I was lucky enough to be at Silverstone last Wednesday, to spend the day with McLaren, driving the 650 bhp Mercedes SLR and being driven in it by the reigning world champion.
This was part of the Lewis Hamilton British media rehabilitation exercise, particularly targetted at the Fleet Street guys after things got a bit out of control post the Melbourne-lying-to-stewards business.
Hamilton got pretty wound up by some of the coverage and initially tried a route of non co-operation, but then recently the team has changed tack and this day at Silverstone was a way of hitting the reset button. He spent most of the day there and was very affable, even to some journos he’d been monosyllabic with a month ago.
It’s all a giant game, with the press, and you just have to accept that and learn how to play it. Nigel Mansell was the same and Damon Hill too. The advantage they had was that they were far more mature than Hamilton at the time they had to deal with it and also they had both had a life before becoming famous. Hamilton has had a lot to come to terms with this year; an uncompetitive car as well as question marks against his integrity, so troubles with the press are perhaps the easiest to fix of his problems.
Damon Hill was there too on Wednesday and made the astute observation that for a British driver at the British Grand Prix, “It is difficult not being competitive at Silverstone.”
Hamilton wowed the journos with his sublime car control on a miserably wet day. I went first because they did it alphabetically and so it was a voyage of discovery as much for the driver as it was for the passenger on the shiny wet track. I can honestly say that the car was rarely pointing straight, apart from on the Hangar Straight. The rest of the time it was fishtailing around, as we hit the standing water at tremendous speed.
Afterwards we were offered a cup of tea and a scone (yes, really) in the BRDC clubhouse and Lewis gave us his views on what it will be like racing at his home Grand Prix with no chance of winning.
What is your target for the British Grand Prix?
“Points are the goal for us, you have to adjust from last year where we were targeting the win. Now it’s a struggle to get into the points and you can see how close it is. To score a couple of points would be good, I haven’t scored for a couple of races now.”
Last year the fans were cheering you on to the win, this year it will be Jenson Button. How do you feel about that?
“I’m already egging him on. Maybe I should put some money on him! It will be a proud moment to have a fellow Brit win, but then I will understand exactly what he is feeling. I’ll know what he’s going through — the feeling he’s getting from the fans and fulfilling his lifelong dream of winning at Silverstone. Is this more special than winning Monaco? Yes. Winning Monaco was very special for me with the way it all went it was such a fulfilling race, then you have other wins which are not as exciting.”
It’s been a while since your last win. How has life changed?
“I didn’t expect to change. Everyone said to me, ‘When you win things either get harder or easier.’ What I wanted was to go into my third year and go with the same approach and double up and be better than I was last year, with less mistakes and fight for the championship. I arrived and I couldn’t do that, then a wave of different things happened, but I would definitely say that I’m enjoying myself now as much as I ever have.”
How tough is it to accept not being competitive?
“I think I’ve always known how to deal with it all but it’s about knowing how to accept it. I won’t accept that the car is not quick enough, keep pushing, keep pushing, but then you have to accept that this is probably around the place you are gong to finish, But you keep pushing and keep your mind in a certain readiness for the potential to win. It makes you stronger, it’s not all about running at the front. ”
Isn’t it hard to lose as a champion?
“Not really, because I’d be sitting here and you’d be saying, ‘Could you have done it?’ Could you still do it I’ve proved I can do it. In 2007 I nearly won the world championship. It was only because my car stopped in the last race on the second lap that I didn’t have the chance to score the points I needed. Last year I got in and finished the job, despite all the trouble we had with points being taken away and penalties here and there. It was a disaster full of dramas all year, But to have it and know I have a world championship in the bag is a good stepping stone, a good foundation for me to build upon.
So you’ll be wanting it to rain, to give you a chance?
“No. I won’t be able to turn my tyres on in the wet, so it might be worse for me in the wet.”
It looks like no more GP at Silverstone, but it could be no more GP in Britain, what do you think about that?
“F1 would never be the same without a British GP. Personally I think it’s out of the question. I don’t know how they can even think about it.
“Last year was incredible for me, I don’t know how we won by a minute and eights seconds but it was a very special day. This one coming up I’m just going to make sure I enjoy it and embrace the fans that I have here, because they were so supportive last year. I could see them every time I came past they were cheering and waving the flags. It was soaking wet, raining non stop.
Where do you stand on the old tracks/new tracks debate?
“You don’t feel the same excitement as you do on the old circuits. Silverstone has such a great heritage and the way that the track is laid out is unique, it has such a high speed combination of corners. When you drive here you are flat out all over the place, you don’t brake until turn seven at Stowe, then you come back here into the last complex and there is always a chance to lose it and go off into the gravel. It’s a technically demanding circuit.”