The complete driver

Beyond the red carpets, jewelry and magazines, Lewis Hamilton never lost his sense of himself

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This article originally appeared on The Buxton Blog.

I’d expected him to look older. I suppose it’s only natural with someone you’d been reading about for years, but he’d been such a constant part of the motorsport landscape for such a long time that I’d imagined he’d already be the finished article. He’d been a mini-megastar in England since his karting days. Even as a child I remember seeing his face on TV, on the news, on ITV’s karting show with DJ David ‘Kid’ Jensen, Blue Peter, through the pages of Autosport and Motoring News. He was a future world champion. That’s what we’d always been told. That’s what we’d always believed. And here he was, this future F1 superstar. I’d expected him to be taller. I’d expected him to be broader … I’d expected him to look older.

But there he stood on the pitwall in his ASM F3 overalls, a black fleece three sizes too large wrapped around him, his curly mini-Afro blowing in the wind. He walked back towards the garage, hunched over to hide from the cold Mistral wind. An acknowledgement of someone new, a hand outstretched, a warm shake, friendly smile, brief introduction, a nice to meet you, and he was off into the engineering room at the back of the impeccable facilities.

I first met Lewis Hamilton at a cold, wintry Circuit Paul Ricard shortly after his 21st birthday, on his testing debut for inaugural GP2 champions ART Grand Prix. The F3 Euro Series champion would be taking over the chassis which had taken Nico Rosberg to GP2’s first drivers’ title and already there was a buzz surrounding his arrival in the paddock. To anyone who followed junior series racing, there was a universal belief that the McLaren junior was going to be very special.

To be a member of an F1 team’s youth program really meant something a decade ago. It wasn’t just about getting to wear a team shirt or getting to put the logo on your overalls, train in the team’s gym or jump on the simulator for a few laps every six months (decent sims were in their infancy back then) … if you were a McLaren junior, in the RDD, Honda Young Driver scheme, a Red Bull junior or in that Mercedes stable it meant you were going places. You had people behind you who believed in you and who would back you. And, most importantly, you had a real shot at making it into a Formula 1 seat. The young drivers on F1 programs really were the chosen few. I think back to the Renault program and the drivers it spawned: Kovalainen, Lopez, di Grassi, Maldonado, Kubica, van der Garde, Duval, d’Ambrosio, Grosjean … it was an astonishing pool of talent.

McLaren’s list was small by comparison. Hamilton was the team’s great, and only, hope. And yet there was no arrogance, no sense of self-importance to the man … the boy. He arrived at every test and race with his father Anthony, step-mum Linda and little brother Nicholas. They were a tight family unit, not too dissimilar from how I imagine they were during the karting years. To them, it seemed, there was no need to change. This was how they’d always done things.

Lewis was impressive from the off, although hot headed at times too. He was disqualified in Imola on his second weekend in the championship for overtaking the safety car, something he would go on to repeat four years later in F1 at the European Grand Prix in Valencia. But my God, he was fast. His racecraft was so beautiful that at times it seemed choreographed … preordained.

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His two races at Silverstone were outstanding. Passing both Piquet and Piccione at Maggotts remains one of the greatest overtaking moves in the history of GP2. But then his fight through the field on Sunday to take the win announced him to the British faithful. Passing the leading Campos of Felix Porteiro was the only time I ever heard 26 V8 GP2 engines drowned out by cheering. All weekend he’d been impossible to find in the paddock. As I later discovered, he’d been standing at the fence at the back of the GP2 enclosure signing autographs for everyone who passed. He hadn’t been asked to. He’d just wanted to.

For me, the Istanbul GP2 weekend will always be where Lewis Hamilton truly arrived to those in the F1 paddock who hadn’t yet figured out how brilliant he was. I remember it so vividly. The Turkey weekend came off the back of the Briton’s worst event of the whole season. His championship rival Nelson Piquet Jr. had thrown down the first perfect weekend in GP2 history in Budapest, taking pole position, both race wins and both fastest laps. Istanbul was the penultimate race weekend of the championship. Hamilton had to take the initiative back. But it was Piquet who again took pole and again took the race win and fastest lap … by half a second.

Hamilton, for a moment, seemed lost. His emotions had gotten the better of him in Hungary, something which can still blight his momentum today, and in Turkey all those years ago it looked set to derail his championship charge.

He knew he had to do something and so, overnight, he asked ART to trim all the wing off the car they could and put it basically into Monza spec. The team thought he was crazy, warning him he’d spin without the downforce. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened at the start of Sunday’s sprint race, sending Hamilton out of the top 20 and leaving his championship hopes severely dented. What followed, however, was mesmerizing. I stood, alongside my girlfriend in the Super Aguri garage, watching in awe. One by one every engineer, every mechanic stopped what they were doing and stared at the screen agog. They applauded every lap that followed. It was a scene replicated up and down the F1 pitlane.

In spinning so early, Hamilton had learned where the limit of adhesion lay. It was a mark he would not overstep again. With substantially less downforce than his rivals, he blasted past them on the straights and somehow held it all together through the corners. Time and again through the multi-apex Turn 8 he’d start to lose the rear but would emerge on opposite lock, almost drifting the ART through the corner. He made up every position bar the top step of the podium. In a 23-lap contest in a spec championship, without pitstops, he had overtaken almost the entire field. His fastest lap was set on the final lap and was 0.854 faster than any other driver had managed that day.

Many put that drive down to Lewis Hamilton’s guts. Most, put it down to his superior driving feel … that natural ability that had always set him out as a special and unique talent. But very few put it down his intelligence, first in going against the team in choosing the low downforce option and second in adapting his driving-style within a lap to suit a set-up he had not tested.

A lot has always been made of Hamilton’s “natural” gift and ability, and it is something that has stuck with him and formed the basis of his reputation throughout his career. But as a result of that, there’s a preconceived idea that he is a seat-of-the-pants racer who can wring the neck of a racing car like few other men on earth but who lacks any real ability to use his brain. It is a reputation that could not be further from the truth.

Early in his GP2 career, Lewis contacted me (via MySpace as I recall) and asked how I had learned to speak French. I told him it was a combination of living in Switzerland and watching Cartoon Network in French, and listening to the Michel Thomas educational CDs. He asked for a favor, and so I packed them up and sent them to him. Why? Because he felt it was important to learn the language in which his team and engineers spoke.

This, at the age of 21, was not a request born of someone without the mental capacity to deal with more than he was being given credit for. Yes, I had been in awe of the multilingual Nico Rosberg, but for someone of Hamilton’s age to want to learn a new language from scratch in the midst of what was to be one of the most intense seasons of competition of his life, I found a desperately impressive measure of the man.

Perhaps the “natural ability” angle is one Hamilton himself is perfectly fine with accepting. A huge Ayrton Senna fan, he revels in the comparisons to his hero. But deep down, I think there’s an underlying subplot in doing so. For to propagate the myth, to give it credence, only serves to draw attention away from the fact that his natural gift behind the wheel is just one of the weapons in his armory. To make people think he isn’t as smart as his rivals is to hide perhaps his greatest strength.

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Hamilton vs. Rosberg has been billed as Senna vs. Prost II. But it’s not. These two drivers are completely unique and should take their own billing. Yes, there are shared similarities in personality and perceived strengths, but it isn’t as simple as all that. And yet, in simplifying it so much, the general opinion has been formed that Rosberg, as the Prost character, was always the more likely to prosper under the 2014 regulations. His superior intellect, so everyone had been led to believe, would carry him. His incredible mind would allow him to work with the complex cars, use the brakes, the energy harvesting, look after the tires and moderate his fuel usage.

In “The Usual Suspects,” Kevin Spacey’s character, Verbal Kint, comes out with this immortal line: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I think of this line every time I hear somebody tell me that Hamilton isn’t as intelligent as Rosberg, or doesn’t have the capability to understand the cars.

Because, for me, the greatest trick that Lewis Hamilton ever pulled, was convincing the world that he wasn’t smart.

Think about it. His fuel usage has regularly been better than almost anyone in the field. Man to man against Rosberg, I can’t recall a single race this year where in the same machinery Hamilton’s fuel usage has been higher. He has made his tires last. He has had to fight from the back of the field time and again (think Germany, think Hungary) and yet he hasn’t overworked his tires, he hasn’t used too much fuel. He has learned how to drive these new cars, and to extract the most from them using the least.

After the Brazilian Grand Prix, where he had made up the seven seconds he lost in his pre-pitstop slide, he commented to us on US television that he was proud of a race like the one he’d pulled in Interlagos, because it had shown, once again, that despite the prevailing conception, he could preserve his tires, he could look after his fuel, and still be faster than his teammate. Far from the unintelligent chancer many paint Hamilton to be, he is proving to be the intellectual match of his teammate, and the better racer to boot.

Perceived wisdom stated that Lewis Hamilton, more than any other driver in Formula 1, would be asked the greatest questions by the new rules. His answer, has thus been an emphatic exclamation mark.

Very often this season, Hamilton has spoken about his desire for the title. He has stated time and again that for him 2014 feels like his first run in for a championship, so different a person is he to the driver who took the plaudits in 2008. And in so many aspects I can see why. The Lewis Hamilton of 2014 is so different to the man who ran in for his first title in 2007 and took the crown in 2008. In public, he is every bit the megastar. He has his own private jet, lives in Monaco and LA with his popstar girlfriend. He can call Will Smith when he’s in town to have dinner with the Fresh Prince.

We laughed about this earlier in the year. About the insanity of life, where the sport had taken him and what lay before him in his career and his ultimate destiny. It wasn’t real. He knew that. And because of it, he wanted to make the most of it all. Because beyond the glitzy outward exterior lies that very same kid I first met at a cold and windy Ricard, surrounded by his family. When I sat down to interview him last in a one-on-one situation in Hockenheim, his first question was not for me, my crew, what we were filming or why … it was for Sophie, my daughter; how she was doing, how old she was now, how school was going and his own desire for a family one day.

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That’s the man he is. Thoughtful. Sincere. Genuine.

Those who choose to paint a picture of an artificial or conceited character do not see this side of Lewis Hamilton. They don’t see him out the front of the garage on pitlane walkabout, talking and actually listening to his fans. When he turned up in New York for a two minute appearance on the Today Show, he arrived two hours early and spent every spare moment engaged with his fans. Just as he had done that GP2 weekend at Silverstone.

Earlier in the season, in Monaco, we’d spent a morning driving around town filming an interview for NBC. We looked back to the GP2 days, a simpler time before money and fame. We spoke of when McLaren dropped him and he almost signed for BMW. We spoke of family, of friends, of fear and of pressure. Such overwhelming pressure.

This is a driver who has never had the opportunity to fail. He has never been able to be anything but the best. Imagine the pressure placed upon a child who at 11 years of age plucks up the courage to ask Ron Dennis for his patronage and is then tasked with fulfilling an almost impossible destiny each and every year. As I mentioned, and as Lewis and I discussed earlier this year, McLaren did actually drop Hamilton at the tail end of 2004. Lewis was on the verge of signing for BMW, but only Hamilton’s own result at the Bahrain Superprix subsequently renewed Dennis’ interest enough to bring him back onboard at McLaren.

The pressure, therefore, has rested on Hamilton’s shoulders since his first lap in an F1 car. He has been the poster boy and at the same time the dartboard for the British media ever since that day. A hero at his best, a villain at his worst, he has lived his entire Formula 1 career in the glare of the brightest spotlight.

It is probably worth remembering that Hamilton has done what few F1 drivers have achieved in their careers … if, and I’m not going to pretend that I know offhand how many, any have: he has won at least one race in every season of his F1 career.

But he has had to live and evolve in that spotlight. And his period of growth has been far from smooth.

The years following his title were ones of tremendous turmoil. He wrestled with the sport, with his team, but most of all with himself. He ditched his family, he brought in new management, he bounced from blissful happiness with his girlfriend to absolute solitary singledom. None of it made him happy. None of it gave the satisfaction he craved.

The tone had been set in the latter half of that 2006 season, as soon as it become clear that his future lay with McLaren in Formula 1 in 2007. Gone went the curly hair, replaced by a shaved head. It was a small thing at the time, but an outward signal of the beginning of a strict regime which would stifle Lewis Hamilton’s personality and ultimately lead to him needing to flee the team which had been responsible for taking him to the very top.

For me, 2011 was his lowest point. I remember seeing him in Korea. He cut a lonely figure. No team of family and friends around him like Jenson. Nobody to fall back to. Nobody to talk to. Nobody with whom to even take dinner. He’d never seemed more alone. Never seemed more lost. Bizarrely enough, that weekend I’d got into an email exchange with one of my own childhood heroes, the wrestler The Ultimate Warrior. A fairly controversial figure, in later life he had become a motivational speaker and artist and had sent me over some of his perceived words of wisdom, some self-penned, others taken from historical figures. I have one framed at home. One, however, I printed out and handed to Lewis that Saturday afternoon. I figured if anyone could use it, then it was him.

It was the only non Red Bull pole position of the entire season. He walked out the back of the FIA garage, glanced up and caught my eye. He smiled for the briefest moment and gave a relieved thumbs up. We agreed we’d go for dinner later in the season. We never did, as life and work overtook us both.

Something changed in Lewis going into 2012, as the realization dawned that if he was ever to emerge from his internal turmoil, he needed a change of environment. He needed to move away from a relationship which had gone toxic, and in 2013 his new home at Mercedes allowed Lewis the freedom to be the driver he had always wanted to be. Some say he has matured hugely over the past two seasons. I’d say that the freedom afforded to him by Mercedes has allowed him to get back to being who he truly is. In either case, what is undeniable is that the change in him is so marked that when he says this feels like the run in for his first world championship I truly believe him.

And yet, the misconceptions from his early years remain as true today as they ever were. Perhaps because he’s allowed them to fester. Perhaps because many don’t see the true man that exists behind the visor.

Lewis Hamilton is one of the most naturally gifted drivers of his generation. But he’s also one of the most intelligent, considered and thoughtful. A ruthless, aggressive, instinctive operator wheel-to-wheel, but mature, measured and mindful too, Lewis Hamilton is reaching the level of becoming the complete driver.

He has dropped his flashy management and surrounded himself once again with his family. His father attends races once more, his step-Mum Linda never far away. When he can drag himself away from his own racing exploits, Nic comes along too.

For all the trappings of fame, Lewis never looks anything but awkward posing in front of his jet, wearing the big gold chains or hanging with celeb friends. Its in family photos that he looks happiest and most content. Or shopping at Waitrose with his missus. Or relaxing at home with Roscoe.

Because deep down, he’s still that awkward kid from Stevenage, with a MySpace page and a profile photo with a fro-comb in his hair.

Like his one time karting teammate and now F1 championship rival, Lewis Hamilton has changed so much over the past decade. But really, he hasn’t changed at all.