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.
“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.”