x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Another twist in Hamilton's learning curve

Some consider Hamilton's decision to move to Mercedes-GP next year as his biggest mistake to date, which would be quite an achievement.

McLaren Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton.
McLaren Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton.

Lewis Hamilton wants to be followed. He wants to be at the front of the Formula One field. He wants to be the driver others try to replicate. He wants to be first and fast, a trailblazer and a figure deserving of respect. He wants to create history and he wants to be remembered for doing so. But, ultimately, he wants to win.

When the 2008 world champion sat down to speak with The National ahead of tomorrow's Korea Grand Prix, he sported a black armband.

It is a protective covering for an unfinished tattoo and does not signify mourning, but as the joke goes, it could symbolise the death - or at least the temporary comatisation - of his ability to realise that ultimate ambition: to win.

Hamilton's decision to defect from McLaren in favour of a switch to Mercedes-GP next year is being billed my some observers as his biggest mistake to date, which, all things considered, is quite an achievement.

Winning will not be easy. The likelihood of the 27 year old securing the drivers' championship in 2013 appear as slim as the stick with which his critics regularly beat him. Yet he calls the move a calculated "leap of faith".

Moving from an established marque - a winner of 12 drivers' championships in 46 years - to a team that has managed one race win in the past three seasons, appears senseless. When the Englishman concedes victories next year are not on his horizon, such conclusions are compounded.

Mercedes, however, appreciate they are better positioned to prosper in 2014 when radical new chassis and engine rules come into effect and Hamilton clearly agrees.

"I've been up and down, left and right for the last few month just thinking about what I want to do," he said. "I've very much calculated things and analysed the pros and cons like everyone does - there is no secret to it.

"You just have to decide whether to take the leap of faith or not and, as everyone knows, as a driver I take every chance I can get."

The tale of a 10 year old Hamilton taking his chance having approached McLaren's team manager Ron Dennis to ask for an autograph is now the stuff of legend, but that same limitless conviction is still evident today.

Having joined the England-based marque aged 13, Hamilton has spent more than half his life with McLaren and had spoken in the past of becoming the first world champion to spend his entire career at one team.

Yet there is a very valid reason why such an achievement has never been accomplished.

"It would be cool to see your whole career out at the same place and it would be cool to do something nobody else has done before.

"But from my experiences driving for different teams in Formula Three, the amount you learn from joining and working with new people, extracting the most from them and vice versa, is such a challenge and you have to do that to grow. You can't learn all that in one place," he said.

Hamilton has won 20 grands prix from 105 starts, but almost half of those wins were secured during his first two seasons in the sport.

Recent years have seen victories more difficult to come by and with next year looking increasingly like 12 months of transition, his patience and commitment will be tested more than ever.

"Winning is of course always the main goal and the most exciting part, but when you get to Formula One, you soon realise winning tons and tons of times is not that easy," he said. "You have 20 races and you might only have three wins, so those wins you really appreciate.

"Of course, you want to win as many titles as possible, but it's getting harder and harder."

This season started with Hamilton on pole for the first two races, but hopes of a championship fight appear to be slipping away as he trails Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel by more than 30 points with five races remaining.

Alonso, a former teammate of Hamilton's at McLaren, has performed imperiously at times this year for Ferrari as he chases a third drivers' title - the same number of championships Hamilton's idol Ayrton Senna won.

When the Spaniard left McLaren for Renault in late 2007 after just one season with the English marque, he did so under a dark cloud. The two teammates had endured a tense and tumultuous year that at times saw them refusing to speak.

Alonso eventually had his contract terminated and joined Renault without the need for his new team to pay compensation.

While Hamilton and Alonso remain fiercely competitive on the track, the personal antipathy has faded and they now enjoy a amiable, respectful relationship.

When Hamilton is asked who he considers to have been the most important of his three previous teammates in terms of his career, he does not hesitate: "Fernando," he said. "Because he is the best."

If there is one thing the rookie learnt from his older teammate though, it was to avoid departing McLaren via the back door. He plans to end the season positively and walk proudly out the front gate.

"I have the utmost respect for Fernando, but this is my family and when I leave, I hope it will be on good terms," Hamilton said.

"Unfortunately, when he went to Renault, at the time it was not on good terms, but nonetheless, we have both grown so much and he is doing a phenomenal job and is a phenomenal driver. If I don't win the championship, I don't mind if he wins it because he deserves it."

Alonso was replaced at McLaren by, first, Heikki Kovalainen and then, in 2010, by Jenson Button. Now, after five and a half years in the McLaren hot seat, it is the turn of Hamilton to be replaced.

Shortly before Mercedes announced their coup two weeks ago, McLaren revealed Sergio Perez, the impressive but inexperienced Mexican at Sauber, would replace him.

Six days later, when the two drivers were brought together for the first time in Japan, Hamilton joked he knew "exactly what is going on next year" with Perez's car.

When pressed, Hamilton conceded the extent of his knowledge was limited, but said his comment was in regards to next year's car being an evolution of this year's MP4-27.

"I don't know the intricacies of what is going on," he said. "This year we have a strong car though and next year will be an evolution of this car and that will be the first time McLaren have done that.

"I know how it feels now and if they are on the right curve of development and take that step, then I know he is going to have a good car next year as well. That's why I said to him: 'My car is pretty good, man. You are going into a good seat'."

Hamilton's own car for next year will almost certainly not be as strong. He appreciates the next three years with Mercedes will provide him with the biggest challenge of his career and inter-team relations, he says, will be critical in his quest to quickly turn a car that is not winning into a championship contender.

"There is only a certain amount a driver can do, so you need special people around you to help do the job as well," he said. "Communication will be key."

It is communication, however, that has let Hamilton down in recent months. In July, at his 100th grand prix, he embraced the social networking site Twitter, but since then has found himself apologising for ill-advised tweets and being forced to delete messages.

The nadir arrived last week when he accused Button of disrespect for "unfollowing" him after his Mercedes move was confirmed. Button never followed him in the first place, but by the time Hamilton realised, his tweet had been posted to his 1.1 million followers and has since been retweeted more than 10,000 times.

Hamilton, speaking before the solecism, said he has "grown in a lot of ways" but conceded he is still prone to making gross misjudgements.

"I'm nearly 28 now, so I'm making less mistakes but still making mistakes - stupid mistakes, sometimes. But looking back, sometimes you say I wouldn't do it, but to be honest I love making those mistakes, because if you didn't, it would just be so boring.

"Sometimes it's good to do those things - but I'm trying to avoid the ones that are damaging to me."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae