In an interview, Lewis Hamilton talks in detail about the hot duels with Max Verstappen on the track, the problems with the 2021 Mercedes and the difficulties of a season in the middle of the corona pandemic.
How does this world championship fight feel compared to previous title duels?
Hamilton: I've had some hot World Cup fights in my career. They are all unique in some way. It's hard to say that one is tougher than another. When I celebrated my first title in Formula 1, I was still young. At the time, I didn't have the knowledge that my team-mate at the time had. But I knew I had the necessary skills. I didn't have that much experience with interviews back then either, and I didn't know what it felt like to be in the spotlight. At the time I had completely different thoughts in my head. This duel is special in its own way. The biggest pressure comes from the pandemic. The isolation and insecurity of dealing with people makes a monumental difference.
Was that different from last year?
Hamilton: Definitely. Last year the season was more compact. The hard time only lasted six months. Now we have this condition for almost a whole year. The rules have been relaxed a bit in some areas. It's easy to be careless and get into trouble. So you always have to keep it in the back of your mind. My way of socializing is very different now than in the past because you keep your distance from everyone and always hold your breath when there are people around you.
Are you still feeling the long-term consequences of your corona disease?
Hamilton: The first half of the season was one of the toughest I've ever experienced. I can tell more about it in the future, but now I'm finally feeling better. I really had to fight my way through it. I focused on the recovery program and training, used breathing techniques and ran almost every day. Thanks to the more intensive training, I no longer had any problems in the hotter races after the summer break. I am grateful for that. I feel like I'm finally rid of it.
It went up and down this year. How hard was it not to get distracted?
Hamilton: Relatively easy. I have no problem with distraction. I've been doing this for so long now. I know how to focus. One eye is always on my ultimate goal, winning the world championship. But there are always other activities that help me to stay in balance. The "Mission 44" initiative and the "Hamilton Commission" take up a lot of time. It's a positive distraction, though, which only increases my focus when I'm back in the arena.
Do things like the Hamilton Commission help clear your head?
Hamilton: You always think about how to use your free time and where to put your energy. Sometimes you don't get anything back, or it just doesn't have any lasting effect or purpose. Now that I have something that serves a good cause and thus offers a real opportunity for a change in the industry, it gives me a lot back. It's great to be able to focus on something other than racing. That immediately takes the pressure off.
Does this also get you out of your isolation?
Hamilton: I wouldn't say that. Most of it still happens on Zoom. You are still alone at home. Thanks to the experience from the previous year, this can now be managed a little better. But you live in constant fear. It doesn't matter to the people around me if they miss a day at work. But that can be decisive for us drivers. If you miss a race or two, the year is over. I see other athletes who are super-relaxed about it and don't seem to mind if they get it. That feels strange to me.
You didn't have any black role models as a child. What gave you the belief that you could be different?
Hamilton: That's a good question. I guess I'm just lucky it's in my DNA. I'm a real fighter, not only on the track but also in real life. I've been bullied by a lot of kids, but I've always fought back. I'm not running away I watched Senna and didn't see him as a different person than myself, although of course he's very different. Like all kids, I looked up to Superman. But I didn't consider him a white guy who didn't look like me. For me he was just a great character who saved people. It's only when you grow up that the differences are made clear to you. Then you become aware of your own environment and you ask yourself whether you fit in or not. But my father always believed that we belonged and that's why we concentrated fully on racing.
The Bahrain tests showed the weaknesses of the car early this year. Has that changed anything in the approach?
Hamilton: I wasn't depressed about it. When it comes to test drives, you never know what to expect anyway. So I'm always open minded. In the end, the tests turned out to be pretty poor compared to our standards. We had a big task ahead of us. How can we improve the balance? How can we get the setup where it needs to be? How can we make drivability advances? We put all our energy into that. You don't complain for long. In the end, however, the situation was a bit confusing.We were on the ground and still managed to win the first race. Sometimes we were at the front and then we were nowhere. You never knew what to expect along the route.
Do you now see a trend as to which type of track the car works well on?
Hamilton: I don't see a pattern there. This is completely random. Maybe the engineers have some clues in the meantime, but everything still comes unexpected to me. There are so many factors involved. The type of corners, the different types of asphalt, different temperatures. That's crazy.
How do you rate your own performance?
Hamilton: I'm even more focused than I've ever been. That's why I'm quite happy with my performance. I noticed that this car is difficult to set up. Toto used to call our car a diva. This car now is a monster diva. In combination with the shortened training time, it makes the task very difficult to hit the right window. If you don't make it, I can't get the maximum out of it as a driver. In Brazil the car was exactly where I want it to be. We nailed it there. We only managed to do that once or twice this year. In most cases it wasn't optimal.
How much extra motivation does it bring that all the young drivers now want to dethrone the king?
Hamilton: I would like to say to the young drivers that the circuits they grew up on all had large run-off zones. That wasn't the case when I started racing. It was more fun back then, but it was also riskier. You had to drive in such a way that you didn't go over the limit. It had to be increased slowly. The new generation simply pushes the limits. They go too far out and just get back on track. You don't have to fear any consequences. We also know that today we have more riders from wealthy backgrounds than ever before. This is nothing new. But they are super ambitious. It's a very decent group of drivers who are just striving for the top.
Why is a clean race so important? Many great racers were anything but clean - even your great idol Ayrton Senna.
Hamilton: That's just how my father raised me. He always said that I should give the answer on the track. I was pushed around a lot as a kid, both at school and on the track. But we wanted to conquer them the right way, not through collisions. Then the others can't deny afterwards that you're better. Then there are no excuses, like in a crash. I want to be the cleanest driver and reach my goal through pure speed, hard work and the necessary ambition. So that in the end nobody can question what I have achieved.
Verstappen always behaves in the same way in a duel: if he is on the inside, he pushes the other man to the outside next to the track. When he's on the outside, he seems to give in without hesitation. How do you fight someone like that?
Hamilton: You just have to be very careful. More careful than ever. You have to know what can happen. You must always be ready to do whatever it takes to avoid the collision. Even if that means going off the track. After all, you want to finish the race. If you are too stubborn and defend your position, then a crash occurs. In Brazil I made sure to avoid the collision. In such situations I've always been very decent, I would say. Of course, you don't always get it perfect. He's not my first opponent to behave like this. Now that I'm a bit older, I look a little more closely at the character of the other drivers and their personal backgrounds. How you grew up always has an impact on how we behave. I'm trying to understand that so I can better assess what kind of person I'm dueling.
Isn't it considered a weakness if you always back down? Sometimes you have to make a mark.
Hamilton: When you're on the outside, it's almost always the more sensible option to withdraw so you can finish the race. On the inside, there were situations where I felt I was absolutely right, like at Silverstone. Look at the pictures again: My front wheel was level with his front wheel. It wasn't like my front wheel was level with his rear wheel entering the corner. If I had acted in this situation as Max did in Brazil, i.e. stayed on the gas, left the track and held the position, how would it have turned out? I don't feel too big or too successful to avoid a fight. I know that sometimes you have to take this path. You have to be clever. Sometimes you lose points in the process. But it's not just about me. I have 2,000 employees behind me. A selfish action where I stand my ground and don't finish the race could cost my whole team the bonus payments at the end of the year. And then there is the work on the damaged car.
They already retired in Imola and Barcelona. Was there a point where you thought: next time I won't withdraw?
Hamilton: I was on the outside at Imola. That did not work. But he almost drove us both off the track. It was similar in Spain. In these situations I would behave like this again. The same also applies to Silverstone. I would do the same again. That's how I see it from my experience.I think my record looks pretty decent when it comes to overtaking, where to position my car and how I rate the place. But the situations are always different. I don't think I need to change my approach. But when you're forced to catch up, then of course you're a little less willing to give in. Otherwise you lose more and more points over the course of a season.
Was the overtaking maneuver in Brazil planned long in advance?
Hamilton: It wasn't planned before the race. But you have to think ahead. The laps before that you imagine what you'll do in turns two, three and four if you get a good exit in turn 12. I knew I wasn't close enough on the straight to go inside. But I had to let him believe that I could attempt a late attack. I pulled in a bit on the straight because I knew that he would also move in and put him in a bad position. He did exactly what I anticipated. But on the first try I was too close to his line and therefore a bit too far away at the exit of turn three. On the second attempt I chose a slightly different line on the straight. But I was still able to get him to drive inside. That got me closer. That was planned.
There are tough fights on the track, but no personal animosity towards Verstappen. Why not?
Hamilton: Of course I can't speak for him. I've competed against drivers who didn't show their true colors. Of course, I don't know if that's the case here. I'm 36 now and I've been doing this for so long now. It's not the first time I've faced a rider who's good and bad in some ways. But I now feel much better equipped to deal with this situation. I know he's a super-fast driver. And he sure gets faster and faster as he matures over time. There's no doubt about that. Looking back at myself at the age of 24 or 25 - which I made a mistake at the time - I had the speed in the car but I had a lot of different experiences outside of it when I suddenly found myself in the limelight. I didn't do much right back then. That's why I won't hold this against anyone else.
They made a few more driving mistakes on the track this year than we are used to. Is there an explanation?
Hamilton: At Imola, I knew I couldn't lose another seven points. In hindsight, you could perhaps say that I was too impatient and too aggressive. I have to admit that going into the gravel was painful. If only I had been a little more patient with the laps.But at that moment I was only thinking about catching up with Max. That was not good. That was a clear mistake. Looking at Baku, I don't see it as a driving error. It was more of a problem with the car. This mistake was bound to happen at some point. There was no border around the "magic button," the button that disables the rear brakes so you can heat up the front brakes and tires faster. I've always positioned my hand when operating the clutch so that I don't downshift accidentally. Then the button was activated when swiping over. And I had no idea about it. That was a mistake, but it wasn't a driving error. It was just unfortunate. I lost a lot of points that I'll never get back. We made changes afterwards to ensure something like this wouldn't happen again.
Some drivers have already been in the simulator with the 2022 car. They also?
Hamilton: No, not me yet. I want to concentrate fully on this car. That's hard enough. But of course I am in close contact with the team. I keep asking what the latest status is. There are things I want for the upcoming car and I pay attention to those things. I don't want to see some things about the engine again next year. I say to them: Please solve this! We are in a lively exchange. After our regular race weekend briefings, there is always an update on the new car. What the aero balance is like, what ride heights we expect, what problems we might face, what they're dealing with right now and what they think it's going to feel like in the car. But at the current rate of increase in the wind tunnel, it wouldn't make sense to drive the car in the simulator. The learning curve is still very steep.
They used to be actively involved in the design process to make the car fit their driving style. Did the rule changes get in your way before this season?
Hamilton: Absolutely. We knew that we would lose a lot of downforce. But once we realized the scale, the whole character of the car changed. We worked for many years to get the car in the perfect working window. It's a nightmare when you can no longer use the tools you are used to. But somehow you have to find a way to live with the lower downforce. I worked a lot in the simulator. But sometimes the simulator is not set correctly. The grip level, the effects of the wind or the tire wear didn't match. Then wrong numbers come out at the end. So you have to be careful with the data and make the right decisions. It's been a roller coaster ride this year.
Were the contract negotiations a distraction?
Hamilton: I can't really remember.All I can remember is that it was the easiest deal we've ever negotiated. It only lasted a short time and it wasn't a distraction at all. Races like Brazil are confirmation of the decision. I've been working with the team for ten years now. A colleague of mine sent me a message saying I had inspired 2,000 people. I answered: If I can still inspire 2,000 people after ten years, then I really must be in the right place and deserve this place. That gives you a good feeling.
With George Russell you will have a new, young teammate next year. Do you expect a different intensity in the internal duel?
Hamilton: As you know, George is a very respectful person. He's super-talented and there's already a lot of mutual respect. He's bound to be fast and want to win, whatever you set out to do in a new role. I remember saying before the duel with Alonso that I want to beat him right in the first race. I expect George to approach it with the same attitude, otherwise he wouldn't be a winner. I'm in a different position now. I really wish him success. There will come a point where I will not continue. As my team-mate, he will be the next Brit I want to see win the World Cup. Of course we will compete against each other and of course I want to win the duel, but I hope that I can also have a positive influence on how he behaves in the team. For example when it comes to spending time with the engineers, how he works his way through the data or how he drives on the track.