Meeting Lewis Hamilton in a secret location in London, one can feel a sense of focus and professionalism strike. With a firm handshake and looking me straight in the eye upon our first meeting I could tell he meant business. Just days off the back of a recent race win, he’s fresh and energetic despite admitting to being tired after a gruelling race weekend. I won’t hold anything against him for that, especially after the past few months of reeling in his teammate in the Formula 1 World Championship standings- it hasn’t been pleasant reading for a Lewis Hamilton fan, or for that matter, Lewis himself- until this surge to the top of the standings. I was concerned that if fortunes hadn’t changed as they did, he might have been in a very different mood. Luckily for me his fortunes were on an upward curve.
Being a Formula 1 fan myself for most of my life and seeing Lewis Hamilton’s rise to the top has been rather exciting. Bringing his own style of driving inspired by his idol; the legendary Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna, he has managed to establish himself as one of the best drivers in the paddock. Respected and feared, at times he has dominated and owned the track he races on. Formula 1 drivers are a rare breed- selfish by nature while on the track, so as not to give away an inch- as well as fearless ‘machines’ with super-fast reflexes and delicate handling to navigate these modern racing cars- the epitome of modern engineering, at high speed through demanding circuits.
After growing up watching his idol, Lewis Hamilton has managed to emulate the great Ayrton Senna by becoming a three-time Formula 1 World Champion and should the result go his way in Abu Dhabi this weekend; he’s on course to win his fourth. Unlike a lot of other current F1 drivers who had the luxury of being born into the sport or backed by state funded programmes, Hamilton had a vision as a youngster to become a racing driver. Not just any old driver but he wanted to be the best, finding support from his father.
Back in 1998 McLaren took a calculated gamble and signed Hamilton to their Young Driver Support Programme. Soon after joining, Hamilton won European and World Karting titles. Fast forward to present day and Hamilton is one of the most exciting and talented drivers on the planet. Now at Mercedes, he arguably has the best car in the paddock too. Hamilton’s talent combined with that car and Mercedes have won driver and constructors titles at a canter.
With ambitions of growing his name and brand identity further beyond just racing, he’s already landed campaigns with L’Oreal and Hugo Boss and is building towards something that transcends just his driving talent. With a focused mindset and a keen attention to detail, it’s clear to see Hamilton is portending to wider and greater success.
Despite a slow start to the season, things turned around since Monaco and you went on a 6 race winning streak before the summer break. What could you point to as the catalyst for the turnaround?
I didn’t have such a strong end to last season. In all honesty, my whole life had been just out and out racing- nothing else. And so at the end of the year I had just won the championship and I was like, “I’m going to just enjoy racing. No stress”. My job was to get a one-two with the team and I at least made sure I got that. Then, coming into the year I prepared myself well. I was feeling good. The team had swapped our mechanics- my No. 1 and No. 2 engineers who had been with me for 3 years, since I joined the team. As well and two of my engine guys. Swapped them over with no real justifiable reason so it was a bit unsettling. All the guys in the garage are great but it was strange changing the team for their World Champion. It’s like maybe with a football team and taking their two best players and swapping them with another two great players- it doesn’t mean it’s going to work the same. It’s the connection you all have together. It’s a journey you’ve been on.
So in a way, with my new guys we just had to pick up and learn a new way of working together and finding a way to gel together. Which we have done now, but unfortunately along the way and at the beginning of the season we had all these failings with the car, which was nothing to do with them. There were engine failures, gearbox failures. You can imagine for these guys who have just joined the team- them thinking how unlucky we are right now. We had a really bad weekend in Barcelona, where my teammate and I crashed out of the race, with the following days after that things weren’t so easy. It was really after that, when we got to Monaco that things started to improve, but even there we had problems with my engine in qualifying which meant I couldn’t qualify on pole, even though I was quickest at the time. I started third, but still managed to win the race.
All of us are on it from the get-go. It was just circumstances that we were up against. It made it look like we weren’t focused or operating well, but it wasn’t the case, it was just that the car was not reliable.
Did you feel any pressure being the reigning champion? Does that build up and affect your performance in any way?
The pressure is there every year when you’re World Champion. But I’ve been doing it since I was a child- I won my first championship when I was ten years old. So it’s nothing new for me. That just comes hand-in-hand with the job.
It’s a choice to be great. So you make a choice every year- if you want to be great you have to work hard towards that. There’s no difference, champion or not. But, having said that, it definitely was a difficult time. My teammate didn’t have a single problem with his car, and yet we were having all these problems. So for sure it was frustrating.
It wasn’t that I was less prepared than him, it wasn’t that I was slower than him, or anything like that. It was just these things that were affecting the results. I was down then by forty-three points, which in Formula 1 terms is a big deficit. Whilst there were a lot of races left, it felt almost impossible to regain that much ground when Nico is so strong too.
What then changed? You managed to back to winning ways and get back into the Championship title race.
Ultimately us drivers are only human. It’s the same as anyone. When you get knocked down or you stumble and fall, it’s always hard to get back up. But it is how you get back up that defines you. I think we kept getting knocked down and it was getting hard to get back up. It’s like taking a punch in the boxing ring and getting up from that last heavy punch. I think for me, it was cultivating a really strong mental positive attitude-
“There’s still this many races left and we can do this! It’s going to come round eventually! We’re going to stop having issues with the car! When the car is on song, I want to make sure that mentally I’m not down, I’m up and I’m ready.”
That’s how it was really and I guess I use past experiences- were we didn’t have all the best equipment or whether we were at the back and we had to come through to the front. I just used that kind of drive and I drove one of my best races in Monaco in really tricky conditions and since then I’ve been driving my best. I’m really proud of where we’ve come from.
Ayrton Senna played a big part in your life as inspiration. What was it about him that attracted you to him?
I’m now not that far off the age that Ayrton was when he passed away. My whole life I watched Ayrton- he stood out to me in the way he drove and his charisma, the things he stood up for and up against, the respect he commanded as well as his handling of the car and the way he carried himself. The love and respect he had from his country as well- he moved a nation- which I don’t think anyone in Formula 1 will ever do again.
I know he worked a lot for charity and loved kids too. He was just a sweet, sincere man. And so I think for me, as a kid, I didn’t see all that stuff until later, it was more about this driver- and I wanted to drive like that! For some reason I felt and I knew that I could drive like that before I had even driven a car.
Generally, I look at things and think “I can do that”– if I really put my mind to it, and focus my mind and energy. I’m conscious that I’m going to have to put in the required time and means to achieve that goal.
Everyone at the top of their game has put in thousands and thousands of hours to get to where they are. Look at Roger Federer for example, he’s put in the hours to be at the top of his game. The same goes for Stella McCartney. It’s not as if I can switch and do what they’re doing as good. But I feel like if over time, I apply myself to whatever it is I want to do, I’ll be a success.
How would you describe your relationship/ rivalry with Nico?
It’s just a normal rivalry. It’s different with different drivers because your handling different characters. It’s all about the character. Obviously you get different class of driver, but then also you get to see different class of driver with different mentality and different mindsets. It’s the same as with competitors – there are some people that will do anything to win. Some guys will do everything in the right way to win, and some will also do things in the wrong way to win. Win in any way possible. Look at Fernando (Alonso) – extraordinary talent and it was intense working and racing against him. The same kind of thing, some drivers are stronger mentally and some are less strong. Some of them break under pressure, some of them are super strong under pressure. Some are good in terms of race-craft and some are weaker. They all have different qualities.
Honestly, with Nico, I’ve known him since we were young. I would say, that while Formula 1 is the toughest sport in terms of motorsport, in terms of driving, it’s easier to be closer in F1 to your teammate. The reason I say that is that when we were racing in karting there was no data, there was no electronics – there just just you and a hump of lead. It was how you threw it around the track. Now we have this big car and there are all these tools you have to use. So it’s not just driving, it’s all these tools you need to juggle at the same time. From reading the data you can see how your teammate juggles and you can opt the do it the same way, or you can opt to do it differently. In having those tools, it allows you to bring teammates closer.
What changes, for better or for worse, have you seen develop within Formula 1?
I think Formula 1 has been following along similar lines throughout my career where every weekend has been the same. Arrive Thursday, meet the media – the same interviewers and same interviewees. Friday has been the same practice format, Saturday has been pretty much the same, apart from qualifying maybe shifted, but Sunday has always been the same in terms of the race.
Formula 1 has grown in terms of technology – it’s moved forward quite a lot. They’re trying to connect with fans a lot more. But I think right now they’re making very small steps forward rather than embracing the times – that is the social media world. It’s taken a while for them to gel towards that. For example, you’re not allowed to use social media in the paddock. But, I think they’re growing towards that and start to understand that. I think they were a little reluctant at first, but seeing as everything is on social media now. Me personally, I’ve seen the fans grow a lot. We’re getting better audiences in some countries. When we go to Germany for example, we don’t get a massive crowd there – you can see a difference since Michael Schumacher stopped racing.
How does it feel when you win? What’s the feeling winning a race, and then the feeling of winning a Championship?
The races feel different. It always feels new – kind of like the first time. Sometimes you’re elated, when coming from the back of the grid, and it’s different when starting on pole. It’s different when you win in wet conditions. Silverstone this year was one of the greatest feelings winning that race.
Winning the Championship is what you have your mind set on all year. So when you win the race it’s not the top, but one step further towards being at the top. And so you enjoy it for that moment being on the top step of the podium – the adrenaline is rushing – but you’re also conscience that it’s not over. There are many more winning experiences you need to have and then when you win the world championship it’s astounding. It’s like getting flashback of your whole life – all those good and also those tough times you’ve been through, all those days you had doubts, the days you had tears and even bloodshed, it’s finally paid off. When you’re working out and you’re pushing for that extra rep or it could be a fall out in a relationship or a sacrifice you’ve made. It’s the feeling of accomplishment that I stuck it out. It’s honestly the greatest feeling. And you finally achieve a goal.
People ask me ‘why do I want to win this Championship?’. I tell them it’s what I want to do.
I woke up this season as a three-time World Champion but there’s another Championship ahead of me and whilst i”m here I always want to be my best. I always want to excel. There are going to be some good days an some bad days. This year, I’m noticing them more. The days when I’m not that great, I don’t get hung up on it but I work to make sure that it hopefully doesn’t happen again. When it comes to race day, I’m conscience of my feelings and my emotions and if I’m in control today.
What do you do outside of Formula 1? What are your interests – what kind of things do you do to relax?
I travel a lot. I love going to fashion shows. I love creativity – I love going into a different world that I’m not part of. Being in the fashion world for example, seeing all these creative designers come up with new things, trying to understand where they’ve come from and what’s helped inspire them. I love sports. I like Moto GP and I like watching tennis. Music is really my number one passion though – it’s what I love the most. I love listening to all kinds of music and seeing bands play live. I love design, so I love buildings and architecture. Budapest is one of my favourite cities in terms of the architecture. It felt very classic.
As soon as I stop racing I’m in different world, doing different things. Whilst racing has been my life, I don’t feel like it’s what defines my life.
You touched upon your interest in fashion. You were involved in London Collections Men last year. Is that something you want to continue with?
Yea it’s a shame I couldn’t do anything this year but it clashed with the British Grand Prix and I had had a pretty busy race weekend. There are so many great UK designers and I’m really proud be a part of it. I’m in touch with Dylan Jones (British GQ Editor and Chair of the Menswear Committee of the British Fashion Council) to stay abreast of what’s going on.
It’s been an unfortunate year in the sense that I’ve not been to a lot of fashion events, and I’ve really missed it. Whether it be in New York, London or Paris, being able to see the shows and take pictures of different looks, meeting the designer and get the chance to speak with them. I always ask them “what were you thinking when you were designing this?”.
Does their creative process inspire you?
Yeah I feel it feeds my desire and aspirations to do things. I think feeding from different worlds and different people. I’m very much an energy person. I think that meeting good people you sense the good in them, you sense the bad in them. And so I generally try and be a positive energy reflecting on people and absorb as much. Because I think we are so much about energy.
Do you have plans after Formula 1 – perhaps pursuing a hobby further?
Things are completely open right now. I always wanted to emulate Ayrton – three World Championships, forty-three wins. I now have those. But now everything is like the icing on the cake. There are more records to be broken and another Championship to be won. But I am really, really conscience
most drivers stop and become commentators, managers, or even go to another series. I personally have no desire to do the things everyone else has generally done. And whilst I respect the line of work they’ve done, I just have different desires. I want to step away from it if I can.
I look at Jeff Gordon from NASCAR for example, who stopped racing last year but has now come back. So I anticipate there might be those withdrawal symptoms, missing what I love doing. But I really hope right now, in these next five years, it’s about discovering what I want to do afterwards. That’s why I do these interviews and shoots – it’s about building your brand and building your platform. I love what David Beckham is doing beyond his football. Look at what Victoria does beyond her music career. Look at Michael Jordan. These guys who have gone beyond their sport and done something afterwards.
I want to make sure I do something like that. So right now I’m discovering what I want to do. Like I say, I love music and I love fashion – if I could so something with fashion in some stage. I don’t want to just do it for the sake of doing it. I never do anything half-arsed. So whatever I end up doing I’ll do it properly.
Where would you say is your home?
Home home home, is Grenada- where my dad’s side of the family are from. Naturally, when I come to England I feel at home as this is where I grew up. Monaco is where I live and again I do feel at home there. But in terms of my roots, I feel it’s Grenada. Which I’m going to visit during my summer break. I’m looking forward to visit my Granddad and some of my Aunties who are really old now. You know, you never know how much longer they could be around for. If I was told ‘you had to retire at home’, it would be Grenada.
If you could only drive one car for the rest of your life, what would that be?
Well, firstly, that would be really sad- as there are so many great cars. I think it would be the McLaren LMP1, which is a car I’ve always wanted and it’s still been my favourite car today.
It was the world’s fastest car back when I was about ten years old and it’s always been one that I wanted to this day. I’ll never get it though because there are only five of them ever made and the one that I want is back at the McLaren factory and Ron Dennis had agreed to give it to me if I won three World Championships (with him). I should have said three World Championships regardless so that I could have it.