ON THE RIGHT TRACK

SIX­TEEN YEARS AGO, HE WAS A TEENAGE GO-KART­ING CHAM­PION. TO­DAY, LEWIS HAMIL­TON HAS THREE WORLD TI­TLES UN­DER HIS BELT AND ALL EYES WILL BE ON HIM WHEN HE HEADS TO AUS­TRALIA FOR THE GRAND PRIX

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Words by TIM BLAIR

For­mula One ace Lewis Hamil­ton re­counts his big­gest rac­ing ri­val­ries and why he won’t let F1 de­fine him.

In 2001, I phoned a teenager in Bri­tain to talk about cars and driv­ing. He was still some years away from ob­tain­ing a driver’s li­cence, but even then it was clear this was a kid who had some­thing far more valu­able. Pure tal­ent. He was fast. Blind­ingly so.

He’d won sev­eral cham­pi­onships in karts, the lit­tle mo­tor­cy­cle-en­gined de­vices that are step­ping stones to larger, more rapid-rac­ing ma­chin­ery. And he’d al­ready planned his course to the pin­na­cle of global mo­tor­sport, say­ing he aimed to be in For­mula One by the time he was 22 or 23.

True to his word, Lewis Hamil­ton com­peted in his first F1 grand prix in 2007 at the age of 22 years, two months and 11 days. Against a vastly more ex­pe­ri­enced field, Hamil­ton won a podium tro­phy in that first race. Clearly, he be­gan as he meant to con­tinue.

Dur­ing 187 sub­se­quent grands prix, Hamil­ton has scored 61 pole po­si­tions, set 31 fastest laps, achieved 53 wins and landed three world ti­tles. No other driver on the grid at this month’s sea­son-open­ing Aus­tralian Grand Prix in Mel­bourne can match his as­ton­ish­ing re­cent record. Dur­ing the past three years, Hamil­ton has won two cham­pi­onships and fin­ished sec­ond in a third-ti­tle bat­tle.

There is also the mat­ter of his per­sonal for­tune, es­ti­mated to be some­where north of $200 mil­lion. Not bad for a kid from Steve­nage, Hert­ford­shire, who 16 years ago was wor­ried about his French home­work.

It might be time for an­other chat. Ob­vi­ously, Hamil­ton is no longer in Steve­nage, and it is no longer pos­si­ble to find him by sim­ply di­alling the Hamil­ton home. Six­teen years on and this time he’s in Spain, at the Cir­cuit de Barcelona-catalunya, test­ing his 2017 Mercedes-amg F1 W08 EQ Power+ ahead of that cru­cial first race in Mel­bourne.

Hamil­ton still has the same gen­tle laugh and wry man­ner he had as a

teenager, and still an­swers ques­tions in the same im­me­di­ate but con­sid­ered way.

Like for­mer Aus­tralian fast bowler Glenn Mcgrath, who is re­puted to be able to re­call in minute de­tail ev­ery sin­gle one of his 563 Test wick­ets, he also has a phe­nom­e­nal mem­ory. In a data-driven pur­suit like F1 rac­ing, this gives him a huge ad­van­tage.

One mo­ment early on in his very first sea­son, 10 whole years ago, first alerted mo­tor­sport ob­servers to the fact Hamil­ton had abun­dant tac­ti­cal race­craft to go with his raw pace. He’d been stalked for sev­eral laps by a ri­val driver whose first over­tak­ing at­tempt had failed. Hamil­ton knew his at­tacker would try again, most likely on the fol­low­ing lap at the same cor­ner. And he did.

But Hamil­ton was ready. Through his tiny rear-vi­sion mir­ror, he saw the faster car ad­vanc­ing on his right. He also picked up that the car was trav­el­ling far too quickly to make it through the up­com­ing right-hand curve. So Hamil­ton, in just his sec­ond race, deftly stepped aside and let his chal­lenger spear help­lessly off the track.

It was the best move of the race, and Hamil­ton barely moved at all.

“Felipe Massa at Malaysia,” Hamil­ton says in­stantly when asked by Stel­lar about this long-ago bat­tle. At that point of his ca­reer, the fu­ture world cham­pion – Hamil­ton claimed the ti­tle in 2008, 2014 and 2015 – had driven just 64 For­mula One laps un­der race con­di­tions. Yet he re­calls the in­ci­dent pre­cisely. Not much gets past him, in­clud­ing a cer­tain Brazil­ian Fer­rari driver at turn four in Sepang.

“That race­craft stuff I learnt in kart­ing,” Hamil­ton says, amused by the idea that a tac­tic that works in tiny sin­gle-cylin­der ma­chines is just as ef­fec­tive in 900-horse­power F1 cars. “Do you re­mem­ber Bahrain in 2014?” I don’t, but you can bet Hamil­ton does. “I did the same thing to Nico Ros­berg lap af­ter lap. He fell for it ev­ery time.”

Hamil­ton beat his Mercedes team­mate in that race, but lost last year’s ti­tle to Ros­berg

“This sport is not what my life is about… When I stop, the sport will go on”

fol­low­ing a slow start to the sea­son and mul­ti­ple me­chan­i­cal prob­lems as the year un­folded. Ac­tu­ally, “team­mate” is the wrong term. Al­though they were both Mercedes driv­ers, Hamil­ton and Ros­berg were barely on speak­ing terms af­ter sev­eral on-track col­li­sions.

It all ended in bizarre cir­cum­stances at the 2016 sea­son fi­nale in Abu Dhabi, where Hamil­ton needed a vic­tory to se­cure his fourth world cham­pi­onship. Ros­berg, seek­ing his maiden ti­tle, needed only to fin­ish higher than fourth. Lead­ing the race from Ros­berg, Hamil­ton put in ac­tion a con­tro­ver­sial strat­egy. He grad­u­ally ran slower and slower in a bid to drag Ros­berg into the clutches of lower-placed con­tenders.

It didn’t work, and dis­cus­sion of the Hamil­ton-ros­berg ri­valry re­sults in the only one-word an­swer of our in­ter­view. When France’s Alain Prost re­tired from For­mula One in 1993, his most fe­ro­cious com­peti­tor, the late Brazil­ian F1 hero Ayr­ton Senna, con­tacted him to plead for his re­turn. Senna knew he’d miss their bru­tal strug­gles. Has Hamil­ton made any phone calls lately to Ros­berg’s Monaco res­i­dence, fol­low­ing Ros­berg’s own re­tire­ment last year at just 31? “No.” OK then. Let’s move on.

THE LAST BRI­TISH driver to win three world ti­tles was Jackie Ste­wart, just as much a pop-cul­ture fig­ure in his day as he was a rac­ing driver. Ste­wart hung out with The Bea­tles and movie stars. He ap­peared in a Ge­orge Har­ri­son film clip as a chauf­feur. For this, he was rightly re­garded as an am­bas­sador for mo­tor rac­ing, bring­ing For­mula One to a broader au­di­ence.

Yet Hamil­ton is just as much a pop-cul­ture fig­ure, hav­ing dated The Pussy­cat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger for eight years and been ro­man­ti­cally linked with Keep­ing Up With The Kar­dashi­ans star Ken­dall Jen­ner and even Ri­hanna (“We’re friends,” Hamil­ton in­sists). In be­tween win­ning world cham­pi­onships, Hamil­ton has also long chased a mu­sic ca­reer.

In­stead of be­ing cel­e­brated, how­ever, cur­rently sin­gle Hamil­ton finds him­self fre­quently crit­i­cised for try­ing to be “big­ger than mo­tor rac­ing”. It’s a be­wil­der­ing charge.

“I don’t know why they’re hat­ing on me,” he says, more mys­ti­fied than an­gry. “Why do they say it? And why do they keep say­ing I’m a rap­per? I’m a singer. I love R’N’B.”

His other pri­mary in­ter­est out­side of For­mula One is fash­ion. Hamil­ton may be the only mul­ti­ple F1 world cham­pion in his­tory who is equally at ease dis­cussing fab­rics, cuts and colours with cloth­ing de­sign­ers, as he is work­ing through tyre tem­per­a­tures, down­force lev­els and gear ra­tios with his Mercedes en­gi­neers.

Any­one keen to se­cure an au­di­ence with Hamil­ton dur­ing his time in Aus­tralia will be best placed if they are armed with fine fash­ion con­tacts rather than with F1 sta­tis­tics.

Or else they might come armed with a deep knowl­edge of Bar­ba­dos, Hamil­ton’s favourite non-f1 zone. “I feel most at home there,” he says. “I’m more com­fort­able there than any­where else in the world. Ev­ery year I try to get to Bar­ba­dos.”

Hamil­ton’s grand­par­ents are from Gre­nada, and the triple world champ has a gi­gan­tic sup­port base through­out the Caribbean. If you want to see the most re­laxed F1 driver ever, just search for so­cial me­dia shots of Hamil­ton at Bar­ba­dos’s an­nual Crop Over fes­ti­val. There are no se­cu­rity guards, no PR peo­ple, no pit walls. Just Hamil­ton and an is­land of peo­ple who are both ad­mir­ing and pro­tec­tive of him.

In­ter­est­ingly, the 32-year-old raises un­bid­den the sub­ject of re­tire­ment. “This sport is not what my life is about,” he says. “When I stop, the sport will go on.” It will go on with­out any in­put at all from Hamil­ton, who doesn’t care to at­tend races as an ex-driver. “I want to go on and be chal­lenged by some­thing else.”

This all sounds a lit­tle like some­one plan­ning to quit For­mula One if he wins a fourth world ti­tle in 2017. One way to keep him might be to revert to pre­vi­ous F1 reg­u­la­tions. De­spite his re­cent suc­cess, Hamil­ton is not a fan of cur­rent semi-au­to­matic, tur­bocharged, elec­tron­i­cally as­sisted, power-steered For­mula One cars. “Give me three ped­als,” he begs, “and a gearshift.”

Hamil­ton even men­tions his fond­ness for heel-toe down­shift­ing, a com­bined gear-change and brak­ing method not known in F1 for decades. For some­one born in 1985, Hamil­ton is one his­tor­i­cally-aware triple-pedal dude. At the same time, he is also grate­ful for the life he’s led. “I grew up in Steve­nage,” he ob­serves from Spain, prior to fur­ther pre-sea­son test­ing. “I have to pinch my­self.”

At 32, he’s ob­vi­ously look­ing at mov­ing on, yet the ad­dic­tive fe­roc­ity of mo­tor rac­ing will be dif­fi­cult to shake. Per­haps Hamil­ton, af­ter F1, will re­turn to the level that even­tu­ally pro­moted him to global fame. “Kart­ing is def­i­nitely the best form of rac­ing,” he tells Stel­lar, sound­ing wist­ful. “It’s the rawest form of mo­tor rac­ing by far.”

Hamil­ton will bring that life­long lust for raw com­pet­i­tive­ness to Mel­bourne for the first grand prix of the 2017 sea­son. Fans should trea­sure it. We’ll see some­one who wants to win through strat­egy, guile and sheer in­nate force of na­ture.

Lewis Hamil­ton is aim­ing for vic­tory, just as he was in 2001. The 2017 For­mula 1 Rolex Aus­tralian Grand Prix runs from March 23–26.

“I don’t know why peo­ple are hat­ing on [my mu­sic ca­reer]. And why do they say I’m a rap­per? I’m a singer. I love R’N’B”

THE NEED FOR SPEED (left) Lewis Hamil­ton with his Mercedes F1 race car in Fe­bru­ary.

LIFE IN THE FAST LANE (from left) Lewis Hamil­ton on the podium at last year’s Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix; in the driver’s seat at Sil­ver­stone, UK, this year; get­ting close to Naomi Camp­bell at Mi­lan Fash­ion Week last month.

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