“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice. ”
An afternoon drizzle fell over the grounds of the Grande Prêmio do Brasil as the banshee wail of the fastest racecars in the world ricocheted through the team paddocks. It was November 2-the final lap of the last race of the 2008 Formula One season.
Ferrari's Felipe Massa, the race leader the entire day, gingerly negotiated the last succession of turns, clawing through a capricious mist onto the front straightaway. As he broke across the finish line, an impressive 13 seconds separating him from the rest of the field, his teammates exploded in a frenzied embrace. With the victory in the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, Massa had reclaimed Ferrari's rightful spot atop Formula One.
Or so the Italians thought.
When it rains, a racecar driver must adjust what he knows about the theoretical limit of a curve, then accelerate to it as close as he dares. For the last three Formula One seasons, no one has been better on a rain-soaked racetrack than 24-year-old Lewis Hamilton. Any remaining doubts were put to rest after last year's spectacular finish in Brazil.
As the celebration over Massa's victory grew in intensity, a lone member of the Ferrari pit crew peeled away from the group. "No," he muttered, staring at the screen showing the official race results. "No! No! No!" he shouted, frantically slapping the others-on their arms, shoulders, anywhere to get the team's attention. "No!" he implored. While it was true that Massa had won the race, he'd lost the championship-by one point, it turned out-to Hamilton, the young racing phenom from arch-rival team McClaren-Mercedes.
The disbelieving Italians fell silent, left only to wonder how it had happened. Then, an eruption of shattered glass as a team member threw his fist into a sign emblazoned with Ferrari's iconic rearing stallion.
Across the track, the McClaren-Mercedes team waited for the results to post. Hamilton had been the Formula One driver's points leader before the start of the race and needed to finish only fifth to become the youngest world champion ever. The watchword for this contest was caution-just finish it in one piece, the team instructed. But as Massa's Ferrari blasted past the waving checkered flag, Hamilton was stuck in sixth place-a spot that would hand the second-year driver a second-place finish in the world championship by a single point for the second agonizing season in a row.
A late-race rain shower, however, proved to be the difference maker. A few laps from the finish, just as the drizzle was starting to soak the track, Hamilton roared into the pits for a changeover to rain tires. Then it was back on the course in a desperate bid to regain lost ground. Wheel to wheel, Hamilton and the driver ahead of him battled through the final series of bends. They were inches apart as Hamilton cut round the last turn as close as possible, flicked a gear and accelerated past the other car-barely, breathlessly-to claim the world championship by the slimmest of margins.
Despite a tumultuous 2009 season that nearly destroyed Formula One, Hamilton has put his own abysmal start to the year in the rearview mirror. He scored his first win at the Hungarian Grand Prix in July, and in doing so served notice that McClaren-Mercedes will be back in the championship hunt next year.
Hamilton sat down with us in his adopted home city of Geneva to talk about his thrilling 2008 finish at the Brazilian Grand Prix, what's gone wrong in 2009 and his marketing agreement with Bombardier, which supplies him with free flights aboard Learjets in return for a certain number of public appearances each year.
Nothing was decided last season until that final race in São Paulo, Brazil-in the final corner of the final lap of that final race, where you managed to pull ahead and win the Formula One world championship. What was that moment like?
Brazil was spectacular. Obviously I've been privileged to have finally made it to Formula One and had the chance to race for McLaren-Mercedes. A lot of racing drivers, they get to Formula One and they might be with a lesser team and not have the chance to really show what they're capable of doing. I was fortunate in that I was in the right place at the right time. I was 13 when I was signed up. I met [McClaren team owner] Ron Dennis when I was 10 at the Autosport Awards in London, and I told him that I wanted to be world champion and race for him one day. And it turned out that when I was 22 he gave me that chance.
Fortunately, Kimi Räikkönen had gone to Ferrari and McClaren had a spare seat, so I took it. We missed the first championship in 2007 by one point. I was leading through the whole season-and that was completely unexpected, racing against the two-time world champion- and it comes to China, the second to last race, and I went off [the track] and lost the race. Then in the last race I had a technical glitch in my car, which left me in second place for the season, unfortunately.
But last year had been a great year throughout. In the last race there was so much pressure because I was up alongside this other driver who I couldn't overtake. Felipe Massa had to win the race and I had to finish at least fifth to claim the world championship. Normally our approach is we always want to win, but this weekend the team's approach was just to finish to get those points.
We qualified fourth and I was up to third place, and so it felt great during the race. I was like, I'm third, if I can just finish here I've won it. But I fell back to fourth, and then fifth place. I just had to keep this position, but I had this guy behind me pushing me all the way. It was nerve-wracking. I managed to keep my nerves, but he was much faster than me and he overtook me. I fell back to sixth place, and at that point I knew if it finishes like this I'm not world champion; I lose it by one point.
My dad's advice to me has always been, never give up. So I pushed and pushed and pushed as hard as I could. I never lost faith, I never thought for one second that I couldn't do it. It had started to rain a few laps earlier, and it got to the point where there were only two corners left. I had to catch this guy and overtake him, but I couldn't catch him. And it just so happens another guy was out on slick tires and he was skating around and that allowed me to overtake the other car at the last bend. I came across the line and had no idea that I'd won because the finish was so close. I waited patiently for the team-usually they come across the radio and tell me what's going on-but they didn't tell me because they didn't know. Ferrari was celebrating that they had won.
I was nervous as hell, my heart was in my mouth, but they finally came across the radio and said you're world champion. Those last couple of laps it felt like my whole life kind of flashed before my eyes. I've worked since I was eight years old to be world champion, and to finally get it was so incredibly special.
Have you watched that race back to relive the moment?
No. I very rarely even speak about it. A lot of people ask about the last race. The question they always want to know is, how did you feel the last few laps, but I never want to revisit it. It was a very, very special moment in my life, but it took everything out of me. I'm just happy I came out in front for once and I feel blessed to have become a world champion.
Fast-forwarding to 2009, it's been a tough year. What went wrong?
This year they changed the rules quite a lot. We used to have grooved tires, but they gave us back slick tires, which has given us a good 50-percent increase in grip, and then they took away 50 percent of our downforce, which is just like a plane but it works the opposite way because we generate a lot of downforce for the speed we build up. At really high speed we have so much force pushing down on the car that we can take 90-degree corners at 170 miles per hour.
This year everyone had a fresh start with new cars, and unfortunately we undershot and couldn't deliver the car we wanted. When we arrived for testing in Barcelona before the first race we were two-and-a-half to three seconds slower than everyone else. It was a really big shock to the team. I talked it over with them and said, "Look, I can't win with this car." We've been working nonstop to improve it, but it's such a lengthy process.
How do you like your chances for the rest of the season?
I'm pushing as hard as ever, as well as pushing my team. The problem is that as we develop, the other teams also develop. We're chasing them while they develop, and we've got to do it twice as fast. With all these new rules limiting the budget, limiting the wind-tunnel use, it makes it hard for us to do so. Our car is good in the low-speed corners, but at a high-speed circuit like Barcelona it shows our true pace, which is poor. At a slower track like Bahrain it's a much better result for us. But I feel optimistic that we can improve the car and begin to compete.
How do you prepare for a Formula One race?
You can't really put into words what it's like to drive a Formula One car. It's light, the RPMs are so high, the engine's screaming all the time, there's tremendous g forces through the car. I have 20 buttons on my steering wheel that I have to play with during the race to help keep the consistency of the car.
You can imagine if you're not fit enough and your body starts to feel weak and you start to think about it, it will start to sap the energy from your mind. It's all about training. I'm fortunate living here in Geneva. We do a lot of mountain biking, a lot of swimming, a lot of running. You don't have to be big or bulky, you just have to have great cardio fitness. We train up to six hours a day before the season, and in the season you don't really have the time or the energy to be able to do that, so it's about maintaining that level of fitness during the season.
Mentally, I recharge my batteries here in Geneva, I recharge my batteries when I'm with my family back home [in England]. I like to live a private, normal life, but with my hectic schedule, all the commitments I have take up so much of my free time. Fortunately, working with Bombardier and flying on the Learjets has given me a huge amount of time to put back into my private life.
Having access to a
business jet is important to you?
Definitely. Through kart racing when I was 13, I started traveling all around Europe flying commercial. In 2007, when I started in Formula One, nobody knew who I was and I was flying commercial all the time, which was absolutely horrid. Bit by bit I started to do well and was getting noticed. The cameras started to appear and suddenly I had all these appearances to do. And then my teammate left and I had his appearances to do also.
I was traveling so much that it really became impossible to be able to do that all commercially. I'm fortunate to have become associated with Bombardier and fly on the Learjet 45, which is a beautiful machine, or the Learjet 60 if I'm lucky.
You had a fast ascent once you finally got to Formula One. Are you used to traveling by business jet yet?
I wouldn't say I'm used to it. I would definitely say about everything in my life I feel privileged, blessed to have been given the opportunity I have. But every time I get on a private jet I almost have to pinch myself. I can't believe that where I come from has led to this. I grew up in a rough area in Stevenage, England, and to think down the line that I'm sitting on a private plane, it's pretty incredible.
It seems you've got a sweet deal with Bombardier, getting to travel for free in return for doing appearances, but do you see yourself ever owning an airplane?
I do love planes, but I think I'm just in an early stage of my life. I would love to have one, for sure. When I look down the line and I think about family, and the convenience of it, I would love to. But like most people who have to save up for the things they want, that's where I am in my life.
How aware are you of options like
fractional jet ownership and jet cards?
I've discussed it with the people I have around me, my management, but I took the decision that I'm happy with the way things are at the moment. Since I've been where I am, I haven't really spent any money. I'm hoping to buy my mom a house eventually. I bought my mom and dad a car. But like I said, one day I'd love to be like some of my friends who have their own planes because I've seen how great it's been for their families and how much joy it's brought to them. I hope that I'm able to do that for my family one day.
What was it like racing-and beating-a Learjet 60XR last year at the Farnborough Airshow?
It was quite scary. We drivers, we generally don't have much fear, but I was driving down the runway and I was expecting a plane to land on me or near me. I was kind of nervous, looking for the plane, and I could only hear it just above me. I was accelerating through the gears flat out-the cool thing in a Formula One car is you accelerate with the sequential gearbox, and you press a clicker and it shifts within 0.2 seconds. I think I got up to 205 miles an hour, and the plane was level with me, and then I was told to slow down and I saw it pull off and just shoot up into the air. It was phenomenal. I've never seen anything like that before, so it was very special.
How did you feel after winning the British Grand Prix last season?
That was awesome. I qualified fourth. I knew that weekend that I wasn't quick enough. I'd made a setup change to my car, and once you enter qualifying you can't change the car. My teammate qualified me, which was one of the first times he had done so. But then it rained, and when it rains I know I have a much better chance. I've won all my wet races since 2007 except two.
It's incredible, you can't see much when you're driving in those conditions. It's slippery, and you have to go out and find the grip. In the rain it's really about feel. I don't know how I did it, but I won by a minute and eight seconds. I lapped everyone up to third place. While everyone was spinning off, I didn't have any of those problems. It was really phenomenal, but I think the support from all my British fans is what made it really special.
What do you need to do to repeat as world champion?
You need a good car. Unfortunately, I have not been given a car this year to win the world championship. There's nothing anyone can do about it. It's very sad. I have a great team. It's not that they haven't worked hard or they're not doing they're best job, it just so happens that something went wrong in the pipeline. And once you go down a route, sometimes it's too late to turn around and go back the other way. We went down this route and we don't have time to turn it around. By the time we've turned it around, the other guys have already won four out of five races.
NAME: Lewis Hamilton
BIRTHDATE: Jan. 7, 1985
OCCUPATION: Formula One racing driver for British team McClaren-Mercedes and the youngest ever Formula One world champion.
TRANSPORTATION: Free flights aboard Learjet 45 and 60 in return for making appearances at Bombardier-sponsored events.
PERSONAL: Born in Stevenage, England, where he began racing go-karts as a kid. Now lives in Geneva. Dates Pussy Cat Dolls lead singer Nicole Scherzinger.
Only on the Web
To relive Lewis Hamilton's exhilarating world championship victory at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix-including the visceral reaction of the Ferrari team on realizing the championship had slipped their grasp-go to
www.formula1.com/video, click "I agree" and then "08 Brazil." Choose your preferred connection speed to start playing the three-minute HD clip.