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Hamilton: “Leaving McLaren for Mercedes was the best decision of my life”

Hamilton: “Leaving McLaren for Mercedes was the best decision of my life”

We spoke to the five times World Champion in China about what it was like to be a young F1 driver, whether he’ll chase the Triple Crown and how important working with the engineers is.

Lewis Hamilton is late to our interview, because he was told it was in a different building. After a firm handshake he takes a seat and tries the coffee that’s waiting for him on the table. “It’s horrible!” Disgusting coffee aside the five-times World Champion is a relaxed man. He’s 34 years old, says exactly what he thinks and no longer feels pressure. We talk about how it feels to be a young driver coming to F1 for the first time, what he’s learnt at Mercedes and what he will, or won’t, do when he gets out of a Formula 1 car for the final time.

What it feels like to be a young F1 driver

But first of all we discuss how he seemed to be particularly affected by Leclerc’s bad luck in Bahrein, where a short-circuit in an injection system control unit denied the driver from Monaco his first Gran Prix win. Hamilton admits to feeling extreme empathy for the 21-year old because, “I’ve been in this for a long time and I know how it feels when you get your first pole position and you win your first race”. The British driver says he knows exactly what it’s like to be that young, and although some might have reached an age at which they forget how it felt, that’s certainly not the case with him. As to racing against drivers who were still boys when he was already winning races, Hamilton laughs: “They’re still boys”.

What advice did the younger version of himself need? He says simply that if he could go back in time to talk to himself when he was 22, to tell that Hamilton what he knows now, he reckons he would have won the World title in his first and second years, without any trouble. And he’d probably have won in 2009 as well. The other years he didn’t win it no advice would have helped him, in his opinion, as he didn’t have a car capable of taking the title.

No pressure now for Hamilton

For Lewis Hamilton pressure is a thing of the past. According to him, after a certain point of pressure and stress and the ups and downs of racing he suddenly just didn’t feel it anymore, having reached an age where he feels comfortable and doesn’t worry about what other people think about him. “People can say what they want, I’ll keep doing the job I do”, he says, clearly proud of having launched his own clothing brand and doing, as he says, what’s right for him.

Formula 1 remains Hamilton’s main passion. “I love competing, I like getting the most out of the car from one weekend to the next and going back to the workshop to carry on working”, he says and highlights just how much he’s involved with the engineers in tuning and tweaking the car. He says its great seeing how things evolve as the races develop. Laughing he says he often tells the engineers “I told you so” when he’s proved right about the car. “Because the engineers are really bright, but when you show them they’re wrong…”

Hamilton has no plans to retire yet, but says he no longer has any dreams to fulfil in Formula 1, “just objectives”. Like what? Improve his connection with the engineers, the performance of the car… Again he highlights just how important his work with the engineers is, and how at Mercedes the drivers themselves are key to the process of improving the car.

Moving from McLaren to Mercedes

A key question: how important was it to leave McLaren and join Mercedes when you did (in 2013)? Hamilton thinks before answering that he doesn’t know if he’d still be driving if he’d stayed where he was. And after a pause: “I definitely wouldn’t have won any more world titles”. But he compares the situation to that of LeBron James, asking if the basketball  player would have won as many titles if he hadn’t gone to Miami, if he’d stayed at Cleveland.

“People talk about Senna, how he was in an incredible team. McLaren was the best and when he won those titles they had an incredible car. But sport’s like that: when you have a strong team the drive and team can beat everyone. It was the best decision of my life, but it wasn’t by chance”, says Hamilton.

One thing the driver from Stevenage, just north of London, is sure about is how little he cares about the Triple Crown of Motorsport (winning the Indianapolis 500, the Le Mans 24 hour and the Monaco Grand Prix or under some versions the F1 World Championship), which Fernando Alonso is currently chasing, needing just the Indie 500 to complete the Crown. Hamilton says it “couldn’t be any smaller on my radar”.

The other motorsport disciplines simply don’t appear to interest him much and he definitely won't be off endurance racing or indycar when he retires. When he does give up F1, which he admits will be terribly hard to do, he’ll spend a lot of time “riding motorbikes, but just for fun”.