Lewis: "I know it won't last forever"
An exclusive interview with Mercedes' British star ahead of the Silverstone Grand Prix
His swimming trunks are probably still dripping on the balcony, fresh from a dip in the Caribbean Sea. Two weeks ago, he was driving his Cobra – an original Shelby 427 – in Malibu with Nicole. They went
to church, where Stevie Wonder sang gospel. Then it was over to
Spain for another scorcher, and his fourth win in a row. And yes,
despite the shenanigans at Monaco, he’s still the smartest bet for
this year’s title. Has the sun ever shone brighter on Lewis?
“Apart from winning the world championship and then being in Barbados,” he says over the phone, “life couldn’t get much better.” He seems to mean it. Maybe it’s because he’s having a few days off, or maybe it’s because he’s on a roll right now… but you sense that somehow, behind the giant shades, this is a different, more grown-up Lewis. Like all of us, he’s had bad days – retiring on lap three in Melbourne after qualifying on pole, or Rosberg’s qualifying ‘mistake’ at Monaco were cases in point. But, even so, he claims to be in a good place right now, and is perhaps even a touch surprised about the whole thing.
“When I made the decision to come to Mercedes, I was 100 per cent certain it was what I wanted to do,” he says. “But I never thought it would progress so fast.” He and teammate Nico Rosberg have swept aside the dominant Red Bulls and nailed the switch from last season’s V8s to this year’s V6s with their sci-fi electrics. Before Daniel Ricciardo won in Canada, there was a very real chance that the two Merc drivers could make F1 history by winning every race of the season. Whether this is good for the sport depends on whom you support, but do you really expect them to slow down and give the others (or perhaps even each other) a chance?
“I love racing,” says Lewis. “It doesn’t matter who it’s with. I’m a Formula One fan, and it would be better for everyone – especially for those watching – if Red Bull and Ferrari were closer. Right now, Nico’s doing well, so I am having a fight, and it’s going to be hard to keep the gap we have forever. I think it really depends on how everyone else does later in the season.”
Clearly, he’s happy to have a scrap or two, just so long as he comes out with fewer bruises than the other guys. Just look at how he won the championship in 2008 by trading meaty punches with both Ferraris. “I’ve always been like that, really,” he says. “Since I was a kid, my favourite races were when I came from the back, even if I didn’t win and finished third or second… they were the best weekends. It’s a different scenario now, especially when you start from pole position – it’s not easy, but it’s different.”
But by the time he arrives at the British Grand Prix, he could be virtually uncatchable. Especially on Silverstone’s long straights, where his Mercedes seems to find an extra few gears. And although this season’s cars won’t trouble your eardrums, there’s nothing quite like watching a Formula One car sweep through Copse and wriggle through Maggots. “It’s still one of the best circuits on the calendar,” says Lewis. “And I’m glad we still have some of the characteristics of the old circuit. Copse, Maggots… it’s fast, high-speed and flowing.”
He knows how to win there. He did so in 2008, and if it weren’t for a puncture, he might have won last year’s race too. If he doesn’t win this year, we’ll eat our helmets. Surely, with such a strong car and a home crowd, we’ll be hearing ‘God Save the Queen’ loud and clear, come 3pm on Sunday 6 July. With such a quiet car, he might even hear some of the trackside roars…
“Ha, no…” he says. “Even though it’s quieter outside, it’s still loud inside. Although you do pick up more wind noise.” But just because he can’t hear you, don’t let it stop you from waving those Union Jacks. “In 2008,” he says, “it was raining – really terrible weather. I remember going through corners where everyone else was going off, and every time I got through one, I could see the fans stand up or wave or cheer, from the corner of my eye. You can feel the energy, it’s incredible, and I try to absorb it through the weekend.”
A home win would also be good news for Brand Hamilton. According to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, Lewis is now Britain’s wealthiest sportsman, with a whopping £68 million under his mattress. And, sure, what 29-year-old wouldn’t fancy that? But while he has many baseball caps and bright white trainers, he certainly does his bit for those less fortunate. Just two days before talking to Top Gear, he was visiting troubled kids in Haiti with Unicef, for which he’s an ambassador. “I’m just trying to bring some awareness,” he says. “Nobody in the world would want their children to suffer and not eat food. It’s not the way the world should be.”
Here, then, is a man with a conscience, and – it would seem – an increasingly well-adjusted head on his shoulders. He might have lived an unconventional life by the standards of the average twentysomething, but as he approaches his thirties, he seems to be more comfortable with his place on this earth. And although he might not find the reminder overly helpful, he now has more grand prix wins than Jim Clark, and almost as many as Jackie Stewart and Nigel Mansell. In other words, he’s set to become the most successful British driver in history.
“People make me very much aware of that,” he says. “So, of course, I’m more conscious of it. But I still can’t believe where I am sometimes. It’s very surreal. Unthinkable. I just give thanks every day because I know it won’t last forever.”
The cloud, as we suspected, concerns relations with his teammate post-Monaco and whether Mercedes will continue to allow them to race each other as closely and entertainingly as they have up until now. How Lewis handles this pressure and his attitude to what he clearly sees as underhand tactics by the driver in the garage next door will be the real mark of the man.