It’s been a tough season for Lewis Hamilton. From early on in pre-season testing it became obvious that his McLaren was going to struggle to take on the might of Red Bull, and with each passing race the championship seemed to slip further from his and the team’s grasp. Then came numerous collisions and far more trips to the stewards than he would have wished. And finally, over the past few months, personal issues and an apparent breakdown in his relationship with long-time girlfriend Nicole seemed to weigh heavy upon him. His personal life was deeply affecting his professional life.

But then came Abu Dhabi, and a win that reinvigorated the 2008 world champion. In Brazil for the final Grand Prix of the season, I sat down with Lewis for what turned out to be a frank, open and honest interview for SPEED, which aired in our pre-race show. I won’t attempt to turn the quotes into a feature article, because in its raw, pure form it is perhaps all the stronger and will, I hope, give you a true insight into what has been a tough year for one of the sport’s greats.

Lewis Hamilton wins the 2011 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Lewis, first off that win in Abu Dhabi must have been a big weight off after everything that’s gone on over the last few months.

It was. It’s been an interesting year, a year of growth and a year of interesting experiences but to be able to go to Abu Dhabi and have the performance that we did and to come away with being on the podium, I was ecstatic. I was able to go away, have a great flight home and you’re just buzzing for the next few days. It’s actually lasted all the way to here so it’s been positive.

It’s been a tough season for you personally and on the race track as well, but let’s go back to the start. The team came out with quite an aggressive design on the car, testing began… at what point did you know that the car wasn’t quite going to be up to scratch in terms of the pace of the Red Bulls?

I think we knew from day one really. We tested the car and it wouldn’t do more than 20 laps without failing. I think we knew that we had to put so much effort into fixing that problem that we had less time to focus on other areas such as improving the actual overall performance. If we’d arrived with the right exhaust it would have kept improving from there, from the first test. So we already knew by the time we got to the first race that we were on the back foot, and even though we were competitive in the first race with our new upgrade, it was still unknown. We still hadn’t improved the rest of the car, which was needed.

How difficult is that, going into the season knowing that you are on the back foot, that everything you do is not just about racing but about developing that car, catching that gap back to the guys who are starting the season as the strongest?

It is very difficult because from like now [end of the season] onwards you put yourself in the frame of mind that “I’m going to do everything this winter, train six days a week, whatever it is, train everyday, to get myself ready for that first race, that first test. I’m going to be so ready that I’ll be more than ready to win and in the right frame of mind etc etc.” You do all that training for the two, three months, whatever it is, and you get there and then you realise that it’s out of your hands. Then all you can do is channel that positive energy that you have into other areas such as your team to try and just steer them in the right direction. It’s not easy.

But you channelled it fantastically. China was an example of you just racing your socks off. I think, for me, it was one of the best races I’ve ever seen you drive and it resulted in a win early on which I guess must have come as a bit of a shock for you and the team given from where you started.

Thank you. It definitely was. We never expected it. I think we weren’t expecting to be that high up, and it just so happened that our exhaust system worked. The second and the first race we were quick enough to win or be second but due to procedures, they didn’t put the right tyres on so we finished eighth with the penalty and it was tough. But then we went to China, bounced back from a tough weekend which was another low in Malaysia, to bounce back and have a win was a great feeling.

Hamilton and Massa came to numerous blows in 2011

The season from that point got a bit difficult. Obviously the win in Germany was fabulous, but Monaco was tough, Spa a big crash, and quite a few contacts throughout the season. How much did they knock your confidence? Because you’ve always been a hard racer, you’ve always gone wheel to wheel with people, but in the past you’ve taken some knocks from people for racing what they would term as aggressively. Did those incidents start to play on your mind?

I won’t lie. I think things do play on your mind. The last thing you want is to go into a race weekend hoping that you don’t come together with someone. That’s the wrong way to approach things and that’s been part of the learning process, just knowing how to come into a weekend on a different approach rather than thinking negatively about what could possibly happen. It’s about coming in, putting the positive energy out there. So many people around me; friends, family and loved ones always say “You’ve got to put the positive energy out there,” and that’s what I’m feeling this weekend. I feel this weekend, there’s no reason why it can’t be the beginning of next season, of the future. Rather than wait all the way until the next race, which is miles away, I want to start here.

Those contacts… quite a few with Felipe. It seemed like you guys had magnets attached to your cars. How come it was always him?

[Laughs] I don’t know why it was always him. When you look at it, it was generally races where I’d put myself in an unfortunate position where I was seventh or eighth, and when I was ever in those unlucky positions the person I needed to get past to have a successful race, was Felipe. He is a fantastic driver and the toughest guy to overtake, second only to Michael Schumacher and that is really why.

I never give up, so I keep trying and keep trying and when you do try [sometimes] things don’t go as well as you planned. It was all an experience that I don’t regret and I’ve moved on from that. I’ve got massive respect for Felipe, we’ve still had some great races in the past and I still enjoyed the races even though we collided together and I think now that’s in the past we can move on and work on having positive results from now on.

How difficult has this year been on you mentally? Because there have been occasions when you haven’t seemed yourself, you’ve been incredibly low. The knocks must have taken an effect.

Yeah definitely there have been times when its been hard and its not been easy to keep a positive frame of mind. But it is about your surroundings. It’s about the people that you have, the people that you don’t have… or, it’s about the people that you have, sorry. Your family. It’s about the balance of the people that surround you and support you and I feel that I’m working towards having that fully, and it’s really looking positive right now so I’m really excited. I know it could be something special.

Lewis and Nicole in happier times

I mean, I know how difficult it is. Drivers always say that when you pull the visor down all you think about is racing, but was it easy for you to do that? To move beyond something that is so personal to you, something that affects you not just outside the car but affects you deep inside? Was it difficult to get around that?

It’s not easy. Depending on what kind of person you are, and I’d say I’m quite an emotional person. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I think it affects you and even though you put the visor down and consciously you’re thinking about what’s happening now and you’re positive and direct, it’s subconsciously that it affects you because it is in your heart and it weighs heavy on your heart. Yeah.

You talk about the happy bubble and getting that happy bubble back. You had your Mum with you last time in Abu Dhabi, how important is that happy bubble moving forward, and who is going to be a part of it?

Firstly I want to stop using that word. It’s a word I put out there, I said it, let’s leave it in the past.

That’s your word now.

[Laughs] No, no it’s not. What could be a better word to have?

Inner circle?

Circle? I don’t know. Something like that. Entourage? [Laughs]. Yeah, it’s good to have a good entourage. It is about having positive people around you and people that you care about. You can’t enjoy what you do on your own. I think one way to do it, to enjoy it fully, is with people that you can share it with and people who helped you get there. Sharing it with my parents, my family, with Nicole, my brother and my friends who have supported me throughout the years through the good and bad times.

They’ve been the ones, when it has been bad, to have really, really been there for you. To be able to share the experience with them and try and give something back is a positive thing. The energy that they bring to the circuit with you, like my Mum for example brought great energy at the last race and look at the result that I had. It doesn’t always work out that way but you always come out of the race no matter what has happened in a positive frame of mind.

Management has been a big thing this year. A big change with them. A lot of people have said that they changed your thought process, they made you look at the sport in a different way, they hadn’t been as supportive as they could have been with an arm around the shoulder. Do you think they’ve taken an unfair amount of the blame this year?

I think this year 19 [XIX Management] have taken a huge amount of criticism which has been massively unfair and that’s a lot to do with me, my fault really. They’ve wanted to be here every single race, they’ve been nothing but supportive. I control it and I decided not to have them at every race because I wanted to be on my own at some races. For the future I’ll have them at every race, but they’ve taken negative criticism and they’re still there supporting me. They’ve never ever had any impact on my thought process of how I handle things. I’ve really taken that all on board myself.

This year I’ve not used the resources that I have to the optimum. They’ve been there to help and I’ve not used them when I needed them. But I know that moving forward it will be a successful relationship and partnership. I think they’re fantastic. I just had lunch with Simon [Fuller] in New York and I loved it. He’s a really fantastic guy. I couldn’t be happier with the decision that I’ve made because I’ve got some incredible people around me and, yeah, I’m really looking forward to the future.

Lewis with Martin Whitmarsh, GP2 Silverstone, 2006.

Talking of the future, you’re out of contract with McLaren at the end of next year. I know most everybody in this paddock can’t imagine you racing anywhere but McLaren. Can you ever envisage the day when you’re not racing for McLaren?

I think, it’s difficult to imagine that because I’ve been with them since I was 13 years old so its been a long partnership. I’ve been here with the team for longer than some of the people who are actually in the team, but you know… what will happen will happen. I think we’ve got such a great relationship that it’ll just be natural that we continue. But there is no rush at the moment to go into anything because I’m still contracted and happy with where I am and, again, some great results. And I’ve got an incredible atmosphere back at the factory.

I did a conference call with them recently and I was at the factory the other day with people wearing the winning shirts. The whole factory wears them the day after the race which is just fantastic. I can imagine the guys and girls waking up the day after the race just happy, and they pull out their drawer and have that special t-shirt to wear. It’s a great feeling and I don’t think you have that with any other team. Its difficult to imagine being somewhere else, definitely.

Finally, then, it’s been a long year for everybody. Probably the longest in F1 history. It’s hit us all physically, emotionally, but what’s the one thing that you personally have learned over everything else that you can carry on into next year to make you stronger as a person and as a racing driver?

I think, not so much learned, but have been reminded that family is everything and you should keep your family around. Keep your enemies close, and your friends closer… yeah, that’s what I think. This year has just been a reminder that family means everything to me. Without them I am nothing.

Thank you Lewis.

Father and Son. China, 2008.