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  • Barcelona, March 2018. Despite his titles, the Mercedes-AMG Petronas driver remains as ambitious as ever.
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    “Is there such a thing as perfect?”

    Lewis Hamilton. The four-time World Champion. A perfect driver? Definitely not, he says.

    Text: Stephan Draf

“‘Perfect’ is not static; it’s a moving target.”

Lewis, your fans lifted you up over their heads after your British Grand Prix victory last year. How did that feel?

Interesting, I’d say. I’m just happy they didn’t drop me!

You are now a four-time Formula One World Champion, and arguably a perfect driver. Yet you’ve recently said that you’re not perfect by any means.

I don’t think anyone’s ever perfect. Look at Muhammad Ali or, currently, Roger Federer. Athletes like them are much closer to perfection than I am. If you’ve got it ‘perfect’, then you could just work to keep hitting that perfect note. But the fact is that ‘perfect’ is not static; it’s a moving target.


True teamwork: Hamilton works with the engineers to get everything just right.

True teamwork: Hamilton works with the engineers to get everything just right.


“Halo”, the new cockpit protection system, increases drivers’ safety considerably.

“Halo”, the new cockpit protection system, increases drivers’ safety considerably. (Valtteri Bottas here in the cockpit.)


“How did they do that?”

Are there any standards for perfection?

Ultimately we don’t know what ‘perfect’ is. It’s the discovery of it that counts. It changes as you get older, as you mature, as you grow mentally and physically – and later, when your power is waning. Then, perfection might be just being able to play a proper game of football.

Do you feel a renewed drive for perfection when the season starts?

It’s always a really exciting time of the year when you see the new car coming together. When I go to the ­B­­rackley factory in January, all these ideas are still floating around, the parts are arriving from all over, from all the departments. It’s fascinating to see how the team puts this puzzle together – not one piece is missing, it all fits. I always ask myself, “How did they do that?”


“I want to beat everyone.”

What goes through your mind when you get in a new car?

It’s like cracking a code. Every car requires a different equation, and I’ve got to figure out which one it is, even though I’m terrible at maths!

Is there a trial-and-error element to this?

There’s not much room for error: you can’t brake too late, for example, because you’ll lock up the tyre or go off and crash the car. There’s a lot riding on any mistake. You have to take millimetre steps, so it’s a long way to go.

Is it the idea of breaking records that keeps you going?

That’s never driven me.


Never?

No, it was never about breaking records. Ayrton Senna was my childhood hero and I’d always wanted to be a Formula One driver, so that came first. Then it was about winning a World Championship. Now that I’ve done that, it’s just about seeing how far I can go.

You’re not concerned with becoming the most successful driver in history?

No, not at all. That’s not my idea of perfection.

Is there anyone in particular you’d like to win against?

I want to beat everyone. It doesn’t matter what I’m competing in, I also want to beat my best friend in basketball. I’ve had that my whole life.


The F1 W09 EQ Power+ is the fastest Formula One car in the history of Mercedes.

The F1 W09 EQ Power+ is the fastest Formula One car in the history of Mercedes.


“It’s painful.”

Does that take away from the enjoyment?

No, no, I love that part. That’s why I generally don’t like testing days – there’s no competition. It’s like when you get a new toy and you have to build it: I don’t necessarily like the building part, I like to play with it.

When we last met, I asked you what a perfect lap would feel like. You said “It’s like playing PlayStation and chasing the ghost car that’s right in front of you. If you can’t overtake it, you might reach it at least ...”

When you’re chasing the clock, it’s like chasing a ghost car: there’s a perfect ghost that achieves a perfect time every single lap, and you try to match that. But the ghost car doesn’t face the same issues you face in a real race, like someone coming out of a pit stop and being ahead of you. When you’re doing a race and you lose half a second in a corner, it hurts because sometimes it takes you 10, 15 laps just to gain that half a second. Once you lose that, you think, “I just worked so hard.” You can maybe relate it to having money to pay off your mortgage or pay the rent, and then you get your tax bill. It’s painful.


“It can always get better.”

When you were a younger driver, did you have older drivers coming up to you and giving advice?

No, racing drivers are generally selfish [laughs]. We never talk to the other drivers really.

Did your father teach you anything?

He did. When I had just started karting, he would go around and see who was the fastest kid, the champion. He’d stand at the corners and find where the kid braked, and then set me a mark which was two metres past that spot and tell me, “You’ve got to brake here.” I did that so many times, and came off track every time. That’s why I’m one of the latest of brakers.

Did you and your father have what one might call a culture of error? In other words, were mistakes OK as long as you learned from them?

You know, we came from really humble beginnings and had a completely different mentality to those kids who never had to worry about having a bad race because they had enough money to keep going. For us, there was only a certain amount of opportunities, and we had to make the most of it. We Hamiltons preferred not to make any mistakes.


In retrospect, did that make you a better driver?

Yeah, definitely.

Thinking back, what made you able to withstand that pressure?

For me, it was the struggle. When you have to struggle with something, that’s what makes you strong.

Was there a moment in those days when you thought, “Man, I did it. It can’t get better than this.”

No. Never. It can always get better.

You’ve said that part of your motivation to be good is so that you can pay your family back – and your father in particular – for all of the things they did for you. Is that something that still drives you?

It’s more about not taking the opportunity for granted. I’m very conscious of where I came from and how tough it was for us. What my family did for me will remain relevant until the end of my career. I still can’t really understand how my dad did it, getting up so early, working several jobs. And he never knew whether all that work would ever pay off.


Multifaceted: These days, Hamilton is interested in fashion and design.

Multifaceted: These days, Hamilton is interested in fashion and design.


“I always looked left and right.”

You’ve focussed on driving for the last 25 years. Are there other things that you think you could be good at?

I always looked left and right, even as a teenager, even though driving was my sole focus, but bit by bit I’ve started to take some of the eggs I had in one basket and put them into others.

You go to many fashion shows. Are you personally into designing?

Yes.

And you take it quite seriously.

Of course. I try to take it all in. I get a couple of minutes with the designers backstage after the shows and I ask them what their inspiration is. Then I take pictures of all sorts of things, like the different fabrics and different trimmings, and I make notes of what I see.

Are there similarities between the fashion world and Formula One?

There are hundreds and hundreds of hours that go into making just one dress. Just like a fast car. And it’s over in a blink of an eye. Then, the next day, the designers are already thinking about the next set. It’s the same with us in Formula One: as soon as a season’s done, the next car is being built.


“Below is all of the hard work.”

Does fashion serve as a counterbalance to the technical demands of Formula One?

No. Creativity, I think, is one of the healthiest things in society. If you allow someone to explore their creativity, it really helps unlock the mind and it’s very stimulating. If you block kids from trying to experience something, you stop them from growing.

Did your family set a good example?

My dad is a great role model for a loving parent. The role he played in creating an opportunity for the family to go somewhere was perfect.


You’ve achieved great success together.

It’s not about the success or the money. Picture an iceberg: the part of it below the sea level is ten times the size of the part you see on top. Above the sea level is the success that you see, and below is all of the hard work. But people don’t see that. That’s why shows like X Factor are so successful – people just want to be rich and famous [snaps ­fingers] like that. But ultimately, that doesn’t really last. Especially in sport.


A pre-season ritual: a portrait of a confident man in the current racing suit

A pre-season ritual: a portrait of a confident man in the current racing suit.


“I’ve always admired that.”

What do you find impressive about Roger Federer?

His constant drive for perfection, his constant drive for greatness is so admirable. He’s a great family man, and when you meet him he’s one of the nicest people. On top of that, his presence and aura when he speaks after a match is mind-boggling – his speeches are really very good, emotional and at the same time polished.

What about Muhammad Ali?

Ali stood up for something he believed in. He put his career on the line for political reasons – I’ve always admired that. As a role model, he has shown me that even as one of only two or three black kids among 2,000 white kids, you can stand up for what you think.


“I don’t think there’s anything I’ve done yet that’s made the world a better place.”

It isn’t often talked about in the media, but you are also involved in some charity projects. Have you ever thought to yourself, “OK, today I made the world a slightly better place”?

No, I don’t think there’s anything I’ve done yet that’s made the world a better place. That’s what I’m still working towards. There are so many things you can do. It’s about finding something for which you feel your time would be valuable.

But you visit children with serious illnesses. Surely that makes some difference?

I met this great kid who really took to me. He was five when I met him, and he didn’t make it to his sixth birthday. In that instance, I realised I’ve had so much in my life. I’m in a good place and, if I could, I would swap places.

What makes this type of charitable work worthwhile to you?

I definitely think for a split second you can lift someone’s mood. A woman once approached me: she had read a book about me, and said my story had helped her through her leukaemia. I said, “How? You got yourself through those cancer treatments.” But she insisted that seeing the struggle I went through helped her get through the difficult process.


Does your faith help you lead a good life?

Hope and faith are some of the most powerful things we have in life. You’ve got to always hope for the best and that good, positive things will happen to you. It’s great to believe in something and feel comfort and support from something so powerful, something that connects so many people around the world. It can be a real compass, which is actually why I have a compass tattoo.

A working life compass – that must be a perfect feeling.

A good feeling, anyway. Is there such thing as perfect?