March 14 2014: the Friday before the start of the new Formula 1 season, and Lewis Hamilton graces the cover of this magazine.
He gives us a refreshingly honest interview ahead of what will be his eighth season in the sport.
“No, I don’t feel one world title is a fair reflection of my ability,” he tells us then. “If you look at my past, before I got to Formula 1 – that’s a fair reflection. When you’re in formulas where all the cars are the same, that’s where you get to see it. But obviously in F1, everyone has different cars – everyone has their ups and downs.”
Ups and downs. In seven previous years in Formula 1, Hamilton had experienced more than his fair share of both. In 2007, he was the McLaren golden boy who could and probably should have won the world title in his debut season. The following year, he led the championship going into the final race in Brazil, but required a miracle drive to steal glory from Felipe Massa on the very last lap. Four disappointing seasons later, after a turbulent spell characterised by petulance as much as panache, by mistakes as much as majesty, he left the team that had nurtured him from boy racer into world champion for new possibilities – and uncertain success – at Mercedes.
“It’s part of our business that the car is a huge part of the performance, and drivers have to make strategic decisions based on what team they think is going to give them the best chance of winning,” says David Coulthard, BBC analyst and a former Grand Prix winner who has known Hamilton since he was a child. “Lewis had stayed loyal to McLaren, who had given him his opportunity in F1, but they didn’t always have a reliable car; they didn’t always have the power to really give him the chance to win. He made a brave decision to move on, and it couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Hamilton’s decision to abandon McLaren may have been based on the inherent selfishness present in every great Formula 1 driver, but in his own personal narrative it represented a more fundamental, profound journey of the self.
“Leaving McLaren was a necessary break for him,” says Stuart Codling, executive editor of F1 Racing magazine. “I wouldn’t say the team had lost respect for him, but he had become a part of the furniture and was someone they viewed as their own creation. He needed to be his own man, like a teenager growing up and leaving home. If you live with your parents, no matter how well you get on, they always think they know better. The best thing you can do is go away and prove to them – as well as to yourself – that you can rock along well enough without being attached to the apron strings.”
In our interview back in March, Hamilton hinted at the greater responsibility he felt he had been awarded at Mercedes – an equal partner, expected to contribute to the development of the car as well as get in it and drive fast.
“When I was at McLaren I kind of had a role, but I would say that here I am listened to more,” he said. “That’s really how the sport should be. than we drivers will ever be, but at the end of the day we are the ones who know what the car actually feels like – and that’s what counts. The good thing here is that the team listens to us.”
To fully understand Hamilton’s growth as a driver, both on the track and in the garage, Codling suggests it is necessary to revisit his very first season.
“He has become a more independent person, more confident in his own judgment,” he says. “Go back to the 2007 title run-in. It’s easy to forget he was favourite to win that championship – he was ahead over the final few races and then threw it away in China, when both he and the team became gripped by indecision about whether to come in for tyres or not. He ended up staying out too long and went off.
“If he had known then what he knows now, he would have told the team exactly where he was with those tyres – that he needed to come in and that he was doing it, whatever they thought. But the rookie Lewis waited for them to tell him, and it cost him.” No driver in Formula 1 history has had to wait longer between their first and second world titles than the six years Hamilton endured before becoming a multiple world champion – but his 2014 victory emerged not just from an increased confidence behind the wheel, but also a longstanding belief in his own raw talent.
“Lewis has been driving more maturely this season, and certainly on race days he has had better pace,” says Martin Brundle, Sky Sports analyst and co-commentator. “I think in qualifying he has tightened up and made mistakes – there have been times when it has looked like he would take an easy pole and then blown it because he seemed to get a bit nervous in the car. But, on race day, the key thing for me is that he has a confidence stretching back to the karting days. If it comes down to a straight fight between him and Nico, which it has this season, Lewis has a belief that he will take victory.”
Getting Over It
Nowhere was Brundle’s point better on display than in Abu Dhabi last weekend. Evidently gripped by tension during a qualifying session in which Rosberg again outpaced him, Hamilton’s soaring confidence when it came to the actual business of racing couldn’t have been clearer. He surged past his teammate almost as soon as the start lights went out, and never saw another car on his way to the race and championship win – a reaction to qualifying disappointment in stark contrast to those of days gone by.
“Lewis is a very fast and intelligent racer, but he has always worn his heart on his sleeve – and that has traditionally been his main problem,” explains Codling. “He’s not as good as someone like Jenson Button at just breaking off, putting the mask on and being very British about it. When things have gone wrong for him in the past, they have stuck in his mind – and, as a result, he has done some stupid and impulsive things.
“Take the Belgian Grand Prix in 2012. Both he and Jenson had the choice of using a new rear wing; Jenson decided to use it, and then duly beat him in qualifying. Lewis was so mortified at people thinking he had been outpaced that he tweeted a picture of the respective cars’ telemetry to show why Jenson was quicker. It was a stupid and charmless thing to do, but it smacked of a niggling insecurity.”
Fast-forward two seasons, to this year’s British Grand Prix. More mistakes in qualifying, as Hamilton abandons his final flying lap – he starts only sixth on the grid, with Rosberg yet again on pole.
“Silverstone was the stand-out moment for me,” says Coulthard. “He had the disappointment in qualifying, came in Sunday morning and, instead of being all pissed off, he was out signing autographs for the fans. And, you know, it wasn’t lip service. It was a genuine display of affection for the support he was receiving – and then he went out and won the Grand Prix.
“This season, more than any other, an inner calm has allowed him to overcome disappointments. We’ve seen him mature while inevitably making mistakes and bad judgment calls, like every single one of us has. But I think he’s in a good place now. He has compartmentalised who he is as a racer, what he likes away from racing, and is now really comfortable in himself. That has played a huge part in his consistency behind the wheel.”
Grown Men Crying
“Lewis is now more open, more approachable, more comfortable with himself,” says Brundle, expanding on the inner calm of which Coulthard speaks. “When he has his cap down, he’s sucking on his energy drink and you know he just doesn’t want to talk – that’s when you know you’re in for a difficult weekend with Lewis. But I’ve seen a lot less of that this year.”
The result, says Codling, is a resurgence in Hamilton’s popularity – at least on the Formula 1 circuit. “I definitely think his popularity waned in the years after his first world title,” he says. “Look at his debut season: the media and public couldn’t get enough of him. To some extent, he has become a more polarising figure since then. Some people absolutely love him, but others have decided they don’t like him at all; but that’s just the way we look at celebrity these days, isn’t it? We look at sportspeople in a very twodimensional fashion, without realising that someone who occasionally sounds a little petulant on a team radio is also someone operating under a whole lot of pressure.
“Nor did it help Lewis that he very quickly went off and became a tax exile – once he started hanging around with pop stars and getting into private jets, a little bit of the shine came off and it turned public opinion against him.
“But go to a F1 circuit for a race weekend, and the drivers who engage with the fans most are Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, by an absolute mile. They stop, they sign autographs, they chat. I have seen grown men crying, literally in tears, after Lewis has signed a cap for them.”
Phone Not Ringing
In May this year, the 26th annual Sunday Times Rich List revealed Hamilton to be the nation’s richest sportsperson, with an estimated wealth of £68m. That only looks set to grow in the wake of another world title, but does there still remain a gap between his sporting achievements and his popularity, both with the public and potential sponsors?
“Lewis is very good to work with,” says Steve Martin, chief executive at M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, who has first-hand experience of dealing with Hamilton. “He is superprofessional, works very hard and is a very structured individual. So, in that sense, he is easy to work with.
“But there is a disconnect in his image and how he projects himself. This is taking nothing away from what he has achieved on the track – he is so, so talented – but the image he has created can be quite hard to like. It all feels a bit robotic, a bit overcontrolled, quite hard to engage with. There is a lack of sponsors and partners, and it doesn’t seem as if the phone is ringing off the hook.”
Martin is quick to compare Hamilton with the man who looks to be his chief opponent for the title of BBC Sports Personality of the Year in a fortnight.
“In this country, someone like Rory McIlroy had had his ups and downs, but is now very much acting like a world number one off the golf course as well as on it,” he says. “I’m not sure you could say the same about Lewis. He is a fabulous talent, but there is a lot of work to do if he wants to really build his brand. It’s a watching brief, but as of yet he doesn’t transcend his sport.”
A Modern Great
Hamilton is now a two-time world champion – the first British driver to attain that status since Jackie Stewart more than 40 years ago – and with Mercedes eager to extend his contract, the opportunity to secure further titles will surely come.
“Right now, Mercedes have a sizeable engine advantage and a great chassis,” says Coulthard. “If Ferrari and Renault are not able to develop their engines – which under the current freeze, they are not – then the team will remain in a situation where they can win races and championships.
“Lewis winning it this year doesn’t mean he will next year, of course. Nico has now gained the experience of racing for a title, which he didn’t have before, and that will only make him stronger next year. It’s a more complex question than it sounds, but if you are asking me if Lewis can win more titles with Mercedes, then the quickest answer is still ‘yes’.”
One question does inspire an apparent unanimity, however. Is Lewis Hamilton now an all-time great in the pantheon of British F1 racers? “I think he’s close to being number one now, if I’m honest,” says Brundle.
“It’s very hard to compare across eras – Jim Clark, Stirling Moss, Nigel Mansell and so forth – but Lewis has so much natural speed. If you are discussing the greatest British drivers of all time, you would have to include Hamilton.”
Coulthard agrees: “Jackie Stewart has a firm belief that the true greats win three titles. Certainly there is a limited number of drivers who have done so, so it’s an exclusive club. But you’ve got to live for your time – and both Lewis and Fernando Alonso have been performing at an incredibly high level. They are greats of the modern era. Millions of fans around the world have their personal favourites, and some will never have anyone’s names mentioned in the same breath as Senna, Prost, Jim Clark or whoever. But, for me, Lewis is a modern great.”
Catch up on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on the BBC iPlayer