This seemed to be the weekend where Lewis Hamilton allowed himself a little thought about the fact that he was on his way to his third world championship.
You might think that he would have done that after most races this season, but in Japan you really got the feeling that the situation was in Hamilton’s control. The only time sheet that the Mercedes driver topped at the weekend was after the race, but at no point on Friday or even on Saturday did you get the impression that Lewis was at all concerned. His self-belief is rock solid at the moment and this weekend, more so than any other this year, he had a real air of serenity about him.
I did a long one-to-one interview with him on Thursday in his garage at Suzuka. An interview right at the end of the day with some drivers is a challenge, as after five hours of questioning they’re usually all talked out. In the past I would’ve said the same about Hamilton, but not this time.
We had to wait a while for the team to run through some engine checks and he stood around patiently just surveying the scene. Before the interview started he said to me how much he loved these cars, like a child who has been taken to the racetrack for a day out. I asked if he meant this new generation of cars and he said that he just loved having an F1 car and in the sunset of Suzuka, seeing the team all working hard to help him win. There were neither cameras running, nor a microphone on at that stage. It was a genuine unguarded chat and the love he has for the sport was oozing out of him.
He gets a lot of abuse on social media about his lifestyle and that he should concentrate on being a racing driver. Some level the accusation that he’s not committed to the sport, which is total nonsense. His fashion taste might not be what others like, his “brothers” might be celebrities and his language and vocabulary might not be straight out of Stevenage, but it absolutely reflects the person that he is now and has grown into. If that helps him become a three-time world champion then it’s working.
He certainly hasn’t forgotten his roots and throughout last week his social media and conversation was about his father, his first sponsors and the people who helped him when he was nothing but another wannabe karter. He had Senna‘s record on his mind and when he equalled his hero’s tally of 41 victories on Sunday you could see how much it meant to him.
In the past Hamilton was accused of being too emotional and volatile. He seems to have outgrown that stage, or maybe it doesn’t surface at a time when things are going so well. It was Fernando Alonso who stole that limelight on Sunday. Up until the summer break it seemed like Alonso was understanding if not accepting of the situation with the engine in the McLaren. That has changed.
In the week leading up to the Japanese Grand Prix, Alonso went to Honda HQ to speak to the management and discuss the problems. It didn’t take many laps on Sunday when Alonso’s radio crackled into life: “GP2 engine, GP2. It’s embarrassing.” He then had another very public pop at Honda during the race.
There is no coincidence that Alonso chose Honda’s home grand prix to unleash this humiliation, because that is exactly what it amounts to in that culture. When I asked him about whether he would leave McLaren at the end of the year he said he didn’t know, although by the end of the interview he did say his intention would be to stay and win.
More depressed, though, was his team-mate Jenson Button, who didn’t seem angry or emotional, just totally deflated. The thing on his mind was safety. Button cited the closing speeds as the thing that worries him most. “It’s not like I’m backing off,” he said as he discussed how quickly other cars came upon him and passed him in a straight line. The move early on when Felipe Nasr had to go round one side and Max Verstappen the other, “could have resulted in a bad accident,” according to Jenson speaking after the race.
We know that McLaren have been in trouble from the first winter test, but never more so than now. Two world champion drivers, uncertain where their futures lie, is not the atmosphere McLaren-Honda was hoping to create.
One person who was is always on the minds of the F1 fraternity – and all fans I’m sure – is Jules Bianchi. Understandably, Suzuka was tough for many and the grey, rainy conditions gave us a chill on Friday as the cars headed out on track in similar weather conditions to how we left Japan one year ago. The memory of Jules remains a big part of the Formula 1 paddock.