Lewis Hamilton’s 2022 season is inevitably cast in the long dark shadows of the events of Abu Dhabi 2021.
No-one before has ever had a world title snatched from their grasp by an incorrect application of the sporting regulations. Either walking away from the sport in disgust or coming back with a ferocious appetite to make a point would have been fully understandable.
He chose the latter – but to then be presented with a dud of a racing car, his first in 13 years… well, it would have been no surprise if the air had leaked from his bubble a little, would it?
And yet, this is the guy who just put Max Verstappen’s superior Red Bull under pressure around the Circuit of the Americas, who has out-qualified his thrusting, ambitious new team-mate George Russell in 10 of the last 11 races, who reckons he is good for many years of fighting at the front yet.
How has he sprung himself back into shape like a rubber ball? In those weeks of off-season silence was he seriously considering not coming back? Why has his performance relative to Russell been so much stronger in the season’s second half than the first? What makes this car so difficult? Where is he at? He’s here to tell us.
He walks into Toto Wolff’s temporary office in apparently relaxed frame of mind, the Thursday before the USA Grand Prix. It’s become customary over the years for him to sit down and talk of his season with a small selection of us specialists and he takes it seriously.
It’s as if he wants to convey in more detail the nitty-gritty behind the façade. He’s open, articulate, thoughtful, seemingly happy to follow any direction of questioning.
“It feels like years ago,” he says of the events in the season finale. “I mean, it was definitely spirit-breaking, soul-crushing, whatever you want to call it. Was I ever truly not going to come back?”
He pauses at this point, as if questioning himself, trying to get back to how it felt when it was so raw. He either can’t quite get there or doesn’t want to – and comes back to a hindsight view of that time. “I am not one to give up like that, really.”
If he really felt – as he said in the heat of the moment, in the cockpit – that it had been contrived, that the championship was somehow deliberately and unfairly conspiring against him with some agenda, he’d surely have wanted no further part in it. Perhaps that’s what he was trying to find the answer to during those silent weeks.
That much is suggested by the stream of consciousness tone of his answer, a working through of events and a best-fit for something that clearly hurt but for which he may never have the full answer.
“What really was breaking was to just believe that the sport would do something like that, that that would happen in the sport, given that there are so many people who you rely on.
“You expect that the job would be done right. And [that] an outcome of a world championship, which so many people have worked so hard for, would come out through a wrong decision from somebody, you know?
“That was probably the only thing. It wasn’t for my lack of love for working with my team or racing cars; it was literally that; if you can lose a championship through wrongdoing within an organisation, that was the thing that I wondered whether… But I knew that… I spent time with my family and that was really the best part of the healing.
“I just gave all of my time to the kids, building snowmen and just being present with them. That enabled me to really recover, really bounce back. If I wasn’t with them, I would have been stuck in a hole.”
So does he still feel it was contrived, targeted at him personally?
“I don’t know. It feels so long ago now. I think it was just bad decision-making. I’m sure there is ego involved and then there are also the many moving parts – like there’s people speaking into his ear. No, I don’t feel like it was particularly targeted.”
If the off-season weeks were about working through the trauma of the past, once the decision was made to continue, it was time to cut that thread of negativity.
He learned a valuable lesson about that 15 years ago, at the end of that sensational rookie season when the world title was there in his grasp – and snatched away at the 11th hour under circumstances difficult to fully explain. He didn’t deal with them so well that time, as a 22-year-old.
“I refuse to live in the past. I experienced that in 2007 and as a youngster that definitely kept me up at nights and it was just negative.
“When you hold on to some negativity, when you hold on to hate or whatever it is, it is just holding you back. I’m going up. And I am going forwards, regardless of what’s happened in the past. I chose not to dwell on it.
“There is nothing I can do about back then. I gave everything. Like, I gave everything, and I sacrificed. But I am willing to do it again. So that’s what I’m trying to work towards.”
So at some point, a line was drawn under Abu Dhabi – and he was coming back. It wasn’t about an eighth title or some statistic that makes for a good narrative from the outside. At least that’s not how it felt. It was about staying together, in the team, in the marriage. Of loving the life and the challenge.
“I would say getting back into training was not easy. It’s not like you can just say, ‘OK, right, motivation’s there’.
“It definitely took a minute for me to build back up. But I stayed training through the phase and generally tried to keep my fitness up. I didn’t take a week off or two weeks off or anything and I tried to keep in rhythm.
“So it wasn’t actually that I was unfit and had to climb a mountain… but still, just having that drive to keep on pushing each day and dig deeper and push your body and mind further.
“When you have won seven world titles and more races than anyone, just tapping into that what keeps you hungry… because I don’t wanna be less hungry than I was when I started.
“If I can’t find that, then I don’t feel there’s any reason to continue. I wanna come back stronger and that’s why I came back [with a] fighting mentality. But then we had all the dramas with the car.”
Ah yes, the W13. The bouncing monster.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. One of the things that had got him so fired up about the season was what he was hearing about the performance of the car in the tunnel. Its aero numbers looked sensational.
“They were all telling us we were gonna have a massively quick car, and I’m sure everyone who was working on it was so hyped with all the hard work they put in through the winter.
“It’s such a gruelling time for everyone in the team; that’s when they really crunch out in the crazy hours. In normal life you expect that period to be a more relaxed time for people. To then find out the damn thing doesn’t work, and we’ve got bouncing, that was hard for everybody. Everyone was really struggling, I think.”
Himself included. “Everyone. I’m sure Toto would tell you it’s not been perfect for him. We sat in February and we were all so upbeat.”
He kind of knew the first time he tried the car, telling himself that it was early days etc, but there was a nagging doubt.
“Yeah I had that feeling but you can never say no, you can never say never. Maybe we would have fixed it by the first race, who knows? It’s sometimes difficult to know how long it’s gonna take to fix those things.
“Plus, I’d never had bouncing like that. I didn’t expect the guys to take as long… they didn’t expect it to take as long as it’s taken them to understand what’s causing the bouncing. They’ve had to create new tools, all these things we didn’t have before.
“Then you just just hold on to hope. But the next upgrade comes and it doesn’t work, and the next one comes and doesn’t work. Imagine people that are building those things and they are seeing performance in the wind tunnel but they are not seeing it on the track. Ah Jesus, you just keep getting knocked back down. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and we’re still standing tall.”
If only the bouncing could have been cured, the tunnel was insisting there was downforce there – and masses of it. Enough to leave Red Bull and Ferrari far behind, so they believed.
But it was forever locked out of reach and what Hamilton and Russell actually got to drive wasn’t in the same league as those cars.
What are the W13’s actual limitations from the cockpit?
“It’s been a bunch of different things from the get-go. Bouncing was the dominant one and the most visible. But the aero characteristics are difficult… the stiffness, the global stiffness of the car to the point where the suspension is pretty useless, stiffer than the tyres.
“[Because of that] the tyres are then squashing and bouncing so we’re bouncing on the tyres as well. And then just aero characteristics.
“Drag is a huge problem for us. When we get to a certain speed that’s when other people are pulling away. It’s when you brake and the front dips and the rear comes up and the aero transfers during that period and when you get on the power.
“It’s different between low and high speed. So many problems. That’s why literally I have tried everything.
“I’ve tried every setting you can possibly do. That’s what I was doing at the beginning of the year. The whole idea of performing at your best and getting the best result from each weekend would be nice but I was really about problem-solving. I will sacrifice this session or all the sessions to be able to find more data and information for you so that when we go back to the factory they’ve got a better understanding of what’s going on. But it ultimately hindered a lot of the weekends.”
That approach was one he largely took during the first half of the season. As the team’s understanding of the car and its limitations has improved, so he has been less experimental and has concentrated just on maximising what he has.
This, he believes, is part of the explanation for the difference performance pattern between him and Russell in the two halves of the season.
“It’s been an unusual year. George is doing a great job. I don’t have any problems with it. There’s no issues in the background with us.
“George and his team don’t experiment the same, obviously. But that’s because I’ve been here for a long time. I have the big, deep conversations with people I’ve been with for 10 years.
“So me and [Andrew Shovlin] can have arguments, constructive arguments. George, it’s his first year with the team so he’s come in and he’s just doing his job to the best of his ability, with very little movement of set-up.
“I’m doing back and forwards here and there, different wings, all these different things and I like that anyway.
“If we come into next year and we have a car that we are much happier with then we can be more focussed on that whole… not having to go crazy with set-ups, then we can have a better battle.
“If he finishes ahead at the end of the season I don’t really feel anything about it; we’re not in the championship. We are fourth and sixth. If it was first and second it’s different.”
But what the team’s better understanding of the car’s baked in limitations has also done is take Mercedes down a set-up route which maximises its high-speed corner performance at the expense of its low-speed behaviour.
The downforce isn’t bad in slow corners, but going back to Hamilton’s earlier assessment, it’s how the centre of pressure moves around at different levels of dive and pitch which makes it difficult to predict – and it’s this which Hamilton is currently dealing with rather better than Russell.
“I described it to my engineers the best I could and said it’s like you are creeping up behind a horse and you’re trying to get as close as possible. Like what’s the point before it kicks you in the face, and you know it’s going to hurt when it hits your face and that’s one of the best ways I can say when you’re trying to lean on the car and it’s snapping and unrecoverable.
“And this car, it’s random.”
He knows that now. Earlier in the year, there was still hope that the breakthrough was imminent. But it was optimism borne of lack of full understanding. For much of the season’s second half they pretty much know where they will be more or less mediocre. Hamilton has had to adapt his expectations while retaining his motivation.
“At the beginning, it didn’t feel too difficult. But definitely it starts to wear down on you because you’re in the hope that you’re going to get back there and then… all of a sudden we start having those races where we get into second and then the next race, the car one weekend is good, then it’s one, two, three, four, not good, then it pops up. So you don’t know.
“You do all the work in the simulator then the simulator’s telling you something different to what you get at the track.
“It’s just a confusing overall year of emotions. You think, the sims are good and the car feels quite good this weekend or the engineers say ‘ok, we’ve got an upgrade that’s worth three tenths’ and you get there and it’s a tenth slower and you know and you’re ‘oh shoot’.
“I think I’ve learned just not to get my hopes up on anything. It’s better to kind of under-expect and if it’s just as good it’s just as good and if it’s better, it’s better. In terms of preparation, I think we’re better now.
“It’s not that I’ve arrived not focused, but it feels for me like a year where you’re less focused because there’s all these other elements that are affecting that.
“I’m preparing better than ever. My training has been more rigorous, more consistent than ever before. My diet has been healthier than before, how strict I am with the time people take from me is stricter than ever before, even from the team they have less of my time, so that I can really focus on the weekends.
“I have more time in the factory for example. But this is extra time I give. But I think just with the car, with just the unknowns, it has been so sporadic and unpredictable.
“There’s always things to take from the learnings. It’s not like I’ve never experienced a season like this.
“I would definitely say I’ve been better than I was in the other times I’ve had years like this. Within the team, within the messaging, geeing people up, I think I’ve been a better team-mate to my colleagues than I have ever before and I think outside, in my outside life, I think I’ve had an even better balance than I’ve had in the past.”
Given all this learning, what might 2023 look like for Hamilton and Mercedes?
“It’s not going to be easy to change the car into a leading car for next year but I think we have a much better understanding in why the car is the way it is.”
Beyond that? What with his long-time rival Sebastian Vettel retiring and how only he and Fernando Alonso now represent the previous generation.
“In terms of my plans for the future… Each year, at the end of the year, you sit there and you’re looking over whatever view you have, and you’re sitting there trying to figure out, and analyse like my next three to five year plan. It’s difficult to do 10.
“But where do I see myself? What are the things I want to do? What are my goals? And things are being added. And I’m adding in lots of business things. I have a lot of business going on. I have a lot of successful, really positive things that have lots of opportunity for success outside.
“I’m proud of Seb for his journey and for his decision but I don’t base my decisions on others. He’s got kids: it’s different for me. I don’t have a family yet.
“I’m still 100% committed, as I imagine when you have family it’s hard to be 100% committed, because you’re sacrificing so much that means so much to you. We’re on different paths, building different things.
“Do I imagine myself being here beyond 40? Maybe.
“But we are going to do another deal. We’re going to sit down and we’re going to discuss it in these next couple of months, I would say.
“My goal is to continue to be with Mercedes. I’ve been with Mercedes since I was 13. Mercedes-Benz is my family. They’ve stuck with me through thick and thin: they stuck with me through being expelled at school.
“They stuck with me through everything that was going on through 2020.
“They’ve stuck me through my mistakes, and s**t that’s been in the press; they’ve stuck with me through the ups and downs. And so I really believe in this brand, I believe in the people that are within the organisation.
“And I want to be the best team-mate I can be to them, because I think we can make the brand even better, more accessible, even stronger than it is. And I think I can be an integral part of that.
“But I want to keep racing. I love what I do. I’ve been doing it for 30 years, and I don’t feel that I should have to stop. I think I’m currently still earning my keep, I would say. I want to do better still.
“You are stuck with me for quite a while longer.”