It's hard to catch Lewis Hamilton these days, on or off the track. On track that statement is self-evident: ask Nelson Piquet Jr, who won three perfect races in a row and was still unable to catch Hamilton after a frankly astonishing race two in Istanbul gave the Briton one hand on the championship trophy ahead of this weekend's final round in Monza; ask Franck Perera, who was unable to catch his rival at the Nurburgring despite being able to beat the Briton almost at will in karts; hell, ask any of his rivals in the GP2 grid.
Off track it has become almost as hard to catch him too, albeit for reasons not of his making. At the start of the season Hamilton made it known that he was looking at GP2 as a two year programme, but his early season success has, paradoxically, put more pressure on the driver to continue in that vein just at a time that rivals Piquet Sports seemed to have found an edge over his ART team.
With many in the media actively campaigning for McLaren to hand Hamilton the vacant race seat next to Fernando Alonso next year, the team took the unprecedented decision from Hockenheim to impose a media blackout during a race weekend. While the move was made with the best of intentions – to take some pressure off his shoulders as he attempts to win the F1 support series – the unintended consequence has been that his normally engaging personality has been blunted by restrictions put on what he can say at a time that he was starting to be regularly beaten on track, and refusals to talk in Hungary left many in the paddock assuming he had cracked.
But what does the man himself think? Sitting in the ART office after his remarkable comeback in Istanbul, the old, sunny Hamilton was re-emerging after an enforced holiday. “Sure, the pressure gets higher and higher the closer you get to Formula One,” he reflected, “and when you get to Formula One it gets even higher. That's all just part of the learning curve, but I came into it quite relaxed and knew I didn't have to win, and the only pressure is from myself.
“I didn't go into it thinking ‘I have to win this year, and this is how I'm going to do it’; I came into it thinking ‘I hope to finish in the top three.’ But I'm leading the championship, and it's overwhelming to be leading the championship at this stage and to be the title contender.
“I know I can win, and I'd rather do it in my first year than my second, so I put extra pressure on myself to make sure I perform at my best.”
Begin the Begin
But where does this pressure, this inbuilt quest for perfection come from? Simple observation points to the relationship between Hamilton and his father, Anthony. Hamilton Sr acts as his son’s manager and, in a world populated by Driver’s Dads, the pair are almost impossibly tight. Like two peas in a pod, it’s clear that both would do anything for the other, the filial admiration obvious no matter how hard they try to get away it (Hamilton rarely refers to his father as Dad, preferring instead to direct anyone looking for some time with the driver to “just check with Anthony to see if that’s okay”).
As is common in racing, it’s clear that a lot of the momentum behind Hamilton’s career comes from his father. But whereas many fathers of racers, many living vicariously through their sons as they attempt to achieve a life they were unable to gain themselves, use everything from guilt to outright aggression to prompt their progeny into performing, a large part of the impetus behind the Briton is a combination of his own drive to get to Formula One, respect for his father, and appreciation for the work he’s done behind the scenes to get him where he is today.
But how did the pair get started in racing? “I was, I think, 4 years old, and I was going off to spend weekends with my Dad because my parents were divorced,” Hamilton begins, sitting on a wheel rim being stored in the office as his team cheerfully pulls down the temporary structure outside after watching his extraordinary drive earlier that morning. “Me and my Dad bought a remote control car, and on weekends we entered into a club championship. When I was five years old I went on Blue Peter, and I was winning these small championships racing against adults.
“We did that for a couple of years, and I think my Dad just thought that maybe the hand-eye coordination that I do have would work in a real kart. So he bought me a kart: it was about fifth hand, we entered our first six races, and we won all six. You're a novice when you get into it, on black plates, and they're in the same race as the guys that were qualified, on yellow plates. And I was finishing third or fourth with the yellow plates, so I was quite high up.
“It really started from there: it was a weekend thing, a hobby, and my Dad said if you continue to work hard at school, I'll continue to work my arse off to keep you racing, which he did. It's slowly progressed as we won British championships, eventually European championships, World number one: it just progressed, and I just got better and better.”
DC: What was it about karts that made you want to just keep doing it?
Lewis Hamilton: “It's difficult to explain. In every sport that I do, I have to put 110% in so I have to be really careful; I can't go and play football like other people who are able to control themselves. I mean, I can do it, but I always want to win. When I got into karting, just the adrenalin rush of braking late, lunging up the inside of someone, doing a quick lap, being on the edge: your heart is pounding. There's a lot of different factors that go into it but that's what kept me going, and now I've grown up I've grown to love it more and more; the feel of winning is something you can’t simulate anywhere else.”
DC: Was it a feeling that racing was easy for you, that no matter what happened you could just easily beat anyone else?
Hamilton: “It wasn't easy: it's never been easy, but it's something that … as I said, anything that I compete at, I put my heart and soul in, and it was something that I was able to put my heart and soul in and get so much enjoyment out of, as well as winning, the excitement of winning. And, I was good at it; finally there was something that I was really good at. I was good at playing football, I was good at lots of other sports, but I was really, really good at this. And I could feel it when I was driving the car; I could feel and really know how to do each corner, how to do this, how to do that. There were lots of different factors involved, but ultimately it was one thing that I could do really well; I wasn't as interested in my school as I was into my racing, I was away a lot so it was really difficult to keep up, but as I said it was the one thing I could do phenomenally well at that age, and that's what I wanted to do.
“None of the wins came easy: I had to work, my Dad was my mechanic/engineer for quite a few years, even when I was racing in Europe. And it is hard racing in karting: we were racing people like [Tonio] Liuzzi and Franck Perera, who were the most amazing kart racers I'd ever seen. It was no way near easy to race against people like that and to keep the momentum, keep winning, keep coming back and learning from your mistakes.
“So it's never been easy: there have been hard years, like 2001 when me and Nico had a bad kart and just weren't able to be at the front; that was a hard year. But there have been this year, last year in Formula 3, Formula Renault: I can't pick out one point, but there have been several times each year that I've raced that have been so hard, when I've raced and I've had to dig down so deep to really pull something out of the bag. For example, today: I had to dig down so deep, deeper than I've ever really gone. Silverstone and maybe Nurburgring were other races where I've had to do something like that.
“But today was the deepest I've been; it was an emotional roller coaster.”
The Wonder Years
Hamilton’s career is implicitly intertwined with that of close friend Nico Rosberg: born just six months apart in 1985, the pair have grown up in racing together from the first time the Briton raced in Europe, culminating in the pair spending two years as teammates before graduating to cars; Hamilton moved to British Formula Renault 2000 in 2002 while Rosberg went to German Formula BMW, claiming the title in his first year in series.
The pair were competing once again in 2004, when Hamilton moved up to the Formula 3 Euroseries after claiming the Renault title to join the German, who was in his second year in the series and driving for his father’s team. The next year Rosberg moved up to GP2 with ART, the new team formed off the back of Euro F3 champions ASM, who had signed up the Briton for a run at the title. Both men won: Rosberg took the inaugural GP2 title in the final race in Bahrain to secure a drive with Williams in F1, while Hamilton dominated the season, taking 15 wins on the way to the title and Rosberg’s seat at ART for 2006.
Hamilton has a good opportunity to repeat his friend’s series win this weekend, after which Formula One beckons. With McLaren backing it seems to be only a case of when, not if, he rejoins Rosberg in a series once more, and their fierce rivalry can be resumed. Despite their friendship each driver tried constantly to get one over on the other as teammates: the rivalry increased over their time together to progress from all night PlayStation sessions to Hamilton learning how to ride a unicycle just because Rosberg had already done so before suggesting a one-wheeled race.
All of which made it interesting that Hamilton singled out two other drivers as his main competition in karting, rather than his teammate. Did that mean he thought he had Rosberg easily under control? “No, no, no: I only say Franck Perera because he was world champion, Liuzzi was world champion: I only say them because they were world champions!
“There was me and Nico, and we were both going through the same experiences: Nico was my closest rival throughout karting, but when you get to Europe I think Franck Perera was a little bit more experienced than me and Nico; he was world champion so he was someone you look up to, even if he was only a year older or something, he was already world champion and he had won everything. That's why it was so hard: these guys were on the top, they had the best karts, they had the best teams, and to defeat that you've really got to put it all together and work like a team.”
DC: What was it like when you were working with Nico?
Hamilton: “Oh, I had probably the best times of my career. Racing with Nico, we stayed in the same hotels together, in the same rooms, we were so close over those couple of years, and it was almost like the older brother I never had. He's a great guy: we had so much fun together, we went on holidays together, and I learnt a lot from Nico; not just on the track, but mentally and how to relax, how to bounce back. Nico was very strong mentally, so he was able to absorb the bad weekend and really pump out some positive energy, and I thought that's what I've got to do; he was so smart to be able to do that, and I think I learnt a lot from him.”
DC: Despite it being so competitive between the two of you?
Hamilton: “Yeah, well that's the thing: we were so competitive but we were able to manage it, and despite being so competitive we were able to remain best friends. And that's something you very rarely see: it's very difficult to be best friends with your team mate when you're beating them, and that year I won quite a lot of races, he won a couple, but we were both able to stay best friends.
“It was tough; it was extremely tough, because you know he's out there, he was the best up and coming driver when I arrived and I blocked some of his limelight, but it was still me and him all the way. I think we were just very professional and very mature; that was what it came down to, I think. And we're still very good friends now.”
The Racing Thing
It is a commonly held fact that the best way to get fit for a racing career is to drive a racing car; in the same, self-referential way the best way to win in a racing career is to drive for a team that can win. There is no doubt that Hamilton has had good tools to use along the way – drives for Manor, ASM and ART are as highly prized in each of their respective categories as a drive at Ferrari has been in Formula One – but equally certain is that he has made best use of the tools he has had at every level.
And the best way for a driver to impress is to achieve something that seems impossible to those watching. In Hungary Hamilton’s rival Piquet did just that: fast in practice, pole position, race one win and fastest lap followed by race two win and fastest lap gave the Brazilian the first ever perfect weekend in GP2’s history. Against that Hamilton crashed in practice, spun on the opening lap of qualifying and stopped on the racing line (only avoiding a penalty because he was due to start at the rear of the grid anyway, and a penalty must be applied to the next race), finished out of the points in race one and came a distant second in a soaking wet race two.
With Piquet having another perfect race one in Istanbul the momentum had completely switched camp, and Piquet was the man most talked about in the paddock. It seemed impossible for Hamilton to find a way back to title favouritism, but the impossible happened in race two when the Briton somehow managed to find a way back from a spin that dropped him to sixteenth to overtake everyone but eventual race winner Andreas Zuber (who must have been happy the race ended when it did) in a drive that firmly put him back in the driver’s seat in the title run.
If you’re only as good as your last drive, then Hamilton is very good indeed. Indeed, there were many in the paddock afterwards who were prepared to compare the Briton to his great hero Ayrton Senna: the way that he sliced through his competitors to take their position as if they weren’t even there was reminiscent of the great Brazilian, and the yellow helmet in a red and white car promoted the comparison even further.
Inevitably Hamilton will be employed by McLaren next year, although in what capacity remains to be seen. There is a argument to be made that current tester Garry Paffett should be promoted to the race seat, considering his year in testing and the experience that has given him in a Formula One car and environment, but Hamilton has the larger media profile and is on the record saying that he has nothing to fear from racing with Fernando Alonso, having never been beaten by a teammate in the past, as wilful but quoteworthy a statement as any from the man he may (indirectly) replace, Juan Pablo Montoya.
But with such limited experience of Formula One, what does Hamilton think he has learnt from the junior categories that would help him hold him own in the big paddock? “There's too much to say. Those nine years I did in karting, there's no substitute for the time I did in karting; I would have even liked to have given it one more year, just so I could win the world Super A championship.
“The racecraft you get from karting, there's just no substitute for it: you can't have that close, wheel to wheel racing in any other category. Well, now we're getting it in GP2, but it's all come from karting; I've brought that on, that experience. I've had to learn about the car and its interesting features, learning pitstops, learning how to pull out a quick lap, control and look after your tyres; there's so many things, I couldn't name them all, but there's a lot that goes into being one of the best.”
DC: What about learning to manage championships?
Hamilton: “Yeah, well over the years in karting it wasn't as hard; you're just pounding away to win every race, whereas higher up you have to conserve your tyres, you have to make sure you finish your race, you have to think about more, and be more mature with the strategy of your race.”
DC: How do you think the step from GP2 to Formula One will be?
Hamilton: “I think Formula One's going to be extremely hard: you can see that Nico is finding it very hard, and a lot of the up and coming drivers as well. But it's possible: you need to show that you're really quick, the other young drivers have shown that they're really quick but still have a lot to learn. Hopefully I'll have an experienced teammate, or I'll learn a lot from the test driver; whatever goes on, I'll just have to work as hard as I've ever worked.”
DC: Do you think there's anything that can actually prepare you for Formula One? Everyone says it's a completely stand alone series, that there's nothing else like it.
Hamilton: “It's difficult to say because I've not been there, so I can say how different it is, but from what I can see there's a lot of politics involved; a lot more than in GP2. So that's probably one of the biggest parts of it, but the actual driving the car bit, well, Sebastian Vettel came up this weekend and drove the car as quick as all the others. I think the driving style is very different, so it's going to very difficult, but I'm well prepared for the challenge. I think GP2 is the closest thing you can get to it, and it's got to be the best way to get to it.”
And with that he excused himself so that he could get up to the McLaren centre to watch the start of the Formula One race, as well as to take the acclaim of the well-wishers who had seen him all but wrap up the GP2 series with a drive that had seemingly halted Piquet’s challenge in one swoop. Piquet may be the first of the pair to officially enter Formula One, but Hamilton may yet leapfrog the Brazilian into a race seat in the senior category to fulfill Ron Dennis’s (and his own) ten year dream.
Watch the GP2 races this weekend, and catch the future.