Why Lewis Hamilton is the perfect Ferrari driver
His words, as is often the case, were non-committal. Even a little contradictory from one thought to the next. But still.
“He’s open minded to the possibility of driving for Ferrari one day,” concluded Ben Anderson last week having spoken to this driver.
“You can bet it’s the only other F1 team he could realistically see himself racing for other than his current one," he added.
“Which makes complete sense when you think about it."
You likely will have worked out that the pilot being spoken of is none other than Lewis Hamilton. A man whose contract is up at the end of next year. A man who, now 32 and by then pushing 34, will likely – to coin the common saying in sport – ‘have one big move left’.
He says he wants to stay put at Mercedes. Given on-track competitiveness considerations one can understand why he is in no hurry to up sticks. But given the ubiquity of who we’re talking about this won’t stop us speculating.
Lewis said variously in his interview with Anderson that he is a “fan of Ferrari,” that the marque is “a super super cool thing,” and that the Italian team has “a special vibe”.
Hamilton is open minded to the possibility of driving for Ferrari one day. You can bet it’s the only other F1 team he could realistically see himself racing for other than his current one. Which makes complete sense when you think about it - Ben Anderson
Yes, you will be correct to point out, virtually any racing driver talks the good talk of Ferrari’s special status. Many talk wistfully of driving for the evocative squad one day. Almost no one rules out a switch. Yet in the particular case of Lewis I have long since not been able to shake a hunch that there could be more to it.
To start with let me take you back to late summer of 2012. To the familiar surroundings of Monza. And the equally familiar surroundings of the Italian Grand Prix’s conclusion with vast swathes of, mainly Ferrari, fans gathering on the main straight under the podium.
Hamilton had won the race, but it seemed most weren’t there to pay tribute. Instead he was subjected to vicious booing, him having been awarded apparently the ‘Prince of Darkness’ crown worn previously by Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in turn.
But what a difference 24 months makes, as in 2014 we were back in the same place, with the same winner. It seemed the tifosi in the meantime had experienced a Damascene conversion. Victorious Lewis was afforded rich applause and cheers, and instead it was his runner-up team mate Nico Rosberg cast as villain by Monza popular wisdom.
A few reckoned it reflected the notorious Merc-on-Merc clash in the preceding race at Spa. It may well have done, but I wondered if on some level it reflected something else. That Lewis Hamilton is an archetypal Ferrari driver. The sort that the tifosi would adore.
Victorious Lewis was afforded rich applause and cheers at Monza. I wondered if on some level it reflected that Lewis Hamilton is an archetypal Ferrari driver. The sort that the tifosi would adore.
Almost any Ferrari incumbent is revered by the tifosi of course, but even with this they have a type, raised above the others. They like their Ferrari pilots to be aggressive, determined, passionate. The sort who drives with white knuckles. With fearlessness. Possessed of what legendary scribe Denis Jenkinson called “tiger”.
The sort who pushes all the time – every lap; every session. But perhaps with flaws too – emotional; something of an anti-hero.
Perhaps only a few through Maranello’s gates have lived up to it entirely: Tazio Nuvolari; Gilles Villeneuve; Nigel Mansell. Likely you can add Fernando Alonso latterly.
But these characteristics apply absolutely to Lewis Hamilton also. And moreover he shares many with two of that select band outlined in particular.
We know that Lewis has taken much of his inspiration from Ayrton Senna. Nothing wrong with that, it’s his right. But for me much the stronger parallel exists between him and Gilles Villeneuve.
Just like Gilles, Lewis is a freehand artist. An instinctive and astonishing driving talent. His pure speed when all is right is considered without equal compared with his contemporaries; sometimes what he does with a racing car can seem from another world.
Spectacular; on the edge; the tail often in a slide. Unparalleled capacity for on-track drama; the sport’s most intense racer and best overtaker. He pretty much always it seems is on the attack.
Hamilton is unbelievably brave, I mean, Gilles-brave - Keke Rosberg
But the two are alike in their imperfections also. Both have a slight wayward quality, almost like they can’t quite comprehend their driving gift. Legend and scent of dramatic victory often are prioritised over safe points-gathering. And there’s a flipside, in that for all of the fireworks provided they’d also occasionally burn their own fingers. Their occasional error perhaps defied belief as much as their peaks. Certainly a feeling lingers that scores go begging too often. That – in the narrow sense of winning titles – a more disciplined, discrete and consistent approach might serve better.
And they are alike in their bravery. It was a similarity noted (ironically enough) by Keke Rosberg in advance of Lewis’s F1 debut in 2007, when he promised the uninitiated that, “he’s unbelievably brave – I mean, Gilles-brave”. And when he left an immediate calling card of passing Alonso around the outside of his first corner of an F1 race, it was one which Gilles would have been truly proud.
Then there is Nigel Mansell. Another Ferrari hero; another with whom Lewis shares rather a lot. They share many of the same attributes as both do with Gilles – unrelenting speed, aggression, fearlessness, spellbinding commitment.
Yet Lewis and Nigel share a few things just by themselves. Indeed their similarities – not all that often commented on – are disquieting in their number.
Scintillating in their capacity for thrills. Quite the aggressive overtaker. Quite the showman. Expert in working their public. Adored at their home race (where they always go well). If the sport’s commercial rights holders ever got around to offering a TV service wherein you could pick a single driver to follow for an entire Grand Prix then surely they would be the one you would choose. Drama, conflict and controversy seem, somehow, to follow them.
And that applies off track as much as on. They wear their heart on their sleeve. And with the intensity of their support is again a flipside, that they also divide opinion. Certainly they are not the sort to be indifferent about.
Quick to perceive slights. Rub a few up the wrong way. Much of the time their emotion manifests itself in scarcely credible will to win; sometimes it manifests itself in sulks and other outwardly odd, sometimes self-centred, behaviour. Certainly they’re not afraid to stir the pot; use the media to get messages out. And occasionally it all manifests in engaging mouth before engaging anything else. But also their sincerity – either in their words or their driving – cannot be doubted.
All through, you really could be talking about either Nigel or Lewis.
Hamilton is a little like Nigel Mansell. In the same way, Hamilton appears to have the power of the people behind him - it was remarkable how the Italian fans were cheering for him. His heart-on-the-sleeve style seems to have connected with the public - David Coulthard
And whatever was the case with Nigel – and even though a few feared the worst when the combustible Englishman paired up with F1’s most combustible team – over his two years at the Scuderia the tifosi rapidly got to adore the man they called Il Leone.
The parallels were something noticed by David Coulthard after witnessing the appreciative reception Lewis got at Monza in 2014.
“In some senses, Hamilton is a little like Nigel Mansell,” said Coulthard. “When Mansell used to talk about the public, it wasn't just a line. He really meant it. He believed they loved him and he really wanted to perform for them.
“In the same way, Hamilton appears to have the power of the people behind him - it was remarkable how the Italian fans were cheering for him during the race and afterwards.
“His heart-on-the-sleeve style seems to have connected with the public.”
None of this should be taken as a latest contribution to what is threatening to be an increasingly silly silly season. And such is the way with F1 career paths no one knows where drivers will end up. A lot depends on the coincidence of drivers and seats being available. And, as noted, on competitiveness.
But still, were the day ever to arrive that Lewis Hamilton drives through the factory gates at Maranello you suspect it would be the start of a beautiful friendship.