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How Hamilton plans to come back stronger than ever in F1 2022

What was going on inside Lewis Hamilton's mind was one of the main themes of Formula 1’s off-season, and on Friday at the Mercedes W13 launch we had the answer.

How Hamilton plans to come back stronger than ever in F1 2022

'I’m back and stronger than ever' was Hamilton's clear message, and he left those who heard him speak in no doubt that he absolutely meant what he said.

Following the controversial finish to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Hamilton made a few generous comments about new world champion Max Verstappen in parc ferme. But, understandably given the circumstances in which he lost a title he looked set to win, he took no part in any other TV or media activities that evening.

A few days later he appeared at a Mercedes event in Brackley to celebrate Mercedes' latest constructors’ world championship success. Afterwards he went off the grid, staying away from social media and thus not letting the world know where he was, or what he was thinking. Of course, people in all walks of life are perfectly entitled to switch off from work over the Christmas and New Year period for a couple of weeks. But as Hamilton’s silence continued, so the speculation about his future continued.

Mercedes did little to dampen it – indeed, a sceptic might suggest that the threat of F1's biggest star walking away provided extra motivation to both new FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali to push on with changes to the race direction system that were outlined this week.

What people perhaps didn’t appreciate is that even if Hamilton had won his eighth title, he still would have been absent for a while. Yes, he would have attended the FIA prize giving and honoured a few pre-Christmas media or sponsor commitments, but he would then have had an extended break anyway.

No observer can fully appreciate what it takes to operate at the level required to take the fight to Verstappen, especially towards the end of the 2021 season as the title battle intensified and Hamilton had to raise his game even further. The focus and concentration necessary, not to mention the physical effort of keeping in shape, is enormous. And Hamilton has now done it without a break since 2007, always in a position where he was at the very least fighting for race wins.

PLUS: The 0.759% shift that created F1 2021's thriller 

This winter had an extra edge to it as Hamilton processed what happened in Abu Dhabi. He wouldn’t be human if he hadn't considered whether he truly wanted to go through another fraught season of battle like 2021, and risk circumstances beyond his control determining the outcome once again.

Hamilton retained a dignified silence through January after the events of Abu Dhabi, piling pressure on the FIA

Hamilton retained a dignified silence through January after the events of Abu Dhabi, piling pressure on the FIA

Photo by: Erik Junius

In the end, the extraordinary determination and mental strength that has made Hamilton what he is came to the fore, and he realised that the burning desire to win that eighth title overcame any lingering negative feelings. Anyone who really understands Hamilton’s mindset knew that was exactly what would happen.

PLUS: The historic clues that offer hints of Hamilton’s next move

“I was never concerned that he was leaving,” his boss Toto Wolff said on Friday. “Within the team, we knew that he needed to take the time to reflect on things and particularly to understand how he would come back in the best possible frame of mind. So there were, on our side, no worries about him not coming back.

“I think what he did was absolutely right, to take himself out of the microcosmos of F1, and step aside. And blackout socially. And he has come back in a great mindset. He is positive, he is determined. And yet again, adversity that was thrown at him will make him stronger. And as he said, it's attack mode.”

Hamilton’s upbeat mood was clear to see at the launch of Mercedes' 2022 challenger. Shortly after the live streamed unveiling he had his first face-to-face encounter with the media since Saturday in Abu Dhabi, albeit conducted via Zoom. In typical style, he offered a genuine welcome after those weeks of silence, exchanging pleasantries about the COVID situation - “I would have thought by now we'd be doing this in person after God knows how many years” - and the blustery weather brought by Storm Eunice. 

“It was obviously a difficult time naturally for me, to be honest,” said Hamilton. “What I'd really love to say is a huge thank you to all of you. I've known many of you for a long, long time, we've been on this journey with me for these 15 or 16 years.

“But the support that you gave at the end of the year was just incredible. And I'm forever grateful to all of you. So thank you.”

From the off he was in upbeat mood, and fully engaged with the questions, offering thoughtful and insightful responses. The obvious topic - what had been going through his mind over the winter? He could have given a short answer and said it was now time to move on. But, to his credit, he tackled the subject head on.

“For me, I just unplugged, switched off,” he said. “I think that firstly on one side, I deserved to be able to switch off at the end of the year anyways. But I have my family around me, my whole family around me. It was actually a rare occasion where we're absolutely all together and just focused on being present with them.

Hamilton was in upbeat mood at the Mercedes W13 launch as he joined boss Wolff and new team-mate George Russell

Hamilton was in upbeat mood at the Mercedes W13 launch as he joined boss Wolff and new team-mate George Russell

Photo by: Mercedes AMG

“Obviously I took time to digest what had happened, which is I think still difficult to fully understand everything. But [I set my mind] to come back stronger - what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. So I put my focus into just training, getting healthy and enjoying the time off, because it goes quickly.”

Had he thought about walking away from F1 at any point during the winter?

“I've considered retiring so many times!” he joked. “I’m kidding. No, I really honestly I haven't. Of course, at the end of seasons you think, and the question is whether you're willing to commit the time and the effort that it takes to be a world champion.

PLUS: The power behind Hamilton’s next chapter

“I think a lot of people underestimate what it takes to be a world champion. And there are so many moving parts. It's not just turning up and driving the car. The question is, do you want to sacrifice the time? Do you believe that you can continue to punch at the weight that you're punching? That's a normal kind of mental process for me.

“But of course, this one was compounded by a significant factor. And I think ultimately a sport that I've loved my whole life… There was a moment where I kind of obviously lost a little bit of faith within the system. But I'm generally a very determined person. And I like to think to myself whilst moments like this might define other’s careers, I refuse to let this define mine. And so I'm focused on being the best I can be, and coming back stronger.”

Asked later to elaborate on his current state of mind, he stressed how important the winter break is.

"With these long seasons, the off time isn’t as long as you would hope for,” he said. “It seems to get shorter and shorter. But I think over the years I’ve learned how to be efficient with my time, with my recovery, and then with training, and the building back up, both your body and your mind.

Hamilton says he never seriously considered retiring, although admits to losing faith in the system of governance

Hamilton says he never seriously considered retiring, although admits to losing faith in the system of governance

Photo by: FIA Pool

“But I feel great, I feel fit. Naturally when you have an extra year of experience under your belt, that always helps. And I always feel that through these sort of experiences, you can turn that emotion into strength, and into power.

“That’s what I’m doing. I’m putting that into my training. I’m putting that into the work that I have with the men and women here in this team. And if you think what you saw at the end of last year was my best, wait until you see this year.”

That last line really hit home – it summed up exactly how he feels heading into 2022, and how he has turned the disappointment of last December into a positive.

PLUS: The intriguing Mercedes discrepancy keeping its F1 rivals guessing

One thing Hamilton didn’t want to discuss in detail was the specific circumstances of Abu Dhabi, and how the latter stages of the race unfolded.

“It was something that I was very clear in mind, the experience,” said Hamilton, who in an unplayed radio message in Abu Dhabi said the race outcome had been “manipulated”.“Of course, it replayed in my mind quite a lot in the coming weeks after the race. I don't remember what I said to Max [in parc ferme], it is all a bit of a blur after that. I've not revisited it, I don't particularly want to go backwards, I want to look forwards.”

Part of that switch of focus to the future revolves around the changes announced by Ben Sulayem with perfect timing - the day before the Mercedes launch - topped by the confirmation of the departure of Michael Masi from the F1 race director job.

“Whilst we can't change the past, and nothing will ever really be able to change the way and how I felt at the time, and how I feel about the situation, it is good to see that the FIA are taking steps to make improvements," said Hamilton. “I think accountability is key, and we have to use this moment to make sure that this never happens to anybody else in this sport ever again.

“Everything that's been said by the FIA, we welcome that. But we have to make sure that we keep a close eye, and make sure that that we actually are seeing those changes, and rules are applied fairly and accurately, and consistently.”

Hamilton is in confident mood ahead of the new season and shook down his new W13 at Silverstone on Friday

Hamilton is in confident mood ahead of the new season and shook down his new W13 at Silverstone on Friday

Photo by: Mercedes AMG

Asked if he had faith in the revamped FIA system, he added: “I put faith and trust alongside each other. And so trust obviously can be lost in the blink of an eye or the flick of a finger. But to earn trust is something that is built over a long, long period of time.

“So, whilst I didn’t see that coming, as I said, this first announcement yesterday is perhaps a first step of that. But that doesn’t necessarily change everything just yet. We have to see actual action, and I think it will take a bit of time.

“But I’m not really focussed necessarily on that area at the moment. I’m just putting absolutely every ounce of my energy and time into making sure that I’m the best you’ve ever seen.”

Perhaps Hamilton’s most important words were reserved for a question on his relationship with Verstappen and the Red Bull team, given how messy things got at the end of last year. To his credit, he steered the focus away from his Dutch rival with a magnanimity that some fans on social media would do well to take note of.

“This has nothing to do with Max,” replied Hamilton. “Max did everything a driver would do given the opportunity he was given. He’s a great competitor, and we will go into another battle like we did last year, and conduct ourselves hopefully… We will obviously grow from our races and experiences we had last year all through the season.

“But no issues with him. I don’t hold any grudges with anybody – I never think that’s ever a good thing to carry around with you. I move forwards, I don’t dwell on the past. And, as I said before, I feel fresh, I feel centred, and fully focused. I don’t have anything holding over my shoulders, holding me back this year. Not that I did last year, but I’m not letting that experience be one of those.”

There’s no doubt that Hamilton is well and truly back, and raring to go. The arrival of George Russell in the Mercedes camp adds a little extra spice, while the new rules provide a welcome challenge to a driver who knows better than most how to fully exploit a car package and push his engineers to the limit.

PLUS: How Russell sees his place in the Mercedes-Hamilton F1 superteam

Even at 37, Hamilton is still getting better, as last year demonstrated. And given the way he has often used negative experiences to provide further motivation, he will be a powerful force this season. All now depends on how good the W13 is.

Will Russell push Hamilton to even greater heights in 2022?

Will Russell push Hamilton to even greater heights in 2022?

Photo by: Mercedes AMG

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