The last thing Lewis Hamilton is prepared to consider right now, notwithstanding one of his most brilliant races, at Monza on Sunday when he humbled Ferrari, is whether a fifth world championship this season would be his greatest yet.
Never one to indulge in the folly of counting chickens before the hen has even laid the egg, he is all too aware that in this rollercoaster season anything could still happen over the remaining seven races.
“I don’t want to talk about the ifs and put anything out there just yet,” he said at Monza on Sunday evening as he savoured an unexpected success that stretched his world championship lead to 30 points over arch-rival Sebastian Vettel, with whom he clashed with briefly on the opening lap.
“The pressure’s so high that I’m just trying to deliver every single weekend. I feel I’ve been extracting more out of the car. But I think the last three wins, considering we definitely felt and know those weekends we’ve not had the upper hand, and we’ve been a step behind if not two steps behind, to finish ahead by one step is an incredibly proud feeling for everyone within the team. I’m sure that excitement is what is spurring us along.
“There’s still seven races to go, there’s still a lot of points and we are not being complacent at all. We know we’ve got to work even harder than they [Ferrari] are to either close the gap or deliver results like this more often. Today could have been easily the other way, we could have lost a lot of ground.
“Going into the race I was thinking about my GP2 race here years ago and the moment Ron [Dennis, the former McLaren chief who gave Hamilton his earliest chances in karting and later F1] told me he was going to give me the chance and the rollercoaster ride it’s been since then. Every race you want to find the right balance between being aggressive and making mistakes, and all these different things. You never know if you’re going to pull it off, or try and overdo it.
“Today, I did not want to walk away feeling I had left something on the table, thinking ‘if only I’d braked two metres later I could have passed him’. Naturally I love that wheel-to-wheel battle we had with Kimi, that’s honestly the thing I love most about racing. The most amazing feeling is those wheel-to-wheel battles. I had it in karting, I had it in GP2, every now and then you have it here in F1. When you do, it’s the greatest thing.”
Hamilton’s face always lights up at such moments, like a warrior savouring every battle. He carries that message, ‘Still I Rise’, a reference to Maya Angelou’s famous poem, on his helmet, and it’s part of an amazing racer’s ability to regenerate himself, to turn negativity to his own advantage and make it into a motivating positive. But on Sunday he said that had its roots in his tough racing in F1 than any hard times he may have known as a boy.
“I think it’s more to do with the time here and the difficulties I’ve had in F1, and the decisions and directions I’ve chosen to go physically and mentally,” he said. “You’ll never know how hard it is to prepare or to be in the mindset I have right now, to be consistent, to not make mistakes, to continuously deliver. It takes everything, and more. I don’t just arrive with it, I have to work for it every single day. Especially with the season being so long, it’s not easy to stay in that same mental state.
“You’re holding on to something that you don’t even know where it is. It’s like magic in you. It’s difficult to explain. There are races before this where you feel more comfortable and there are races where you feel less at ease. This race I definitely felt less at ease, I had two Ferraris ahead of me, so how do I get past them, how do I not lose seven points today or more? That pressure’s high.”
There are seven more occasions for which he must build that mindset if he is to take a fifth crown, and he knows that arch-rival Vettel will be feeling exactly the same thing as they head to Singapore. Hamilton won there last year, but traditionally it’s a Mercedes bogey track and his success owed much to another mistake that Vettel made when he took out his own team-mate and fast rival Max Verstappen at the start.
“The heat is there, the intensity is there,” he acknowledged. “It’s unavoidable for me and him. It’s very difficult for people watching who are not in it to feel what we feel. The pressure is... I don’t even know what word to use for it. It’s at its highest I can ever remember. That’s the pressure you put on yourself because you want to succeed, it’s the pressure of your desires and fears, and of all the people who are depending on you, which is a lot of people.
“It’s been an incredible day. I’m going to be smiling all day tomorrow.”
Who will be smiling the most seven races hence, nobody knows, and that’s why F1’s 2018 season is without question the greatest in years.
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