Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Lewis Hamilton goes in search of greatness at Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton during the Mercedes F1 W04 Launch at Circuito de Jerez, Jerez, Spain
Lewis Hamilton during the Mercedes F1 W04 Launch at Circuito de Jerez, Jerez, Spain

He has got a new dog, a new plane and a dramatic new challenge in his Formula One career. And now with his feet comfortably under the table at Mercedes following his shock departure from McLaren at the end of 2012, Lewis Hamilton is ready to go after the greatness he yearns for.

 

"That's what all of us drivers seek," he says. "We want to be The One. I was The One for a short period of time, then I was toppled over by Sebastian Vettel. I want to be at the forefront. Michael [Schumacher] was seen as a great, as are Sebastian and Fernando Alonso. I don't want to be just one of the 'awesome' ones, I want to be a great too. And it's the perfect time." He pauses, then laughs. "I'm 28, so I'm getting on…

"When I'm sensible about it, I realise that I have quite a lot of time left, so it doesn't have to come immediately. I've got time. I don't know what the key to greatness is, but for me, moving to Mercedes was the way forward."

Hamilton has bounced cheerfully into the British Racing Drivers' Club on a dreary March afternoon when his smile is the only warm thing in sight, and gives chirpy greetings to his audience of reporters before immediately ribbing some of them over their uncharacteristic sartorial elegance.

The smile is genuine, as if now that he has left the university of McLaren, through whose system virtually all of his education was conducted, what he calls his "first job" has liberated the inner man.

His first experience of Mercedes's new W04 contender could scarcely have been worse, after brake failure led to a minor crash in Jerez early in February. Yet after stepping from the car later that week he said he had never been happier.

"I've just been on a nice curve and there were times last year when I said the same thing," he expands. "I've never been in a nicer place. I've been going from strength to strength and keeping myself out of trouble, which helps! I'm absolutely 100 per cent confident and happy with the decision I made."

He laughs outright when reminded that many believe he decamped to Mercedes for the money, and points out that he would have earned more had he stayed at McLaren. But he admits that there are times when he still has to disconnect the McLaren link. "I've still been saying, 'We did this last year' when I meant, 'McLaren did this last year'. I forget that 'we' is now me and Mercedes, not me and McLaren. But I'm kind of getting used to that."

Just as there is caution in his prediction about Mercedes's likely performance, it is also there when he is asked to make comparisons between his old and new teams. "McLaren were massively hungry, that's the great thing about them. They're one of the top teams and they are always hungry every year, so I never once ever had a feeling they weren't. But there's just a different kind of hunger here."

And the less clinical environment chez Mercedes seems to have created his current joie de vivre. He loves the new structure, where he is free to do and say what he likes, and the relationships are building nicely in the honeymoon period.

"I'm just happier where I am, it's a new environment and it's a new group of people. I like the way it's structured. I can spread my wings more." Reading between the lines, he is able to be himself.

Right now, Mercedes are seen as the dark horses who could surprise in Melbourne next weekend. That may simply be down to running lower fuel loads during testing than rivals such as Red Bull or Ferrari, which Hamilton quickly concedes.

His cheerfulness is that of a man who thinks that he can win, and if it isn't that, then it's because things are a lot less bad than he might reasonably have expected following a catastrophic performance by Mercedes last season.

"I think we will impress this year, whether it's at the beginning or later on," he says. "I really believe in this team. As I've begun to meet all the guys and spoken to them, I get more and more excited. It's a beautiful place to be. They haven't had success for a long time so they're enthusiastic, not cocky, they just know they've got to work really hard."

The fact that the two top-line Britons are now in different camps will create further interest in 2013, but Hamilton makes it clear he is not really bothered about what his old team-mate Jenson Button does. "The thing with Jenson doesn't really excite me," he claims. "The rivalry between me and Fernando excites me more. I always say that, because he's the benchmark.

"I think he's one of the most experienced guys now and the fastest driver that I can see. Put anyone next to him and they'll struggle. You've got to try and stay ahead of him in a Ferrari that's competitive, that's going to be a real challenge. I haven't seen much of the Ferrari on track, but he's going to be competitive this year."

The road to greatness will require Hamilton to win one or two World Championships during the tenure of his Mercedes contract. "If I don't win one I won't see it as a failure," he says. "But my target is to win as many as possible."

In Melbourne's Albert Park next weekend he will find out just how realistic his aspirations are.

Hamilton's Aussie Grands Prix

2007 Hamilton qualified a superb fourth for his first grand prix, with similar pace to McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso. He led on two occasions and finished third, behind Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen and Alonso, in one of F1's most assured debuts.

2008 In what turned out to be his World Championship year, he took pole and had an easy, unchallenged victory over BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica and Heikki Kovalainen.

2009 In an uncompetitive McLaren he qualified 15th and was dropped to 20th by a gearbox-change penalty. He was disqualified for misleading stewards about duping Jarno Trulli into passing him on a safety-car lap.

2010 Qualified 11th after struggling but took feisty sixth despite collision with Mark Webber's Red Bull. Jenson Button won in his second drive for McLaren. Hamilton was fined for a wheelspin start in his road car.

2011 Hamilton qualified second and beat Button as both chased after Sebastian Vettel's faster Red Bull. Hamilton finished second, albeit 22.3sec adrift. Button was sixth.

2012 Hamilton and Button locked out the front row, with the former on pole. But Button controlled the race, making better use of new Pirelli tyres. Hamilton was third, delayed behind Sergio Perez after a pit stop.

David Tremayne

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