Will Buxton

Riddle of Rosberg

This article originally appeared on The Buxton Blog.

I can’t recall the first time I met Nico Rosberg. All I remember is that I despised him, everything he was and all he represented: the cock-sure, entitled, bolshy son of a world champion. No grace, no humility. Wafting in, a blur of blonde hair and arrogance. A Formula BMW champion yes, but only a few F3 wins and just three years in single-seaters gave what I held to be little foundation for such seeming conceit. I disliked him intensely. It got to the point where I held such disdain for him that I would actively seek for our paths to not cross… which was fairly hard given I was PRing the championship in which he was racing. I’d simply ask someone else to grab his quotes for me. They always seemed to be able to pull more out of him anyway.

But after a slow start his major results started to come, fittingly enough beginning at his “home” race of Monaco. In 2005 we only ran one race in the Principality, and he ended up on the podium. It gave him the confidence he needed. His first win wasn’t far away and as soon as it came, the championship charge really began. While the early pace-setters and championship favorites Heikki Kovalainen and Arden plateaued, Rosberg and ART improved with each passing race.

I never lost sight of the irony, however, that ART had never been the first option for him. On the basis of the 2004 F3000 season, the most coveted seats were at Arden and BCN. BCN had been Rosberg’s preferred and hoped-for destination, until a perfect sales pitch by Nicolas Todt and Fred Vasseur saw them lure the German to their new outfit. How fortuitous for Rosberg that while BCN floundered and eventually folded, ART should become, on the back of the tremendous foundation laid in the guise of ASM, the class of junior series racing over that year and the following decade.

Nico Rosberg had been quick from the outset, and watching his racecraft develop as the season went on became a growing point of emotional turmoil for me. He was so impressive; seemingly effortlessly rapid and blessed with a precision that was metronomic. But I just couldn’t like him. I wished he’d been a good guy, one I could get excited about. But instead I felt huge sadness that such a wonderful talent had been given to a guy who was apparently such a Class A prat.

I recall the low point only too well. He was breezing past on his way to dinner. His team-mate Alexandre Premat had topped qualifying, and I’d used the staggeringly unoriginal press release headline of “Premat Powers to Pole.”

“Why don’t I ever “power” to anything?” he pointedly sneered as he walked past.

I looked up, trying to figure out what he was talking about. Then it hit, and I wondered why he was being so petty. The headline was simple alliteration. I had probably or would probably use “Rosberg Reigns” at some point of the season on the back of one of his wins. It was just Nico being typical Nico.

“Dick!” I whispered under my breath, just loud enough for him to hear.

Later that night, I needed to talk to his then-PR guy Karsten Streng and hopped into the ART truck to find him.

“Karsten, can we have a chat?”

Out from behind his race overalls jumped Nico.

“Oh, so you don’t want to speak to me then? Huh? What’s that all about? You’d rather speak to Karsten than to me?”

I turned on my heels and walked out.

Karsten ran after me.

“Will, man, you can’t let that get to you. You know he’s only joking, right? Just fire it straight back at him. He’ll love it. He’s really a fun guy… honestly. But if you don’t give it back to him he’ll think he’s got the high ground. He loves a challenge.”

The next day Nico sent some pithy comment my way, so I turned around, flipped him the bird and winked. “Fuck you, Rosberg.”

[parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2014/11/141120-rosberg-moving-car-1600.jpg” credit=”(Getty Images)”]

He looked taken aback. I broke out in a cold sweat. This was not behavior becoming of the championship’s press officer. Had I just managed to ruin any relationship I might have had with the man destined to be our first champion?

A smile broke across his face, and we never had a cross word again. Indeed, we started to get on really well. At the end of the season I received a package to my home, from Monaco. In it was an ART team shirt, signed by Nico, thanking me for my support. I had it framed, and it remains one of my most treasured pieces of memorabilia from my career in racing.

Nico was the most savvy driver I ever worked with. Stepping down from the podium after winning the GP2 title, he spoke to the awaiting press in turn, each in their own language. I’d only ever seen him in individual language press briefings, and to see him utilize such cool and calm intelligence so soon after the elation of what was at the time the most meaningful moment of his career left me astounded.

But therein lies the deepest issue with Nico Rosberg. He isn’t just smart. He’s the sort of smart that makes the rest of us question if we’re quite as clever as we thought we were. And at times it can be his undoing.

I’d seen his intelligence and need for the high ground cause him trouble time and time again in interviews, even in the GP2 days. The interviewer would sit down, all smiles, ready to start the conversation. But Nico, fearful of being on the back foot, would fire retorts and wrestle control of the interview back into his own hands. He would put the interviewer at ill ease in order to make himself feel more comfortable with the situation. What resulted was a terrible interview, and the prevailing opinion of Rosberg being precisely the one I’d drawn when first we met: that he was cocky and arrogant. When I came back to journalism in 2008 I had booked a sit down with him at Williams and for the first two minutes of the interview, that’s exactly how he was: back against the wall, stand-offish, arrogant, unlikable. I switched off the Dictaphone and asked him if he was going to carry on being a prick or if we could do this properly. He looked sheepish, apologized, and we picked back up with what ended up being a great interview.

But his pace… his pace has always been undeniable. In his debut F1 race, at the scene of his GP2 title win, he had to take a new front wing at the end of the first lap but fought through the field in an unfancied Williams and scored points. He sat on the second row in only his second F1 weekend in Malaysia. But after a while, all of that burgeoning incredible pace and talent seemed to stagnate. Folks within Williams would talk about Nico “switching off” or “going to sleep” in the middle of races. Just when they needed him to be on it, he wouldn’t be. That infamous moment in Singapore 2008 when he crossed the pit exit line denied him and the team a possible win. But his pace that weekend had already caused many to ask if the German hadn’t indeed been holding back all season, and that it was only there in Singapore, when he allowed that veil to slip, that we’d seen the real pace of the car. Of course, he’d already been on the podium with his old karting team-mate and soon-to-be F1 teammate Lewis Hamilton at the season-opener in Melbourne. Their embrace still sticks in the memory. But then the pace of the car just disappeared. Why?

When Rosberg joined Mercedes, the eagle-eyed will have spotted that the regular gaps Nico stood ahead of his new team-mate, statistically the greatest driver who ever lived, were not so different to the advantage he held over his one-time Williams co-pilot Kazuki Nakajima. Are we to infer from that the seemingly incongruous suggestion that Kazuki Nakajima was as fast as Michael Schumacher? Or do we draw what can surely be the only realistic conclusion? Namely, that Rosberg was holding back with Williams in an attempt to display to the world a huge talent going to waste in an under-par car.

All of which led to a question often asked: is Nico Rosberg too smart for his own good?

It’s a question that has come back again this year.

[parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2014/11/141120-nico-rosberg-spray-desat.jpg” credit=”(Getty Images)”]

Many will point to Monaco as a stand-out point of the season. I always felt Rosberg was smart enough to pull off that stunt in qualifying, but I never believed he was that cynical or cold. To be a world champion takes more than intelligence and speed. As I argued over Multi-21 last year, while we may hate to admit it, what marks the champions out from the also-rans is the ability to be a complete bastard when the moment arrives. In Monaco, Nico was the bastard and turned that qualifying controversy into a race win that had the ability to completely shift the tide of the season.

That it didn’t, however, is his own doing.

Lewis Hamilton is widely regarded as one of the best qualifiers in modern Formula 1. And yet, with a dominantly fast car at his disposal, he has lost the Pole Trophy to Nico Rosberg, the German amassing 10 poles to Hamilton’s seven. That metronomic precision has played into Rosberg’s hands on many occasions this season, and more often than not it has given him the upper hand going into the race. On Saturdays at least, Rosberg has proved beyond doubt that he has the pace. But he hasn’t turned that Saturday pace on regularly enough in Sunday’s race.

Mentally, what happened in Budapest was also a tremendous shock. Hungary should never have affected him as much as it did. Perhaps it all comes down to how much brain capacity we consider Nico Rosberg as having, but that August break should have been used to move on from what he perceived as an injustice, and start the second half of the season fresh and with total clarity of mind. Rosberg used all of that mindfulness, however, to focus on the negatives and came back to Spa with it still playing on his mind.

That incident on lap 2 of the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix has been poured over to frankly ridiculous degrees. To me, it was a nothing moment. Rosberg could have backed out, Hamilton could have given more room. That both went into it so pathetically ultimately resulted in the damage it did. If Rosberg had truly wanted to teach Hamilton a lesson then he should have gone in hard. That he didn’t is the only reason that Hamilton’s tire was sliced. Any intent, and Rosberg would have snapped his front wing, bouncing it off the side of the Briton’s tire. Hamilton would have stormed off into the distance while Rosberg was forced to switch his wing.

I argued at the time that Rosberg needed to embrace one side or the other. He needed to be a hero or a villain, because if he was neither, he risked becoming nothing. And so it emerged after the race that he had told Hamiton he had allowed the impact to happen. A step towards becoming that villain? Perhaps, but it wasn’t enough. And that’s the big sadness of his season. He has been so fast and so consistent, but his inability to pick a side and his attempts at being all things to all people has led to him being left wide open to attack from all sides.

The way he interacts with broadcast crews is an incredible illustration of this. In Monza, in speaking with me on American television he spoke in confident and unashamed tones despite his apparent dressing down by the team over Spa. With the Germans he was the same… almost bullish. And then to the British TV and radio crews, his shoulders slumped forward, his head bowed down, his tone was full of contrition and regret. What he was saying was no different to what he had told the German or international crews, but the way it was said was at total odds with how he had been just 10 seconds before.

Just as in Bahrain at that GP2 finale 10 years ago, I stood in awe. So savvy, so intelligent to his audience… but perhaps, in this instance, a reflection of him trying to be just that little bit too smart.

[parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2014/11/141120-nico-rosberg-above-bw.jpg” credit=”(Getty Images)”]

The thing is, he can be so charming too. He has a dry and sarcastic wit, which can sometimes be played out with a deft finesse. In America and Brazil, he started to have a very subtle jab at his championship rival by adopting Lewis Hamilton’s apparent mot du jour. In almost every interview, Rosberg would drop in a little comment about how “blessed” he felt. Shrewd. Subtle. At times, however, he can be a total child. In Hungary this year I was running from my commentary position to the GP3 podium to conduct the post-race interviews. Time is tight at the best of times, but when I arrived at the swipe gates I felt an arm around my waist pulling me back. At first I thought it was an over-zealous security guard. But no. It was Nico, giggling away with a huge grin plastered across his face.

Nico Rosberg’s victories have been well won in 2014, Brazil standing as a perfect example of just how wonderfully he can put a weekend together when he puts his mind to it. I would put his ability to nurse his car home in Canada as one of his stand-out moments of the season. But they have been too infrequent. Just five wins from 10 pole positions does not reflect well on the German. In wheel to wheel combat with his teammate, he is yet to come out on top. He was roundly beaten in Bahrain when it was he that was on the optimal strategy and on the better tires. He choked in Monza. He choked in Russia. He claimed that in Austin he just “wasn’t on it,” which I still hold to be one of the most shocking admissions I’ve ever heard from a man in the midst of the fight for something to which he has dedicated his entire life.

Overall, there have been times this year when it has seemed that the Nico Rosberg of 2014 has been that same Nico Rosberg of the Williams years … doing just enough, perhaps hoping that consistency will hand him the title in the event that the unreliability which took the very first race away from his teammate and placed it before him, may just repeat at the very final race to put that world championship into his hands. As many have pointed out, given that his old man managed to win the crown with just one race win to his name, why should Nico regard winning a championship via consistency to be anything other than virtuous? It’s a fair question.

Should he be crowned 2014 Formula 1 world champion, be it through double points or, let’s hope, a barn-storming wheel-to-wheel thriller, some will still argue that Nico Rosberg does not deserve to be world champion. With them, however, I would disagree. Lest we forget, this is the only man who, over the course of a full Formula 1 season, finished ahead of Michael Schumacher as a teammate. As if to reinforce the point, Rosberg achieved this giant toppling feat not once, but thrice.

His out-and-out pace in qualifying this year has been insurmountable. That he has won the inaugural Pole Trophy is evidence of that. So we know he has the pace, we know he has the temperament to win races, and we know that on occasion he can embrace his inner bastard and drive with the ruthlessness that sets world champions apart.

Nico Rosberg has shown repeatedly in 2014 that he possesses the attributes shared by the best of the best. We should not deny him his glory should he be confirmed as such on Sunday.

Scroll Down For:

    The complete driver

    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.

    [parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2014/11/141120-lewis-hamilton-desat.jpg” credit=”(Getty Images)”]

    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.

    [parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2014/11/141120-lewis-hamilton-tatto.jpg” credit=”(Getty Images)”]

    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.

    [parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2014/11/141120-lewis-hamilton-silho.jpg” credit=”(Getty Images)”]

    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.