When the dust settled at the Circuit of the Americas this year in a fine particulate veil of vulcanised rubber and exothermically vanquished high-octane fuel, Lewis Hamilton stood atop the podium as the three-time Formula One World Drivers’ Champion. The British racer joined that most rarefied breed of Champion who attains not only the pinnacle of their chosen art, but whom does so again, and again.
The dedication and discipline required for such an accomplishment more or less transcends hyperbole. The 30-year-old Hamilton has entered an extraordinary 166 Formula One Grand Prix at the time of writing, from which he has accomplished a staggering 86 podium finishes. While such a record would be impressive in any sport, in a pursuit where the drivers accelerate towards concrete walls to speeds beyond 220 miles per hour, then routinely brake with more than 5 g’s of force (for perspective, a Bugatti Veyron can brake at 1.3 g), there’s a “next-level” quality to F1 athletes that few other sports can speak to. If Roger Federer miscalculates he drops a shot. If Lewis Hamilton miscalculates he dies.
It is this factor that truly makes F1 drivers and their ilk unique. Yet while lesser, more timid mortals quake at the knees once their cars hit fifth gear, fear is not something Hamilton finds on the race track: “Honestly, it’s never anything I’ve had to deal with because I’ve never had any fear.” He tells me, “I never have any fear when I’m racing, whatsoever. I never have since I was eight years old. When I ride motorbikes I don’t have any fear. If I go skydiving I might be a little bit… I don’t think it’s fear, but I might feel something in my chest—my heart racing. Or when I’m cliff diving or something like that I feel a little bit of fear. That’s probably the only thing I did fear. Otherwise, when I’m racing I never have to think about it. I get in and I do it like I’m made for this.”
It would be easy to dismiss such claims as boastful and disingenuous—or worse—as indicators of a lack of imagination or intelligence. Yet Hamilton leaves me without the vaguest doubt of the truth in his words, and his conversation proves both delicate and thoughtful—utterly defying the easy assumption of a paucity of grey matter.
When I speak to Hamilton he is in Monte Carlo, and when his publicist puts me onto the call I catch a few tender notes of piano, assuming them at first to be the residue of a call-waiting service. I begin by asking Hamilton to describe his settings: “I’m just in my living room now. Sitting by the piano. The sun is just going down. There’s a cruise liner that is just on its way out. The sea is perfectly smooth. I’m looking over it, it’s fricking beautiful. So I’m at peace.”
The Buddha taught that: “There is no fear for one whose mind is not filled with desires.” But given the case of Hamilton, I can’t help but wonder whether the Buddha might have been forced to distinguish competitiveness from other worldly desires. Hamilton wrapped up the Championship this year with a full three races to spare. I ask him when he lets himself relax and celebrate:
“To be honest, everything keeps rolling so there’s not been a moment to sit and really enjoy it.” He explains, “Generally I don’t until I go on my holiday at the end of the year and I’m like, “Wow! What a year. We won the Championship.” At the moment, I’m still recovering from my last race and I’m thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to win this last race we’ve got?’ I want to win it so much. What have I got to do? Got to go for a run. Got to get myself in gear. Got to go to the factory tomorrow. Got to study the data from the last race. Got to figure out how I’m going to win this next one. That’s what my mind’s about right now.”
Hamilton’s a breed of zen apart from the usual cool-hand, grace-under-pressure that typifies most other incredibly calm and focused people that I’ve met, and he seems a world away from the playboy racer of his reputation. Hamilton strikes me more as the Niki Lauda archetype than the James Hunt—a racing driver personality divide explored on the silver screen in 2013’s Rush starring Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. Hunt—the 1976 World Champion—was famed for his flamboyant lifestyle and love of drinks, drugs, and women. Whereas his major competitor Lauda—another three-time World Champion—was the focused iceman, famously missing a mere three races after his car caught fire and his body was severely burnt during the 1976 German Grand Prix.
While the tabloids present Hamilton as a paid-up member of the Hunt school of F1 racer—a reputation amplified by his previous high-profile relationship with pop star Nicole Scherzinger, and his tabloid-claimed romantic connections to everyone from Rihanna to Kendall Jenner—my conversation with him angled him quite irresistibly towards the disciplined Lauda archetype. When I ask him about maintaining focus in the famously glamorous Monte Carlo, he tells me: “It’s just a home. I’m not surrounded by glitz and glamour. It’s not like it’s a big party scene or anything like that. I’m on the road all the time so it’s really important to be in a relaxing environment. Honestly, when I’m here, I’m just in my apartment, watching TV. I rarely go out here. I’ve actually never been out to a club here. I’ve been here for three years and I’ve been out to a couple of restaurants, but otherwise I get room service. I’m not here for huge lengths of time so it’s just chilling.”
The incredible physical demands of contemporary Formula One make it difficult to envision success for a driver lacking in discipline. I am shocked when Hamilton tells me that he lost four kilograms during the 72 laps of his most recent race in Brazil. “The last race PHEW, I’m telling you, it was one of the hardest of the year. So physical. At the end I was just…” Hamilton exhales a laugh, “The good thing is, you don’t want to finish the race and think, ‘Alright, I’ve got loads more energy but I finished second.’ I was second and I depleted everything that I have in my heart and my body because I wanted to win. So when I finished, I’ve come home and I’m like, ‘well, I did everything that I could.’ And it wasn’t like, ‘I could have done just one more rep.’”
In a nod to this, the [CTRL-C]+[CTRL-V] issue (which boasts his cover), I ask Hamilton about the fiercely guarded secrets of the different Formula One teams, and whether the sport should be more willing to embrace the age of open source. “It is the name of the game,” he tells me, “it always has been since [Juan Manuel] Fangio’s time, you know—who has the most advanced technology. Back then it was who had the best materials, who had the best engine, who had the best engineers. One team will do one thing better, the other team will do the other thing better. It’s a chase. It’s a race of innovation. In terms of what should be freed up to others, I have no idea. I’m a driver.”
The demands of Formula One are not merely physical, but intensely cerebral too. Much of Hamilton’s success comes from balancing his instincts and abilities against the highly technical guidance of his team. “I come from a normal town, I was never a university—like Harvard—pedigree.” Hamilton points out, “For the last nine years I’ve been working with Harvard and Oxford University students, and to be asked to communicate with those guys on their level, it took some time to understand and to grow. But engineers rely on numbers a lot of the time. 98% of the time they are all about numbers, statistics, and calculations, but the one thing, the one element which the driver has to bring in, is the common sense and instinct, and that’s something that I’ve never lost. When I’m setting up my car, the engineers will say: ‘Well, we should probably do this. This is what the computer says we should do.’ And I’ll be like, ‘Well, from my experience, this is actually what I need to do.’ And, ultimately that’s helped me achieve what I’ve achieved today.”
My interview with Hamilton is completely unhurried, in spite of it being one of at least two that he will be giving that day, and at all times he exudes a palpable calm—even over the telephone. My mind keeps returning to those lingering piano notes—to both the zen and the discipline required for such a dexterous form of gentle self-expression. Hamilton tells me that he has been playing music since he was thirteen, “That’s therapeutic. The most therapeutic thing that I have. I’d much rather be doing my music than sitting in the spa relaxing.” It’s a poignant insight into the finely tuned state of mind that must precede controlling a machine at impossible speeds—a glimpse of the calm before the storm of screeching rubber.
Photographer: Michael Muller for stocklandmartel.com
Stylist: Joshua Liebman for honey-artists.com
Groomer: Yuko Fredriksson at yukomakeupartist.com using Dermalogica
Photography Assistant: Chad Brooks
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Lewis Hamilton was featured in 2016 in Flaunt: A Few Favorites from a Fabulous Year