Lewis Hamilton on a tough season, the risks of racing and his future
Lewis Hamilton is explaining what keeps him hungry - how, despite six world championships, 83 grand prix victories and more money than he probably ever dreamed of, his desire for success in Formula 1 burns as bright as ever.
"The thing is I never got into it for money," the Mercedes driver says. "Of course it is great that that piles up - no problem. That is a bonus. As long as those things don't become the lead factor of what I do.
"The core of what I do is that I love racing. I love the challenge. I love arriving knowing I have got these incredibly talented youngsters who are trying to beat me and outperform me, outsmart me, and I love that battle that I get into every single year.
"And I am working with these guys [his Mercedes engineers] who are so much smarter than me and they make me feel smarter. When I am challenging them and proving them wrong so many times, it is unreal."
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Hamilton laughs and refers to the conversations he has with chief engineer Andrew Shovlin and his colleagues about the complexities of the car.
"It happens a lot," Hamilton says. "I say something to Shov, and he will say: 'No, the numbers say this', and I will say: 'It's this and this and this.' And he will say: 'Oh you are right.' It feels so good. There are a lot of things like that."
Hamilton is in expansive form as he discusses his 2019 season and all matters involved in it. Over the course of the interview he covers:
- Why this season was tougher than it looked
- The demands of F1 and his lifestyle outside the sport
- Personal struggles and his climate-crisis messages on Instagram
- Rationalising the risks in the wake of the death of Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert
- The pain of defeat
- His future
A question of life and death
One of the most fundamental questions any human being can ask themselves is what their life is worth, what risks they are prepared to take to do what they enjoy.
While Formula 1 drivers are confronted with this to some degree every time they get in their car, it became very real for them at the Belgian Grand Prix this year when Formula 2 driver Hubert was killed in a crash shortly after F1 qualifying had finished.
Hamilton was doing his television interviews at the time, and the footage of his reaction when he saw the accident on a screen nearby, the anguish on his face before he cut an interview short and walked away, is chilling.
Hamilton has mentioned the impact of Hubert's death briefly a couple of times this season. But this is the first time he has talked about it in depth.
"It wasn't the first time I've seen that happen in my career," Hamilton says.
"I remember quite vividly when I was young [aged eight] I won this race in Kimbolton and Daniel Spence died and that was a tragic time for me as a kid, the first time I had known someone to die. And I was just with him that day.
"That was a tough one. This one, I was doing an interview and I saw it happen out of the corner of my eye and I just knew it was [bad]. And lots of things flashed through my mind.
"I remember watching Ayrton [Senna] when he watched [Roland] Ratzenberger crash and seeing his face. There was a lot of deja vu in that experience.
"A lot of thoughts went through my mind in the evening. I worried about the kid. I know what it's like to be in F2 and having the dream of being somewhere.
"I thought to myself: 'The cars are still unsafe.' Particularly lower down the ranks it's probably even less safe than it is for us.
"And then there is the question of how much more do you need, how much more do you want? And finding all those balances.
"I'm not chasing because I have to have it, because I love what I do. And I was like, 'Jeez, I could spend more time with my family' and all these things that you can look back on.
"I'm sure when it comes to your last day and you're at the pearly gates - I like to think you're at the pearly gates - you're looking back on your life, you're never asking: 'I wish I had more money.' You always wish you had more time. And you probably have a ton of regrets: 'If only I'd made that decision on that day, I could have spent more time with my loved one' or whatever it is.
"All those things were going through my mind. But there was never a second I thought I wasn't going to keep racing. The fear factor never crept in.
"That was an important factor for me. Because I remember when that kid died, when I was eight, one of my best friends at the time quit racing. Fear crept into him and he just quit. For me, I was like, if that ever creeps into me, I know that's the last legs of my career."
'I would say I have a very complex life'
That was not the only time the wider questions of existence have crept into Hamilton's professional life this season. After arriving home from the Japanese Grand Prix in October, he took to Instagram to post some messages reflecting his despair over the climate crisis, saying the world was "messed up" and he felt like "giving up on everything".
He defended his intervention on arriving at the subsequent race in Mexico. But he never addressed whether there was a wider personal context to it.
"There is," he now admits, "but I don't really wish to go into that."
He adds: "Most of the time, I wear my heart on my sleeve, so it was an emotional post, which is not always good to do. It just felt like I was banging my head against the wall and not gaining ground.
"There is a lot of push-back on a lot of things I do, and a lot of questioning of everything I do and say. You live your life under a magnifying glass. And the pressure for anyone that's in the limelight… we're only human, so at some stage you're going to buckle a little bit.
"But I always say it's not how you fall, it's how you get back up. And I really turned that negativity into a positive and came back and won that next race. And you'll probably see if you look back in the history of the times I've often had those difficult phases, I've often won the next races. That's where my strength lies."
How does he feel to have his personal views - and his right to express them - questioned?
"I just understand it's just the way of life," Hamilton says. "But the fact that is the way it is doesn't make it any easier.
"I would say I have a very complex life. I'm sure we all have complex lives. But I can't talk about absolutely how complex it is.
"I am trying to be more open about that, as you'll see on my social. But there is a line where it's the limit and for me personally that one there was slightly over the limit.
"But I don't regret it. Because I think for those who are following me and are on this journey with me, I don't think showing vulnerability is always a bad thing. They can just see I'm human at the end of the day."
A tricky work-life balance
Hamilton has been keen for some time to pursue outside interests, such as his growing interest in fashion, and he and Mercedes have always insisted that giving him the freedom to pursue his other ambitions revitalises him and ultimately makes him perform better.
But Hamilton admits he has to be careful not to take too much on.
"I would say just the energy load, there is a lot; I have to take a lot of weight. I don't go to the races and just go home, and [be at] home all week just training, which would be so much easier. I have so many commitments. And I would say that in many areas that's a strength but if I'm not careful that can easily tip over and be a weakness.
"I am constantly monitoring that. I run a tight ship with Marc [Hynes, his adviser and close friend] and my guys. I don't plan to be the easiest person to work with. I tell you how it is.
"And if I ever feel that I need to back away, I've got people around me who [are supportive]. Like [last] Monday, for example, I was, like, 'Bono, I can't be there Monday but let's catch up on Tuesday because I'm overloaded. I need to sleep.' It's about understanding your body and making sure you stay centered."
'I can stay focused in meetings for, like, 23 minutes'
'Bono' is Hamilton's race engineer Peter Bonnington, one of the key figures at Mercedes - along with technical director James Allison, Shovlin, chief strategist James Vowles and others - who have helped shape the team into such a formidable force.
Just before this interview, Hamilton was deep in conversation with Allison and Shovlin about some technical matter, and he says his growth in this area has been critical to his continuing success.
"I've just sat with James, and these guys are so smart; their intelligence level is on another stratosphere compared to mine," Hamilton says.
"However, their minds can't compute what I can do in the car. We're just tuned differently. Trying to understand them, sitting at the table and speaking to them about what they can take from me to apply to the car, is really the key.
"We're always working on that relationship, that rapport," Hamilton continues. "We know each other so well.
"I go in a meeting with them at the factory and those guys can sit in meetings for hours and stay focused. I have a window of, say, 23 minutes or something like that. As soon as I get there, it's all going over my head. They know. I say: 'Look, I gotta get up, go for a pee, have a coffee or something and I can come back.' And they get another 23 minutes."
The 2019 season and its challenges
At Mercedes, they believe this has been Hamilton's most impressive season. He has won half the 20 races so far, and had put a lock on the championship with seven victories in the first 10 grands prix.
If that looks like it was easy, Hamilton says it has been anything but. He says the 2019 Mercedes, while very strong, has been a difficult car to understand, it has taken time to get to grips with the intricacies of Pirelli's latest tyres, and team-mate Valtteri Bottas has been a stronger adversary than before.
But if Hamilton's season has been awesome in its consistent excellence, it has lacked the standout 'wow' moments that have come to be associated with him - a stunning pole lap out of nowhere, for example.
And while Hamilton is up 13-7 on Bottas in their qualifying head-to-head, and comfortably quicker on average, the Finn has five pole positions to Hamilton's four, which clearly irks him.
But when I ask whether this change in the character of his season was a deliberate plan, Hamilton looks almost hurt.
"I wouldn't say it has been a plan to be less 'wow'," he says, but he admits: "More consistency within the race was really important for me. So, other areas, in just health aspects, weekend-in, weekend-out delivering.
"It's crazy because we got to August and I'm thinking 'Jeez, I've had eight wins.' And as a team we've had, like, 14 wins and you kind of forget those things because you're just always looking forwards and time is always ticking.
"But it was not intentional not to be 'wow'. I've been searching for that 'wow' lap this year. And honestly I've had good laps but they've not shown in the order, necessarily, you know?
"Some of my second places that split up the Ferraris, for me felt like relatively quite 'wow' laps, but because I wasn't on pole by half a second it doesn't appear that way for you. But for me internally it did."
On hitting peak form and staying there
Bottas' increased strength was particularly notable at the beginning of the year, something Hamilton attributes in part to his former number-two race engineer transferring over this year to become the Finn's lead engineer and taking some of the world champion's secrets with him.
Bottas hit the ground running, after four races was leading the championship by a point from Hamilton and all the talk was of him being a new man in 2019. Hamilton admits it gave him pause for thought.
"First couple of races are usually not perfect for me," Hamilton says. "They're still not bad, still better than average, but then there's all the outside pressures of 'Valtteri 2.0' and I'm thinking: 'We're 2-2, two wins apiece.' And for me I'm… I can't… I've got to stay solid in my mind, I can't allow the outside… but being human it's very hard not to notice those things.
"But then I just started ramping up after that, and it went 3-2, 4-2, 5-2, 6-2, 8-2 and I was like: 'That's gooood.'" He laughs.
How does he find that extra gear? From inside himself, and from the details of hard work, Hamilton says.
"From myself - hard to explain it. Like when you wake up, you're kinda groggy and not 100%. Then you hit… we all hit perfect peak at different points in the day. Just finding a way to be more fine-tuned physically. I think I've become the most fine-tuned physically and mentally I've ever been and that's a constant - every year I'm trying to improve that."
A key strength is that Hamilton has what Shovlin calls "more tools in his box" as a driver to adapt instantly in the car to changing conditions, such as weather or handling balance.
That, Hamilton says, is "conscious".
"I've always been able to adapt. One of my strengths is I think I am probably one of the most adaptive drivers there is. I'll jump into almost any scenario and figure my way through," he adds.
"And that's why it works so well in the rain, for example, because you have to be dynamic in those places. Constantly shifting your driving style.
"I have also studied other athletes. I listen to Valentino [Rossi] and how he feels he's had to change his driving style to keep up with the newer generation and I question myself whether that's necessary. That's his journey. He was so great, you know? But I look at that and try and figure out how I would position that.
"If you look at tennis players and how they change their swing. I speak to Serena [Williams] and the nuances she goes into. I watch golf and see how Tiger [Woods] has slowly come back after improving his swing.
"It is very similar to a driver. You can change these small things that just give you a wider platform and a wider foundation to be able to pull laps together. But, man, it's millimetres, or micrometers, and it's very, very hard to see the differences always."
'It still sucks to lose'
As he talks, Hamilton's love for the sport and determination to succeed is obvious. But he says that he has learned to deal better with the disappointment of losing as he has got older.
"I remember, like, 2007 and 2008, in those times I couldn't leave my hotel room for three days. Through my whole young karting [career], I was so hard on myself.
"In my mind, that is just how I deal with things. And people couldn't understand it: 'You finished second, or finished third or fifth' or whatever it may be. And they couldn't understand the turmoil that I would drop into - a really, really dark place, and I couldn't get myself out of it.
"And that applied to a lot of things in my life. And as I've grown older I've just understood how to stay centred, get myself out of these dark holes, and I am less… even in the worst cases, they are not really that dark. That is just growth.
"There was no quick, short route to doing it. But it still sucks to lose."
At 34, Hamilton knows he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but retirement is still some way off.
"I don't fear it," he says. "Naturally for athletes, it has to be the saddest day, to hang up and stop doing something you've loved your whole life and as long as you can remember.
"But that is why I have all these other things in place that I can fall back on. The fashion side, for example. I've found another business that I can do for a long time if successful. Currently that is going really, really well but I don't know how long it will go. But at least I have another interest.
"There are a lot of different things I can be interested in. I know my life is not going to be over when I retire. And that gives me a lot of comfort.
"But right now I feel physically good enough to continue so I'm going to try to eke that out as long as I can."