THE handshake is as potentially bone-crushing as ever, the smile broad and unaffected. For all that his critics will tell you that Lewis Hamilton’s head is all screwed up these days, he looks perfectly relaxed as he steps aboard HMS Havengore at St Katherine’s Pier on the Thames. It’s about as miserable a day as it could be, with a darkened sky still hungover from a recent deluge. But Hamilton the competitor is grinning inside. That morning he’s beaten his Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team-mate, Jenson Button, in a jetski race, and his blood is up. It doesn’t matter that Jenson fell off after a lap and a half and slightly tweaked a knee; Hamilton set the fastest laps and that’s what counts. Tiddleywinks, poker, a grand prix. It doesn’t matter what it is, he plays to win.
That internal rage is part of the reason he’s been accused of overdriving at times this season. And why he is desperate to add another British Grand Prix triumph to his tally this weekend at a time when Sebastian Vettel’s latest cakewalk, in Valencia two weeks ago, took him to one career victory more than he has, 16 to 15.
Not so long ago he was the comingman that everyone was talking about, the youngest-ever world champion. Now Vettel has taken away both mantles, and it hurts. “He’s taken away my youngest champion [tag] from me,” Hamilton says thoughtfully, “and on the road he’s on I hope he doesn’t pull too far away in terms of wins.”
What makes it especially tough is that Hamilton knows they aren’t playing on an even field. The McLarens he has driven for the last three years have been race winners. But not championship winners. Vettel’s Red Bull is once again the current class of the field, and his team have dominated Silverstone, scene of this Sunday’s British GP, for the past two seasons. Hamilton, who won his home race in style back in 2008, is impatient for his own magic bullet.
The situation has been exacerbated by the need to temper his frustration with due respect for a brilliant team whose employees, both at the factory and at the race track, are doing their utmost to give him what he wants. More than any other sport, Formula One is a team game, even if the ultimate risk is taken by the man in the cockpit. Perhaps he’s just lost his way a little; perhaps he’s missing the calming effect of father Anthony’s hand on his managerial tiller; perhaps it’s as simple as it looks: he is driving a car that can’t yet do what he wants and needs it to do.
Whatever the reason, some of the criticism he has been forced to withstand this year has been vicious. After he tapped Mark Webber into a gentle spin at the crowded start of the Canadian GP in June, three-time champion Niki Lauda said that he needed to be reined in before he killed someone. Emerson Fittipaldi, a two-time champion and McLaren’s first, suggested that his driving was more aggressive than the late Ayrton Senna’s, though clearly he did not remember that Hamilton’s hero deliberately drove Alain Prost off the road, ahead of 24 cars full of fuel, at the start of the 1990 Japanese GP.
Hamilton insists all that doesn’t hurt. “It doesn’t affect me, to be honest, but if Ayrton was around and he said it, then I’d be deeply affected. What he did and said has huge meaning for me. People do forget the good things you do. I did good things in 2007 against Fernando. It’s easy to forget.”
But he admits that in the heat of the racing moment you can also forget things about yourself. “Sometimes when you have a frustrating weekend, it’s easy to forget yourself who you are and what you stand for.”
The McLaren team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, has been quick to defend his driver in these pages in the wake of Lauda and Fittipaldi’s comments. “These are very quotable people, and very quotable people say things for effect. I know Niki and like him, and I accept that there are people around who want to say things to create controversy. Niki’s in that category.”
Of course, Hamilton regrets the numerous accidents and misfortunes that he’s had in a bruising year, and in Valencia there were signs that he was taking a breather as he steered to fourth place and avoided a post-race meeting with the race stewards.
But that race showed the problem. His McLaren has not quite been a match for the Red Bull. So McLaren are pinning their hopes on the ban on off-throttle blown diffusers levelling the playing field this weekend, given that most accept that the blue cars derive a large chunk of their aerodynamic advantage from that part of the car. But even if that proves to be the case, Hamilton has a mountain to climb; at this midpoint, Vettel has 186 points to his 97, with 275 left to win.
“I think the title is a long way away,” he admits philosophically. “That’s disappointing, given the effort I’ve made this year. I’ve been training really hard, and somehow no matter how fit I am I manage to apply something more every year. I firmly believe that there isn’t anybody else who does as much training as I do. There might be some who do the same, but no one does more.
“And I know how hard the team are pushing. We’ve moved on massively since 2007 and ’08, and our biggest quality is our ability to bounce back. But this is the third year in a row when we haven’t had a car with a chance of taking the title.
“It’s a matter of having to drag yourself back up, and Silverstone is only the halfway point in the season. Inside, I have to hope that we’ll find something and that we can then win every race and the world championship. But when you go to the next race and then the next one and the one after that, and you still haven’t found that something, the chance goes. In the factory they are pushing as hard as they can, and I just apply positive pressure. I feel that I’ve given them a good direction of what I want to see in the car. It seems obvious: I want what Red Bull have, but it isn’t as simple as that.”
Of the rumours that Hamilton might eventually switch to Red Bull, Whitmarsh told The Independent recently: “He’s sat with me here in the last 10 days and explained his passion, enthusiasm and desire to remain part of this team. I’ve known him since he was 11. I don’t think he would look me in the eye and say that if he didn’t mean it.”
A victory at home this weekend would be a timely reminder to everyone just how potent the Hamilton-McLaren package can be. And might ensure that he stays put when his contract expires next year.
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