Ace racer Lewis Hamilton talks to Karthik Krishnaswamy about the romance of circuits worldwide, the need to take risks, and the bond with his mentor-father
Photos: S.R. Raghunathan
In the fast lane Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton has looked the same all his life. Videos from his karting days show a boy who looks older than his 13 years, intensely focussed, meeting the interviewer's eye and reeling off thoughtful answers with none of the shyness or awkwardness of adolescence.
At 25, Hamilton still looks 18, and exudes a boyish charm, relaxed in the knowledge that the burning ambition of his youth is in the process of fulfilment, with one drivers' championship (2008) already under his belt. He still races the same way as he did growing up — aggressively, always sniffing for an opportunity to overtake. The video cuts to him winning from the back of the grid, picking off the drivers ahead of him in pairs. “If you dilly-dally in front of Lewis Hamilton, he will just move through!” the commentator yells.
In Formula One, this approach has fetched him a number of victories, but the odd slip as well — at Interlagos, during the final race of his rookie season, or last weekend at Monza, where he crashed his front wheel into Ferrari's Felipe Massa while attempting an ambitious overtaking manoeuvre.
“Sometimes, it catches you out. Maybe eight or nine times out of 10 it works, but there's always a chance that it won't,” he says. “You could drive the less aggressive way, and 10 times out of 10 you'll be fine, but maybe you won't win the World Championship.”
Hamilton's teammate at McLaren, 2009 champion Jenson Button, is marked by a more cerebral approach. “People say I have the more aggressive style and he has the more calm approach, and he does,” says Hamilton. “At Monza, for instance (during qualifying), he took the high-downforce setup, which was the easier, more certain approach, and I took the low-downforce, went for straight-line speed hoping that it would give me an advantage. Some days, it works and some days it doesn't.”
Their contrasting styles mirror the partnership of the professorial Frenchman Alain Prost and the no-holds-barred Brazilian Ayrton Senna that dominated the sport in the late 1980s. Last year, Hamilton had a chance to get behind the wheel of the McLaren MP4/4 that his idol Senna drove to the title in 1988. “It's not as fast as my car now, you don't have as much grip, as much downforce, but it's still spectacular to drive,” he says. “Also, you could feel it's a little bit less safe, but it still was just — I was smiling and laughing the whole time.”
Asked about his dream race, and the three drivers he would pick to race alongside him in the front two rows of the grid, Hamilton opts for Senna, Prost and the 1950s legend Juan Manuel Fangio. “It's difficult to choose anyone else, really. I think those guys were the best, and if I had to pick a circuit, I would pick a place where we can actually fight.” After some deliberation, he chooses Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, which has “lots of long straights, lots of opportunities to overtake. It's a fast, flowing circuit, so it's just incredible to drive in.”
You could drive the less aggressive way, and 10 times out of 10 you'll be fine, but may be you won't win the World Championship
Some of the newer circuits in Formula One have been criticised for not providing the sort of overtaking opportunities Hamilton craves. Asked about this, he says that some of the older circuits are equally difficult to overtake on. “You go to Hungary, for example, it's very, very tough to overtake there — virtually impossible.”
About the newer tracks, he says, “I don't know, I guess they build the circuits for safety and to give us the best show, and, sometimes, it just doesn't work. It's difficult to build something and predict how much overtaking there will be on it.”
Earlier this year, Hamilton and his father Anthony ended the driver-manager association they had shared since the karting days. “It's been very tough,” he says of the transition since. “He's been my mentor, he's the reason that I'm able to race today. He's done absolutely everything, dedicated his whole life. It's been really hard for him because he misses racing,” he says.
“It's been good for me to be on my own and experience new things, but I never go a day without remembering that the reason I'm here is because of the work he did, and I really want him to know that, so I try to stress that to him, but it's difficult for him to understand it. But he's happy now, just being my dad.”
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