Hamilton's second time lucky?

A year on from failing to claim the Formula One crown, Lewis Hamilton is under intense pressure to make amends.
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"I'm human. There's nerves. Nerves of excitement and it's never nerves of thinking you might fail. It's just the adrenaline pumping and wondering whether you'll get the start perfect, what's going to happen in the first corner because it's unknown. You have absolutely no clue about what's going to happen – do you go left, do you go right, do you brake early, do you brake late, will you get hit from behind, will you get a flat tyre?"

So, despite all outward appearances, Lewis Hamilton is capable of feeling the pressure. And never has there been more on him than this weekend in Interlagos.

He came here last year nursing a four-point lead over McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso and a seven-point gap to Kimi Raikkonen – and he came out of the weekend a point adrift of the Finn after leading the world championship for much of his rookie year.

This year there have been mistakes – notably Bahrain, Canada and Japan – but there have been some fabulous triumphs, notably Monaco, Silverstone and China. All of which makes it even more unthinkable that he should turn another seven-point advantage over Ferrari's Felipe Massa into an embarrassing defeat. There is that lingering question that needs to be erased, that ghost that needs to be exorcised: can he parlay a tendency to wobble in extremis into the steel that makes champions?

"It will be a high drama weekend, no question," says the last British world champion, Damon Hill, who had his own moment of truth in Japan on 13 October 1996 after a season-long fight with Williams Renault team-mate Jacques Villeneuve. "The only thing he can do about that is to be cool, but there will be an awful lot of anxiety that everyone feels."

Looking back to Suzuka 1996, Hill added: "I didn't have that nice restful, dreamy sleep on the Saturday night there. There was a lot of adrenaline coursing around! But the great thing is when the day comes. You know it's going to be the day, and that you will get your answer. You want it to be over. I had three weeks to wait after Portugal, whereas Lewis has had two weeks since China. The waiting can be quite tortuous. It's a relief when that day comes and you can get on with the job.

"I think he knows what to do and what approach to take. China was kind of a warm-up for the final race, where he showed that if he adopts the same approach he would for a normal race, it can all work out for him. The tactical aspect will be advised by McLaren, but he knows that the best form of defence is attack. And he knows – if the conditions are a bit iffy – that he is the best and that no one can touch him."

"There are so many questions and that's the exciting thing about it," Hamilton continued, referring to the moments before a start. "The nerves are how you control all that energy and try and maintain it during the race. That's always the key. I've had nerves since I started racing – every time it's the same before a race, that same excitement and as long as I have that always then I'll keep on doing what I'm doing."

But he will not be following any slavish routine this weekend. "There's no need. I'm not superstitious. I get changed when I need to get changed, I wear what I wear. Sometimes I wear completely new stuff for the race, it just depends on what I have in the wardrobe.

"I don't think there's a way to control nerves. It's just the way your body is. It is a state of mind but I have no ways or solutions or methods to deal with it. I've never been trained in it and I don't fell the need to be. That's the exciting part of being a racing driver. I'd have thought by now I'd have a regime and a way of making my mindset. I know how to get myself into the zone, but every time it's a different feeling, a different emotion, a different nerve, a different gut feeling. It's always different, that's the cool thing. Every race of my life has been different and I've had a lot of races in my life. In Brazil last year it was another experience – I just wanted to finish the race and sometimes you have a feeling something could happen and go wrong. When it does it's like the whole world has fallen down on top of you."

He admits that he takes the defeats and the mistakes a lot more personally than he does the successes, but adds: "This year, I'm a lot stronger as a person and as a driver I deal with it in a much better way. The bad races I've had this year I feel stronger. I don't feel I have to bounce back or recover – the next race is something different. There are always areas as a driver you have to improve on and you have to work on where they are. It's not always clear."

On the surface, he has been his usual calm self thus far this weekend, but looking back it is easy to see that he has always appeared that way apart from the occasions when mistakes have prompted a fast exit from the paddock as the prelude to some hard self-criticism in a quiet place. In China he dismissed the F1 paddock poker club in which rivals Robert Kubica and Fernando Alonso feature significantly with the words, "I'm not here to play, I'm here to race." But the fact is that he gives so little away facially that he would make a great player.

"I think he'll do it," Hill says. "He came so close last year and over the whole season I think he has done a better job than Massa. And I think that he has an ace up his sleeve which was apparent at races such as Spa. If the difficulty factor goes up, he is a lot better than everyone else."