Lewis Hamilton interview

He’s been to the Festival of Speed before, but this time Britain’s new grand prix star was the main attraction. He had a great time, and so did the fans

Lewis Hamilton was just 15 years old when he first went to the Goodwood Festival of Speed. In the summer of 2000 he stood behind the straw bales and watched the cars go up the hill, dreaming that one day he would be out on the track in a Formula 1 car, preferably a McLaren.

This year he arrived by helicopter from his home in Hertfordshire, dropping into Lord March’s garden out of a leaden sky and sheltering in Goodwood House before changing into his racesuit and appearing on the grand balcony overlooking the park. Thousands of fans had been waiting for this moment, sheltering under umbrellas to catch a glimpse of the sport’s new hero.

Giving up one of his precious few free Sundays, Lewis had made it clear that he was coming to see his fans, to acknowledge their support after his two dramatic wins in Montreal and Indianapolis. Seven years down the road he was returning to Goodwood as a McLaren driver and the world championship leader. And the reception was tumultuous.

After a briefing from race engineer Steve Hallam, who’s been looking after McLaren at the Festival of Speed ever since the team brought F1 cars to the event, Lewis at least knew which way the road went and how the 2006 car had been set up for the narrow, bumpy blast to the top of the Sussex Downs.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said after his first run up the hill, “but it was an amazing experience and I really enjoyed it. It was great to see so many fans coming to support me and when I went out onto the balcony of Goodwood House I just couldn’t believe how many people there were, waving and cheering. It was incredible. The fans were great, really cool.”

Lewis was not there to court the media; after just one interview for the public address system, he preferred to engage with the crowd. “You cool? You alright?” he called to them, with a big smile. A huge cheer went up, fans pushed forward for an autograph.

“I drove last year’s car, which I’d never driven before, so it was more a lap of honour than a drive in anger. I had to be careful,” he smiles, “but I put on a show for the fans. It was great to turn off the traction control, do some big wheelspins up the hill, wave to all the fans and see them waving back. I did two runs in the rain and it was great.

“When I was here before I remember seeing a driver – I shouldn’t really mention his name – crash Alain Prost’s McLaren when he spun into the bales on the way to the start line and broke the car. That was one of my favourite cars so I never really forgave him after that. And some of the F1 drivers brushed past me when I asked for their autographs so I remember that and now I try hard to sign as many as I can. But it’s just not possible to get round to everybody.”

Between his runs on the hill Lewis spent time with his father and brother, and talking to his own heroes. “Yes, fantastic, people like Sir Stirling Moss and Sir Jackie Stewart; they’re just amazing people for me to look up to and they always have some words of wisdom for me. That’s a privilege, you know.

“When I was 10 years old and I’d just won my first British kart championship I started to meet the F1 drivers and some of them just ignored me, never looked me in the eye,” he recalled, “so I decided then that if, or when, I ever got into F1 I would always look the kids straight in the eye when they came up to me for an autograph. Now I just feel privileged to be where I am and see all the young kids who’ve come to support me.

There were a great many starry-eyed lads (and fathers) in the Goodwood crowd who wanted a word with Lewis, calling out his name time and time again. “Everyone asks me what advice I would give a youngster who wants to get to the top,” he says, “and it’s simple – never, ever give up, under any circumstances. It doesn’t have to be in racing, it’s the same in whatever you do. Even if the going gets tough, don’t give up. If I’m in a race and I’m at the back or something’s gone wrong, I always keep pushing, pushing. And make sure you get everyone’s phone numbers!”

Steve Rider from ITV F1 asked him how he was coping with all the pressure, all the attention both on and off the track. “At the moment it’s quite easy for me. I’m just a normal guy,” he smiled, “and I try to stay normal, do the same things I always used to. I’ve got such a great family when I’m at home. They keep me grounded, keep me real, away from the track, but I am struggling a bit now when I’m out in London with people coming up to me. But I’ve got my close friends, the friends I’ve always had, and we went out to the cinema last night. It’s OK for me, really. When I’m at the track, at the races, I get in the car, try and do a solid job, do the best job I can. I don’t have any problem keeping motivated.”

At the top of the Goodwood hill, Lewis climbed out of the car and signed as many autographs as he could. “I can’t get round to all of you but I’ll do my best to get to as many of you as I can,” he called out. Another huge cheer rose up from the rain-soaked faithful. They love him and it’s not hard to see why. They hope he will come back and see them when he’s the world champion.

Lewis Hamilton was speaking to Rob Widdows