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Lewis Hamilton: ‘You have to be the smarter one’ when racing Max Verstappen for F1 title

“You just have to be very, very wary – more wary than ever before,” Lewis Hamilton says.

The seven-time Formula 1 champion is talking about the challenge of racing wheel to wheel with Max Verstappen in their epic title battle this year.

Red Bull driver Verstappen has combined consummate skill with uncompromising aggression in a cocktail Hamilton has not faced before, at least not with this much at stake.

“Rather than giving someone the benefit of the doubt, you have to know that’s what’s going to happen,” Hamilton says.

“So you always have to be ready to avoid a collision at all costs, [even] if it means going wide, because you want to see the end of the race, right? If you’re stubborn and you hold your ground, you’re going to crash.

“So that’s what I’ve just tried to do. I’ve tried to make sure I avoid the collision. And I think I’ve been pretty decent at it in most scenarios. You can’t always get it perfect.”

Verstappen is just one topic Hamilton discusses in a wide-ranging interview as the title fight heads towards its climax, with eight points separating them and two races to go. The others include:

  • The ethics of racing
  • His personal relationship with Verstappen
  • Struggles with the Mercedes car
  • Why he made it to F1 as the sport’s only black driver
  • The challenges of Covid
  • The future

‘You have to be the smarter one’

The battle with Verstappen is epochal, with Hamilton aiming for a record-breaking eighth world title, and the Dutchman his first – an achievement that would mark the end of an era of Mercedes domination.

It’s a contest that will be remembered for years to come, and the season has been marked by a series of flashpoints between the two drivers, wheel-to-wheel battles in which their different approaches to racing have been laid bare.

On the first laps of the Emilia-Romagna, Spanish and Italian Grands Prix, Hamilton took avoiding action, choosing to back out of a situation when he felt “it just wasn’t going to work out, but obviously he nearly ran us out of road,” as he puts it now.

Verstappen, by contrast, has become known for never backing down, even in situations when other drivers might have.

At the recent Sao Paulo Grand Prix, this approach led to controversy when he ran Hamilton off the track in a way some drivers believed was not allowed. The incident was not investigated by stewards – and that led to a lengthy discussion among the drivers at the last race in Qatar as they sought clarity on the guidelines for acceptable racing.

But there have been times, too, when Hamilton has not given way. They have collided twice – at the British and Italian Grands Prix. Hamilton was penalised for the first one; Verstappen for the second.

After the Silverstone incident, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner accused Hamilton of making a “reckless” and “amateur” move. Looking back, Hamilton says he has no regrets.

“If you’re on the outside of a car, backing out is the sensible option pretty much all the time in order to see the end of the race,” he says. “If you’re on the inside, there are scenarios where I truly believe I was in the right, [when] I’m almost wheel to wheel with the car.

“At Silverstone, for example. Go and look at the footage. My front wheel was alongside his front wheel, so it wasn’t like my wheel was next to his rear wheel going in.

“And in that scenario, if I had taken the approach [Max did] for example [in Brazil], just stayed on the gas and gone off track and then kept position, what would the scenario have been there? Would they have looked into the rules there?

“But anyways. I don’t mind being the one that… I am not too big or too successful to have to back out to fight another day. I know that is sometimes the route you have to take. You have to be the smarter one.

“And sometimes you lose points in doing that, for sure, but it’s not just about me. I have 2,000 people behind me and through that selfish decision I could make – ‘No, I’m going to hold my ground’ and don’t finish – that costs all my team potential bonuses at the end of the year, all the hard work they have to do, the damage of the car. I am conscious of those things also.”

He admits, though, that the calculations involved are different as the season ebbs and flows. Silverstone came after five consecutive Red Bull wins, over which time Verstappen built up a 32-point championship lead.

“It has just been different scenarios,” Hamilton says. “I wouldn’t say I have necessarily had to change my approach but I would say definitely there has been a need to gain points – and you have to get a little bit less willing to give up too much, because bit by bit you are losing more points as the season goes on. I was quite far behind in points at that time.”

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton presses the flesh as a junior racer in 2006, aged 21

‘I was bullied, and wanted to beat them the right way’

Views of the Silverstone incident vary. Regardless, over his 15 years in F1, Hamilton has earned a reputation for being a tough racer but a fair one. He says it is something that was instilled in him from an early age.

“It’s just how my dad raised me,” he says. “He said to always do your talking on the track.

“I was bullied as a kid, both at school but also on track, and we wanted to beat them the right way, not by a car falling off or colliding with a car.

“Then there is no denying that you’re better. If you have collisions, they can say, ‘Oh, yeah, but this happened, this is one tactic that that driver has’.

“I want to be the purest of drivers, through speed, through sheer hard work and determination, so there’s no denying at the end what I’ve accomplished.”

Hamilton says he has spent time trying to understand why Verstappen races the way he does.

“He’s not the only driver I’ve raced against that’s like this,” he says. “I’ve raced so many drivers in my time and they’ve all been very different in the way they behave. And it’s interesting.

“Now I’m older, I look a little bit deeper into their character and a bit of their background, upbringing. Our upbringing is why we act out the way we do and behave the way we do, good or bad. So I try to understand those so I can have more appreciation of who that character is I am racing with.”

Lewis Hamilton
Verstappen, right, has been one of Hamilton’s hardest opponents over his 14-year F1 career

‘Max is super fast and he’s going to get stronger’

The closeness of the battle between Hamilton and Verstappen has created a tense relationship between their two teams. Accusations and counter-accusations have flown back and forth through the season.

But apart from the immediate aftermath of the Silverstone crash, when Verstappen accused Hamilton of being disrespectful, there has been no obvious personal animosity between the two drivers. Hamilton says the impression reflects the reality, at least from his side.

“I can’t speak for him. I’ve raced against people who’ve shown something on one face but actually it’s something different,” Hamilton says. “I don’t know if that’s the case on the other side.

“For me, look, I’m 36. I’ve been doing this a long time so it’s not the first time I’ve been faced with a driver that’s been good and bad in certain ways and I think I’m in just a much better position to be able to handle that, to deal with that. Particularly in the limelight and the pressures of the sport.

“I know that he’s a super-fast guy, and he’s going to get stronger and stronger as he matures over time. Which he will no doubt do.

“Look at myself when I was 24, 25. Jeez, the mistakes I was making back then. I had the speed but I was going through a lot of different experiences outside the car and also being in the limelight – the pressures of being at the front.

“I don’t think I did much right then so I don’t hold that against anybody.”

Lewis Hamilton
Mercedes have won the constructors’ championship every season since 2014

‘This car is a monster of a diva’

Hamilton has come on strong in the past two races in Brazil and Qatar, but there have been ups and downs this season as Mercedes have battled to understand a car that was more badly affected by rule changes over last winter than the Red Bull.

“I’ve generally been very happy with my commitment and my performance,” Hamilton says. “I would say I’ve been more committed than I’ve ever been. What I’ve noticed this year is that the car has been very, very hard to set up.”

He references 2017, when Mercedes were in a close battle with Ferrari and team boss Toto Wolff referred to their car as “a diva” because of the difficulty the team were finding getting the best performance out of it.

“This one is a monster of a diva,” Hamilton says. “It’s been harder to get the car in the right [set-up] window. And when you don’t get the car in the right window, you just limit your potential.

“So I’m just not able to maximise my ability through the set-up not being in the right place, and it’s been very, very hard to get it into the right place.

“In Brazil, I got the car exactly where I wanted. And that was like literally hitting the nail on the head. But we’ve done that maybe once or twice this year. Most of the time, we’re not optimising it.”

‘You hold your breath around everyone’

A season as closely contested as this tests its combatants to the limit, and those demands are further heightened this year by the need for F1 drivers to avoid contracting Covid-19 at all costs. Catch it, and they can’t compete until they test negative again.

“I would say the biggest part of the pressure has been the pandemic,” Hamilton says. “That’s really made a monumental difference in terms of the isolation, and knowing whether you can or can’t be around people. It’s been quite tough… I would say harder to find a balance in normal life, in and around your work life.”

It’s the second year in which F1 drivers have faced this challenge, but Hamilton says it has been tougher than 2020 because of the length of the season.

“Last year was all squeezed and compact, right? And so while that six months was difficult, this is the whole year of it, so I would say it’s worse this year.

“In some places, they are relaxing the rules and then it’s so easy to let your guard down and find yourself in trouble. So just constantly keeping it on your mind.

“And my social interaction is different to how it was in the past, because you keep your distance from everyone, hold your breath around everyone. So it’s definitely, I would say, much, much harder.

“I would say having the experience last year, [I’ve] maybe managed it a little bit better this year, but you still live in fear, you know?

“Everyone I see around me, all my friends, most people – maybe not people in my sport, but everyone outside in their businesses – if they miss a day of work, or a week of work, it’s not the year over, whereas it’s critical for us drivers.

“The year can be over if you miss one or two races. I’ve seen other sportsmen that are also super-relaxed and don’t care. If they get it, they get it, and it’s been really strange seeing that. But that’s made it difficult.”

Hamilton missed the penultimate race of last season after testing positive. Eight months later, after the Hungarian Grand Prix in August, he said he was still struggling with fatigue and believed he had long Covid. But he says that is now behind him.

“The first half of the season was one of the toughest I would say, that I’ve had,” Hamilton says. “But right now I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time. So somehow I’ve managed to push through it.

“I’ve really focused on recovery and training, breathing techniques. I was just running the other day, feeling better than ever.

“In the last few races, with the heat and everything, because I’ve been able to train and push my body a little bit further now, particularly since the break, I’ve not had any problems in the races and I’m really grateful for that. I feel like it’s gone, thank God.”

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton wore a rainbow design helmet at the last race in Qatar

‘I am a real fighter – on the track and in real life’

Hamilton says that his work this year on the commission he set up to analyse the causes of the lack of diversity in motorsport has been invaluable in allowing him to refresh his mind in between races.

“When you’re trying to figure out what to apply your time and effort towards, sometimes you’re putting into something that doesn’t give anything back, right? Or it doesn’t have any long-lasting impact, it doesn’t have any real purpose,” he says.

“So, to finally find something that has real purpose and real potential [to] change the industry and for people, that feels super rewarding. To be able to focus on something other than racing, it’s great. It takes the pressure right off.”

Launching the commission’s report earlier this year, Hamilton said his panel of experts had found that the lack of role models was one of the reasons for the limited progression of black students into engineering. The same applies to Hamilton when he was trying to make his way in motorsport. So what made him believe he could make it where other black kids had not?

“That’s a really good question,” he says. “I guess I was very, very lucky to have that in my DNA. I am a real fighter, not only on the track but in real life.

“I got bullied by multiple kids; I’d still fight back, you know? I don’t run away. I think you never arrive in a class and think: ‘I’m different so I should be treated differently,’ regardless of whether that is the case.

“It’s a difficult one to really pinpoint. I watched Ayrton Senna, and I don’t see him any different to me, while he is obviously different.

“Like all the kids out there, I see Superman, I don’t see that he’s white and doesn’t look like me. I just see him as an awesome character that goes around and saves people, right?

“But of course things are highlighted as you do grow and start to become more consciously aware of your surroundings and how you fit in or don’t fit in. But my dad believed that I belonged, so we just focused on racing.”

George Russell
George Russell – currently at Williams – is considered to be one of the best drivers of on the grid

‘I really want to see George succeed’

The next two and a half weeks will determine whether Hamilton ends the year as champion again.

Win or lose, he will be back again next year for another crack – he signed a new two-year Mercedes contract in the summer. Hamilton says races like Brazil, where he made up 25 places to recover from being disqualified from qualifying and a five-place grid penalty to win the grand prix, “really help solidify” his decision.

“It’s 10 years I’ve been with this team and one of my close friends and colleagues messaged me the other day and said: ‘You’ve got 2,000 people inspired here.’ And I went: ‘Wow, if I can still, after 10 years, inspire 2,000 people, then I’m in the right place and I still deserve the spot I have.’ That’s a good feeling.”

The environment at Mercedes will change next year, when George Russell replaces Valtteri Bottas as Hamilton’s team-mate.

Russell says he is looking forward to the challenge. Many expect the 24-year-old Briton to offer more of a threat to Hamilton than Bottas has for the past five years. Hamilton, though, is confident they will maintain a good relationship.

“You’ve seen George is hugely respectful,” he says. “He’s a super-talented young man and I think there’s a huge amount of respect already going in and we’ve got a nice balance at the moment.

“But he’s going to want to be quick, he’s going to want to show up and win, and do all those things that you do when you enter a new role.

“I remember in 2007 when I went up against [Fernando] Alonso. Of course I wanted to beat him at the first race, so I appreciate and expect George to have that mentality, otherwise he’s not a winner, you know?

“But I’m in a different place. I really want to see him succeed. There’s going to be a point where I don’t continue in this sport and, you know, he’s my team-mate and he’s gonna be the next Brit that I want to see win a world championship.

“So while we are going to be competing and I want to win on track, I really hope I can have a positive influence on how he conducts himself within the team, whether it’s the time he commits to engineering or how he churns through the data or even just how he drives on track.” –