Lewis Hamilton: 'I nearly quit but I couldn't do it'

In a remarkably candid interview, Lewis Hamilton speaks to David Tremayne about watching Jenson Button win all the plaudits, bouncing back from the ‘Lie-gate’ scandal, and how he and his Pussycat Doll deal with unwanted attention
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So is Lewis Hamilton, the nonpareil who burst into Formula One two years ago, a better driver because of such an undoubtedly tough year? Despite a win and a second-place finish in the past three grands prix, the reigning world champion is no higher than seventh in the drivers' standings.

"I am, yeah," he replies. "But I think that's combined with all the experiences I've had in the past. I definitely feel I'm better, but I know I can be better still."

And there it is, early in our encounter, that fundamental belief that no matter how good you are, you can always be better. It is the cornerstone of this remarkable young driver's philosophy that has carried him so far, so quickly. In previous seasons, Hamilton, now 24, has had little experience of failure, so what has he learned from his reversals this season?

"I think I've been very fortunate in my career. Mine and my dad's philosophy has always been that we're winners. We always want to be the best, and to move forward you always have to win. I was very fortunate to come to this team, but I had a two-time world champion [Fernando Alonso] as my team-mate. He's for sure one of the most spectacular drivers that Formula One has seen for a long time. So to be alongside him in my first year, and to beat him, was huge.

"You do learn more in adversity, but I don't look at it as failure so much as just a tough time. There's always more you can learn. Every time I meet the engineers after the race you always believe you could have done more. It's impossible to do everything perfectly."

But the year so far has not been without its highs. In Hungary, he won against expectations. "I did always think we had the capacity to bounce back, and that if anyone could do it we could." He is referring, of course, to the task McLaren faced in closing the gap on Brawn GP and the other teams who were running the controversial diffusers that gave them such an advantage. "Going into Hungary we felt quite confident of a podium. That's just our way of thinking. We're not big heads, we don't go saying, 'Yeah, we're gonna win this weekend...' because you look like an idiot when you don't. We never thought of a win, so it was a bit of a surprise."

Hamilton doesn't dwell on low points. "I focus on the future and what's ahead of us, which is working on this car and pushing the guys. I'm pushing them as hard as I can to extract the best from them, and I've got to do the same for myself. You just think, 'What's next? How can I be better?' It's always been like this."

Except for "Lie-gate" earlier this year, when he was accused of lying to the race stewards in order to have Jarno Trulli thrown out of the Australian Grand Prix. That one clearly hurt. "It took a while to get over," he admits. "That was a very, very tough time."

He admits he considered quitting. "I wasn't messing around. When your emotions are high, you can think all kinds of things." He shrugs. "But what I never forgot was that I love motor racing. I can't really live without it."

Perhaps the problem is that too many people perceive F1 drivers to be superstars. "Everyone in the world is guilty of thinking superstars are perfect. You look at actresses – everyone thinks Angelina Jolie is the most perfect woman in the world. But I'm sure even she makes mistakes. I'm sure people like Brad Pitt even make mistakes.

"But, you know, we are human. Me and my girlfriend, we love to do the same things as you would do with your partner. And we all make mistakes. We can drive a car well, or we can drive like idiots sometimes."

How about the mistakes Hamilton didn't make? Very few people think he made a mistake at Spa last year, yet he was penalised out of a tremendous win, after allegedly cutting a chicane... He insists that a victory at Spa is still on his to-do list, though many believe he did just that in 2008.

"The support was great, and very much appreciated by myself, my family and the team. Spa was such an exciting race. The feeling inside you get when you have a race like that, then you don't have it, then you do have it, then you pray for rain and it rains, then you nearly lose but you have the win, and then it gets taken away – all these different things.

"It's motor racing, and it's a shame that sport has to come to all that where you have penalties through opinion rather than through facts."

This year much has been made of his downfall, and the rise of Jenson Button. "I don't think it's important to focus on that. I don't really read the stories," he says. Which is not the same as saying his father Anthony doesn't, and he keeps his son up to speed... "For sure, yeah! He has to look after me, that's his job. Jenson and I are good friends and we have a lot of respect for one another. He's been doing a fantastic job, and I enjoy racing with him."

This year it seems Hamilton has more cordial relations with fellow drivers than before. "There are things I shouldn't have said, mistakes I made, things they shouldn't have said. As a world champion, I think I've grown a lot and I'm slowly building a better relationship with the other drivers. I hit this world quite fast, and the guys who've been here for some time struggled with that. It's inevitable some people would be unhappy. But now they've seen me struggle, so they can't say I've never experienced that. We just have a much better understanding."

So here's the nub of it: what has the world championship meant to Hamilton? "Just growing up I always wanted to be able to say that I've achieved something," he begins. "I've always envied friends who have gone to university and got degrees, because I wasn't the most academic. I just wanted to make the family proud and to be good at one thing. So to win the world championship, I was just very, very proud. And after a year, I think I still don't fully understand it. It's still a dream. Sometimes it's very hard to grasp that I really did win it."

Bumps in the road: Hamilton's highs and lows

June 2007

First ever F1 victory in Montreal

October 2007

Finishes seventh at the Brazilian Grand Prix, failing to win the world title, after securing most ever wins and poles in a debut season

October 2007

Moves to Switzerland and criticised for 'tax dodging'

April 2008

Racially abused at the Spanish Grand Prix as a result of his conflict with local hero Fernando Alonso

September 2008

Judged to have gained an unfair advantage over Kimi Raikkonen at the Belgian Grand Prix and hit with a 25-second penalty

November 2008

Becomes youngest driver to win the F1 championship

March 2009

Dubbed 'Lie-gate' by the press, Hamilton is disqualified and docked points for misleading stewards after the Australian Grand Prix