Lewis Hamilton’s mood is calm and still, in contrast to the fevered roads outside the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, where armed guards roam the pavements by the eight lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic.
His answers at his press conference in the fit-to-burst Mercedes motorhome were barely audible. As if on purpose, he held the microphone a little further away from his mouth than usual and spoke sotto voce, leaving us in no doubt about his inner serenity.
Having witnessed all Hamilton’s big moments at the climax of world championships — including sitting with him in his suite at the Hilton hotel in Sao Paulo, where he was nursing a hangover from hell after missing out on the title in his debut season to Kimi Raikkonen in 2007 — his manner here strikes me as invulnerable, a ‘light around his body’, as Norman Mailer wrote of Muhammad Ali in such a reverie.
Valtteri Bottas was fastest for Mercedes during first practice for the Mexican Grand Prix
Bottas was over four tenths of a second quicker than Lewis Hamilton during first practice
Hamilton’s tranquillity is protected both by mathematics and opportunity: he has no reason to panic when a fifth-place finish in Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix would put him beyond reach of Sebastian Vettel and deliver a fourth world title, and anyway, if his car or a barely imaginable driver error deprives him of satisfaction here, he has Brazil and Abu Dhabi to wrap up the formalities.
Table space is being reserved for his guests as the sense of expectation and occasion rises in the sunny, high-altitude paddock.
Mother Brenda and triple world champion boxer Canelo Alvarez are certain attendees. His brother Nic is a possible visitor if he can ditch his work commitments.
There will be room if he should need it for Hamilton’s father, Anthony, who is considering a ‘spur of the moment’ appearance with wife Linda. They showed up at Abu Dhabi in 2014, when Hamilton clinched his first world title at Mercedes and his second in all.
Hamilton ensured Mercedes dominated Friday morning by running second quickest
Of course, they were there for every race of Hamilton’s first championship triumph, in 2008, Anthony as manager, adviser, enforcer, conscience. When Anthony talks of that title it is the one ‘we’ won. Relations have sometimes been tempestuous since, but the two halves of the symbiosis are now seemingly reconciled. That smoothing out of relations is no doubt part of the reason for Hamilton’s settled nature this season, though the greatest difference is that he feels comfortable in the Mercedes team without the retired Nico Rosberg getting under his skin.
That contentment, where before paranoia had been wont to torment him during his career, has helped Hamilton to produce his fastest and most blemish-free driving, aged 32 and at his peak: he has finished the last 22 races, a testament to man and machine.
‘Experience,’ as Oscar Wilde noted, ‘is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.’ It is an aphorism that might have been coined for Hamilton, who has never been far from the headlines for the wonder of his driving or some extravagance. But he can now flick the switch instantly from aspirant actor-musician-fashionista to serious racing driver, having finally struck a balance in his globetrotting existence.
But Hamilton’s chief title rival Sebastian Vettel was only fifth quickest fir Ferrari
‘The only difference is that in 2008 I was a kid,’ he said. ‘I had all the natural talent I have today but I didn’t have the knowledge or experience. I’m now fighting a championship-winning team in Ferrari and a championship- winning driver in Sebastian, and I am much better equipped than I was in 2008.
‘It’s been more enjoyable for that reason. I’m always changing things, adding things. Eventually you learn about yourself, what you like, what you can and cannot take on to continue to perform at your best. Racing is my priority and I have got to make sure whatever I do outside the championship complements that. So bit by bit, trial and error, I add things into my life.’
Accordingly, he spent part of the build-up to the race at a style awards ceremony in Los Angeles and filming as part of a ‘secret’ project. A climb up Machu Picchu is pencilled in. A family, he said, awaits in the second or third phase of his life.
MEXICAN GP FIRST PRACTICE
1. Bottas (Fin) Mercedes 1:17.824
2. Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes 1:18.290
3. Verstappen (Hol) Red Bull 1:18.395
4. Ricciardo (Aus) Red Bull 1:18.421
5. Vettel (Ger) Ferrari 1:18.586
6. Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:19.008
7. Perez (Mex) Force India 1:19.240
8. Alonso (Spa) McLaren 1:19.346
9. Massa (Bra) Williams 1:19.443
10. Huelkenberg (Ger) Renault 1:19.552
11. Sainz (Spa) Renault 1:19.554
12. Stroll (Can) Williams 1:19.772
13. Magnussen (Den) Haas 1:20.644
14. Wehrlein (Ger) Sauber 1:20.971
15. Giovinazzi (Ita) Haas 1:21.269
16. Leclerc (Mon) Sauber 1:21.446
17. Gelael (Ind) Toro Rosso 1:21.639
18. Hartley (Nzl) Toro Rosso 1:21.747
19. Celis (Mex) Force India 1:22.342
20. Vandoorne (Be) McLaren
Hamilton made a rare mistake during practice on Friday, missing some running after spinning off, but he was still second fastest to Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and remains hot favourite to eclipse Sir Jackie Stewart, who will be watching here among a 135,000-strong crowd, as the most decorated champion in British motor racing.
Hamilton has said he does not expect to be racing at 40, leaving him one or two more contracts — or six or so years — to chase the 30 more wins he needs to beat Michael Schumacher’s record number of victories, 91.
‘My bucket list at the moment is winning the fourth world championship and then it’s preparing for the next.’
So said the champion-elect, in little more than a whisper.