F1 2015 preview: Lewis Hamilton must win mind battle to land third title and emulate his hero Ayrton Senna

Champion cannot let distractions undermine his season

The burning question, at the start of a new Formula One season, is whether Lewis Hamilton can achieve a personal goal and become a world champion for the third time.

The question has an added poignancy, too, as he is coming off what seems to be a final split with his longtime love Nicole Scherzinger – an act which turned his world upside down over the winter.

He doesn’t want to talk about that, naturally enough, and in a meeting room in Mercedes’ Brackley head-quarters where the air-conditioning alternates between roasting and freezing, he isn’t quite his usual voluble self. His voice is muted and he’s still sniffing with a cold. Remember, that he lost time in the first of two tests in Barcelona when he had to stop driving because he was running a fever.

However, ask him the inevitable question about his frame of mind going into his ninth F1 season, as the man with the hunter’s target on his back, and the steel is still there for all to see.

 

“I’d say every year is different, so some years you feel better but you’re actually not. But I feel good. I guess I’ll find out as I get into the season but, you know, apart from having the flu or whatever, I genuinely feel good and excited. I can’t believe that it’s come round so quick.”

In the past, issues in his off-track life have upset his equilibrium, and it’s not hard to see because he wears his big racer’s heart on his sleeve. But he is confident that will not be the case after the lessons he learnt, coming through to win the title as he did against the odds of unreliability and misfortune last year.

“I think last year I adapted a mental attitude that was kind of, I would like to say, impenetrable. Of course, in the previous years it has been the case where it’s affected my life in general, but I feel that I still carry that kind of mentality from last year, and, while it’s not been easy, having been in this position before, I feel stronger than ever. So I don’t feel that it’s going to be a problem.”

Sir Jackie Stewart, the most successful British champion with three titles, always stresses the need for a driver to master mind-management. Hamilton, it seems, has worked hard on that in recent times.

“Once in a blue moon it’s all in line,” Hamilton says, referring to the planets, “but I still feel like I’ve got enough in place to do what I need to do and to be the best I can be.”

So has winning a second title at last, six years after his first, made him feel less pressure to succeed?

“I definitely don’t feel that I have less pressure. I think the pressure is the same every year. But, honestly, I don’t arrive at the tests or here at the team, thinking ‘okay, I’m world champion’. I’m thinking ‘Jesus, I’ve got to do everything again and I’ve actually got to do it better than I did before’. Because I know that everyone else will have taken a step as well, so how do you do that? It’s not easy to better a season like last year. Also, in terms of performance, it was the best year that I think I’ve ever had, but it doesn’t mean I can’t beat it, so  that’s what I’m trying to do.”

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Hamilton, right, and Rosberg pose with the new Mercedes W06 car in Spain

That is the  secret of F1. You are only ever as good as your last race, and they end up in your rear-view mirrors all too soon. How soon did the  euphoria of winning the title in Abu Dhabi stay with him before he put it aside and began looking forward again?

“It’s not really what you think. I guess everyone has their own experience with it but ever since I’ve been winning, ever since I won my first championship when I was 10 years of age, the feeling is very much the same. You know, when you go home, you go back to life and you continue. Obviously, you’ve got a glory feeling because you’ve done what you’ve set out to do, but it doesn’t change anything else that you do.”

So it’s just something you carry inside yourself?

“It’s like a warmth in your heart that you carry. It’s not like an excitement that you carry on for days and days and days. You know, you just continue and you move  on. It’s not something that lingers with you for a  long time.”

Even Sebastian Vettel, the champion four times in a row, discovered in 2014 that nothing lasts for ever. 

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Hamilton drives during testing at Circuit de Catalunya

So while his second title is masked by the dust from his Mercedes’ diffuser, Hamilton has his eyes focused on the road ahead, and a third championship. That, he confesses, would resonate emotionally. “For me the landmark is that as a kid I watched Ayrton [Senna], and he obviously had three… I don’t really look at numbers and records but, you know, I always said as a kid that I wanted to emulate Ayrton. I always wanted to do something similar to him, so if I had the opportunity to win again and have a third world championship, I would feel closer to him. I don’t think anyone was as good as him or [Juan Manuel] Fangio, but it would still be a nice feeling.”

There is, of course, a guy called Nico Rosberg who will be doing everything he can to frustrate his team-mate’s aspirations, and few doubt that the competitive German won’t be stronger after last year’s defeat. But though the indications favour another season of Mercedes domination, Hamilton hopes that the opposition will be stronger: “A year of dominance is a great thing for a team, but as a racing driver I’m sure the fans want to see close competition.”

So what if he were to dominate in 2015? “Personally, I would get bored,” he added.

CONTRACT RACE - ON THE LAST LAP

Lewis Hamilton has another little battle going on off the circuit, as he negotiates a new contract with Mercedes bosses Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda. It was put on the backburner during the title battle last year, “but we’re very much in the last stages of it now,” he says.

It’s unusual for a driver of his calibre to do his own negotiating, though Sebastian Vettel does, and he admits he’s not sure if he enjoyed the experience, trawling through every paragraph. “It’s a very, very nerve-wracking experience, but I learned a lot from my dad and from Simon [Fuller at XIX Entertainment].

“I’ve just been trying to do my due diligence and understand firstly where we are and what best can be improved on. Toto and Niki are easy to speak to... and there’s a willingness to continue working together.”

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