In sport, every dominant athlete who appears to be virtually untouchable at their peak will one day have to step aside – their boots, gloves, helmets or uniforms finally hung up to rest.
Athletes and champions bow out of their selected sports every year. But has any 12-month span seen so many titans, widely considered as the greatest of all time in their fields, choose to call time on their outstanding careers?
In a matter of weeks, both Serena Williams and Roger Federer will have smashed their final serves. The NFL’s most decorated player, Tom Brady, has already come out of retirement for what will likely be one final season as quarterback. Snowboarding icon Shaun White and speed skater Ireen Wust both bowed out in Beijing having won medal tallies that may never be matched. Even Valentino Rossi’s unparalleled Moto GP career finally came to its conclusion last November after 22 seasons and seven world championship titles.
In Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton’s achievements place him almost entirely alone in the pantheon of the sport. Only in his tally of seven world championships does he still sit alongside Michael Schumacher. But while his 2021 rival Max Verstappen canters to his second title, Hamilton’s 2022 season has been unlike the 15 that came before it. Heading into round 17, he remains winless: An unprecedented drought for Mercedes’ talisman.
As Hamilton sat with select media including RaceFans in the compact confines of the Zandvoort paddock, the parallels between him and his fellow record-breaking athletes seemed more relevant than ever. In his 38th year, how does someone to whom winning is less of an ambition and more a way of life adjust to the reality that victory remains out of his grasp?
“With great difficulty,” he admits, frankly.
“As athletes, we’re super-determined, we don’t like to lose, we don’t like to fail. Also, failure is not an option, but sometimes you do, and that’s part of the process. It’s how you then don’t beat yourself up and beat yourself down, it’s how you take it on, put it on your back and use it as experience to power forward. And it’s not easy.”
Hamilton does not need to be reminded of how close he came to an unprecedented eighth title last year. But the contrast of fortunes between he and Verstappen in 2022 are stark. Does it hurt him, watching the driver who denied him the ultimate achievement of his career cruise to this year’s championship?
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“I wouldn’t say it hurts,” Hamilton says. “We all know what it could be.
“We would love to be in that battle fighting, and I wish that all the cars were a lot closer and we were all having a much better battle closer to the front. I wish there was only tenths between us all, but that’s not the way our sport is. So I don’t worry about that, and it’s not something I can control at the moment.
“My worry – what is keeping me up at night – is what have I left out? Who do I need to speak to at the track? How can I support Bono [race engineer]? How can I support Marcus [Dudley, performance engineer] and Shov [Andrew Shovlin, trackside engineering director]? In the aero department, how can I support them to make better choices for the next car?”
It has been a long slog to build up the W13 to be more of a match to its rivals, the Red Bull RB18 and the Ferrari F1-75. With both championships lost for this year, 2023 becomes the earliest opportunity he can compete for that historic eighth title – the same year in which his current contract with Mercedes expires.
That is also the final year of his current contract with Mercedes. Hamilton has previously expressed that, unlike fellow champions Fernando Alonso or Kimi Raikkonen, he had not intended to race on into his forties. But, RaceFans asks him, with Mercedes having begun the new era of ground effect playing catch-up, is he starting to think about extending his stay in F1?
“Definitely,” he says, firmly. “Because it’s going to take longer than one year.
“I think if we had just won last year and then we would win this year, definitely life would be in a different place and you’d be on a different course. I love that it’s gone through a phase even harder and we’ve got to pull through that thick slog and get to the point where we are a little bit lighter and we’re floating a little bit more. So yeah, I would say that it’s encouraged me to stay longer.
“Plus I’m feeling fit, I’m finding ways of feeling better physically. The mental challenge is a consistent thing and that will always be the case because that’s how it is for us athletes, we’re on the edge. But right now, where I am in life, I’m really grateful for the opportunity I have here. I like to think I still deserve a place here. So there is lots of work to do.”
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But even as a driver, Hamilton can only have so much of an impact on his own. He and George Russell, his new team mate for this year, still rely on team principal Toto Wolff and the rest of the Brackley brain trust to be able to give them that privilege of being able to fight for titles next season. So all Hamilton will continue to do, he says, is focus on the difference he can make on the track.
“The lesson is just you have to focus on what you can control,” he says. “While we do worry about things we can’t control, you have to try to learn to not worry about the things you can’t control.
“There’s so many peoples’ abilities coming and everyone coming together, the communication, the amount of work, the processes, the direction you will go. It’s like we’re all rowing the boat and while we’ve got Toto above the steering mechanism, we as drivers are also the part of the rod that’s steering it in the right direction.
“It takes work and I wouldn’t really want it any other way. To be honest, if it was easy and every day was easy and you’re just getting through it, it just wouldn’t be a challenge. I love the challenge of working with everybody and challenging the people and them challenging me. Acknowledging that this year we haven’t done a great job, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do a great job in the future. We have done it in the past.”
Hamilton knows that all sporting dynasties end. No one player or driver can continue to win every title, every year. Even the great Serena Williams – a personal friend of his – had peaks and troughs during a career which took her to 23 grand slams. That’s something Hamilton says he draws a lot from.
“I take a lot of inspiration from other athletes. Like right now, watching Serena, seeing everything she’s gone through and the challenges she’s gone through and in conversations, just the way she’s kind of gone through it and pulled herself back up and the great performances – she is just such a warrior and she’s my inspiration right now. So I think it’s really just about taking time to sit back, reflect, figure out what you can do better.”
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And just as when any era draws to an end, a new one unfailingly begins. Through Verstappen, Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris – all established drivers barely older than Hamilton was during his famous early years in the sport – Hamilton believes that F1 has an exciting future once he eventually decides he has achieved all he wants to.
“With the younger guys, there’s so much talent here and there’s more coming through,” he smiles. “I remember when I came in and thinking I could beat everybody, I know what it’s like because I’ve been there.
“I’m really just trying to work on those relationships bit by bit and be supportive of them because, as I said, I’ve been there. I know what it’s like, I know how tough it is at some of these teams. When you’re in your early twenties, you don’t know what you can and can’t say or how best to navigate. All you have is just raw strength, talent and ability.
“I’m super excited to start to see Lando and Charles, these [young] guys, really excel and move forward. There’s some really good guys here.”
Read more from our in-depth chat with Lewis Hamilton later today on RaceFans.
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