Hamilton: Formula 1 has broken me and built me

Lewis Hamilton is days away from possibly claiming his fifth Formula 1 World Championship title, in a wide-ranging interview the Mercedes driver gave insight into his state-of-being ahead of this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.

This year Hamilton chased Sebastian Vettel early on in the championship battle, Ferrari producing arguably the best car of the turbo hybrid era. But after the Belgian Grand Prix which Reds won, Mercedes and their star driver bounced back ferociously.

Now the three races remaining in the title race, Ferrari and their ace have fumbled and faltered while Hamilton is on the verge of securing the title after taking his game to another level, his team playing their role impeccably, including Valtteri Bottas doing the wingman thing to perfection.

Exactly ten years have passed since the Briton wrapped up his first F1 world title, in McLaren colours, at a dramatic season finale at Interlagos in 2008. So much has happened since that day, none the least adding another four titles to his tally in silver.

Indeed we have witnessed the transformation of a precocious young gun to the elder statesman of the sport, regarded by his peers as one of the top five greatest F1 drivers of all time and most importantly Hamilton has done it his way.

How has the sport changed you?
Formula 1 has given me a life, which is pretty special. But it has also broken me. It’s broken me and built me, broken me and built me. When you go through it, you put so much into it. F1 breaks your heart. It kills you when you fail, when you stumble – and when everyone is watching you stumble. But when you get back up and succeed, it lifts you up.

What do you put it down to, because it’s not all down to raw talent, is it? Is it hard work?
LH: Yeah. For me personally, racing is everything, so everything else has started from that. When you get to Formula 1, there are a lot of whispers around you that a racing driver is all you can be. But you can be whatever you want to be, it just depends on how much time you have and how much focus you want to give it. I always wanted to play the piano, but I had one lesson with this classical teacher who was like 80 years old; I almost fell asleep in the class, so I stopped. Around twenty years later I was like ‘dammit, I wish I had stayed’. I’m learning now. [If I had stayed] I would be a bloody magician at it by now! Yes, it is talent but it’s focus too, that’s the key.

Would you be the driver you are now if you hadn’t been so focussed in your early years?
LH: I think, potentially, I could be better. Or maybe I would be the driver I am now, but it would have happened earlier. If I had been a bit more open-minded at a younger age, I would have been in a better position. If I had the maturity of me as a 28-year-old but at 22…but that’s the same for all of us: ifs and buts. I always had confidence in what I was doing. I knew I had the ability, so in my mind I was like a runaway train; you can’t stop it. I knew where I was going and nothing was going to get in my way. Sure, I was signed by McLaren, but every day was a worry that I could lose it. My dad and I would spent hours and hours communicating with them, trying to go over and above to make sure; we had to be squeaky clean.
We were the only black family in the sport. It was by no means an easy route. We were very lucky that we got funding, but we still had to navigate [the sport]. We had to make sure that every weekend we crushed it… leaving no stone unturned. It’s so that when it comes to the day they say, ‘so, who should we put in the car?’ there is no doubt in their minds. That’s what we worked for.

Here we are at the business end of the 2018 season. Do you feel like you have one hand on the title?
LH: I don’t think you ever have one hand on it. I’d prefer to have both hands on it—and we don’t. Everyone’s working incredibly hard to continue to improve the car and we are going to be faced with different challenges as we come to these different races. So the job is still exactly the same, the target is still exactly the same and the approach is still exactly the same.

If you do go on to win this title, would you characterize it as your greatest achievement in light of the fact that maybe the car at your disposal this year hasn’t always been the class of the field?
LH: If I was to gauge it, it wouldn’t necessarily be because of that. It is because of the team’s great rapport [and] the effort that has gone into it from every single person. Our results have been great, considering that we’ve started weekends on the back foot or slightly behind in performance, yet performed better overall. It’s also been the most challenging year. Every weekend it’s a gamble and the decisions you take, the risk versus the reward… it’s all these different things.

You mention the teamwork, that’s something of a mantra for you. How important is your relationship with the team?
LH: Massive. It is the key factor of any championship. Relationships are always developing. It’s never perfect but the great thing is that there’s great communication within the team. I am told at the end of the year, for example, that it could be better next year. This year wasn’t perfect, it’s never easy to hear something that’s negative but it’s good for the long haul because if you apply yourself and fix it or improve it. It can only benefit you and the whole team. What we’ve done in these last six years… I am very proud to be a part of it and there’s no better place to be. This is your 12th season in Formula 1.

How do you keep your engineers motivated?
LH: Hopefully they’re inspired by the way I drive and they work towards that. They know if they give me the car and allow me to put it in that certain place, it’s going to be magical.

Do you love those emotional highs and lows?
LH: I don’t know if I can say I love them, because the lows are the worst! I’m generally quite an emotional person. There are athletes, drivers and performers that have—I wouldn’t call it the heartbeat exactly, but an oscillating line—you know, up and down. I would say the best performers, such as Serena [Williams] or Muhammad Ali, their line is calmer, and the calmer you can get it, the better it is for you. At the beginning of my career especially, it was peaks and valleys, up and down. It was hard to keep focussed. If you can learn to breathe and calm that squiggly line of emotion, then you can focus a lot better.

Can you relate that in a driving sense? Do you hold your breath at the start?
LH: No, I don’t. For sure I probably breathe less. Before the start, I feel that my heartbeat drops really low but I’m pretty sure it’s really high. [It’s like] the rest of my body is calm but maybe my heart is pumping really fast. It’s almost like you shut down the rest of your body but your brain is ready to react. Your generator’s powering everything else in your body but for that one moment— to get off the line quickest— it’s all power to your brain.

You’ve been talking a lot on social media about wanting to challenge yourself: There are videos of you scuba diving and snowboarding. For a guy who does what you do for a living, why the need to constantly challenge yourself when you’re not in a racing car?
LH: Since I was a kid, if I wasn’t moving forwards, I felt like I was standing still and almost dying.

But some of the stuff you are doing is dangerous?
LH: No pain, no gain and no risk, no reward. As I get older and witness people pass away, you realise how fragile we are and how precious life is. We all take so much stuff for granted. When my time is up, I want to be at the pearly gates saying, ‘I didn’t get through everything I wanted to do, but I gave it my best shot and got through most of it’. I’m trying to learn things. I did my diving test because I love the ocean and I’m fascinated by sea life. I’m dyslexic and struggled at school, so challenging my mind and learning new things, surpassing certain tests [is great]. I love doing risky stuff, even if there is a bit of pain in it sometimes, I just love that thrill factor. That’s never going to change.

How the world championship can be sealed by Hamilton on Sunday at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez:

  • Hamilton is 70 points clear of Vettel, who must win all three remaining races to have any chance;
  • Hamilton will take his fifth world championship with two races to spare if he scores five points, which means finishing seventh or higher.
  • Hamilton champion if Vettel fails to win.