Lewis Hamilton slides out of an impossibly-sleek German auto and bounces into an inner Melbourne warehouse. Through hidden speakers, Tupac booms.
“California, knows how to party”.
More on that later.
He is 32, a triple world champion, the overwhelming favourite to rule the track in 2017 and claim a fourth world title.
So why the hell is everybody so worried?
A quick, by-no-means exhaustive survey of the days preceding the start of season 2017: former driver David Coulthard says he fears Hamilton will soon walk away from the sport. Former team boss Eddie Jordan says Hamilton has lost focus, blaming his second-place finish to teammate Nico Rosberg last year on too much partying during a season break in the US.
Former whatever-he-was Bernie Ecclestone pleads for the racing world to stop the criticism. He fears Hamilton will be harassed into retirement.
It’s a symphony of feigned concern and every note of it is wrong. Not for the first time, people need to catch up with Lewis Hamilton.
“Every year when I get to Christmas I have to make the decision,’’ he tells Men’s Health. “‘Do I want to keep driving? Do I want to keep going?’ It’s only healthy that you have that conversation with yourself.”
Consider it had.
Hovering over all of this is former teammate and rival Nico Rosberg. The pair had been competing since before they hit puberty. Last year, Rosberg claimed a title win that shocked the sport and promptly retired. Exhausted.
Hamilton, on the other hand, could scarcely look more energised.
“I’m getting older, I turned 32 this year,’’ he says. “I was worried it would be harder to get into shape, to have the same drive going into my 11th season of racing. But I’ve been massively driven. Really excited to train.”
Where do you find the motivation to keep pushing yourself when you’ve already achieved so much? You look for new challenges, Hamilton says. F1 doesn’t stand still. Each season you start again. Each year you need to be better than you were the last. Hamilton believes he’s in the best shape of his life. He needs to be.
Heavier, more powerful cars this season mean drivers must be lighter. Each ten kilograms of weight means three tenths of a second per lap – the difference between winning and not winning. In racing, everything is time. Food is time. Exercise is time.
Hamilton is not about to run out of it. “Right now,” he says. “I feel like I could drive forever.”
What helped Hamilton unwrap those Christmas doubts was an offseason training slog that pushed the longtime fitness freak into painful new places.
Setting up base in Mexico he attacked a punishing daily routine based around Muay Thai boxing. The aim: to strengthen his core, sharpen his already-lightning reflexes and, perhaps most importantly, to stave off the boredom that stalks those who must do the same thing, lap after lap, year after year.
“Training can be so boring, so tedious,” he says, explaining why he parted ways with his trainer of four years in pursuit of new physical challenges.
Hamilton had long incorporated boxing into his workouts and earned a blackbelt in karate as a 13-year-old. Now came two-hour morning sessions of kickboxing, long runs on the soft sand of Cabo San Lucas and afternoon sessions of surfing and pilates. It changed his body, refreshed his mind.
“Muay Thai is now my favourite thing,” he says. “I’m obsessed.”
A rack of sharp, designer clothes awaits Hamilton’s photo shoot. He won’t be needing those. Shirt off and it’s immediately apparent that the fastest man on four wheels has been putting in the work. Here, at least, there has been no cutting corners.
As Hamilton works through a series of punches, elbow strikes, knees and high kicks his technique looks fearsomely on point. He has been studying hard and pronounces himself a big fan of UFC: “Conor McGregor is just amazing,’ he says. “I’d love to meet him.”
So why Muay Thai?
“Everyone can lift a weight, do a sit up,” he says. “Muay Thai is fun because it’s so bloody hard. Keeping your arms up, punching, elbowing, kicking high, to the shins, kneeing. There’s a lot of coordination, movement and technique.”
He is proud to call himself an elite athlete but says most people simply don’t understand the physical demands of his sport.
“The amount of people I meet who are surprised that you have to be fit,” he marvels. “It’s not like another sport, say basketball. Anyone can go and try being Lebron. We fail but we can go on a court and try. People can’t drive one of these cars. They don’t understand what it is.”
It’s this. Hip flexors are unbelievably stressed sitting in the unnatural driving position. Heart rate hovers around 160 for almost an hour and a half. Neck muscles strain to breaking point. Holding your body strong through a corner means staying upright as six times your body weight drags you sideways.
Blazing a Trail
The Lebron comparison is interesting. The Cleveland superstar dominates all peers. In an interview at the start of the NBA season James revealed his remaining motivation was “chasing that ghost in Chicago”. He meant Jordan, of course. The greatest.
Hamilton, a three-time world champion, might know the feeling. At age 32 he sits in second place on the all-time winners’ list with 54 wins. Michael Schumacher is out in front, Bradmanesque, with 91 wins.
Hamilton does not like being second.
But ask him if that other Michael is his ghost to chase and he pushes back, revealing a side of himself that sees the world very differently.
“Michael’s 91 wins, I don’t see that as a motivation. Lebron is chasing someone of the same background, same ethnicity. I didn’t have that. If anything, I’m pushing the benchmark for the next kid like me.”
Instead he thinks of Tiger, of Serena. He doesn’t need to chase an outlier – he is one.
“It’s becoming more and more important to me as I grow older and understand the ways of the world,” he says. “This is my 24th year in racing and I have never once raced against another black person. Or anyone who is really from a different background.”
It’s an amazing statement. It also might be changing. Now, Hamilton says, he can see kids of colour coming through the junior ranks. Of course they seek him out. “I’m very proud of that.”
“The sacrifice my family made and the shit we went through. The things we had thrown against us along the way as the only black family in Formula One. Do you know how far we’ve come?”
Work Hard, Play Harder
That may be where he comes from but Hamilton now resides in Monaco, nestled comfortably among the one per cent. He hangs with Drake and Jay-Z; records music in his home studio and plays it for his buddy Kanye. He owns his own jet, dates celebrities like Rita Ora and relaxes by heli-skiing at exclusive Swiss resorts.
Lewis Hamilton knows how to party.
It has brought him plenty of criticism in a sport where the only possible archetypes appear to be the playboy or the automaton. James Hunt or Schumacher.
“There is a template that someone invented for a racing driver,” he says. “You have to be a square and fit into a box and the shape is ‘boring as fuck’. Don’t do anything but live and breathe racing. Don’t enjoy, don’t smile.”
As the youngest driver on the grid when he started in 2007, Hamilton eagerly bought in. Not so much these days.
“Now I feel I was robbed of being able to grow naturally . . . I didn’t get to hang out with my friends, it was always racing, always business, always serious.”
His early years in Formula One, “parts of it were miserable,” he says. Learning to relax, to enjoy and open himself to the worlds of music and fashion has allowed him to stay sane and motivated. You might call it a rarefied version of work/life balance. Where you might play golf or go for a surf to escape the stresses of your job, Hamilton parties with hip-hop superstars. The result is the same: you return to work revitalised.
“I don’t believe I have a playboy life,” he says. “I’m no less focused than any of my peers. They live a different life. They go home, they are not pictured at events. I train just as much as them, maybe more. But I do this other stuff.
“I have so much energy. I train, I travel, I’m learning about music and fashion, reading a lot. I don’t want to miss anything. I want to experience everything.”
Critics pin him as an Instagram-addicted namedropper. He scoffs: “If I can be in the studio with Jay-Z, with Pharrell, am I going to do it? Shit yeah.” To him, they are not celebrities, they are geniuses. “I like to be around greatness.”
Can Hamilton be all of these things? A broader man, a representative of his history and community, a person who engages with the world beyond the racetrack? And also a fanatical competitor?
“I’m at a happy place in my life and I could easily stop,” he says. He’s right. He could. But he doesn’t want to, not yet anyway. The hunger remains, the drive to succeed is undiminished. “I’ve accomplished more than I ever dreamed. But I’m hungry for more.” That’s what Mexico was all about. You don’t take yourself to the very edge of your physical limits unless you want to. You can’t.
As the interview ends Hamilton takes off his gold IWC watch and heavy, gold and diamond chains. Passing the bling to an assistant he declines a lift home. “I’m going to run," he says. “Thirteen kilometres. I just need to get it in.”