On the first day of the pre-season test at Jerez, three days after this interview was recorded, Nico Rosberg completed 157 laps. ‘They’re just showing off’, said Red Bull’s Christian Horner.
Within the FIA’s strict testing schedule, each Formula One team is allowed a certain number of filming days – last year Mercedes chose to use one of these to run the W05 for the first time on a circuit – and it repeated the exercise for this years W06 at Silverstone.
So this was the first day of a new school term. New uniforms – all a little too stiff and itchy. New classmates. And a new car. There were many team members on hand to run the new machine, both drivers, and two of the top-brass. A good time to ask questions and take-stock after a 2014 spent pummeling the opposition.
Nico walks in first – tanned, lean, flanked as they all are these days by his personal trainer. He’s despicably engaging and bright. Really, he is. It’s only when you watch Nico command an interview, balance his responses with technical knowledge, humour and humility that you realise what one of the core frictions within the Mercedes team must be – Nico is a public relations dream. Lewis is not. Nico is the perfect boyfriend, the ideal husband, the model pupil. Lewis is the precocious talent brooding at the back of the classroom. And even more irritatingly for Lewis, Nico knows just when to stop short of the saccharine sweetness that makes people want to punch you.
He’s a good lad. You could drink good beers with Nico – but I’m an unashamed Lewis fan. Always have been, always will be. When Lewis’s car stops circulating at a Grand Prix, more often than not, I stop watching. It’s that sad. So these interviews will display quite staggering levels of bias in favour of Mr Stevenage.
But we have Nico-time first. He chats engagingly about wintering-over in Ibiza. He absorbs ten minutes of pleasantries and small-talk and then becomes more serious as idiots like me ask what we think are perceptive questions. All of his answers are delivered in the most perfect English imaginable. How irritating is that? English is probably his fourth language and his active vocabulary is larger than Lewis’s.
This is his response to a question about the modern F1 steering wheel, its complexities and how he manages to have the spare processing power to do so many things at once.
‘Yeah, it’s capacity you know, whilst you’re driving. We had a talk from the ex-leader of the Red Arrows two nights ago as a team event. I went to that just to join in. He said, “What’s important is that flying the aircraft becomes sort of natural, that you don’t have to think about the actual flying so much, so that you have much more capacity to think about problems that could arise, or where are your teammates, or no, that’s all part of the instinctive stuff, and problems that could arise or things like that.” That’s all the same in a race car. It’s great if you make the driving fast sort of the natural part, which comes quite easily; then you have capacity left to think about optimising the car around the lap, optimising different things.’
Two things to note here – the fluid line of thought and the mention of dropping into the Brackley factory one evening for a lecture. That’s not Lewis’s style.
Next he responds to the suggestion that if he has ‘spare’ capacity, are the cars too easy to drive – is the mooted 1000hp F1 car what we need?
‘Driving in a foreign car is a massive challenge. Driving any car is exactly as difficult, yeah? There’s not one car that’s easier to drive than another when you’re on the limit. When you’re on the limit every car is a huge challenge. To be dancing on that limit, going over sometimes, bringing it back, never staying too far under, that’s the biggest challenge. Mario Andretti once said, “That if everything feels under control you’re not going fast enough.” That’s the same for all cars. Even if you take a little rent-a-car around the track now, okay you have a bit more time on the straights, but other than that, in corners it’s still going to be a massive challenge, even for me. Same thing.’
An unarguable position I’d say. At this point another questioner chimes in asking him just how ‘on it’ he is during a race, but he’s not finished with the 1000hp conundrum, so politely says he wants to finish his train of thought. This calm siloing of information and dealing with stuff in order; not moving on to the next task before completion probably tells you more about Nico’s fearsome analytical abilities and mental discipline than any direct question pertaining to the subject could manage.
‘A thousand horsepower is not going to make it more difficult to drive. It’s just going to make it faster on the straights. You don’t want it to be faster on the straits at the moment because we’re close to record speeds anyway and that’s not going to make the show any better or make it more challenging. What I can agree with is the sound. That we need to keep on working on the sound a little bit because that’s part of the show and unfortunately the sound is not so good so that we need to look into and have a think about it. A thousand horsepower anyway, even if people start insisting, okay, we need a thousand horsepower, which I don’t agree with, but if they do then you just increase the fuel flow with engines that we have now and then you have your thousand horsepower, it’s quite simple to do. You don’t need to make complete new engines or anything. I don’t agree with that. I think it’s challenging as it is. Sound, only issue.’
‘I’ll go back to that one [the other question]. In the race. I was racing Lewis. To race Lewis you need to go flat out so there’s not a moment where I’m just chilling out except when he was not in my close vicinity, then sometimes yes, I could relax a bit, but that’s natural, that’s always going to be a case. In racing when you’re comfortable you need to start protecting things because you just want to win. You don’t care if you win with 20 or 15 seconds or whatever. But it was always flat-out and okay, tyre management, but you’re still driving flat-out and tyre-management is just a way of driving flat-out but it’s still flat-out.’
And then Nico talks about the Mercedes advantage, about the team’s hard work, about his chances for this year, what he’s learned. ‘The tough moments are where I learn the most so that’s going to make me stronger.’ And then he leaves with an airy grin to go and sit in his new racing car and the six of us interviewing him all exchange a ‘that’s a very good lad’ glance and go drink some more coffee.
The car runs late with Nico in first, so we chat to Paddy Lowe about the technical changes to the cars and then Lewis hops in and completes two slow laps before it snows. When he dashes back into the hospitality area, I’m alone typing – he nips past to grab a drink. I’m star-struck, mumble something glib like ‘bet that wasn’t fun’ to which he replies ‘Nope’ and scuttles away.
Ten minutes later he’s facing the same six hacks, resplendent in fashionable undergowns garnished with a vast jacket whose furry hood appears to offer no practical weather protection. His handshake remains terrifying.
He’s uneasy from the start. Answers are short, curt. The body language is starkly geometric, upright. Stiff. The opening salvos of nonsense patter are dismissed. Nico’s first answer about his Winter hols in Ibiza runs to over fifty words on the transcript. This was Lewis’s initial dialogue:
Speaker 1: Is it fun or like work today?
Lewis: No, not at all. Today I’m doing tedious stuff in front of the camera. That’s work.
Speaker 1: This is work.
Lewis: When you’re racing, it doesn’t feel like work.
Speaker 2: Talking to us it is?
Lewis: Yeah, that’s work.
Speaker 2: In racing, you get on with it?
Lewis: Racing is fun, yeah.
Speaker 1: How was this off-season now, second world championship? It felt like a different one?
Lewis: I felt the same as every year
Speaker 1: Really?
Lewis: Yeah, it didn’t feel any different.
Perfunctory, honest, no interest in stretching the narrative. Most people love to hate this about Lewis, I love it. The message is stark: I do this to win races, not engage in small talk.
He talks about the success of last year, how he can improve, how he grows frustrated when he tries to explain a technical point because he suspects that we don’t have enough knowledge to understand, and he’s probably correct in that assumption. The he grows combative.
I ask him about his frugal driving last year. How we Lewis fans were amazed his aggressive style translated into using less fuel than most drivers.
‘You just never assume anything in F1 – because most of the time we may assume they are wrong. Same for everyone I think. I think every season I go into, it’s like, “Oh, he’s going to go through a couple of tyres. Oh, he’s going to go through all the fuel”. I was the most eco-friendly last year than any other driver.’
He’s slouched back now. Not especially enjoying the questioning. He mentions keeping a notebook with all his racing history – set-up, solutions to technical problems. Someone says ‘Really, a notebook?!’ He bristles.
‘Because you don’t think we [F1 drivers] do much!’ He leans over and points to Jason from Top Gear’s notebook, glaring an assassin’s smile. ‘I have one just like you! I have a book just like that and from practice, Wednesday-Thursday night, I’ve got a sheet of things to study and things that I really need to make sure I remember. You put them on Thursday or Friday after practice, before practice and after practice. It could be gear ratios, it could be gear selections from corners, it could be braking points. You make tons of notes, tons of notes.’
He calms a little. Talks race craft, the difficulties of running in dirty air. He’s more engaged now. He’s asked to recall karting and utters a memorable quotation:
‘In karting no-one can see what you’re doing, You can see their lines, but you don’t know how they are flexing the car. You don’t know… you can’t see their steering input, you can’t see how they are drifting and when they’re… In karting, it was much easier to have an advantage. That’s why no-one could beat me in a kart.’
And in that last sentence is the kernel of why I’m a Lewis Hamilton fan. I don’t care about the truculence or the occasionally combative tone, or the new hairstyle. I care about the racing. To hear someone say that they were unbeatable with a confidence that cannot be sullied with accusations of arrogance because the results sheets support the claim – that’s the essence of being a racing driver.
He talks engagingly about going wheel-to-wheel with modern greats: ‘You look in the mirror and you see someone like Fernando or… Immediately, you’ll alter opinion or your approach – you know what you have to do. You’re going to do the same thing, but you know how critical it is to be even more precise then because the moment you slip up, he’s going to get you.’
He talks about the forthcoming test, the season preparations and then time’s up. He’s going – more knuckle-popping hand-crushes and then something strange happens – Nick from Evo asks him about his Pagani Zonda and his face lights-up. He gushes over the details, the noise, the manual gearshift. He’s not a Huyara fan. ‘They took me out in it and it’s all the turbo and it’s… It just whoooosh… There is that big whoosh sound to it, which I don’t like.’
He’s more energised, he’s talking feeely. Natural aspiration. ‘I remember my first time in a Formula One was here at the the national circuit with McLaren in, in 2006 I think it was, in the V10 – 21,000rpm, it was frigging amazing. It just kept going.’
The W06 ran for no more than ten laps that day, at around 30mph. Technicians fussed around it like an ITU patient and worried faces grimaced as it ventured onto the track before snow curtailed Lewis’s second full lap. Three days later the car would run more than two race distances without fault.
Mercedes is on a roll. Nico is a brilliant bloke and will push his teammate all the way this year.
Lewis is the real-deal.