In the interview, Lewis Hamilton talks in detail about how he digested the 2021 World Cup defeat, how he experienced the problems with the current Mercedes and how long he wants to stay in Formula 1.
How close were you to retiring after the 2021 final in Abu Dhabi?
Hamilton: It feels like it's been years. It was heartbreaking or devastating, whatever you want to call it. Have I ever thought of retiring? I'm not one to give up easily.
But what was going through your mind?
Hamilton: What was really hard to accept is that the sport allowed something like that. You depend on so many people in this sport. And you can expect everyone to get the job done right. When the outcome of a World Cup that so many people have worked so hard for depends on one wrong decision by one individual, it's hard to take. That was probably what excited me the most. You can lose a World Cup because you or the team made mistakes, but not like this. After that I spent a lot of time with my family. That was the best healing process. I spent my winter time building snowmen for the kids and spending time with them. That gave me the strength to fight back. If I hadn't had that, I would have fallen into a hole.
Did you feel like it was done on purpose to see someone else win?
Hamilton: I don't know. It's all so long ago. I think the wrong decisions were just made. There were egos involved and a lot of people whispering. But I didn't feel like I was being targeted.
Did the events in Abu Dhabi make you even hungrier, like: Now more than ever?
Hamilton: Sure. It was a bit difficult to start training again at first. You can't just flip a switch and say: Now I'm motivated. It took me a while to rebuild it. I'm generally a guy who keeps his fitness up. There is no such thing as a week or two without training. I have to keep a certain rhythm. So it wasn't that I wasn't fit and had to climb a huge mountain. But I had to find the drive again to challenge my body and mind even more. When you've won seven world titles and more races than anyone else, you need to find something to make you hungry. I don't want to be less hungry. If it were, there would be no reason to continue. So I wanted to come back stronger. But then we had all the drama with our car.
If the verdict on Red Bull in the cost cap affair had subsequently made you world champion, would you have been happy with it?
Hamilton: No. The damage is done. I know for myself what we have achieved as a team and how we have done it. We gave everything and did it the right way and I'm proud of that.
Like Toto Wolff, are you still thinking about it?
Hamilton: No, that's done. I refuse to live in the past. In 2007, as a newcomer, I had this experience. That gave me sleepless nights and negatively charged me. If you allow that, you go backwards. I'm just looking ahead no matter what happened in the past. I won't let that get to me anymore. I can't change it anyway. I gave everything and sacrificed everything and I'm ready to do it again.
Then how hard was it to digest that you don't have the best car this year?
Hamilton: It's not nice for any of us. Toto will tell you the same thing. In February we were all hot and optimistic. The engineers told us that we would have an incredibly fast car. This has electrified us all and made us work even longer and harder in the winter. Especially at a time when normal people tend to hold back. And then all of a sudden we realize this damn thing isn't working and we have this bouncing. It was a bitter pill for everyone. We then went through a process of coming to terms with this situation. Surprisingly, this has brought us even closer together as a team and made us stronger.
When did you know: This car won't be a winning car?
Hamilton: I had my first suspicion when I drove the car for the first time. But you never know. We hoped to solve the problems by the first race. It is always difficult to estimate how long it will take for such a problem to be resolved. There was also a problem that we have never had before. No one thought it would take us so long to understand the reasons that trigger bouncing. Engineers had to create new tools to understand it. You live in constant hope during this time. The first upgrade comes and it doesn't work. Then the next one and it doesn't work either. We saw progress in the wind tunnel but not on the track. Each time we got another slap in the face. But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Turning the car into a winning car next year won't be easy, but we now have a much better understanding of why this car is the way it is.
Which phases of development did this car go through?
Hamilton: The car has many weak points. Bouncing was the most dominant and visible.But we also have problems with the aerodynamic characteristics and the rigidity of the car. Stiff to the point where the suspension practically doesn't work because it bounces harder than the tires. Then the tires start to deform and you get bouncing from the flexing of the tires. Add to that our aerodynamic deficits. Drag is a big issue for us. In certain situations, others simply pull us away. For example, one problem is when you brake and the car dives in the front and comes up at the back and the downforce shifts, and also when we accelerate. It also feels different in slow and fast corners. Because there were so many problems, I probably tried every setup you can think of. I did that in the first part of the season. It wasn't about getting the best possible result. It was about solving the problems. So I've sacrificed many weekends collecting data and information to give the factory a better understanding of what's holding us back.
Can you still assess your own performance?
Hamilton: Very difficult. I mean, there's also the cost cap that you have to take into account. In the beginning, our subfloors were constantly damaged. The more damage, the higher the costs. That limits you more and more. You want to increase the development work, but you have to scale it down. I tried everything to describe our car to the engineers as best as possible. When driving, you try to get as close as possible to the point where the car won't surprise you. So to choose the braking point so that it doesn't throw you off. If you're just a little over it, the tail will come and you'll never catch the car again. This car is a grab bag.
You once said: We still race, only the perspective has changed. How hard is that to accept as a rider who has won so much?
Hamilton: It didn't feel that difficult at first. But then we came to a phase where hope arose. There were weekends when we finished second. But at the next race we were nowhere again. If that happens a few times, it'll hit you. You do all the work in the simulator, but it tells you a different story than what you experience on the track. The engineers say they have an upgrade that's worth three tenths, and then in reality you're one tenth slower. This is so confusing. That's why at some point I gave up hoping for anything. It is better to expect less and get more.
Your teammate George Russell is as close to you as Fernando Alonso was recently. How did you experience that in this difficult environment?
Hamilton: It was an unusual year. George is doing a great job. I do not have a problem with it.There are no problems between us. George and his team haven't experimented with the car as much as we have. That is normal. I've been around longer and have known for ten years what makes people tick and how you have to exchange ideas with them. Andrew Shovlin (Chief Engineer) and I can argue about things, argue constructively. George is new to the team and he's doing his job the best he can. He tries a lot less during setup. I'll try this and that, grab another wing and see if it helps. Hopefully next year if we have a better car then we can focus on getting the most out of the car instead of messing with crazy set-ups. Then it will be a more honest duel. If he finishes ahead of me in the World Championship this year, I won't mind. We're going for fifth and sixth places. It would be a different story if it was a matter of first and second place.
The engineers say that they have learned a lot in the process of solving the problem and that is why there is something positive to take away from the season. What are you taking away from this season?
Hamilton: Everything has its value because you learn from it. It's not that I'm experiencing a season like this for the first time. I definitely rode better this year than in the other difficult years. And I've become a better team worker, how I communicate with people, how I push them. In my life outside I have found a better balance.
How many races would you have won based on your performance this year if you had had a better car?
Hamilton: Not as many as in the past. You question yourself whether you're still as focused as you used to be. But I can say with a clear conscience that I'm preparing better than ever. That my training was harder and more consistent than ever. That the diet was healthier. That I let less time be taken away from me than I used to so I could really focus on the weekends. I invested more time being in the factory. But you never really figured that car out. It's the most unpredictable car I've ever driven.
How much energy does it take to deal with these problems?
Hamilton: It's just different. In fact, a year like this opens your eyes to how hard everyone on the team works. The people who are at the race track on Sunday are at the factory on Monday. They don't even take half a day off. Sometimes I had to remind them not to overdo it or they'll burn out and pay for it next weekend. I had to remind myself sometimes.
Has the difficult time put a strain on relationships in the team?
Hamilton: No, that was one of the best years we had together.Of course everyone is happy when we win races. But this year has encouraged cohesion. There were never any problems with Toto. We are more open in dialogue than we have ever been.
Have the circumstances of the last year and the fact that Red Bull exceeded the cost cap last year changed the way you look at the sport?
Hamilton: They don't. They also have no influence on my plans for the future. I try to focus on things I can control. And these things are out of my control. So I don't have to worry about that either. Surely the cost cap story caused emotions to boil up again, because the topic was actually buried and you have now been reminded of it again. But I react as before. Check it out and move on.
What does that mean for the future?
Hamilton: The time has come again for you to think about how to proceed. You analyze the past year and try to imagine what the next three or five years might look like. Where do I see myself? what do i want to do What are my goals? Outside of sport, I have entered many businesses with a good chance of success. But I want to keep racing. i love what i do I've been doing this for 30 years and I've never felt the need to stop. I want to do even better. That's why I plan to be there for a longer time.
Sebastian Vettel is your generation and he fights for the same things as you outside of sport...
Hamilton: Similar, not the same.
He is stepping down at the end of the year. Is that a reason for you to think about it too?
Hamilton: I don't base my decisions on what other people do. I admire Seb's decision. But he's in a different situation than me. he has children I don't have a family, so I'm still 100 percent committed. I can imagine that it's more difficult with a family because you have to sacrifice so much of what is important to you. I don't have to make any sacrifices in the relationship. Of course there are my parents, but I'm working on improving that. Seb and I are just on a different path in life. Will I still drive when I'm older than 40? Perhaps. Mercedes and I will definitely extend the contract. We will sit down in the next two months. I've been with Mercedes now since I was 13 years old. This is my family. We've been through thick and thin. You stayed with me when I was expelled from school. They walked me through everything that happened in the 2020 season. They stood by me when I made mistakes or whatever shit the press said. They were there through all the ups and downs. I believe in this brand and the people who work for us.That's why I want to be the best teammate there is for them. We can make the brand even better and stronger, and I want to be an important part of that.
You have the prospect of success while your old teammate Alonso just keeps going because he loves what he does. Can you imagine more seasons like this one?
Hamilton: We are very different personalities with different values. I admire Fernando for his tenacity because it takes a lot from you to come back. But he has not yet organized his life after that. Me, yes. I could quit today and have many other things to keep me busy. I'm staying because I love working on this team. You'll have to put up with me a little longer.