Back on track

时间:2019-11-16 责任编辑:蔡栩奇 来源:澳门美高梅国际 - 注册即送~ 点击:141 次

A few moments after won the Hungarian grand prix last month, he released his safety harness, stood on the carbon-fibre chassis and, with shades of Basil Fawlty, started banging his fist repeatedly on the "bonnet" of his McLaren-Mercedes. What we were watching, however, was not frustration but extreme elation. It was an unprecedented outpouring of relief from one of the world's most self-controlled sportsmen. After the worst six months of his life, he was back in the game.

Hamilton, a 24-year-old who grew up on a council estate in Stevenage, had enjoyed the most explosive entry to the sport had ever seen. In 2007, he broke all records for a debutant, driving so brilliantly that he sent his team-mate, two-time, defending world champion Fernando Alonso, to the brink of insanity. Last season, he became the youngest F1 champion in history, in the most nail-biting denouement of all time, shooting round Timo Glock's Toyota on the final corner of a rain-sodden track in Brazil to clinch the title. He was fast, exciting and so competitive that he boasted that he would not even concede victory to his half-brother, who has cerebral palsy, when they played F1 on the PlayStation.

This year, however, has seen Hamilton crash to earth, his position on the top of the podium taken by another British driver, Jenson Button. Five years older, Button is in many senses the anti-Hamilton. He is the goofy playboy who did not seem to have the aggression or hunger to fulfil his potential in Formula One. The 1992 world champion Nigel Mansell berated Button for partying too much, while his former team-mate Jacques Villeneuve suggested he should be in a boy band. At the precise moment that Hamilton was winning his world title, Button was extricating himself from a broken-down car that had burst into flames.

But the 2009 season, which continues today with round 11 of 17 at the Valencia street circuit, has made everyone pause to consider: maybe Button is not just a punchline; perhaps Hamilton is not an ice-veined automaton; and why does anyone care about the drivers when Formula One is so self-evidently about the machine underneath them?

The problems for Hamilton this season have been more than merely wrestling what former team boss and BBC pundit Eddie Jordan has described as "a dog of a car, the worst car that has ever built". After the Australian grand prix in March, Hamilton was found guilty of lying to race stewards when, under team orders, he had a hand in attempting to have another driver disqualified.

It has been a spectacular fall from grace, one only partially arrested by that stunning return to form on the track in Hungary. And it is a slump that, no doubt, some will have taken pleasure in. Hamilton has noted that his success in karting made him "less, not more, popular" at school, and there were "a lot of people, and not only some of my competitors" who resented the contract he signed with McLaren in his early teens. His uncompromising approach to racing has made him few friends in Formula One: in his first season, he described how his fellow drivers were waiting "with rifles, ready to shoot me" at a briefing before the China grand prix.

In Britain, his public profile was perhaps most seriously damaged by the botched announcement of his move to Lake Geneva in 2007. "I don't think the public would have a problem with an F1 driver moving away," says Ted Kravitz, the BBC's pit-lane reporter. "But it was the way he dealt with it and the reason he gave: 'I can't go out in London any more, I get hassled, I don't like it.' It was very damaging."

Before last season, Red Bull's Mark Webber sounded a note of caution that is now unerringly prescient. "His career has gone off like a rocket ship, but it won't always be like that," he said. "He's young and he's black, which makes him unique in this sport, but that's got a shelf life. He won't stop being black but it will stop being a novelty."

"The question is: why do people feel better about Jenson Button potentially winning the championship this year than Lewis Hamilton?" asks Kravitz. "I did always think that Lewis was very popular, but you start to wonder. Jenson is certainly a more accessible character; he has a spark in his eye, he will take the piss out of himself."

Despite everything that would make Hamilton's story a fairytale success - his youth, his ethnicity, his determination - for some he remains strangely hard to relate to. He's too neat, too controlled, too arrogant. In short, too good to be true. Could a bit of failure, a glimmer of weakness, be just what he needs for the British public to learn to love him?

"The traffic was terrible," says Hamilton, a few minutes late, sounding like he was picking off awkward back-markers in a grand prix rather than negotiating London in the morning rush hour. He fixes you with unblinking eye contact and pumps your hand fiercely. His handshake is legendary; McLaren's team principal Martin Whitmarsh even remembers it from when he met the 10-year-old Hamilton: "It was quite surreal when he did it as a little boy. That purposeful determination was always there with Lewis."

The location for today's Lewis Hamilton opportunity, courtesy of his sponsor Hugo Boss, is the studio in Stoke Newington, east London, where they film Dragons' Den (a show that has, it seems, not made it out to Switzerland yet). Hamilton is wearing a hoodie, jeans and white Reebok trainers with fluorescent laces, an outfit that sounds like it should be scruffy but on him is precise and immaculate. He is short and powerful, with a tree-trunk neck (his collar size increased by more than an inch during his first season in F1) and sticky-out Obama ears.

The evening before we meet, Michael Schumacher announced he would be making a shock return to Formula One, taking the seat at Ferrari vacated by Felipe Massa after his freak head injury last month (to everyone's dismay, Schumacher has since announced that he has abandoned the comeback). Hamilton has always said that Schumacher is the former driver that he would most like to race against, and today he breaks into a wide, gap-toothed smile when his name comes up. "Jeez, it will be huge," he says. "When racing's in your blood, like it is in his, I'm sure he's there to fight."

Hamilton - whom Ted Kravitz had described as "absolutely miserable" for the first half of the season - is clearly in bullish mood today, no doubt buoyed by spending last night watching his victory in Hungary, his first win since the China grand prix last October. He does not usually revisit his races but he was back at the family home in Hertfordshire for the night and needed something to do while he ate dinner - "I always have to watch something while I'm eating otherwise I get bored," he admits. "I'm a racing driver, an adrenaline junkie, aren't I? Anything with a low heart-rate, I fall asleep."

He also wanted to see how he came across on the TV coverage "because I don't get to see that so often, so it's good to be able to see that from the public's view". Did he learn anything? "It's funny to watch my dad," he decides. "He's so serious. It's like he's driving himself, controlling the race. We sat there and just laughed about that."

Anthony Hamilton - father, manager, agent - has been a contentious figure in Lewis's career. Although he had no background in racing himself, Anthony has moulded his son from an early age into his vision of the ultimate driving machine. His attention to detail has been astonishing - from keeping his go-kart clean, because he knew McLaren liked it that way, to ensuring that Lewis stayed out of trouble at school. When, just before his GCSEs, Hamilton was mistakenly suspended from John Henry Newman School in Stevenage for fighting, Anthony worked tirelessly to clear his name, even sending a letter to Tony Blair. When the matter was finally resolved, he moved the family out of the area and enrolled Lewis in a new school.

Hamilton first met McLaren CEO Ron Dennis at the age of 10. Hamilton told him he wanted to drive his F1 cars; Dennis told him to come back in nine years. When Hamilton was 13 McLaren started helping him with karts, engines and transport. While many would have deferred to McLaren's stewardship - they have, after all, produced 12 world champions and guided the careers of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Mika Hakkinen - Anthony has never been afraid to stand up to Dennis. Their relationship even deteriorated enough for McLaren to withdraw their support for Hamilton when he was racing in formula three in 2004. However, it is hard not to admire the tenacity and single-mindedness that Anthony - who famously worked three jobs at various stages when Lewis was growing up, including putting up estate agent signs for 50p a time - has shown in getting a mixed-race kid with no connections to the top of the world's richest and most nepotistic sport.

"My dad has been to every single race in my whole life," says Hamilton, before repeating incredulously, "every single race I've ever done. Every competition, from remote-control cars to go-karting, single-seaters, Formula One, that's thousands of races since I was eight years old. Still today on the grid he comes out and we always hug before qualifying and again before the start of the race, and I get in the car and we always do our handshake which I made up when I was eight. It's that special."

It probably helped that Hamilton was winning most of these early races. All Formula One drivers have had seriously impressive careers before making the step up, but it is hard to find anyone whose achievements compare to Hamilton's. You might say he was lucky to start his F1 career with a dominant team like McLaren, but his records (most wins in a debut season, most consecutive podiums from debut race, most pole positions in a debut season, and on and on) indicate that luck has only played a small part in his ascent.

"I've had a very different career to a lot of people, where I've pretty much won everything, and that's been my goal," he says. "Some people have got to where I am and they are great drivers but they haven't won every class they've been in. I just never stopped. I've got to win everything."

So how do you explain this season? Hamilton has not suddenly lost his nerve or his desire - ironically, Button believes that Hamilton has driven better this year than he did for some of 2008. So the real question is how McLaren has gone from a position of utter dominance to producing a car that drives like a tractor. In football terms, it would be like Manchester United being thrashed by Burnley and then having to fight off relegation. The answer can be found deep in the messy world of Formula One technology and politics.

The 2009 season began with the most drastic overhaul of the technical regulations for more than two decades. There were three main targets: improve safety, reduce costs and increase overtaking. The last of these initiatives, introduced to make the sport more exciting, has not worked exactly as planned. They might look the same to the casual observer, but the cars that took the grid in Australia in March were massively pared-down from the previous year, with various aerodynamic winglets, chimneys, barge boards and bull horns banned. Without these, it was hoped, cars would be able to slipstream and pass more easily. However, some of the teams found an ingenious way to prevent this, slapping a diffuser on the back and thus channelling the air flow, notably Jenson Button's Brawn.

And notably not McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari. The two traditional powerhouses of the sport pinned their hopes on a power-boost system called KERS (kinetic energy retention system). This gives you a powerful burst of acceleration, particularly off the start line, although gains are offset by the extra weight the car is carrying, and most believe that the expensive experiment will be scrapped for future seasons.

In previous years, such miscalculations would have been significant but not season-derailing. The big teams, which had budgets of $500m and a staff of around 2,200, would simply test and test until they found the solution. But this was now forbidden. There are, give or take, 11,500 components on a Formula One car, and McLaren estimates that over the course of a year they will change and improve 75% of these (that's an upgrade every 20 minutes, 24 hours a day). The place where traditionally much of the work is done is the wind tunnel, which resembles a huge snaking accordion in the guts of McLaren HQ in Woking. In previous years, this facility has run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, using more power than the entire town centre, but as part of the agreement to make the sport more sustainable, teams agreed to drastically reduce its use.

All the while, a season that had started off badly for McLaren was getting worse, reaching a nadir at the British grand prix in June, where Hamilton qualified in 18th place and finished 16th. "Silverstone was really the pits for us," admits McLaren Racing's managing director Jonathan Neale. "The front of our car wasn't working properly and we hadn't had a bold attempt at the diffuser. You are trying to tell the drivers, 'Hang in there, have patience.' But the pressure was obviously mounting on Lewis exponentially race by race."

Just as Hamilton was dealing with his new-found vulnerability on the track, he was also embroiled in his first real scandal: the controversy that saw him forfeit third place in the Australian grand prix for giving incorrect information (OK, lying) to race stewards. The details of his misdemeanour are intricate and not immediately career-threatening - "it basically amounts to diving in the box to get your team a penalty," explains Ted Kravitz - but more damaging was the implication that he would do whatever it takes to get ahead. It was also another black mark against a McLaren team that had been fined £50m and stripped of their constructors' points in 2007 for being caught with Ferrari documents.

For Kravitz, there has been no lasting stain on Hamilton's reputation, but he speculates that he might be much less trusting of McLaren in the future. "Anthony will always look out for Lewis's best interests," he says. "Based on what happened in Australia, you can't say the same for McLaren. McLaren will always put the McLaren racing team first; no one is bigger than the team, as you would expect."

Hamilton, for his part, remains steadfastly committed to the team that has supported him for more than a decade now. When he took the flag in Hungary, he delivered an emotional message of thanks for the relentless work that had been done to get his car up to speed (in contrast to Button, who finished in seventh and bemoaned the fact that his car was "so bad").

"I can't explain to you how hard it's been," says Hamilton, his voice trailing off. "It's been the hardest year of my life. It eats you away when you know you can do it but you can't do it. But the team spirit is incredible at McLaren. We have gone through a lot in three years, more than any other team has experienced, I believe, and we've pulled through and we've still come out smiling. That's why I believe we are one of the strongest teams ever."

The interview completed, Hamilton adopts a slightly more relaxed demeanour as The Observer photo shoot progresses. He had asked not to discuss his girlfriend, head Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, in our conversation, but he stops short of denying her existence entirely. When the photographer asks him to stand in profile, he tells him that Nicole prefers to be photographed from one side (her left, research suggests), but then says sweetly, "I think she looks pretty good from every angle." He wants to know who has seen Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - "freakin' awesome. I think it's my favourite ever film" - and also offers that - WORLD EXCLUSIVE! - his favourite Pussycat Dolls dance routine is "Jai Ho!" (You Are My Destiny). A bizarre exchange follows, which segues into him throwing down some impressive robotics before boasting, "Oh, I can definitely dance."

Hamilton certainly has confidence, but despite spending three hours in his presence, it is hard to offer any real insight into what he is like as a person. When the tape recorder is on, he is the consummate professional: smart, polite and focused, purposefully uncontroversial. And this makes good sense. He is absolutely committed to his driving, anything else is a distraction. Away from the media, however, his personality is sure to have been shaped by the single-minded way he has lived his life since he was seven years old. Now 24, and achieving the success he dreamt of, he is probably trying to work out what he is really like too.

When I ask him if the dreams he had of F1 stardom live up to the reality, he seems conflicted. "They definitely live up to it," he says. "Naturally, you miss certain things, such as being able to walk down the street and go to McDonald's or KFC, or go and meet friends and play football in Hyde Park, those normal everyday things that people get to do. But then there's a lot of positives you get to enjoy even more."

Today, his thoughts usually gravitate back to his family. He has admitted being lonely in Switzerland, where he spends most of his days training, eating and sleeping. He reveals that he has only just had his first guests to stay, after two and a half years. "I cook a good pasta bake... spaghetti Bolognese... pasta with chicken," he says. So a fair bit of pasta then. "Yeah. To be honest, most of the time I go round to eat with Mansour [Ojjeh, part-owner of McLaren] who lives nearby." Nevertheless, the independence has been important. "I miss my family always, but I'm a man now, I take care of myself, I pay my own way, I look after my family," he says with pride. "You have some people who are happy being told what to do and some people who like to find out for themselves. I'm one of those spirits where if it's a mistake, I want to feel it myself, I want to find my own way."

That said, nothing beats going home and taking his half-brother down on the computer, or watching him behind the wheel of a car. "He's a good driver, actually," says Hamilton. "The problem is that he has fear. You can't have any fear."

This is a revealing comment that gets to the nub of why the best drivers are still so valuable in Formula One (Hamilton's salary is £10m a year). You might need some luck to have a car that has the capability of winning the world title, but it requires something extra-special to take it all the way. On some level, you need to feel immortal. The fine line between the best and the rest is acknowledged eloquently by David Coulthard, who retired last year after 15 seasons in Formula One with Williams, McLaren and Red Bull. "I was given world championship-winning cars, I didn't win the world championship; there's a connection," he said recently. "You know? Good, not good enough."

We will find out soon enough whether Button has the ruthlessness to keep on winning. Despite having been a front-runner for the last two seasons, Hamilton declines to offer advice on how he might approach it. "Jenson is a winner," he says, "and he's got a lot more experience than me, he's older than me, it would be wrong for me to try to give advice. To become a world champion, he needs to find that out for himself."

As for the rest of the season, Hamilton is confident he can build on the quantum leap McLaren made in Hungary. He now stands on 19 points, with Button far off in the distance on 70. Still, McLaren engineers have prepared an upgrade package for the car for Valencia today, with further improvements for Spa-Francorchamps and Singapore next month. "We've got to win every race," says Hamilton simply.

It suddenly becomes clear that - even with 51 points to make up in just seven races - Hamilton still believes he can retain his world championship.

"Oh yes," he says, with quiet determination. "I never give up."

Tim Lewis is the editor of Observer Sport Monthly