Friday, November 07, 2008

Lewis Hamilton and schizophrenia

'Lewis Hamilton'. Discuss.

It's sometimes difficult to know if Lewis Hamilton is the new Ayrton Senna or the new Nigel Mansell. By common consent, Lewis drove immaculately in 2007, his rookie F1 season, until the final couple of races, when he made a couple of errors and threw away the championship. At the time, those errors were ascribed to inexperience, the impetuosity of youth, and the understandable anxiety of fighting to close out a championship. Strangely, however, Lewis carried his late-season 2007 form into 2008, and spent the entire year alternating between brilliance and bathos.

December's Motorsport magazine contains a Nigel Roebuck interview with Lewis, and constitutes the first serious interview Lewis has conducted with a specialist journalist. The interview seems to reveal that there are very much two Lewis Hamiltons. One is calm and rational in the McLaren way, rising above provocation; the other is emotional and easily provoked.

Lewis spends a fair portion of the interview talking about two things: (i) the incident at Spa in 2007, when then-teamate Alonso forced him off the road; and (ii) drivers who generally get in the way or try to intimidate and provoke.

Consider Lewis's comments about the first incident: "If I had...wanted to hold my position, we'd have crashed[...]But I'm not like that - I'm big enough to be able to walk away[...]You have to be a big man in a situation like that. I could have been, you know...'I don't care, I'm going into this corner flat out, do or die', just to make a point, but it just wouldn't have been a very smart thing to do, would it? I don't think you're losing out if you do back off in that situation - I think being a bigger man has many more positives, quite honestly."

Which is all fine and good, and one can almost hear Ron Dennis's calm, ethical guidance echoing like Obi Wan Kenobi in Lewis's head. However, Lewis then adds this:

"In the incident here at Spa last year, I said to myself, 'I know what he's just done to me', and it did knock me in a sense. I mean, if I'd got close to him, I would have gone up the inside, and he would have been on the grass - I would have put him into a position where he would have tried to turn, and I would have let him know that I was there...but still fair. Otherwise, though, I wasn't retaliating."

So, not retaliating then, and still playing fair, but nevertheless putting your team-mate off the road if the opportunity arises. There seems to be an element of the Dark Side of the Force creeping in here, and one senses that Lewis is often trying to talk himself into believing things that, deep down, he doesn't believe.

Consider then Lewis's comments on the general conduct of other drivers:

"On the track I've always been polite, I've never really got in people's way - although there are a lot of drivers who do, and I look at that calmly[...]I don't do that, but there are some idiots here, who'll stay in front of you to hold you up, or they'll back off into you, and the way I see it, they only do that because they see you as a threat - so in a way it's a kind of compliment, I suppose[...]I can kind of see through them. I don't think there are many who deliberately use intimidation tactics - well, there is one, but I'm not going to say who it is, because I don't want to speak negatively about any other driver. We've all got flaws, in one way or another. Mind you, I think a lot of them continue to ignore their flaws."

Bear in mind here that these comments were made before Lewis's Spa penalty, and before all the other drivers in the paddock came out and criticised Lewis's overtaking manoeuvre at Spa. In the wake of that criticism, Lewis drove an extremely robust race at Monza, chopping Alonso, putting Glock on the grass, and banging wheels with Webber. One felt watching that race that Lewis was racing with a very strong sense of injustice, and that it was pay-back time for those three drivers in particular. One can only speculate on which driver Lewis considers to be deliberately intimidative, but my money would be on Mr Webber, who appears to specialise in high-speed intimidation (see Webber vs. Massa, Fuji 2008 and Webber vs. Alonso, Suzuka 2005), and also had the temerity to deem Lewis a dangerous driver after Fuji this year.

A number of Lewis's errors this year seem to have been borne of emotion: he ran into Alonso in Bahrain because he was rattled at fluffing his start; he ran in Raikkonen in the pit-lane at Canada because he was rattled at losing the lead in the pit-stop; he made a mis-judgement in France because he was rattled at the injustice of receiving a penalty for the pit-lane incident; he mis-judged qualifying at Monza because he was rattled at the injustice of the Spa penalty; and he overshot at the first corner at Fuji because he was rattled at losing the lead to Raikkonen.

Lewis Hamilton is a proper racer. He loves overtaking, and loves sliding the rear end of the car through a corner. Nevertheless, there is fundamentally a tension in Lewis's driving persona between his rational side and his emotional side. The emotional side is opened up if he becomes the victim of injustice, either at the hands of the FIA, or at the hands of other drivers, and this emotional side skews Lewis's better judgement. In a sense, this is completely understandable, and one suspects that most of us would react in a similar fashion. However, as Nigel Roebuck remarks elsewhere in the same issue of Motorsport, "until [Hamilton] is more selective in when to go for it and when not, he will never be as good as he thinks he is".

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