x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Starry-eyed Lewis Hamilton out to add some glitter after turbulent year

The 2008 champion tells Gary Meenaghan why being an F1 driver is the 'best job' in the world, despite his career's worst year.

The McLaren-Mercedes driver has accepted that there are good and bad parts in life and it is best, he says, not to dwell on the regrettable ones and race his heart out.
The McLaren-Mercedes driver has accepted that there are good and bad parts in life and it is best, he says, not to dwell on the regrettable ones and race his heart out.

The canary yellow diamond in Lewis Hamilton's right ear sparkles as he speaks.

The 26 year old is relaxing at Buddh International Circuit and the conversation has turned to fame and celebrity. The glinting earring - complemented by a white-gold jewel-encrusted ring - would not look out of place in a rap music video, perhaps that of English hip-hop icon Sway, who recently name-checked the Formula One driver in a song.

"It's always nice to be known, but there are good parts and bad parts," Hamilton said, leaning forward in his chair. "To meet people who I look up to and admire, that's nice. I met Roger Federer in Russia one time: I was looking for him and he came to me and asked for a photo. That was cool."

The bad parts tend to centre on intrusions of privacy, the publication of false rumours and the McLaren-Mercedes driver's words being taken out of context.

He was quoted at the start of the ongoing season as calling rival team Red Bull Racing "just a drinks company". It was a misinterpretation that still irks him.

"I never, ever, said Red Bull was just a drinks company," he said. "What I was doing was comparing a manufacturer team to a drinks company team. But then people wrote a load of rubbish about me.

"I remember Christian Horner [Red Bull's team principal] saying in Australia 'not bad for just a drinks company'. That sucked because that's not what I was trying to say. But, it's fine - next time I will just keep my mouth shut."

The 2008 world champion saw his celebrity spread from newspaper sports pages to magazine gossip pages when he started dating Nicole Scherzinger, the American pop star, four years ago.

The pair separated last month; another disappointment in what has been a luckless year for the Englishman.

Hamilton has been handed six penalties from 17 races this season, his aggressive driving style becoming the focus of much criticism. Ferrari's Felipe Massa, who has developed into something of a nemesis of the Briton this year following a series of high-profile collisions, called for his rival to be banned, while Niki Lauda, the three-time world champion, called him "completely mad".

The Stevenage-born driver refuses to rue such comments though. "It's difficult to live life with regrets," he said. "The more you dwell on it, the worse it affects you, so I just let it go over my head and continue to try to race my heart out. People will get tired of it eventually.

"Eventually, I'll just tootle around, but I'll still be in Formula One because I love racing these cars."

Such a relaxed, philosophical approach noticeably changes, however, when asked whether he would consider altering his trademark combative driving style. He leans back quickly, displaying an apparent disdain at such a suggestion. The wide white-toothed smile is gone and when he speaks, there is a rare element of anger in his voice.

"No," he said sharply. "I don't think I should have to change the way I drive. Who is anybody to tell me how I should drive? I don't tell you how to dress.

"I don't think I have the right to tell anybody to do what they do and I don't think anybody has the right to tell me how I should drive."

He later acknowledges that if Martin Whitmarsh, his team principal at McLaren, tells him to change a little then he "might have to", but it will be no easy task - a leopard cannot change its spots, and Hamilton has for ever been an aggressive sportsman.

In his 2007 autobiography, My Story, he revealed he is "very, very competitive in everything," adding that when he played football at school - in the same team as Manchester United's Ashley Young, no less - he would "go into a tackle so hard that I risked breaking my leg".

Sat in India and pressed further on the subject, he elaborated. "It's always the same. I've always been like this. When I used to play football, I was very aggressive; I played in midfield, but was one of the best tacklers. I would always get the ball."

At school, Hamilton also played cricket and basketball while competing regularly in athletics. But motor racing was always going to be his chosen path.

"It's the best job in the world," he said.

"It's fantastic. Getting to travel the world and see different places and cultures; to get to drive the car at all these different circuits. To travel on the plane and know that you are going to be only one of 24 drivers who will get to drive a Formula One car, it is one of the coolest things."

Hamilton's father, Anthony, retired from his job with British Rail to concentrate on aiding his son's path to the top, while Lewis's younger brother, Nicolas, was a regular fixture inside the McLaren motorhome before he overcame the barriers of being born with cerebral palsy to compete in this year's UK Renault Clio Cup. He finished the season 14th from 29 drivers.

When Nicolas made his debut in April at Brands Hatch, England, his older brother was due to be in Kuala Lumpur training for the Malaysian Grand Prix the following weekend. Instead, though, Lewis made a 21,000-kilometre round trip to show his support from the sidelines.

"It was a great experience," he said of the weekend. "My family dedicated their whole lives to come to all my races, sit around and wait forever for the races to come. I got to be there and do that for my brother, who used to come to every one of my races. It was nice to show that support."

Family has always proved fundamental to Hamilton, so it should not be dismissed as happenstance that the worst year of his five-season F1 career coincides with a spreading of his familial wings.

In March, it was announced Hamilton had signed an agreement with Simon Fuller's XIX Entertainment Company, effectively replacing his father, who had acted as his manager, for much of his career.

His season on the track, he said, has been "a disaster all year", but he maintains he is "very happy" with his decision to sign with Fuller, stressing that "a lot more of my life is taken care of".

"Whereas before I just had my dad and my mum, now I have a lot more people involved," he said.

"Now I have two PAs: one personal PA and one work PA, I have someone who works on marketing, someone who works on media, and then I have Simon, who I have business projects with."

Fuller was the obvious choice for a young British talent looking to cement his place at sport's top table. XIX also look after the portfolios of footballer David Beckham and tennis player Andy Murray.

In addition to that, the music-loving Hamilton will have likely been impressed by Fuller's other clients, which include the Jennifer Lopez and Elvis Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie.

"He is the one who guides me," he said of the man responsible for creating the television talent show franchise, Pop Idol.

The mention of music lifts Hamilton's mood instantly. When he is not racing, he said he enjoys little more than spending time playing the guitar.

He lists an eclectic array of songs from his laptop that include country, hip-hop, jazz and rock. "But my favourite is reggae," he said, smiling.

Hamilton has Caribbean roots courtesy of his Grenadian grandfather, and at the inaugural Indian Grand Prix he sported a Bob Marley helmet.

He will wear the same helmet again at this weekend's Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, "only with some glitter, which will look good under the lights".

Paul McCartney is booked to perform on Yas Island as part of the post-race programme this weekend and Hamilton is looking forward to it.

"When I started playing the guitar, The Beatles' songs were the ones that I was learning," he said. "That'll be awesome."

And if things unfold like they did last year, he could well benefit from his celebrity once again.

At Yas Marina Circuit last year, Prince, the Grammy Award-winning American musician, was performing and when the two men met in the paddock, Hamilton was invited to the singer's private after-party.

"I was feeling ill that night, so my mum partied with him," he said.

"I bet she never ever thought she would be dancing with Prince, so she was happy as pie.

"And we remain in touch. It's crazy - I remain in touch with Prince!"

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae


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