When Lewis Hamilton first met Ron Dennis, then the team principal of the McLaren Formula One team, he told him, “I want to race for you one day. I want to race for McLaren.” Dennis was so impressed with the young man he gave him his telephone number and said, “Call me.”
This wasn’t in 2007, just before Hamilton joined the hugely successful F1 team. It was in December 1995, when Hamilton was just 10 years old.
“I guess I knew what I wanted early on,” he says during a telephone interview from Sao Paulo, where he was racing in the Brazilian Grand Prix before flying to Abu Dhabi this week for the capital’s Formula One event, which closes out the season. Hamilton finished fourth in Brazil, and has an outside chance of winning the F1 title this year.
His career as a racing driver began with remote-control cars.
“My dad thought that I had such good hand-to-eye coordination that he thought I might be able to race properly. So he bought me a kart for Christmas when I was eight years old.”
Hamilton’s desire to drive for McLaren was, he admits, more down to the look of the team than anything else. “Young kids are generally attracted to colours first,” he says. “They don’t know the people’s names or the teams’ names. I used to spend weekends with my dad [Lewis’s parents divorced when he was two years old] and he would watch the grand prix. I was drawn to the McLaren red and white. Then I got to know more about them and started following Ayrton Senna.”
He names Senna – a Brazilian Formula One driver who died in a crash in 1994 and is considered to be one of the greatest drivers of all time – as one of his role models; Nelson Mandela, whom he refers to as a “kind of friend,” is another.
“He has been a huge inspiration to me, I read about him so much, and to finally meet him was probably one of the most fantastic moments of my life outside of racing,” he says.
Obviously, the most fantastic moment in his racing career came in 2008, when, at the age of 23, he became the youngest ever (and the first black) driver to be crowned F1 World Champion. He won the title ahead of the Brazilian driver Felipe Massa by a single point.
Anotherfamous woman in Hamilton’s life is his girlfriend, Nicole Scherzinger, the lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls. The couple started dating in November 2007, but split up earlier this year to focus on their respective careers. Now they seem to be managing to do so together again, although Hamilton laughs and says there are no plans for marriage yet.
“We’re both really focusing on our careers, she is working on her solo album and I am focusing on winning the world championship.”
He has an extremely charming and easy-going manner, something that comes across even on the phone, but he is adamant about issues he does not want to discuss. His relationship with his father, for example, and any further details about Nicole, apart from the fact that she is much more famous than him.
As for his own status as a celebrity, it’s not something that bothers him.
“It’s very surreal, I have to say,” he says. “I don’t really notice, I’m totally oblivious to it. It’s only when someone mentions it that I really think about it. I don’t see the impact that I seem to have; I don’t see what I have achieved in the same light as other people see it. I don’t walk around thinking I’m some kind of superstar, I walk around generally the same person as I was growing up and I know that if I don’t do a good enough job at what I’m doing I’m going to lose my job. It’s exactly like anyone else, that’s the way I approach my work, and I work my backside off.”
Hamilton thinks about racing almost all the time. Or rather, he thinks about winning all the time.
“My motivation is to compete. I am the most competitive person I know,” he says. “No one inspires me to drive really, it’s really the drive to succeed and become the best that inspires me. And if I work hard enough I can be world champion.
“I go to sleep with racing on my mind, I wake up and I have racing on my mind. So I try to channel that energy towards the next race. I go for a run and I take out that energy on my training. When I’m running I’m thinking about winning, every step that I take is a step towards winning.
“Life is a series of steps to win races. You’re only as good as your last race, and you’ve got to win the next one. I don’t look back on my world championship title; I’m not world champion now, so that’s what I’m focused on.”
But he must relax sometimes?
“Actually, I play golf to relax,” he says, then he laughs. “But that’s even more stressful, because I compete at everything, I’m just naturally competitive.”
Hamilton loves music, and often travels with a guitar, He is also trying to read more.
“I go and look in a bookstore and don’t know what on earth to pick up,” he says. “But I like to learn something when I read rather than just reading a story. The last book I read was A Thousand Splendid Suns, I thought it was a beautiful story.”
I ask him what he would have been had he not become a racing driver. “I don’t know, maybe I would have worked with my father as a computer technician and tried to keep that company going.” He stops. “No, I’m very good at all sports. I probably would have been a footballer.”
For which team, I ask him. “The gunners [Arsenal], I’ve always been a gunner.”
As a Chelsea fan, I’m relieved he became a Formula One driver.