The rest of the Formula One field take note: Lewis Hamilton is back, and he feels good in his skin again.
After a 2011 season marked by personal troubles – a very public break-up with girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger, and tensions surrounding the firing of his manager father, Anthony – and several ragged outings on track that saw Hamilton finish a disappointing fifth overall, things are different this year for the 2008 world champion, both on and off the track.
“Well, I’ve always just said that I was waiting to try and get all the pieces of the puzzle into the right place, getting my life into gear, getting things organized,” said a smiling Hamilton, who was relaxed and comfortable talking about his personal turnaround.
“I had a lot of bad years. There were certain things that weren’t right. It took a lot longer to get them right and sorted. I think probably the relationship with my family has made the biggest difference.”
Hamilton wouldn’t go into detail when asked to elaborate and and only said: “It’s just better. It was okay before, but it’s just incredible now.”
Scherzinger is also back in his life, cheering him on from the McLaren hospitality area during Sunday’s 70-lap race at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, where the reinvigorated 27-year-old McLaren driver got back onto the top step of the podium. It was a cool, calculated performance reminiscent of his maiden F1 win on the same track in 2007.
Coincidentally, his first victory of 2012 came in the race where he surpassed his hero and F1 legend Ayrton Senna in starts with the famed McLaren team. Three-time world champion Senna raced 96 times for McLaren between 1988 and 1993. He died in a high-speed crash in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola while driving for Williams.
While Hamilton hadn’t won until Sunday, the season hasn’t exactly been terrible for the British driver. The McLaren ace had two poles and four podiums in six starts prior to Montreal, where his win vaulted him from fourth to first in the championship standings. He now has 88 points. Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso is second with 86, with Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel third on 85. Drivers get 25 points for a win.
Known for his aggressive and uncompromising style, the old Hamilton may have simply squeezed the steering wheel a bit tighter in previous years and tried to force the issue on track. But the 2012 Hamilton saw no reason to change anything he was doing.
“There are a lot of races I’ve done in my life, and some of them even ones that I’ve won, where the actual race hasn’t been perfect,” he said.
“I’ve been happy in the moment, but afterward when I’ve looked at the race I realize I could have been better ... genuinely this year I’ve finished all my races feeling I’ve got absolutely everything out of my car. I’ve been well measured, I don’t think I’ve made any silly manoeuvres, not missed any apexes – so I’ve been a lot happier with the driving.”
That said, Hamilton readily admitted the team had lost a lot of points together and feels that all things being equal, McLaren should be in the championship lead by quite a comfortable margin.
Like all teams in F1 this year, McLaren continues to search for the right recipe to get the Pirelli tires working at their best on race weekends. The learning curve has been steep, as evidenced by the record seven different winners in the first seven races of 2012.
While it’s an ongoing struggle, Hamilton doesn’t believe the tires are the toughest challenge he’s faced in his career because, he said, every year poses challenges and difficulties in its own way. This year, it’s the tires that have them working overtime.
“It’s like having money and deciding how you spend it,” he said, peeling bills off an imaginary wad in his hand and dealing them into piles on the table.
“It’s the same with the tires. You have a certain amount of money on the tires, and you can spend it really quick, which means you have to do three pits stops, or you spend it slower, and give yourself two pits stops. Sometimes you just don’t know which way will work.”
In a season where a driver can be fastest in Friday practice and then see everything go pear-shaped in the grand prix on Sunday, it would be easy to let frustration set in when the car’s performance doesn’t meet expectations.
The key to Hamilton keeping things positive is the mindset he’s been taking into race weekends this year.
“You can’t come out and say ‘right, this weekend we are gonna be on pole and win’ because if it doesn’t work like that it knocks you hard,” he said.
“You’ve just got to be very open-minded, and know that so many things can happen. It could go badly on Saturday and good in the race, like it did for Jenson [Button] in Montreal last year, or good on Saturday and bad in the race. Like I said, you’ve just got to be open-minded.”
Although Hamilton had what some might have considered a slow start to the season, it certainly hasn’t stopped the F1 rumour mill from grinding. Several reports have him joining at least three different teams in 2013 after his deal with McLaren runs out at the end of this year.
While a move may be on the cards for Hamilton, it’s not foremost in his thoughts.
“At the moment, I can’t imagine not being with McLaren: I’ve been here longer than a lot of the other people in the team, since I was 13,” he said, referring to his signing as a development driver with the team when he was a kart racer.
“The thing is that I have a job to do at the moment. I’m just 100 per cent focused on that. I don’t have to distract myself, take myself away from my training, take that stress and pressure right now. The most important thing is that I continue to do a good job.”
Staying on top of the standings will mean battling his old rival and two-time world champion Alonso, who was Hamilton’s McLaren teammate when the Briton broke into F1 in 2007. They soon developed an acrimonious rivalry that ended with Alonso leaving the team after only one season. The pair ended 2007 tied in points and their battle allowed Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen to come up the middle and win the world championship by a single marker.
The frostiness continued after Alonso began a two-year stint at Renault in 2008 before he signed with Ferrari in 2010.
But in step with the rest of his life, things with his old foe have calmed of late. The relationship, Hamilton said, has been good for some time, but it hasn’t been reported or openly visible.
“My respect for him and the respect he has for me is a lot more than people realize,” he said. “Before I got to F1 I was watching him and pushing him on, and I was elated for him when he won both his titles. When I became his team-mate at McLaren I was so excited: ‘I’m gonna race Fernando Alonso – but I want to beat him.’”
Some things, it seems, never change.