While saying that he wishes to be the “purest of drivers”, Lewis Hamilton admits that he doesn’t always get it right.
Even without the best efforts – in terms of stage management, manipulation, hype and gimmicks – of the sport’s stakeholders and the media, 2021 is shaping up to be a classic season.
At the heart of it, of course, is the fact that after seven years of almost total domination, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have a genuine fight on their hands.
The ‘for the cameras’ silliness of Horner and Wolff aside, at the very heart of this most dramatic of seasons we have a driver widely regarded as the greatest of all time and his would-be successor.
Though there isn’t the obvious antagonism of some previous classic rivalries, we do have two fast, brave drivers who refuse to yield.
Unfortunately, this has led to a couple of near misses and a couple of clashes, all of which adds to the show.
However, with just two races remaining, it is impossible to say who will walk away victorious at season end.
Aware that all reins must come to an end, Hamilton knows that sooner or later he will come up against a rival who is quicker on the draw, whether that man is Verstappen remains to be seen.
While the Dutchman has a fearsome reputation for his refusal to back down, his more experienced rival has demonstrated this season that, if necessary, he can get down and dirty with the best of them.
This, of course, is conflicting for Hamilton, who admits that he wants to be regarded as the “purest of drivers”. Indeed, in the midst of the recent triple-header, following Toto Wolff’s claim that it could all get very messy with the title decided by a Monza-type clash, Hamilton insisted he would rather win the title “the right way” than win it unfairly.
“It’s just how my dad raised me,” he tells the media ahead of the final leg of the season. “He said to always do your talking on the track.
“I was bullied as a kid, both at school but also on track,” he continues, “and we wanted to beat them the right way, not by a car falling off or colliding with a car. Then there is no denying that you’re better. If you have collisions, they can say, ‘Oh, yeah, but this happened, this is one tactic that that driver has’.
“I want to be the purest of drivers, through speed, through sheer hard work and determination,” he adds, “so there’s no denying at the end what I’ve accomplished.”
Asked about Verstappen’s perceived ‘win at all costs’ attitude, Hamilton replies: “He’s not the only driver I’ve raced against that’s like this. I’ve raced so many drivers in my time and they’ve all been very different in the way they behave.
“Now I’m older, I look a little bit deeper into their character and a bit of their background, their upbringing. Our upbringing is why we act out the way we do and behave the way we do, good or bad. So I try to understand those so I can have more appreciation of who that character is I am racing with.
“Rather than giving someone the benefit of the doubt, you have to know that’s what’s going to happen,” says the seven-timer champion. “So you always have to be ready to avoid a collision at all costs, even if it means going wide, because you want to see the end of the race, right? If you’re stubborn and you hold your ground, you’re going to crash.
“So that’s what I’ve just tried to do. I’ve tried to make sure I avoid the collision. And I think I’ve been pretty decent at it in most scenarios. You can’t always get it perfect.”
The near misses referred to earlier include Imola and Barcelona where Hamilton opted to back off, not so Silverstone or Monza.
Then came Brazil.
“If you’re on the outside of a car, backing out is the sensible option pretty much all the time in order to see the end of the race,” says the Briton. “If you’re on the inside, there are scenarios where I truly believe I was in the right, when I’m almost wheel to wheel with the car.
“At Silverstone, for example, go and look at the footage,” he continues. “My front wheel was alongside his front wheel, so it wasn’t like my wheel was next to his rear wheel going in.
“In that scenario, if I had taken the (Brazil) approach (Max did), just stayed on the gas and gone off track and then kept position, what would the scenario have been there? Would they have looked into the rules there?
“Anyways, I don’t mind being the one that… I am not too big or too successful to have to back out to fight another day. I know that is sometimes the route you have to take. You have to be the smarter one.
“Sometimes you lose points in doing that, for sure, but it’s not just about me,” he adds. “I have 2,000 people behind me and through that selfish decision of – ‘No, I’m going to hold my ground’ and don’t finish – a move that costs all my team potential bonuses at the end of the year, all the hard work they have to do, the damage of the car. I am conscious of those things also.”
Nonetheless, Verstappen has caused Hamilton to rethink different situations.
“It has just been different scenarios,” he admits. “I wouldn’t say I have necessarily had to change my approach but I would say definitely there has been a need to gain points. And you have to get a little bit less willing to give up too much, because bit by bit you are losing more points as the season goes on. I was quite far behind in points at that time.”
Despite the on-track antagonism, not to mention that between their respective team bosses, Hamilton insists he feels no personal animosity towards his title rival.
“I can’t speak for him,” he says. “I’ve raced against people who’ve shown something on one face but actually it’s something different. I don’t know if that’s the case on the other side.
“For me, look, I’m 36. I’ve been doing this a long time so it’s not the first time I’ve been faced with a driver that’s been good and bad in certain ways and I think I’m in just a much better position to be able to handle that, to deal with that. Particularly in the limelight and the pressures of the sport.
“I just know that he’s a super-fast guy, and he’s going to get stronger and stronger as he matures over time. Which he will no doubt do. Look at myself when I was 24… 25. Jeez, the mistakes I was making back then.
I had the speed but I was going through a lot of different experiences outside the car and also being in the limelight, the pressures of being at the front. I don’t think I did much right then so I don’t hold that against anybody.”
Of course, other than Verstappen, Hamilton has had to deal with his own car which, from the outset, was compromised by the 2021 rule changes.
“I’ve generally been very happy with my commitment and my performance,” says the Briton. “I would say I’ve been more committed than I’ve ever been.
“What I have noticed this year is that the car has been very, very hard to set up,” he adds.
“This one is a monster of a diva,” he continues. “It’s been harder to get the car in the right window, and when you don’t get the car in the right window, you just limit your potential.
“So I’m just not able to maximise my ability through the set-up not being in the right place, and it’s been very, very hard to get it into the right place.
“In Brazil, I got the car exactly where I wanted. And that was like literally hitting the nail on the head. But we’ve done that maybe once or twice this year. Most of the time, we’re not optimising it.”