People loved to watch Nigel. There were similarities at Silverstone this year with 1992 – the crowd just love that sort of driver. For me that overpowers all behaviours out of the car.”

We’ll return to those ‘behaviours out of the car’, but his extraordinary ability behind the wheel sits at the very core of how he defines himself. “That’s not true of all F1 drivers,” says someone who has worked with many, “or even many of them. More than any driver I’ve known he has 100 per cent belief in his ability and when things go wrong everything returns to that belief – it’s his balancing point. You never need to build him back up.” There is not one iota of doubt in his mind that he can drive a car faster than anyone else. There is also a widespread acceptance of that in the paddock – from teams, engineers and even other drivers. The only ones who don’t see that are those on the outside who have only the correlation of results to judge it by. But F1 is too complex, and Hamilton too flawed in ways other than raw speed, for that correlation to be obvious. It can be seen only in split seconds of astonishing car control, can be appreciated by the engineers who are looking at the tyre loading and aero numbers and seeing how he can transcend them in the dying moments of qualifying even when he hasn’t quite honed the car’s balance. Virtually since the day of his arrival in F1 he has been the sport’s fastest driver. Not necessarily always the best – but the fastest.

Now that he sits in F1’s fastest car, with only his team-mate for competition, Hamilton expects to be the fastest outright – and is disappointed when he isn’t. A practice session in which he’s emerged quicker than Nico Rosberg by only 0.1sec will have him questioning his engineers about where it’s going wrong, the subtext being that he knows he is naturally more than a tenth quicker than Rosberg – or anyone else.

But it isn’t only talent without application. As someone who defines himself by his racing, he eats, sleeps and drinks it, immerses himself in it to a degree that’s unusual. “He reacts and learns,” says Mercedes engine boss Andy Cowell, who tells an anecdote about when the prototype for the current engine was on the dyno as Hamilton paid a visit to the Brixworth factory. “We were doing a race distance simulation run and I was pointing out through the glass different features of the engine as it was screaming away and Lewis asked which circuit we were running. I didn’t know, I wasn’t running the test. So he listened for maybe 10 seconds, then said, ‘It’s Budapest,’ and it was! ‘Yeah, that’s through Turn Two into Three, running up the hill. Oh, there are fewer shifts compared with before.’ He has huge knowledge and familiarity with it all.

“He learns on track, in the simulator, from watching laps on his laptop, replaying the data log in his head in time with what’s shown on the screen, and watching others driving the cars. He thinks about it a lot. That’s one of the reasons that he’s not only quick – but efficient with tyres and fuel.” He is invariably easier on fuel than his team-mate, even when lapping faster. That ease with entry oversteer allows him a level of momentum that requires less re-acceleration. This gives him access to lower starting fuel loads or more engine power for longer – varied according to which is more advantageous.

But he’s not a driver without weakness. He’s emotional and sometimes lacks control over expressing those emotions. Every aspect of his life has a roller-coaster element to it that can be destructive at worst (in 2011 he was going through an intense personal relationship problem with his famous girlfriend and it seemed to have an effect on his performances), energy-draining at best. But that’s part and parcel of a mercurial personality. That same buzzing, never restful, energy is part of what allows him to conjure some of the performances he does – that and the regard in which he holds his own ability and his showman, Mansell-like, need to demonstrate it.

It’s not a conventional personality, by any means. But why would it be? How would it be? Quite aside from the natural make-up of a performer at this level, consider his background. He’s been set apart from normality since the age of eight, pushed hard and controlled by an ambitious disciplinarian father and, from 13 until his early 20s, further controlled and managed by Ron Dennis, the man who gave him the opportunity of transcending his family’s limited financial circumstances. This doesn’t come without a cost to the outward sheen of those from more conventional backgrounds. There are examples throughout sport of how the intense childhood of a sporting phenomenon leaves a mark on the personality. By the time Hamilton finally was in a position to be free of those controlling him, he was a multiple millionaire with the world at his feet – an over-age teenager let loose in the sweet shop. But it wasn’t lack of discipline that brought him there, rather an excess of it.

Then there’s the level of fame he has to deal with; it’s in a different league to that of any other driver. He’s the only current driver whose fame totally transcends the sport. “Surveys have shown he is the most marketable sportsman in the world bar none, of all the sports,” points out Lowe. “Yet his F1 record isn’t the best around – either at the moment or in history. So why is that following so huge? Because people enjoy his qualities, the spectacle he creates. That’s not the case with other drivers. I can’t quite capture why that is, but there’s a drama around him. I’ve followed him around public places and it’s debilitating – he couldn’t walk down the street anywhere in Europe or Japan without being mobbed within 15 seconds and having to get back in the car. He didn’t choose that and celebrities are often accused of going out looking for attention or that level of fame; he was just a good driver and it’s happened. No other driver in this paddock is hampered at that level. Take account of that and you can forgive him certain behaviours he must have to build up as protections. I think if you’re not in that world you cannot judge it.”

Couple an emotional character, one with an almost skewed need to demonstrate his level in the car, with the complexities of F1 and there is bound to be occasional fall-out, the odd moment of stupidity. Putting his telemetry comparison with Button on social media at Spa 2012 – to show that the lap time deficit was down to his wing choice and not his driving – was not the smartest move. It isn’t that Hamilton lacks intelligence, more that his easily-triggered emotions sometimes override it. Yes, that will over time prevent him converting all of his talent into results – but the emotion is also what fuels many of his performances. You cannot have one without the other. He is also aware of his shortcomings. He even asks team members for help in getting around their effects. “He’s very quick to recognise his failings,” says one. “Then after you’ve dealt with it he says ‘Yeah, but you still need to help me with this because I will do it again.’ That’s actually very helpful.”

He has in the past railed against the need to conserve tyres, but that was when Pirelli was providing delicate rubber that often needed to be driven 2-3sec off the pace to get adequate stint lengths. Hamilton felt quite strongly that F1 had developed in a way that didn’t allow the fastest to be fully rewarded, but this has been less of an issue with the move to tougher tyres in the past year. But angry radio messages to those trying to help his race haven’t helped Hamilton’s public persona – though from the inside the picture is actually very different.

“Because he’s an emotional person, when he thinks something, he’ll just say it,” observes Lowe. “He’ll even say things he didn’t mean and will then regret it. We just deal with it. We’re calibrated to it. We all have a certain behaviour and teams work around the strengths and weaknesses of the people they have. No one falls out over it. Lewis has talked to me about it and I’ve just said just be how you are, you should never stop being how you are, that’s what works for you. You don’t have to be someone you’re not and we don’t want you to be. I don’t find it an issue. But it does come across badly sometimes.”

In fact the whole idea of Hamilton being some arrogant self-centred brat with no interest in the team of people working around him is a million miles from the reality. “He’s actually a really lovely person to work with,” says Cowell. “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a driver who so readily looks to blame himself. There is absolutely no book of excuses. He is humble if it’s gone wrong. If there’s a mistake he doesn’t bullshit his way out of it, he’s hugely honest. He will say, ‘I f***ed up guys, sorry’. He doesn’t seek anywhere to hide even when there are obvious places he could.

“In general he is not so much a demanding character as someone who contributes, enquires but in a respectful way. There are two sides to it. If there’s a technical problem and as an engineering group you’re not getting anywhere near solving it, the driver’s going to get proper grumpy and start banging the table – as any of us would. But outside that Lewis will put things forward and it’s down to us to act upon it or explain why we won’t. But he is bringing ideas and contributing – and he’s hugely motivational because of what he does in the car.”

The way he inspires those working for him is something that he hasn’t fully grasped yet – the sheer power of it. What he is also just beginning to understand is the reverse of the same process: how demotivational any negativity on the radio can be. Amid the intensity of a grinding battle with his team-mate, a certain competitive paranoia is bound to creep in – and has been heard from both Mercedes drivers at different points this season. This resulted recently in a strong talking-to by Niki Lauda – reportedly along the lines of ‘you are incredibly fast but also sometimes incredibly stupid’.

He is just beginning to understand that many of the things he previously thought were outside his control are actually partly inside it. But even if that process continues, we are never going to see Lewis Hamilton as some sort of perfected performer. The flaws derive from the same place as the brilliance. Similarly, the transmitting of an image, the laying-it-on-with-a-trowel way he can have of projecting himself to the world is not going to go away – and will continue to irritate many. But much of the vitriol directed towards him comes from what that image is – not the fact that he’s trying to convey it. He’s from a culture with very different social mores to those of the conservative motor racing crowd. He’s the rapper in the yacht club and many fans don’t like the fact he has diamond ear studs, wears his trousers like Drake, tattoos his body. But what would they expect him to be into – Pink Floyd and Ben Sherman? He’s not of that world or generation. What really is the difference between those choices and Jackie Stewart’s long hair in the ’60s or Jochen Rindt’s pink shirts and mohair coats? Rappers and motor sport; there could barely be two more divergent cultures – yet he’s of them both.

Lewis Hamilton, love him or hate him.