Winter of reflection has Lewis Hamilton predicting sunshine

After analysing life off and on the track, McLaren driver believes he can contest the world title again, he tells David Tremayne

It was 2008 when Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren last shot away from the grid leaving the pack in his wing mirrors at the start of a season. He went on to win the title in what was his second run in F1. This year, he is in the right frame of mind to add another world championship, provided his car is up with the Red Bull.

That, of course, is the big question. McLaren have not had a really strong start since '08. The 2009 season was a disaster, while 2010 and 2011 got off to only reasonable starts. In those last three years, McLaren demonstrated their strength by making their cars winners long before the end of the season. But they paid for their delay in reaching peak competitiveness. In 2010 and 2011 Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull ruled the garage, making the German the heir to Michael Schumacher that Hamilton had seemed to be after his first two seasons. It is a point that rankles with the man who lost the title by a point in his rookie year.

Testing form is notoriously difficult to assess, as only the teams know how much fuel they were carrying when they set their best times. The top 10 2012 cars were separated by less than a second after pre-season in Spain. But fuel loads vary between 10kg and 160kg and each 10kg can add 0.3sec to lap times. Hamilton, nevertheless, shares the belief at McLaren that he and Jenson Button will start 2012 much closer to Red Bull.

"I actually feel more relaxed and ready for the new season than I think I've ever done," he says. "Unlike last year everything has gone smoothly with the car and it just seems to be a responsive and reliable package. My final day, running the aero package we plan to run at the weekend, also felt good: the car was a definite step forward. Of course, we haven't tested it in competition yet but there's plenty to feel optimistic about. It's a bit weird to have driven the car for a whole month and still not to have done a really fast lap – I guess we'll really find the limit on Saturday."

The McLaren team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, says the team will not know the pecking order until the first of the three practice sessions for the Australian Grand Prix, at Melbourne's Albert Park on Friday, when everyone will run in the same specification and on the same tyres for the first time.

Hamilton says: "Obviously, this is the time of year when you're feeling positive but we've got plenty to look forward to. I'm going to get off the plane in Australia with a big smile on my face."

This is very different to the hangdog man who haunted the McLaren garage in Korea last year, where even pole position did little to improve his mood. Hamilton puts his sunnier disposition down to a winter in Los Angeles spent looking into what went wrong. He received more publicity for clashing with Felipe Massa and being beaten on points by a team-mate – Button – for the first time than he did for three fine victories.

"I analysed races, went through different graphs of race traces and tried to see where my strengths were, the races where I was quite strong and the races where I can improve. And there's definitely quite a few where I can improve. It's more all about being in the right place at the right time. In Malaysia, for example, I flat-spotted a tyre which then led to me having to use the wrong set of tyres which then led to me running seventh which then led to me having a penalty with Fernando [Alonso]. It's just trying to avoid those pitfalls."

Or the all-too frequent clashes with Massa, or the collision with Kamui Kobayashi that took him out of the Belgian Grand Prix at his beloved Spa. All of these incidents were atypical errors.

"I think that's just a case of being more switched on, more aware of your surroundings, being more alert," he says. "That's what I've tried to make sure I am."

He adds, in explanation of a mid-season when everything seemed to go awry: "I had a lot going on in my life at the time, my mind was not clear. And when your mind isn't clear your decisions are overshadowed, you aren't able to think clearly, you can't make clear decisions."

Getting the best out of Pirelli's fragile rubber was the least of his problems, as his relationship with Nicole Scherzinger (pictured left) faltered and he seemed to spend more time socialising off the track than thinking about his job on it. The much more grounded Button came to the fore. The 2009 champion's mobile comfort zone – comprising father John, girlfriend Jessica Michibata, manager Richard Goddard and a few close friends from his schooldays – has not gone unnoticed by Hamilton. He and Scherzinger are back together and XIX Entertainment has appointed the former world champion Mika Hakkinen's manager, Didier Coton, as his advisor. It's a smart move. Hamilton has also moved from Geneva to Monaco.

"I just fancied a change," he says. "It was a bit boring where I was living before, not many people around. Where I've moved to there are quite a lot of people that I know, quite a lot of the drivers are there. So there's a bit more of a social life, there's better weather, it's by the sea, so overall a bit better. I can meet up with quite a few of the drivers if I want to do training and my trainer is also just up the road. I've settled down quite well. When I'm in Europe I plan to spend more time at home."

Last Thursday, Hamilton spent the day whirling hacks around the Top Gear track at Dunsfold in the GT3 racing version of a McLaren MP4-12C sportscar.

"Definitely I still have the same excitement as when I started racing," he chuckles. "Even messing around in that car, I was still very much a kid with a new toy. I can't wait to get back into the race car. In 2009 I wasn't too keen to get into it! But the last couple of years the cars were not too bad, and this one does feel better than it did this time last year. I hope that counts for something.

"I enjoyed all the recent testing and each day I wanted to do more and more laps, but we ran out of time. I'm really looking forward to getting back out and racing, especially in Australia which is one of my favourite places."

Hamilton baulks at a suggestion that success might have come too easily early in his career.

"What people tend to forget is the journey that I had getting to F1," he says. "There were plenty of ups and downs, plenty of years where I had to do learning of losing and having bad races. So I've had that coming up but it's a bit different in F1: you're stuck in front of millions of people and comments are made. If I'm really honest, I'm pretty sure that if the car was the same as it was in 2007 and 2008 I think you'd be seeing a different person sitting here, but that wasn't the case. I'd love to be sitting here with three world championships under my belt. But it's not the case. But I definitely don't regret what's happened and the experiences I've had. I think I'm better for it and hopefully that will help with future races."

This is no ordinary season for a man who soon has to decide whether to stay at McLaren or perhaps look to Red Bull.

"I hope that it's a new phase, a new stage in my life," he says, "but the only way to know that is from the results. I really can't predict what's going to happen. Every year you prepare yourself and then you get to the first race and lots of things happen after that. I just need to keep my head screwed on for the whole year. Winning a world championship like this one, with so many great world champions out there... It'll definitely be one of the most valuable."

Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One chief executive, supports Hamilton, though he says Red Bull will stay on top. "Lewis is a huge talent – that has not changed," Ecclestone says. "He probably was mentally a bit unstable last year and that resulted in a situation where he didn't show his full potential.

"I dare to predict if both are able to show their full potential, Lewis will be in front of Jenson, because in the end, he's faster." If that comes to pass, Hamilton will be happier still.

Sport
world cup 2014A history of the third-place play-offs
News
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
The Mexico chief finally lets rip as his emotions get the better of him
world cup 2014
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Sport
Yaya Touré has defended his posturing over his future at Manchester City
News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Life and Style
beauty
Sport
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice