You always know where you are with Lewis Hamilton.
After finishing Thursday practice here in Monaco only 0.105sec adrift of Fernando Alonso's Ferrari – and crucially ahead of Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull – the 2008 world champion was upbeat, bubbling with adrenaline.
"I just love driving the car here," he began. "It's the best thing I've ever done. It's so exciting. You can't afford to make mistakes, the car feels amazing when you're jumping from kerb to kerb, and there's no room for error. I want to win this grand prix."
Of course, Hamilton the racer wants to win every grand prix. He did just that in China, and he finished only six-tenths behind Vettel in Spain last week after a sensational drive in a car that has less downforce than the reigning world champion's. Now, in the demanding streets of Prince Albert's Principality, where he won in 2008, he senses his best chance yet in a year in which McLaren have yet to match Red Bull's crucial aerodynamic advantage.
"They're not unbeatable, because I beat them in China, and unbeatable isn't the way I like to think," he says when asked to assess the level of threat Red Bull presents to his and McLaren's title aspirations. "But they've got a package that's working."
There's no hint of sour grapes as Hamilton says this, no sense that he feels disadvantaged or hard done to, no glimpse of the frustration that he must inevitably be feeling in another season of playing catch-up.
"I have no idea why their package is so good," he continues. "It's just when you look at them they just look like they don't have the things we have. I asked Mark [Webber] just now, when was the last time you had oversteer?" He laughs ruefully. "He was, like, 'what's that?'"
It's important to understand that Hamilton isn't denigrating a team that works day and night to try and give him a winning car, just making observations, being honest. Of course he pushes his engineers at McLaren as hard as he knows how, but it's a constructive process, neither destructive nor disrespectful. He gives them as much objective feedback as he can muster, and they feed it into the design-and-development process. It's how things get done at this very elevated level, where so much depends on how well a driver meshes with his scientific team. But how long will it take to get closer?
"Your guess is as good as mine. I really can't tell you," he says with a shrug. "Week by week I go and see the guys and I'm pushing and pushing and they are pushing and pushing really hard, and there are moments when they say, 'We've found a second, or half a second.' 'OK, so when do we get that?' 'We might have it by the next race.' You get to the next race and that iteration just doesn't work, so then you have to wait for the next race and you get there and the next iteration doesn't work again. So all this data is being collected and eventually we'll get there..."
It's a perfect snapshot of current life as a Formula One driver who isn't with Red Bull. Talk to Fernando Alonso at Ferrari or Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, and they'll tell you similar stories. But how does Hamilton – by nature an impatient man, because no grand prix driver worth the name ever is anything else – handle the frustration? Doesn't he find himself wanting to explode at times?
"Not really, because we are the second fastest team, and we can split the Red Bulls, and there aren't many drivers who can do that, if any. I feel pretty good about that."
But it's a while since he was the man to beat, as Alonso often found him to be in 2007 when they had their tense time as team-mates chez McLaren, or in 2008 when he took on and beat the Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen to earn what is so far his sole title. But in Spa last year he gave a timely reminder of the level of his skill, widely believed to be matched only by his Spanish adversary.
You never talk to him long on the subject of drivers before Alonso's name crops up, as his main rival, the one he has to fight. Vettel sprang to true prominence in 2010, but it's clear that Alonso is Hamilton's true focus.
"It's for many reasons, that I'm not going to express," he says quietly. "There are reasons for that, that I can't really say."
You can read into that the intensity of their rivalry which boiled over in Hungary four years ago, where McLaren chiefs insist the Spaniard demanded that they run the Englishman out of fuel in the race and favour his own world-title campaign instead for the remainder of the year. That would be enough for any top driver to close the door on cordiality.
Hamilton won't be drawn on any of that, but laughs instead as he insists: "I can tell you that he's fast. He's fast. And he's the highest paid driver here, I'm sure, in Formula One. Of all the world champions currently racing here, apart from Michael [Schumacher], he's the only double champion. And apart from Michael, he's had the most success, and he's probably the most fearsome driver on the track."
Nevertheless, he likes the idea that his deadly rival will be on the scene until at least 2016, after signing an extension to his Ferrari deal. "I think that's good for him. He's happy in the team and he's said that he wants to finish his career there. He's looking at that period of his life. He's not exactly on the final run, but I guess we can race for 15 years. He came in in 2001, whereas I'm just ending my first five-year period so I'm in my middle stint and he's looking towards his last five years. Though I think he mentioned that, hopefully, after this next six years, he might sign another contract. He'd only be 35!"
It's when you ask whether he believes he is operating at the same level as Alonso that Hamilton gives you a key insight into the way a champion's mind works. "I wouldn't say that I drive on the same level as anyone," he says immediately, before pausing. "If you ask Fernando, I'm sure that he would say that he drives on a higher standard than anyone. Every driver has to believe that. If I believe that I just drive on a similar standard to Fernando, then I will never be the best."
Alonso won the title in 2005 and again in '06, but lost out narrowly last year. Many believe him to be the best out there, apart from those who point out how Hamilton, the rookie, embarrassed him at McLaren. But what, in Hamilton's opinion, is the difference between a champion and a great champion?
"That, again, I have to keep to myself," he says. "Because Formula One is not like go-karting, where it's raw racing. Formula One is political as well, so it's a wider picture, bigger than just the driving talent. When I won the championship I was racing with the Ferraris and there were times when I had failures and they had failures, but I had penalties and I don't think they had any. Then you look at championships where you saw Michael win, or Ayrton [Senna] and Alain [Prost] years and years ago. That's as far as I go back in terms of seeing when the politics started to come in.
"A real champion, I guess, is always smiling whether he does good or bad, and is good in a good and a bad car and carries the weight of the team on his shoulders."
Like Alonso, Hamilton has often been accused of being too aggressive, but he counters: "Everyone has the right to have opinions and it doesn't really affect me. If I wasn't aggressive enough, I'm sure McLaren wouldn't have wanted to sign me. But I'm always altering things, always learning. For example, in Turkey on the first lap, I went a bit wide because I was too aggressive ... Would I do it again? Yes, but I would do it in a different way and I would pull it off. I've been racing that way since I was eight years old, and that's what helped me win [titles] in every class I've ever done."
So has he ever felt invincible? "No."
Not even when he scored a brilliant victory in the wet British GP at Silverstone in 2008, which he still regards as his day of days?
"No," he says, choosing his words carefully. "I don't know if I ever felt invincible there... No, because you know what, any moment something could have happened. If ever you feel you are invincible, you just open yourself up to risks. If you're in the lead and you think, 'Oh, I've got this in the bag' – if something happens you feel like an idiot. So no, I've never, ever felt invincible."
Back in 1988 here, Hamilton's idol Senna had that very feeling, then promptly crashed out of the lead. Hamilton, the man who says he is always learning, will remember that if he finds himself ahead of the Red Bulls and Ferraris tomorrow.Reuse content