The chartered jet lands at Inyokern Airport just before noon on the Monday before Christmas. Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, just three weeks removed from the 2017 season finale and not two months since he clinched his fourth world title, disembarks from the rented plane along with a half dozen or so friends. Following a campaign that saw him win nine races to bring his career tally to 62 (second only to Michael Schumacher’s 91) and claim his 72nd pole position—the all-time record ahead of Schumacher’s 68 and the late Ayrton Senna’s 65—it’s a bit incongruous to see Hamilton hanging around this small desert airfield 145 miles northeast of Los Angeles. For the 32-year-old Briton, though, it’s the final stop on his 2017 work schedule after flying in from Los Angeles, where he spent several days in business meetings. Now, on his way to the Vail, Colorado, area, where he owns a ranch dubbed the “MegaZone,” his Mercedes-AMG employer has requested he make a detour from beginning his vacation in order to shoot some photos alongside his championship-winning race car and the company’s forthcoming Project One supercar. The company offered us a rare chance for some one-on-one time with the driver former McLaren teammate Jenson Button recently dubbed “the quickest guy that has ever driven a Formula 1 car.”
Automobile Magazine: What’s the big activity during your vacation?
Lewis Hamilton: Well, the next few days, we snowboard. We do snowmobiling. We do night paintballing in the snow. It’s just chilling out. A lot of gaming. We play a lot of video games, a lot of board games.
AM: Which video games are you into?
LH: “Call of Duty.”
AM: Not racing or car-related games?
LH: No, I don’t play those games much, really. The one I just played this year is the new “Gran Turismo,” which is sick. It’s really, really f****** good. It’s crazy to see because I had the first one, and to see it develop and how it is today, it’s super-impressive. I’ve got the steering wheel and a professional seat setup where we’re going today [in Colorado]. So we’ll have it set up, and we can play two-player. I’m excited about that.
AM: At this stage of your career, what do you think of the perception of you as portrayed by the traditional F1 press? You catch a lot of flak from European media for some of the things you do during your personal time, like jetting around the world to various events between races and hanging out with other celebrities, like Justin Bieber.
LH: I think it’s always been the case since I’ve been in Formula 1. There’s always been negativity, but, I mean, I generally don’t tend to focus on that. I think when I started to do these different things, people definitely commented on it and had opinions about it. Then they would say [I’m] not focused. It was a lot of work to kind of break the mold, break the shape of [what] people would expect a racing driver to be. This is a new day and age, and I’m the new. It’s not for others to decide what I am as a racing driver. It’s for me to discover and kind of watch it unfold. I think it’s been cool because I’ve been doing these different things and then I turn up and win, so they can’t say, really, anything. It’s just that I think we’re all a little different, and we should all strive to be different and shouldn’t shy away from it. But there are people in the world that tend to crawl into their shell and feel that they need to be a certain way because people expect them to be that way.
AM: Do you feel like you get more or less or the same amount of that criticism compared to in the past?
LH: I don’t know, and to be honest I don’t ever read the stuff. I really don’t care. Zero f**** is the term that I use. I know I’ve got my closest people around me. I’m still close to my family. Still have the same values as when I started out. Of course, people that tune in today, they see me at the top. They only see the success. They don’t see everything that I’ve done to be where I am today. People definitely don’t appreciate that. Some people don’t. I’m just trying to get in as much as I can in the time that I have whilst not losing performance. Then I have other things to move on to when I stop rather than being stuck where I currently am, which I would prefer not to be.
AM: Speaking of other things to do, your aunt died from cancer in 2012, and you’ve made a point before about how that impacted you …
LH: Definitely. We all go through some experiences that … they talk about building character and helping you prioritize and redirect your focuses. I think for me with my auntie, I think it was really [the case]. I mean naturally when someone tells you on their deathbed that they had been planning to do these things and then they’ve run out of time—I imagine how that is because a lot of people do that. My mom and friends have worked day in and day out and sacrificed things for the future, and then when you run out of road, you don’t get to do those things. It was definitely sad to see that, and just in that moment my auntie made me promise I was going to live life to the max and do everything and not hold back.
AM: How does that manifest with you?
Growing up in Stevenage, sitting with my mom and not having— We’d walk down to the bus stop to take a bus to town because we didn’t have a car. It’s just crazy to think I have cars now.
LH: Not wait until I’m 40 to go skiing. She was like, live in the now and not … obviously have a balance in the now and in the future, but live now, so for me that’s a massive highlight. That’s what I’m going to do. You just never know when … I’m still of the mindset you just never know when your day is up. A best friend of ours here today, her friend just got a call yesterday from the doctor saying that the friend only has one month to live. When that happens, what are you going to do? Hopefully that doesn’t happen to any of us, but it does happen in the world, and accidents happen, s***. I just want to know that if [my time is] cut short that I did everything up until that point in my life that I could.
AM: How do you manage to do all of the globe-trotting and other things you do between races yet still maintain peak performance in the car?
LH: I think I’m just used to it. My friends always say to me, “I don’t understand where you get the energy,” because I do usually have a lot of energy. I’m doing a lot of things. I think it’s really about how I’m able to switch off between the jobs or between racing. I can completely compartmentalize it, put it in the box, wait, close the drawer, wait until I need to focus on it. It doesn’t drain me.
AM: Is that a key point you’ve learned about human performance over the years?
LH: I guess it’s through trial and error. I’ve put tons of time into training [in the past] and then found it’s actually been worse for my performance if I don’t do anything else and only train every single day, with no other stimulation mentally. I perform worse [with that approach], so then it’s just about bit by bit taking it to here and dividing that 100 percent battery life you have. Dividing it a certain way across the different things that you plan on doing. Have some remaining so that you can use it for the racing. Do you know what I mean?
AM: In terms of dividing that energy, how much of your downtime is spent reviewing data from the racetrack?
LH: Yeah, yeah, that takes a lot of time. All the flights that I’m on, the long flights, I’m studying. When I’m in my hotel room, I’m studying. When I’m at the tracks, I’m studying. When I go back to the team’s factory, we’ll have a meeting, and they’re constantly sending me files and emails regarding car setup. All these different things, and we’ll go back and forth about setup, things we tested with, things that we might want to try. Then all the changes I make through the weekend. I wouldn’t say they use what I dictate, but I lead it. I make a general decision in that respect.
AM: Modern F1 teams collect so much data. How do you sort it all out in limited time?
LH: I have an engineer who’s got massive confidence in me. He knows there are times I come in and I’m like, s***, I’ve got four options of things to change. I’m not quite sure which ones they are, but this is my problem, or this [other thing] is my problem. Then we have that discussion; can we use that one or that one? The majority of the time, for like 90 percent of the time, I come in and I’m like, I need this. I’ve got this understood here. Change, you know, one [minor] setting lower or whatever it may be. That just comes with experience.
AM: Grand Prix cars are incredibly complex; is there one item in particular you absolutely have to get right every week?
LH: There’s not one point. There are so many pieces to the puzzle that have to come together. So tires are crucial, tire temperature, tire usage is of course crucial. [But overall] on-track setup is everything. It’s like, if I explain it like roads, you got a road that’s this length, this length, this length, and longer. You want to set the car up on the one that can go the furthest, basically, in terms of potential. You know what I mean? Sometimes you go on the wrong road with the setup and you limit yourself and you just can’t take it any further. Most times you just hit a wall, but if you get on the right path for the setup, it’s a longer … this is a really bad usage of terminology, but it’s a longer road, so you can really push the car further and expand more and extract more from it.
AM: Do you ever stop and look at your career, 11 years in, and think—surreal might not be the correct word here because everybody’s life is surreal in a lot of ways …
AM: But the reality is, your stats are piling up year after year, and you still appear to have a long way to go before you stop. Do you allow yourself to sit and smile about this stuff now, or are you saving those thoughts for when you’re finished in the sport?
LH: Yeah, I think for me, I think after I did the last race of 2017 and it just didn’t stop, there was no moment to stop. I just had days and days and days and days of PR events. I was at the factory, in the wind tunnel looking at the new car, the engineers talking to me about how the new car is going to be. Can’t stop for a second, really. Obviously now I’ll go away today and these next days I’ll be off for, so I’ll be sitting down, but I still don’t ever—of course when we talk about it, I’m like, it’s crazy how far we’ve come. But I don’t know. I think my ambition kind of overshadows it or clouds it because I’m just super-ambitious. Done one thing. I’m moving to the next thing. It’s just a tick, you know what I mean? It’s oh, wow, I’ve achieved it. It’s just now the next focus. It’s really, I’ve found a long-lasting game of chess, but there are lots of checkmates along the way.
AM: To your earlier point about maximizing every day, though, you do seem to absorb it as it happens, yes?
LH: You know I have a checkmate in lots of different things, moving to the next, what’s next, how can I better it? How can I grow? I’ve got so many things that I want to achieve, and the only question is—it’s not a question of if I can do it. It’s a question of time. I’m incredibly fortunate to do the things that I do. Look where we are today. I’m landing on the fricking plane this morning, and I’m thinking to myself, this just doesn’t seem real. It’s literally a fricking dream that I live. Because growing up in Stevenage, sitting watching a TV show with my mom and not having—we’d walk down to the bus stop to take a bus to town because we didn’t have a car. It’s just crazy to think I have cars now. It still doesn’t—even for my mom when she comes and sees the things that we have, even for her it doesn’t feel—it just feels weird. I don’t think I mentioned she had jobs and struggled so much. Now we do things, and it’s, I don’t know, it feels good, but it just feels very surreal.
AM: So that was the right word then.
LH: Every single day it feels surreal because it just doesn’t feel like it changes. I like that it does feel that way because if you get used to something, you get comfortable with something, then it’s easier to take things for granted. I don’t feel like my family generally does that, so that’s all about the people around you, grounded people. [I am] very, very, very careful who I select to be around me. I don’t have any weak-minded or negative individuals. I just get the most positive, lovely, real people around me.
AM: If you could talk to yourself at 10 years old and at 22 years old when you came into F1: Knowing what you know now and what you’ve experienced, what message would you deliver to those younger versions of yourself?
LH: I look back at myself, and I meet kids now that are so much more advanced than I was at their age. I was very, very timid, very, very much in a cocoon when I was younger. I didn’t hang around with kids on the weekends. I was super kept to myself, quiet. Yet I was still mischievous and outgoing and [a] daredevil. What I would just say to myself as a youngster and what I would like to do for my kid [one day] is ultimately, a human is like a plant growing, and you have to nurture the plant, you have to keep it watered and help it grow and give it light and those kind of things. Allow it to blossom in its natural form, and a lot of parents today … I’ve got cousins who are being pushed by their parent to do soccer, and often I think a parent’s job is to protect, but they can also be quite restricting. Or teachers or whatever, things force [kids] in an unnatural direction. What I’m saying is, for me I felt that I was held back when I was younger in terms of growing as a character, as a kid.
AM: Was that the system you were in, or … ?
LH: Just lots of things. It was school, it was pressures of not living a kid’s life—which I’m grateful that I went through, but I would just say I would somehow get the kid that I was and try and encourage him to be brighter and grow faster. By the time I really kind of grew into understanding who I was, I was frigging in my 20s, you know? There are a lot of 18-year-olds I see now or 17-year-olds who are so much more, who are already there, knowing what they want to do or knowing who they are, what kind of characters they are. So that’s great to see.