Controversy has followed Lewis Hamilton with all the zeal of a stalking Fernando Alonso, ever since he came into Formula One in 2007. He has the grace to burst into a huge smile when the subject is mentioned – and he knows what's coming: a probing into the mindset of a prodigiously talented young man who is never far from success, or trouble.
For Hamilton was entangled in a war with Alonso at McLaren in 2007. And many called into question his sporting spirit after "Liegate", when he misled stewards after passing Jarno Trulli under the yellow flag in Australia last year. Then there's "Hoongate" (which best translates into the Queen's English as "Idiot-gate") only last weekend, after he was stopped by police for "driving in an over-exuberant manner" on the streets outside the Melbourne circuit. An Australian politician went so far as to describe Hamilton as a "dickhead".
"I don't know if I'm the one who seems to have more problems than anyone else," Hamilton says, sounding genuinely bemused. "I guess that's what comes of being competitive. Sometimes you let your true character come out for one second, and you're not really allowed to."
That certainly seems to be what happened on the streets of Melbourne. The full details of that incident have not yet come out. Well, not until now.
It has been largely assumed that Hamilton's wheel-spinning antics were a case of an F1 driver showing off to members of the public. That's not the total story, according to a well-placed source. Hamilton was one F1 driver toying with another.
For Bruno Senna was in his own road car, waiting to turn at a set of traffic lights on a street just outside the circuit. As red turned to green, a certain young former world champion was approaching in his Mercedes. It must have been too good an opportunity to miss: Hamilton pulled a power slide, right across Senna's bow, beating him into the turn. Irresponsible? Well, Mark Webber has described Melbourne as a "Nanny State". And petrol-heads everywhere have asked: isn't that what young racing drivers are meant to do?
Hamilton certainly drove "exuberantly", like a champion, as he climbed from 11th to third place last weekend before a crucial decision to stop for fresh tyres, unlike his nearest rivals, dropped him back to fifth and a collision with Webber put him back finally to sixth on the day when team-mate Jenson Button won.
His racing was a joy to watch, the ultimate answer to all the criticism he'd encountered on a bruising weekend. "Definitely!" he grins. "When you are having a tough weekend, like I was having..." he pauses and smirks, like a naughty schoolboy, and considers carefully what he wants to say. "Things can change so fast in this sport. You can go from being a hero to zero in a second. I don't think maybe that feeling is the case with fans, but it is with the whole world, that's how it is. The way the weekend was going I just prayed on it, and focused, and gathered myself in the best way to prepare myself for Sunday and really just hoped that I could shine through with a good performance. That's what I do best. I've always said the racing part is what I do best."
The passion he brings to his driving became clear in the radio conversation he had with his team, as he blasted them for imposing such a race strategy upon him. I put it to him that it was very much heat of the moment stuff, illuminating in terms of what you have to bring to your game.
"When you're in the car it's incredible what our minds are capable of. I think when you're outside it, you're not able to tap into all the resources you have in your mind. When I'm in the car the passion I have for winning, the drive and determination which I've had all my life, I don't know where it comes from. But it's really what's got me here and won me the world championship, what pulls me through weekends like that.
"In the car when you're driving you are focusing on everything that's in there, but you have to be able to communicate with the team, switch the radio on, speak when you can."
All this while racing wheel-to-wheel at up to 200mph with hard men like Alonso or Robert Kubica, both of whom called Hamilton's overtaking bluff in Melbourne, by staying out on their one set of tyres, laying down the gauntlet for him to pass them.
"When your heart is racing," he begins, looking for an example, "if you go running and you are sprinting to the finish line... well, the whole race is a sprint to the finish line, but for an hour and a half your heart is at the limit, and I've probably never before been on that limit that I experienced last weekend. That was a new limit – almost – for me. I've been to the limits before, but it felt like it was a new step, an awesome feeling.
"I think it's difficult for people to appreciate. When I get out of the car my heart is still racing. I take my helmet off and get weighed and go straight into the press conference or for a debrief. I'm still out of breath but I don't want to look like that."
Small wonder that James Hunt once punched a well-meaning marshal, as he climbed from his damaged McLaren in Canada in 1977, because his mind and adrenaline were still pumping at a wholly different level.
Or that Hamilton had some hard words for his engineers after the pit-stop strategy that failed him in Melbourne. His initial reaction was to feel betrayed by those on whom he had to rely the most strongly, the very guys who should be helping the most. To outsiders it seemed graceless, a calumny upon the team that has given him so much. In reality, it was just a highly passionate man who had been driving his heart out, venting steam when things went against him.
It's one of the fascinations of a great sport. Today, as he speaks, Hamilton is his usual affable, open self. His hair is cut short, he needs a shave, his smile is relaxed and friendly. Situation normal. This is no façade, but there is no doubt that drivers change personality when they get behind the wheel. Forget road rage or anything so crass, we are talking about intensity, focus and commitment, the phenomenal release of all that pent-up passion. The guy who looks and sounds so calm and rational and downright centred when he's talking on a Friday evening becomes a very different animal when five red lights go out on a Sunday afternoon.
"The competitiveness and the speed of these cars and the accuracy you need gets more and more, and the pressure we are under as the sport and the teams grow and the sponsors come on board," Hamilton says, "is incredible."
He is, he admits, often more comfortable when he is in the race car than when he is out of it. Some suggest that he missed the calming influence of father Anthony in Melbourne. Hamilton disagrees. "In the past, sometimes, Dad and I would talk about things like that, sometimes we wouldn't. This time I dealt with it myself, but I had great support from the team and good friends, and I still had my family on the other end of a phone."
He admits that he is in the process of looking for a new manager, but says he has no reason to rush into anything that he might later regret. And he sounds mystified by David Coulthard's suggestion that he should seek a father figure without delay.
"I don't know what he meant by that. I disagree, because I had my dad there the whole time and he still is there, he's still my dad. It's not always necessary to have your dad standing next to you."
In some ways, Button winning was the worst possible result for Hamilton, but Lewis doesn't see it that way. "Jenson has done an incredible job," he says immediately. "And he is so easy to get on with. There's no negative energy whatsoever, it's really fantastic. He's very laid-back and chilled." And despite being angry initially over his crew's choice of strategy in Melbourne, Hamilton insists that he was happy for his team-mate when he won.
"I was very supportive of him, and at some stage when I win I'm sure he'll be supportive of me. We are a team. Inevitably, at the end of the year, you want to be ahead of him..."
So there wasn't even a hint of the green-eyed monster after Melbourne? "I was cool straight away when I went to the garage," he says quickly, like it really matters to him. "Straight away I was fine with my engineers, who were a bit down and I said, 'Look, we've got a lot of races ahead of us and this is a learning curve for both of us'.
"To see everyone in their red tops [worn whenever McLaren win] always makes me happy. I went into my room and changed, put my red top on proudly. All the members of the team collectively added to that result, and while Jenson did the job out there we all contributed to it so we could all share the success."Reuse content