Ahead of this weekend’s 2014 Formula 1 Shell Belgian Grand Prix, Hamilton chats at length about their rivalry, his mental approach to the second half of the season, and why he wants Rosberg to be at his very best…
Q: Lewis, without your rivalry with Nico this season wouldn’t be half the fun. Let’s get straight to it: do the two of you sit down together before a race weekend and work out who’s playing the ‘good cop’ and who’s the ‘bad cop’? How does your rivalry remain so professional?
Lewis Hamilton: Ha, no, because you never know how it is going to turn out. Yes, I can understand that the fans like it - it’s an interesting scenario to watch, two team mates being so close in the races. Though it’s been very different experiences that we two have had this year. Nico has had a kind of smoother road, while I’ve had a bumpier road. But still, knowing that I am in shooting distance even though I had all those issues… I am really excited about that.
Q: In the past there were many team mate battles where the tension was a constant presence. The fans delighted in these battles - the showmanship, the dirty tricks, one rival enraging the other. There seems less emotion today. Has political correctness killed the show - or are you the last true showman?
LH: It is a lot different now. Back then they jumped out of the car and lit a cigarette. You could call somebody an idiot and didn’t have to go back and say sorry. It was more relaxed back then. It is much stricter now. You have to be more correct now. And it is so difficult when it is such a fine line between right and wrong - on the edge or not.
Q: It seems to be a requirement now that a driver is aggressive in the car, but a pussycat out of it. How is that working?
LH: Not easy - when I come out of the car I sure am no pussycat! (laughs) God gave us emotions. When I get out of the car I am like a fizzy lemonade bottle. When you’re in the car you’re shaken around - then then you get out and take the lid off - it’s everywhere! It’s hard to keep the lid on. So you see, that’s not easy. Then when you keep it calm and you don’t say too much and keep up a front to protect yourself, then people are not happy either. Ha, I don’t do that too much - and that is then what gets me into trouble. But that’s what shows character - hopefully.
Q: Those now infamous words that came over the team radio in Budapest - to let your team mate past - you’ve no doubt mulled over those during the summer break. What conclusion have you come to, now that the dust has settled?
LH: I get past things very quickly. But that depends on the situation. Silverstone was harder to get over that evening - but the next day I came back all positive. I have learned to move forward. What is done is done and how you get past has influence on how you move forward. And moving forward is what really counts. I had a great summer break - I clarified some things with Paddy (Lowe) and Toto (Wolff)…
Q: Whose voice was it that told you to let Nico pass?
LH: My engineer. Paddy could come on the radio if it was ‘you have to do this!’ He could press the button. If Paddy comes on you know it is down a gear and let him go! As I understand it, we’ve been on different strategies so if the guy slipstreams you, don’t block him. Don’t make it hard.
Q: But that was how you understood it in the summer break?
LH: Yes. Well, that’s how I understand it.
Q: Could the call have been a result of Mercedes seeing their supremacy slowly waning and wanting to put everything behind the man leading the driver standings?
LH: Well, ultimately the team wants to win. Sometimes you are in a situation where you have to make a decision: let’s put all our eggs in one basket, because that gets us the best result. If you can’t do both get behind the bigger opportunity.
Q: Haven’t those words caused questions in your head about your position in the team? It’s nice to say both drivers are equal, but the reality is sometimes different…
LH: They haven’t. But in that moment it wasn’t easy and for sure I left there thinking. I was uneasy about it. But I look at it differently. I pull strength from it. I know where I stand as a driver.
Q: That aside, Hungary was a superb race from you: coming from the very back and finishing on the podium after slicing through the field like a hot knife through butter. Can you talk us through that?
LH: Yes it was a hell of a race. And this week when they analysed the engine they’ve seen that I lost a lot of power- and if I didn’t have that problem I would have won. There was a huge power loss - almost half a second a lap from my second stop. I was fast - but imagine that half a second on top! I would have past Fernando (Alonso)… When I reflect on that weekend I realized that there was not a chance to get on pole - so I knew that I would have to fight my way through - and then another thing happened - that was like a knife in my heart. But then when you step back and look at it, there is another opportunity to show who I am and what I am able to do. Since I was a kid the first thing my dad saw was that even when I had a bad go-kart I was able to make it all the way to the front. That is what I can do best. Above all, that’s what I do best. In hindsight it has been a real blessing that I have been able to show that in the last couple of races - and hopefully people saw it and appreciate it. But for sure, I don’t want to do it too often! (laughs)
Q: Christian Horner said about Sebastian Vettel’s 2014 troubles that these are character building. When did you have your most character building F1 experiences?
LH: There has not been only one - there has been a lot. The one I remember best was the end of the 2007 season. That was hard to swallow. It was just like trying to swallow a house - impossible. I have tried to come back from that but the blow can be a gunshot to the head. It’s such a big hole that it makes it hard to rebuild yourself - and if you do, then that I would I call character building! When I hear the words ‘character building’ it means to me that if a wall gets knocked down you rebuild and rebuild it much stronger. That was my end of 2007.
Q: Who was for you the most complete F1 champion - and why? And in what areas do you still fall short of that ideal?
LH: When you are growing up and watching F1 you have one perspective, but then when you are in the sport you realize how technical it is and how much work really goes into it that you don’t see from the outside. So it is really difficult to know, but thinking back Ayrton (Senna) was my favourite in terms of pure ability and aggression - and, generally from what I’ve seen, his values. I think the most all-round driver was maybe Juan Manuel Fangio: he was skilled and he was able to do things with the car that no one else was.
Q: If you could plan out the rest of the season, how would it look?
LH: I can plan it? Sure? Then it would be pole-win, pole-win - and so on and so forth…
Q: That seems a bit unlikely, so where do you see the ‘big points’ chances for you?
LH: Ah, thank you, you think that’s unlikely! Didn’t Sebastian start here in Spa last year winning nine in a row? But yes, the percentage chance is not as high as with Sebastian last season. But still, that’s my goal. And I know that I have the opportunity to do it. And I will make sure I maximize my opportunity.
Q: And, of course, you want to win the title, but at what price? All too often when a driver is dubbed a team player the talk is about a loser…
LH: I wouldn’t sell my soul to win a championship. I want to win the championship through my ability and fair opportunity. I sure don’t want to finish second and be known as a nice guy. I want to win.
Q: Nice guy is one thing, but would you want to come in second through being a good team player?
LH: No. But there are different views on what is a team player. When it means waving your team mate through, that for sure is not. But if team player means to invest in the team, that’s another game. So I want to win - and be the best team player when it means that. I work with the team. I am not hiding anything from Nico. He has all my data. I never, never ever have asked my guys, ‘Don’t show that to Nico’. Actually I want him to be at his best, because it is more painful when you are at your best and getting beat. That’s more painful.
Q: When has that happened to you: being beaten when you were at your best?
LH: I can’t really think of it - can’t really pick one thing. Actually I am not sure if I ever felt that I have been at my best…
Q: So your best is still to come?
Q: You won at Spa in 2010…
LH: …and in 2008 - but that was taken away from me.
Q: What could stand between you and the winner’s trophy on Sunday?
LH: I feel if I keep my head down like a bull - nothing can really stand in the way of a bull - I hope that will be me on Sunday. But there is my team mate - and I am sure he wants to be the wall that gets in the way, so I will try to manoeuvre it the best way I can this weekend - and win!