Hamilton racing back to the top
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 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.