This place,”says Lewis Hamilton, gazing out over Spa-Francorchamps from the top floor of the McLaren emporium, “is so fantastic…” – “Your favourite circuit?” I ask.
“Not quite,” he replies, “but second, after Monaco – street circuits will always be my favourite. Spa is just a top-notch circuit – it’s a real circuit, isn’t it? Unfortunately, we don’t have many left…”
Ayrton Senna, too, loved Monaco, but, like Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher, put Spa at the top of his list. After Alex Zanardi’s qualifying accident at Eau Rouge in 1993, there was speculation that, in future, the left-right-left switchback of legend might be emasculated by a chicane, and Ayrton was outraged: “If you take away Eau Rouge,” he said, “you take away the reason why I do this…
At the 1994 Belgian Grand Prix a tight chicane was duly in place before Eau Rouge, but by now, of course, Senna was gone. The circuit owners insisted that all would be back to normal by the time of the next GP, and of course we doubted them, but they were true to their word. More run-off than before there certainly was, but the majesty of the corner itself was unchanged.
In the days of Senna and Prost, taking Eau Rouge flat was something to which a driver – and only a great one – built up as the weekend went on, something saved for final qualifying. One stood there, shivering in anticipation, listening for the engine note that didn’t flinch. Thanks – or, rather, no thanks – to the technologies of today, the challenge of Eau Rouge is not what it was, and even a journeyman can get through without lifting.
In this era, the drivers will tell you, the downhill left-handed Pouhon is the most testing corner on the circuit. That said, the exhilaration of Eau Rouge, the impression of being fired out of a cannon, remains, and doubtless Senna would have approved. Just as it was not by chance that the late Michele Alboreto wore a helmet identical to that of his boyhood hero Ronnie Peterson, so Lewis Hamilton’s bright yellow helmet is an inevitable reminder of Ayrton, whom he revered.
“Actually,I think it was the colour of Senna’s helmet that drew me to him in the first place, but of course there was more to it than that.”
I wanted to talk to Hamilton about Senna, because I was interested to know how much, or otherwise, he had been influenced by him – indeed, how much he based his approach to the job of Grand Prix driver on what he had observed, and learned, of Ayrton. At the time of Senna’s death, in May 1994, Hamilton was only nine years old, but already making his mark in junior karting. “The year before,” he says, “I’d won the British Championship, and got the chance to meet him. I’ll never forget that.
“As a kid, I was drawn to Senna because, for one thing, his driving style seemed to be different from anyone else’s. And he seemed to be a daredevil – well, not a daredevil exactly, but he always went out of his way to… make sure he was at the front. Compared with all the others, he appeared never to be afraid – he seemed to me to have that little bit of an edge.”
“I’ve always felt like I had a connection with him, that we’re somehow similar – I do crazy things other people wouldn’t do, and I feel like I have an edge, too. I feel I share something with him – I seem to be able to draw a lot from the way he came across, in interviews, and so on. “He was such a fighter, that was the thing – I don’t think he was ever one to drive half-heartedly. He was always looking for perfection, and, yeah, he was a warrior – and that was what I loved about him.”
Monaco, as Hamilton said, is his favourite circuit, and when he won there in May he said that it meant more to him than any other victory; Senna, of course, won the Monaco Grand Prix six times, a record unequalled by any other driver.
It was Ayrton’s invariable way to go fast in the opening minutes of the first practice session, and nowhere was this more in evidence than at Monaco, where most drivers take time to acclimatise to the circuit’s unforgiving confines, to the nearness of everything. Thirty or 40 minutes into the Thursday morning session, Senna would be maybe two seconds up on anyone else, and even Prost admitted that the psychological effect of that was potent indeed.
In 2007, when Hamilton drove a Formula 1 car at Monaco for the first time, I watched at the approach to Rascasse, and felt an acute sense of déjà vu. Here was a McLaren, with a yellow helmet poking from the cockpit, and, within a few minutes, it was shaving the barriers. When I managed occasionally to catch the times on the PA system, it was no surprise that Lewis was fastest by a street.
“Last year,” he says, “my first laps were a second or more faster than anyone else’s – and I’m talking about the first laps of the whole weekend. I’m faster because I’m getting on it – and I do that because I have to start ahead, because… it’s difficult to put into words… I want to get here, whereas the others start here in order to get here.
“I don’t know what it is, but I’m just able to do it – it’s something about my personality and my ability. You know, being able to relate to someone – when you’re a kid – is something you can’t explain to people, but, as I said, I always felt some… connection with Senna somehow. Of course, the thing is, if you get to the limit quite quickly, it’s hard to go any further…”
Hamilton may base much of himself, and his approach to racing, on Senna, but in one significant respect, I say, he seems wholly different. Ayrton may have had sublime ability in a racing car, but on many occasions he did pull stunts on the track that went beyond accepted – and acceptable – limits, and amounted to blatant intimidation.
“Oh… I think that was probably Senna’s Brazilian spirit, Brazilian nature, coming out,” he says. “You do get quite a lot of people who do that, you know – drivers who try to intimidate other drivers. I could do it, too, but I just don’t see the sense in it, personally.
“When people try and intimidate me, I laugh! The way I look at it, if they’re doing that, it means they’re worried – they feel they have to do something to distract me, or put me off, or try and knock my confidence. Personally I think that’s a sign of weakness – weakness in the mind – and if you let it upset you, they’re going to get the upper hand on you. I don’t do that sort of thing, because I don’t feel I have that weakness.
“The thing is, I think there’s a subtle way you can do it. You can do it stupidly, and then there’s a 50:50 chance of both of you crashing. But there’s a subtler way of doing these things – I mean, when I got here, I wanted to assert myself in certain ways: one, to prove you can overtake in F1, and two, to show that I don’t care who you are – whether you’re Kimi Räikkönen or whomever – I’ll go up the inside of you. It was important to get across that in a situation where most people would back out of it, I won’t. And I showed that in my first year.”
I remembered something Keke Rosberg had said to me years ago, when his son Nico and Lewis were team-mates in karting: “Lewis is hugely talented, but he’s also incredibly brave – I mean, Gilles brave…” When Hamilton arrived in F1, had he consciously decided to take a few big chances, simply to put a marker down for the rest?
“No,” he says. “Really not. That’s simply how I drive. I don’t feel I did anything extra-special in those first few races – things that I don’t do now. In the tests I always showed I was strong, that I was the one these guys had to watch out for. On the track I’ve always been polite, I’ve never really got in people’s way – although there are a lot of drivers who do, and I look at that calmly: if you get in someone’s way, it’ll come back on you when you’re on a qualifying lap or something. So I don’t do that, but there are some idiots here, who’ll stay in front of you to hold you up, or they’ll back off into you, and the way I see it, they only do that because they see you as a threat – so in a way it’s a kind of compliment, I suppose…”
Given that Hamilton had been such a devoted supporter of Senna, I wondered how aware he had been of the feud with Prost, perhaps the bitterest F1 has known.
“Not that much, really, at the time,” says Lewis. “I mean, you could see it, when you watched the races on TV, but as a kid I didn’t read the papers much. Later on I did read about it, and I could totally relate to it, totally understand how it happened: being in a team with someone who’s very competitive, who’s another very quick driver, who’s pushing you… it is tough, you know, because it’s either one
or the other, isn’t it?”
When Senna arrived at McLaren in 1988, Prost had already won the World Championship twice, and was considered the best. Senna, meantime, was widely regarded as the fastest, so perhaps discord between the two was ultimately as good as inevitable. Certainly Ayrton set his sights squarely on Alain, and that would never change. As Jo Ramirez put it, “They were the two best, and they knew it. They never really bothered about anyone else…”
To an extent, Prost, long the favoured son at McLaren, felt as though he was being pushed out of his own house by this interloper, and it would be an unusual fellow who didn’t resent that to some degree.
Fast-forward to 2007, and there were similar feelings in the air – but with a subtle difference. Fernando Alonso may have been new to McLaren, but he, like Prost, was a two-time World Champion, and felt certain privileges came with that. Hamilton, meantime, was an F1 rookie – yet not new to McLaren, having been ‘part of the family’, receiving company support in his various racing endeavours for 10 years. Before the season began, Jackie Stewart saw a tricky situation looming. “Alonso hasn’t been that much faster than Hamilton in testing,” he said, “but we know what a remarkably complete driver he is. Having said that, he’s with a new team, and he’s got to prove something – he’s got to make his mark in the team, because he knows that the McLaren romance with Hamilton is a very big one.
“Lewis is spending a lot of time at the factory, and making sure he knows absolutely everybody there. I’m told he’s extremely well versed in all the regulations and procedures – very thorough, very prepared. He’s ready – and, unlike Fernando, he’s got absolutely nothing to lose…”
True enough. And although the year started amicably enough, from the first race on Alonso knew he had a fight on his hands – and from a rookie. No matter that Hamilton’s performances would have embarrassed any established Grand Prix driver: Alonso was the man with the same car, the one who came under scrutiny: was it that Lewis really was that good – or that Fernando wasn’t quite as good as we had thought? Whatever, it was not a situation Alonso relished, and tensions began to bubble under the surface.
“Talking about the Senna/Prost situation,” says Hamilton, “is like we saw last year: both drivers so quick, so determined, sometimes one ahead, sometimes the other, both believing that they’re better than the other guy – and one believing that he is higher because of who he is, and what he’s done, and the other thinking, ‘Shit, I don’t give a… I don’t care who you are! I’m here to race, and I’m here to give you as hard a time as anyone else would’. So, to go back to what we were saying, yes, I completely understand the rivalry Senna and Prost had between them…”
Back in the mid-90s, when things began to get tetchy between Schumacher and Hill, Damon was very mindful of what had gone down between Senna and Prost, and was well aware of the dangers involved in allowing a spat to develop into something more. I wondered if similar thoughts had gone through Hamilton’s head in 2007.
“No,” he says at once, “I never worry about that – because I’m smarter than that, you know? For instance, here at Spa last year on the first lap, if I had… wanted to hold my position, we’d have crashed, and there were certain times like that. But I’m not like that – I’m big enough to be able to walk away.”
The incident to which Lewis was referring occurred on the opening lap, on the run towards Eau Rouge. The McLarens of Hamilton and Alonso came out of La Source side by side, and as they accelerated down the hill Fernando put a muscular move on Lewis, claiming all the road, and obliging his team-mate to run wide. As Hamilton rejoined the road, he and Alonso were once more side by side on the approach to Eau Rouge, and momentarily it seemed inevitable they would touch. At the last second Lewis backed off.
Hamilton nods. “Yeah, you have to be the big man in a situation like that. I could have been, you know… ‘I don’t care, I’m going into this corner flat out, do or die’, just to make a point, but it just wouldn’t have been a very smart thing to do, would it? I don’t think you’re losing out if you do back off in that situation – I think being a bigger man has many more positives, quite honestly.”
Yes, sure, but I was coming more and more to the view that there is a lot of Prost’s mentality, as well as Senna’s, in Hamilton’s approach to his work. In a situation such as the one with Alonso at Spa how difficult was it, I wondered, for Lewis not to fall prey – on the spur of the moment – to his emotions?
“For me, when I’m in the race car, it’s easy. I’ve got under control pretty much every sensor that there could possibly be. The only time you can become a little bit frustrated is like what happened in practice today – you’re doing a long run, and you mess up in turn one, and you’ve got a whole lap to catch up, to start it again! As far as I’m concerned, that’s about the only time you can get frustrated, but I’ll admit I really had to build up my strength to control my emotions…”
Could Hamilton remember a time when he was consciously angry in a racing car?
“Yes, absolutely. But it’s a long time ago – in the early stages of karting. My dad gave me tips on how to deal with it, and said to give the finger to people who messed me about – which I did for quite some time until the people in charge started using me as an example of what not to do! So I stopped giving people the finger, and I learned how to deal with it another way.”
If Senna had a weakness as a racing driver, it was that once in a while his impatience – sometimes anger – got the better of him, and he would trip over a backmarker, or whatever.
“That’s true,” says Hamilton. “I saw that several times, and took it in, and thought, ‘I can’t be doing things like that’. And I was fortunate, too, that I saw it in him, because when I was younger I did have that anger – I’d get pissed off with someone, and want to knock him off the track. But then I learned: don’t retaliate – do your talking on the track – beat him! That demoralises them more than anything.
“It’s like if someone calls you a name: don’t go and punch him – go and prove that you’re better, because that’ll piss him off even more! And that’s what I’ve learned to do.
“In the incident here at Spa last year, I said to myself, ‘I know what he’s just done to me’, and it did knock me in a sense. I mean, if I’d got close to him, I would have gone up the inside, and he would have been on the grass – I would have put him into a position where he would have tried to turn, and I would have let him know that I was there… but still fair. Otherwise, though, I wasn’t retaliating. I mean, I was leading the World Championship…”
And could Lewis imagine himself putting a move similar to Alonso’s on another driver?
“Not as aggressively as that, no,” he said, and I must say that remark came back to me a week later at Monza when he was singularly ruthless in the way he dealt with such as Glock, Alonso and Webber. Still…
“It’s just not in my nature,” he says. “I like a fair fight, but I don’t take the piss – you call me names, or whatever, and I’ll still be fair to you on the track. I mean, I’ll lean on you,and I’ll let you know I’m there, but I would never do something as aggressive as that. Actually, if I didn’t have such good reactions, we would have crashed, and two McLarens would have been out of the race – and that would have been the dumbest thing ever.”
I thought of something Prost said to me at Silverstone back in 1989. He had made a better start than Senna, and led narrowly as they headed towards Copse, whereupon Ayrton simply chopped across into the corner as if he had the place to himself. “If I hadn’t given way,” Alain said, “Ron would have had two wrecked McLarens within 10 seconds of the start…”
Over time many a Grand Prix driver has talked of a card index system in their heads, so that they are constantly assimilating information about who’s in front of them, alongside or whatever – and how they’re likely to behave.
“It’s like when you know 10 people,” says Lewis, “and each one has a different character, so when you approach them, you know how to behave with each one. It’s pretty much the same when you’re in the race car – you learn from certain incidents you have with people, whether it’s passing them on an out-lap, or on a flying lap, or whatever, whether they’ve held you up or not, how they overtake, whether they’re into stupid moves or smart moves, all that stuff… It’s like a game of chess, and you’ve got to be able to read your opponent. When I approach a guy on the track, and he’s an idiot, obviously it’s a big help if I know he’s an idiot!”
As a rule of thumb, Lewis went on, the people he liked in the paddock tended to be the drivers he liked on the track. “I can kind of see through them. I don’t think there are many who deliberately use intimidation tactics – well, there is one, but I’m not going to say who it is, because I don’t want to speak negatively about any driver. We’ve all got flaws, in one way or another. Mind you, I think a lot of them continue to ignore their flaws, and I try to make sure that, whatever flaws I have, I’m still a sportsman. To be the best, you have to be best in all areas, I think. I mean, Michael Schumacher was the best driver – but he did some silly things…”
The aim, then, is to be hard but fair? “Yes, that’s it – that’s it exactly. It’s just how you judge being hard…” In lots of ways, as Hamilton says, he has tried to model himself on Senna, but that isn’t the whole of it.
“I’ve always found that I’ve learned something from every team-mate I’ve ever had – even out of the car. If they’re good people, you learn from that, and if they… make mistakes, you learn from their mistakes, as well as your own. That’s how I’ve got to where I am so quickly, I think, because I learned a lot from every experience I’ve had, both negative and positive.
“I’d say, for example, that I’ve got a lot of different driving styles – that way I can try and approach different corners in different ways, instead of having just one aggressive driving style, which I thought I could see in Ayrton.
“People have told me about the way he worked on getting his mind into gear, and getting focused, and that was something I appreciated at an early age – that you didn’t just get in and drive, that you also needed a huge capacity to build up your mental strength, and make the most of different situations. That was definitely one of the biggest lessons I learned from Ayrton.
“Driving styles do vary a lot. I mean, Heikki [Kovalainen] is really good in high-speed corners, but in certain areas – getting on the power or whatever – he’s not so strong, so for him to catch me up in those areas is harder for him. That also means that what we require from a car is different, of course.”
When Eddie Cheever was Prost’s team-mate at Renault, I said, he was just about as quick as Alain in the high-speed turns, but in the slow corners couldn’t get near him: through the Loews hairpin at Monaco alone, Prost pulled out three-tenths on him, and Cheever could never understand how he did it.
“No,” says Hamilton, “and back then you didn’t have all the data, or the on-board footage. Today, because of telemetry, if I’m three-tenths quicker than Heikki, he can look it up, and copy it out, and learn it, so it’s a lot easier these days. I think that having all these things does take a little bit of the racing out of it…”
Intelligent, dedicated, prodigiously self-confident, combative, abnormally brave, freakishly talented… Lewis Hamilton is all these things, and knows it, but still Ayrton Senna occupies a special place in his mind.
“By no means,” he says, “have I ever suggested that I’m better than Ayrton – for me he’s the king, and always will be. If I could ever get to a point of being anywhere near as good as he was, I’d feel great…”