Lewis Hamilton interview: Briton on self-doubt, Mercedes woes and a ‘North Star’
Lewis Hamilton admits there have been times he has doubted himself during the 2023 Formula 1 season.
“Ultimately,” Hamilton says, “when you have difficult seasons like this, there are always going to be moments when you’re like: ‘Is it me, or is it the car? Do you still have it? Has it gone?’
“Because you’re missing that, you know… when the magic happens, when everything comes together, the car and you, and that spark, it’s extraordinary. And that’s what you’re in the search for.”
It seems quite the admission from anyone engaged in a sport in which confidence in your ability to take yourself and a high-tech piece of machinery to the limit at speeds that reach over 200mph is so fundamental. Let alone the most successful driver in history. But Hamilton dismisses the idea it is anything extraordinary.
“I’m only human,” says the 38-year-old. “If anyone in the world tells you they don’t have those things, they’re in denial. We’re all human beings.”
‘I asked for changes, and they weren’t done’
Hamilton is talking in an extensive interview to mark the end of the season, and he’s in an expansive, revealing mood.
It has been a long, tough season for a driver and team previously so accustomed to success, and his second in a row without a single victory. He says he knew that would be the case from the first moment he drove this year’s car.
The Mercedes engineers decided for this season to stick with their unique car-design philosophy – against both Hamilton’s wishes and the wider trend along the pit lane. And Hamilton knew as soon as he drove the car at Silverstone in February that they had made a mistake.
“I remember it feeling exactly the same,” he says as he compares it to last year. “And that definitely was not a great feeling. I really had high hopes.”
He even had concerns before that, it turns out.
“In February, when we do a download of where the car is going, I was a little more apprehensive, because the previous year it was like: ‘The car is amazing, it’s unique, no-one’s going to have anything like it.’ And then we get to the first test…
“So, I was a little bit more cautious when I was listening, and I was like: ‘We will see.’ And then the car had all these problems. I just knew it was going to be a long year.”
At the first race in Bahrain, the extent of Mercedes’ issues soon became obvious, and as early as Friday practice – before even a competitive session had taken place – Hamilton said the team were “on the wrong track”.
Looking back, he says: “I’m sure there were frustrations, because I had asked for certain changes, and they weren’t done.”
His reaction, he says, was to have “big, big talks” with the team. “No-one knew exactly what the problem was,” he adds. “No-one knew how to fix it.
“Having the experience of the previous year, I just applied myself, in terms of digging down, sitting with the guys. We were having much better meetings.
“I was able to stay a lot more positive during the year and be like: ‘It’s going to be a long season, but let’s not give up. Let’s keep pushing towards getting the maximum out of the car, whatever that may be.’
“I think for this year they thought: ‘The fundamentals are good and we just have to go here.’ And it was not the case. That’s why I was frustrated in February, because they hadn’t made the changes I’d asked for.
“But we didn’t have a North Star necessarily at the beginning of the year, knowing exactly where we need to work towards. It’s been kind of a zig-zag line trying to frickin’ get to where we need to be.
“Every now and again, something positive happens. You’re like: ‘OK, that’s it.’ And then it shifts, so the goalpost is always moving, which is typical.”
‘I believe we have a North Star now’
Mercedes were stuck this year because the changes they realised they needed to make required fundamental modifications to the architecture of the car, and these were not possible within the strictures of the cost cap of $135m (£107m at current exchange rate).
So unlike, say, McLaren, who made massive steps with a redesign in the summer, Mercedes have had to plan a 2024 car without being able to try some of the key aerodynamic ideas out on track.
“I do believe we have a North Star now,” Hamilton says. “Which I don’t think we’ve had for two years. But still getting there is not a straight line.
“And there were just certain things, decisions that have been made, that just left you blocked at the end of a road, and you can’t do anything because of the cost cap and all these different things.
“If you look at the Red Bull – and they have done an amazing job – from Bahrain last year, they had a bouncing issue and they fixed it that week. And then you can imagine, if you’re trying to build a wall, they are one brick after the other, just development, development, development.
“Maybe they added something and it didn’t add performance. But they were still building. Whereas for us, we had to knock down the wall, if you like, in terms of aero.
“We had a lot of aero on that first car last year. We had to basically knock a ton of downforce off it and then slowly try to add. But every time we tried to add, it was worse. So we just didn’t improve for a long, long, long time.
“I think we understand the car so much better. They have developed great tools in the background. So, naturally, I’m hopeful. But I’m not going to hold my breath.”
Even with a ‘North Star’ now, Hamilton says the past two years have knocked the team’s confidence.
“You can imagine they are also nervous of making too big a change and it being the wrong one,” he says. “And we have higher targets than ever before because we’ve got a massive gap to close. That makes it really tricky.”
‘It’s collective; it’s not just one person’
At Mercedes, this has not just been a difficult year on the track. Their struggles have led to fundamental changes inside the team, at the very highest levels.
Inevitably, when they started poorly for the second consecutive year – and both Hamilton and team principal Toto Wolff said at the first race that the team needed a fundamental change in their approach to car design, attention turned to technical director Mike Elliott.
He had been promoted to that role in the summer of 2021 as the previous incumbent – the highly rated James Allison – moved into a wider role as chief technical officer.
But in April it was announced that Elliott and Allison were swapping roles, bringing Allison back to have overall responsibility for F1 design. There was widespread scepticism at the insistence from the team it had been Elliott’s idea. And in October, Mercedes announced Elliott was leaving.
Hamilton says: “It’s important for people to know that I wasn’t part of Mike’s departure. I’ve known Mike since I was at McLaren. I had a great relationship with Mike. I was always in awe of him, because he’s so smart and I was learning so much from him.
“When I asked him about the car, there was nothing I could ever ask him that he didn’t have an answer for.
“It’s always difficult for someone in his position. It often falls on them, but it’s collective. It’s not just one person. Unfortunately, there are people that maybe from the outside would be like: ‘It’s one person’s fault.'”
As for Allison’s return – two years after he said he was moving upstairs because he felt he had had his time at the coalface of day-to-day F1 design – Hamilton says: “James has got that leader mentality. He’d be at the front with the sword saying: ‘Let’s go into the fire.’ And I think he does instil massive confidence in people.
“He’s so eloquent. I’m really happy that he’s back and he’s inspired to get back in. I know where he was previously; he wasn’t inspired to keep going because he’d been doing it for so long.
“So it’s cool that he’s come back and he’s driven and I think our friendship is in a better place than ever before.”
‘I do have faith we’ll get there’
In the middle of the 2023 season, Hamilton had to negotiate a new two-year contract, for his existing one was running out at the end of the year.
He and Wolff have always insisted there was never any question he would leave the team, despite the odd newspaper story that popped up from time to time. And Hamilton confirms that, when asked whether there was ever a moment he wasn’t sure he could handle another two years of this.
“No, not when we were doing negotiations,” he says. “I do have faith that we will get there.”
His motivation for the future, he says, is multi-faceted – from winning the eighth world title of which he believes he was robbed in Abu Dhabi in 2021, when former race director Michael Masi failed to follow the rules correctly; to working to improve diversity in motorsport, with Mercedes, and through his Mission 44 foundation; and other areas.
“Winning the world championship is a huge part of that drive,” Hamilton says. “Continuing to build with the team in terms of the impact work we’re doing, continuing to push with the team with Mission 44.
“I don’t know how far that can go and I’m trying to expand it, and that means I’ve got to raise more money. I’ve gotta build more of a team if I’m going to do more work in Brazil, for example, in Africa. Getting a grand prix in Africa is huge.”
On this last point, Hamilton says he is “not necessarily” directly involved but is “constantly speaking to” F1 chairman Stefano Domenicali “and just trying to be a good ally, because he’s got a great heart, great intentions and a good vision”. He says he is “just trying to help him in any way I can”.
‘It’s by no means easy to stay at your best’
Hamilton’s new contract will ensure that he is in F1 past his 40th birthday – something five years or so ago he said he could not envisage.
He explains his change of heart like this: “What you’ve got to learn is you should never say never. But at that point, I definitely didn’t think I’d be continuing. They are frickin’ long seasons. It’s a long time away from everyone. I’ve been doing it 16 years. It’s gruelling.
“There’s a lot of glitz and glamour and lots of positives but it’s by no means easy to stay at your best, to stay committed, to keep up the training, to continue to deliver. It’s a lot of pressure.
“You’re being scrutinised all the time and I’m in a place in my life where there’s no way I can win.
“If I win a race, it’s: ‘Oh, he’s a seven-time world champion, you got 103 wins.’ If I don’t do well, it’s [criticism]… I can only lose at this point in life. So for sure there was a period of time when I was questioning whether I wanted to go through that.”
Now, though, he says: “I still love driving. I still love getting into the car. When they start the car up and you have all those people around you, the crew, you go down the pit lane, I still get this smile on my face the same as I did the first day I drove.”
And he says he has been happy with his performances this year, especially in the races.
He was threatening the second Red Bull driver Sergio Perez for second place in the championship until a bad run of races towards the end of the season, starting with his disqualification from second place in the US Grand Prix after his and Mercedes’ most competitive showing of the season.
And he has comfortably outscored team-mate George Russell. Between them, they secured Mercedes second place behind Red Bull in the constructors’ championship.
“Most of my race performances have been really good,” he says. “So that, I am happy with – building back up to the level I should be.”
Qualifying – traditionally one of Hamilton’s strongest points – he is not as happy with. Hamilton and Russell are effectively neck-and-neck over the year. Russell is very slightly ahead on their head-to-head and, with the closest gap between team-mates in the field, was on average quicker by just 0.004secs over the season.
“Qualifying is still an area that needs to be improved,” Hamilton says. “We struggle as a team getting the performance out of these tyres and you’ll notice there was one weekend where George would be massively off and I’d be OK, and then it switched the other way. And those are down to small details with the car.”
‘Max is just chilling at the front’
In Abu Dhabi last weekend, moments after he had finished the final race of the season in a disappointing ninth place, Hamilton admitted he was happy never to have to race this Mercedes again.
But as he looks to next year with the hope the team can turn it around, optimism is tempered by how far Mercedes have to go to catch the team who displaced them as the dominant force in F1.
On Sunday, Wolff likened it to climbing Everest. And when we spoke earlier in the weekend, Hamilton said he believed world champion Max Verstappen had only rarely had to show his true potential this year.
“You can go through the lap times and some of the data from Max; he is just chilling at the front more often than not,” Hamilton says. “I don’t think he has broken a sweat during the year.
“Even when we were chasing him in Austin, I don’t think he was sweating. I think he was just able to control it. And when you are in that position where you have performance and can back off, the car goes further. The tyres go longer and you are in a sweet spot and it is amazing to be in that place.
“Ultimately, they have done an amazing job and worked and deserve it.”
‘There’s a huge amount of pressure on all of us’
The same could have been said about Hamilton and Mercedes not so long ago. Now, having fallen from their pedestal, the team are desperate to claw their way back.
Two seasons has been bad enough, but through this year it has been evident that for both Wolff and Hamilton, it has also been more than long enough. Both had moments when the strain was clearly telling.
How much pressure is on Wolff and the team to get it right next year?
“A huge amount of pressure, for sure,” Hamilton says. “Not just Toto, but globally, for all of us. Everyone back at the factory, a huge amount of pressure on everyone.
“Ultimately, as a boss like Toto, you have to start leaning on people more, rather than backing off on them. And how you do that is not easy, because people break at a certain point.
“So how do you do it in a constructive way that’s encouraging them and inspiring them to continue?
“For me, hopefully some of the race results and drives that I’ve been able to put in, I like to think that sparks inspiration for the guys, like: ‘Oh, we’re almost there.’ And that trickles down through the whole system like: ‘Oh, he’s still got it – if we work hard and give him the car, he’s going to take us there.’
“That’s what I strive to be able to try to do.” – bbc.com