Lewis Hamilton is world champion. Again. ShortList’s Andrew Dickens speaks to a man at the very top of his game
What can you say about Lewis Hamilton that hasn’t already been said? Well, you could say that he’s a 7ft-tall linen salesman from Djibouti or that he was once ousted, by military coup, as the president of the RSPB. Or you could say that he was a pretty average racing driver. But that would all be very silly.
On 25 October, in Austin, Texas, Hamilton secured the Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship – and he did it with three races to go. In Mexico City, Sao Paolo and Abu Dhabi he could, quite literally, have parked his Mercedes and worked his way through a Happy Meal while doing some early Christmas shopping.
Even more remarkably, at the age of 30, this was his second consecutive world title, and his third in total, matching his idol, Ayrton Senna, and equalling Jackie Stewart’s record for a British driver. They breed them quick in Stevenage. We caught up with him as he prepared to take his foot off the gas and revel in glory. Or not.
Congrats – you’ve matched your hero and the British record.
It’s kind of surreal. Hard to believe. You work towards something in the hope that you’ll get there, but when you do get there it’s a shock to the system, to achieve your dreams. I wasn’t bothered about anyone else’s titles or records, it was only ever Senna’s. To equal him is a real dream.
Has each win felt different?
Absolutely. Funnily enough, every race has felt different. You wake up on a different side of the bed each time. But the Championship; I was 23 when I won the Championship for the first time and it had been my lifelong goal to get to Formula 1 and win the Championship. That was a shock to the system. I’d been racing since I was eight, but I was never prepared for the life that comes along as a Formula 1 driver – the glitz and glamour, the media, the attention.
That first win in 2008 was rather dramatic…
Yeah, I’d lost it the previous year [in his debut season, by one point to Kimi Raikkonen]. The second year, I had it, I lost it, I had it, I lost it and then, in the last race on the last corner, I got it. It was a dramatic experience; one I wouldn’t say I was well equipped to enjoy. I didn’t enjoy the aftermath. And it was a long old time waiting for the next one. I didn’t have a car to back it up, we had a lot of up and down years. Every year I got a win or two, but the car was never good enough. Then I moved to another team [from McLaren to Mercedes], which everyone said was the worst move of my career, and I won the world championship. Looking back, if I’d done what every single person had suggested, I’d be at the back of the field right now.
To get to the top of F1, you’ve got to be single-minded anyway, so there’s only so much advice you can take on board.
Definitely. When I made that decision, it was the first time in my life where I did it on my own. I didn’t speak to anyone about my decision. I did my own due diligence to understand the pros and cons. I had to dig deep and find what I felt comfortable with, regardless of what happens moving forward. I had to take full responsibility. It’s a rewarding feeling, to take that leap of faith in your own judgement and for it to pay off.
You’re in the close season now. Do you prefer it to the race season?
I do love the off-season, though each year it seems to be getting shorter. Normally I don’t start physical training until around Christmas. Once the season’s done, I take a break, go skiing, and then start physical training again. This year I start again straight away, because I have some goals that I want to see the effects of by the time I get to testing.
What do you allow yourself that you wouldn’t during the race season?
My main treat is that I get to go skiing. Most sports people now don’t do any kind of activity outside of their main job, which is generally the right thing to do. But, for me, I try to enjoy myself; I work hard and play hard. I love skiing, so I go for a week each year. That’s my one allowance.
Do your team bosses sit at home sweating for that week?
The first time I went [while I was in Formula 1], I called Ron Dennis [his then boss at McLaren] and said, “I really, really love skiing, so I’m asking you if I can go.” He said I could, if I looked after myself. But it’s different now; I don’t have that danger factor in a contract. That said, I don’t want to see anyone else driving my car, so I don’t take too many risks.
Are outside interests important, for your career as much as your own state of mind?
I’ve been racing for 22 years. It’s therapeutic to get into a different world. For example, I went to the British Fashion Awards and to be able to admire, from a distance, to see, to listen and to learn about other people’s worlds is super-interesting to me. I know everything about Formula 1, there’s no more for me to really learn, but something like this awards show is fascinating.
You’re into your style. Are there particular designers you’re really into?
I love McQueen, I love St Laurent, Givenchy. Givenchy is probably my favourite, the way Riccardo [Tisci, the designer] works. I’m Catholic and I’m very close to my faith and I like the way he incorporates his faith into some of his designs.
You seem to have quite an artistic bent. You love fashion, music, art…
Yeah. I have such a small amount of time I can put into things outside of racing, but I try to get involved in those things. My auntie passed a few years ago. I remember how hard she worked. A couple of days before she passed, she said, “I can’t believe it. I’ve worked my whole life and I had so many thing I wanted to do, but I didn’t get to do them.” I want to be as open as possible, to absorb as much as I can. There’s so much beauty, so many great things to do, so I try to experience as much as possible. When it comes to my time, I don’t want to be sitting there thinking, “Jesus, there was so much more that I wanted to do.”
Does that, in a strange way, put you at ease when you get into a car?
I think so. Everyone has to find their own balance. I think, as humans, we kind of block ourselves. As we grow up, we learn certain ways of doing things and sometimes end up quite narrow-minded. I’ve come up with an open-minded approach to life. It works for me, but might not work for everyone else.
You mention your auntie. Are your family and friends part of your motivation?
Naturally, doing things for my mum and dad has been a huge motivation. My mum has always been very loving, very easy-going. In my mum’s eyes, I can never do any wrong [laughs]. She’s proud of me always. My dad’s a harder character. Still loving, but someone who’s hugely driven in life, and who came through a different kind of struggle. When I get in the car, I know my parents worked so hard for me to get there; I’m not squandering this opportunity. And the guy next to me, he might have worked hard, but I don’t believe he worked as hard as we did.
You must be proud of your brother’s achievements [Nicolas, 23, races British Touring Cars, despite having cerebral palsy]?
It’s cool. It’s my younger brother. I’ve seen him grow up from a little sack of spuds to a grown man. He’s making his own decisions and he’s got a pretty wise head on his shoulders. I’m very much aware of how hard it is to be my brother, and he’s doing a fantastic thing.
Does he come to you for advice?
I always offer advice, but he says he wants to do it on his own. I like to think he trusts me and would come to me.
I have to ask you about your much-made-of rivalry with Nico. A little bit of spice can only be a good thing, right?
It doesn’t make any difference to me. I don’t care who I’m racing against; I want to beat everyone. Every person I’ve raced has a different character. I generally don’t take much notice of it. The media try to play you off each other. In the beginning, they tried to build us up as friends, so that later on they can break us down as enemies. We’re neither of the two. We’re kind of in the middle. We’re cool, we don’t have any troubles.
F1 is a slightly odd sport in that there’s a constructors’ championship and drivers’ one. Do you see F1 as more of a team sport or an individual one?
It’s an odd one. My job is to bring the Constructors’ Championship home to the team. And then, for my own personal desire, to be the best driver. That’s what I work for. When I’m training, I want to be world champion. You want to be the world’s No1 driver. By being the best driver in the world, you can also help the team.
If you win the Drivers’ Championship, do you feel you’ve done your job?
Yeah. When I won the 2008 Drivers’ Championship, I scored the most points for the team. It happened that my teammate struggled. When I’d win, he was fourth or fifth. I did everything I could.
You’ve got to the grand old age of 30. You’ve been racing since you were eight. Can you reflect on your achievements yet?
The other day I was talking to a guy who was bigging me up – talking about my achievements in a way I don’t think about them. I just feel content that I’ve done what I came to do to the best of my abilities. There was no stone unturned this year, no time where I thought, “I could have done better.”
You race in dozens of cities – do you have a favourite?
Montreal. It’s probably the best city to enjoy the surroundings. We always get a great audience, great food, there’s a good party scene.
What is the most fun a normal driver can have in a normal car?
The most fun you can have in a normal car is when you take it off road, to a track. There’s no traffic, no traffic lights. That’s the only time you can really explore a car.
Are there any normal cars you find particularly fun to drive?
I have a Smart electric car. I go all over the place, it’s fantastic. The Nissan GTR is amazing. One of my favourite cars.
The F1 world champ in a Smart electric car?
It’s really cool, yeah! Though it is the Brabham version [laughs].
When it comes to driving normally, is there anything you’re not good at, like parallel parking?
I definitely have days where my parallel parking is shocking, but generally I’m good at driving. I picked up a new car recently. When I got in it I felt like a knob, because I drive so slowly initially, so cautiously. My best friend’s mum drives 20mph on a 30mph road. That’s literally how I feel when I get in a new car. It’s mine and I don’t want to damage it.
At traffic lights or tolls, has anyone ever clocked you and been like, “I’m going to try take on Lewis Hamilton”?
I don’t think anyone notices me; I normally have blacked-out windows. But if they did, I’d let them, like, “You can have it, don’t worry.” I wouldn’t get anything from overtaking them – I get to do that most weeks!