The racers who beat Lewis Hamilton
Nico Rosberg (leading) and Lewis Hamilton raced together since their teens, from karting all the way up to Formula 1
What makes the four-time F1 champion so good? Four racers who have beaten him fair and square tell us the secrets of their – and Lewis’s – success
Lewis Hamilton won his fourth Formula 1 World Championship title this year, cementing his spot as one of the sport’s all-time greats.
Since breaking into Formula 1 in dramatic fashion in 2007, the Brit has proven himself one of the sport’s most determined racers. How good is he? To find out, we tracked down the select band of drivers who have beaten him over the course of a season.
Nico Rosberg, 2016 Formula 1 champion
Time was teenage karting sensations Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton would spend all day as team-mates at the track, eat their evening meal together, sleep in a shared hotel room and then repeat it all over again.
And while their paths may have occasionally swung in different directions on the way up the ladder, both made it to Formula 1 and, between 2013 and 2016, they were reunited as they battled for supremacy in the Mercedes F1 team.
The stats from those occasionally tumultuous four years read very much in the Briton’s favour: two world titles to one, three seasons ahead in the standings to one, 1334 championship points scored to 1195. But Rosberg did out-score, out-race and out-qualify Hamilton on numerous occasions, and, most crucially, did so over the course of the entire 2016 season.
“Our relationship deteriorated as it gets pretty intense fighting for wins and world championships,” Rosberg (pictured below in his karting days) says now, a year into his post-championship retirement. “We grew up together, we worked well together but we are also two super-competitive people who were working with the same equipment in the same team to achieve the same goal. There’s no surprise that there were ups and downs but I believe the underlying respect was always there. It’s how we achieved so much for the team.”
How, then, with the benefit of hindsight, does Rosberg believe he beat Hamilton to reach the pinnacle of the sport? “I had to dedicate my life to winning,” he says, with a steely tone that suggests that the memories of both the hard work and the pride at the end result will never fade. “Lewis is one of the best of all time and we were in the same car, so the only way to do it was to give it my full focus.”
You could take that answer as a glib statement but, when asked to elaborate further, Rosberg gives the first of many insights into what the relentless pursuit of his goal required. “Winning the world title became a way of life,” he recalls. “Even when I was at home, I wasn’t really there. Every bit of my energy went into getting more from the day. Even relaxing required planning; I would try to conserve energy when I needed it, even if it was a day with my family, sitting down instead of standing up, conserving energy, maybe taking a shorter trip instead of a longer one, to take the absolute maximum from the day. Quiet time was really time working out how to go faster – or talking on the phone with my engineers discussing how we could go faster. It was constant.”
In 2016, Rosberg made two changes that today he considers crucial, the first being to spend any spare moment he could find at the wheel of a kart, in order to ensure he was always sharp, the second to hire a mind coach. “The trainer taught me to be more aggressive – an area I felt I had to work at, especially in wheel- to-wheel racing – and to adopt a more holistic mindset, looking at the bigger picture all of the time,” he says. Does ‘aggressive’ mean ruthless, I ask? Rosberg bridles at the suggestion, possibly mindful of not being painted as the villain at the hands of another British hack. “No. You do not have to be ruthless to be world champion,” he says, emphatically. “Lewis and I raced with respect.”
Mission accomplished, world championship in the record books, Rosberg says he knew it was the right time to quit. “The goal to which I had dedicated my life was complete, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to do it again,” he says. “It was a huge effort. Awesome in its intensity and an incredible adrenaline rush, but so, so hard. It took everything to be perfect to achieve that goal. It was a privilege to have taken the opportunity.”
Pushed on whether beating Lewis meant more than winning the title and Rosberg is cautiously effusive. The subtext is that it would have been bloody hard to beat anyone to the world title, although he’s too polite to say it, and perhaps there is a hint of not feeling any need to heap any more praise than is necessary on the shoulders of his sometime nemesis.
“Again, there is respect between us, and beyond that there’s not much to add,” he says. “I am very proud to have beaten him. We had raced together since I was 12, so I know how fast he is. To beat him is a huge, huge privilege, of course.”
Danny Watts, 2002 Formula Renault champion
After his first season in the junior Formula Renault championship, Danny Watts was forced to scrabble for funds to stay on for a second year, while his team-mate, a certain Kimi Räikkönen, graduated to F1 with Sauber. The rest, as they say, is history.
Watts is now 37 and retired from racing having starred in a variety of GT and Le Mans categories when the single-seater dream ran out, but such was his talent that he managed to star sufficiently in his second season of Formula Renault to earn a third year with a top team in 2002.
There he faced two well-regarded rookies: in his own Fortec team-mate Jamie Green, and in the ace Manor Motorsport squad a young Lewis Hamilton. “I was in the last-chance saloon and Lewis and Jamie were the bright young things,” recalls Watts. “You’re meant to move up every year or two, but I hadn’t the funding or results to do that. So I got a deal with a top team and had to prove myself or accept that racing was over.”
Today, Watts laughs at how he even found himself on the grid. “My dad and godfather used to take me to watch races, and when I was 12 they took me karting,” he says. “Most kids started racing at eight. It was a hobby – I wasn’t dreaming of F1.”
But the results came his way, a friend of a friend provided some sponsorship and the hobby grew into a potential profession. In that 2002 season, Watts scored six wins, racking up points early in the year and then clinging to his lead as Green and Hamilton came on the ascendency.
“At the start of the year, I wasn’t thinking about anything other than winning the title or facing curtains on my career,” says Watts. “My advantage was my experience. I knew I could accumulate points while Jamie and Lewis built experience.”
Today, Watts notes that it was Green who took second in the series, eclipsing Hamilton. “We pushed each other so hard,” he says. “We weren’t mates but we had total respect for each other. The data was open and I think that helped us overcome Lewis, who was leading his team in his first year, albeit with the benefit of some pretty serious testing beforehand.” Standout moments involving Hamilton still spring to mind. “He was bloody hard but 100% fair,” says Watts. “We clashed once, at the first turn at Snetterton. It was a racing incident – both going for it at the first turn. Normally, you’d blame each other and have a little set-to. We just got on with it. There was no tension.
“I also remember that he crashed a bit, but never when it mattered. He’d go off in practice, wallop the car and I’d think: ‘That’ll set him back.’ Any other driver would take time to get back on it but, sure enough, his name would pop up at the top of the timesheets in qualifying or the race.”
Watts also recalls a telling end of season race on the Brands Hatch Indy loop. “It’s a short lap so a tenth of a second can cover five cars in qualifying,” he says. “Lewis qualified on pole by two-tenths and won the race by something like 10 seconds. I reconciled it by getting on the podium and winning the championship, but it was a demolition job.” Having won the title, Watts stepped up to Formula 3 while Lewis stayed on in Renault. While Watts enjoyed more success, their career trajectories went in different directions.
“Even as I stood on the top step of the podium that year, I never thought I’d get to F1,” says Watts. “At the track, I gave it everything, but away from it I was more interested in getting to the next party. Hanging out with racing drivers was great – a lot of them didn’t drink and they were good for a lift home. I always felt lucky to be there; not the most talented but a hard worker at the track. I was determined to enjoy it.”
Today, Watts says age has brought maturity, and he works as a driver coach around the world, bringing on the next generation of wannabe motor racing superstars. “It’s not just about being quick,” he says. “You need the whole package: the raw pace, the cool head, the team, the support. You don’t make it on your own, and that’s perhaps the biggest lesson I can teach my drivers.”
Jamie Green, 2004 European Formula 3 champion
For more than a decade, from karting through to Formula 3 single-seater racing, Jamie Green and Lewis Hamilton regularly crossed paths and regularly met on podiums – often with Green on top.
In his first year of Formula Renault in 2002, Green finished second in the championship and Hamilton third; Green moved on to F3 while Hamilton stayed put. A year later, both contested the European Formula 3 championship, with Green emerging as champion and Hamilton finishing fifth.
Today, Green concedes that he probably had the advantages of experience and a better car and team behind him in that crucial year, but there is no question that he blew Hamilton – and a fourth-placed Nico Rosberg – away. The irony is that thereafter their careers were steered in very different directions by the same company, Mercedes.
Both were on the firm’s junior driver scheme, Hamilton by association with McLaren since the age of eight, Green from the age of 20 when his success in cars brought him to wider attention. But from F3, Green was placed in the German DTM touring car championship, where he’s still a title contender, albeit now with Audi. Hamilton, of course, stayed in single-seaters and won in F3, GP2 and Formula 1.
Today, Green expresses only thanks to Mercedes – after all, they took a driver relying on the goodwill of sponsors and made him a well- paid professional; put to him the more cynical view that he was moved aside to leave the limelight free for its protégé and there’s no bitterness. “Lewis was always going to be ahead in the queue, having been the chosen one in karting,” he says.
Green’s time as a fellow Merc junior provided some insights into Hamilton’s make-up. He recalls a training camp where the drivers were challenged to run up and down a set of steps beside a ski jump. “Lewis wasn’t the fastest so he just set off back down before the turning point and got to the finish first,” he says. “It wasn’t done nastily – he just had to win, even if it meant cheating. He had a single-mindedness and determination that just stood out.”
On track, Green says Hamilton’s race craft set him apart: “He had been racing every weekend from the age of eight. He wasn’t alone in that, but you could see he just got it. He was outstanding in being able to be in the right position on the last lap to take the win. The karts would be nose to tail, swapping order like crazy, but Lewis had the capacity to work out where to be. He was a master of being in the right position.”
So much so that Green recalls watching the wonder that followed Hamilton’s every move in his debut season of F1 with amusement. “There were even people in his McLaren team who couldn’t believe his run of podiums and wins,” he says. “Sure, the cars were faster, but it was just a scaled-up version of what he’d done before. In karting, you have heats and finals every weekend. Lewis was amazing but, by the time he reached F1, he had an awful lot of experience to combine with his talent.”
Today, Green talks about Hamilton with admiration but, like many fans, he would love to see him in the same car as a true great again, as he was in that first year with Fernando Alonso. “In the DTM, half a second can cover 10 cars,” he says. “In F1, half a second is the minimum level of Mercedes’ advantage – even a bad weekend results in second place. Lewis is in a luxurious situation at the moment. I’d love to see someone of the same calibre in the same car as him.”
Colin Brown, 2000 Formula A kart world champion
“We were mates. We would go on holiday together as families, hang out in the hotel together at events and then go to the track and fight tooth and nail, not giving each other an inch more room than was fair but never overstepping the mark.”
Colin Brown was a British karting sensation before Hamilton, forging a career in the cut-throat world of European racing and generally competing a category ahead of the future four-time Formula 1 champion. “Quite often we were at the same events, so I could watch him race,” recalls Brown. “I remember thinking: ‘That lad has got something about him.’ His natural talent was there to see.”
Come 2000 and Hamilton stepped up to the Formula A class of racing, where he and Brown would go head to head, albeit with Hamilton in a well-sponsored multi-kart team and Brown racing as the sole representative of his relatively shoe string outfit.
“Every race, it was him or me,” recalls Brown. “So often we would fight over the same bit of track. I was aggressive – I had to be, as I had no team-mates to help me out – but no matter how hard I pushed Lewis, perhaps with a tap here or there, he always kept his composure.
“He was such a cool racer. The videos of those races are still on the internet, and we just seemed to pass each other constantly; if one of us got ahead, the other would come straight back by. It was hard racing but it was always fair.”
Brown’s day of days came in that year’s World Championship event, a one-off race in Braga, Portugal. Hamilton’s crankshaft seized mid- race while the pair were dicing, and Brown crossed the line the victor after fighting off the attentions of Clivio Piccione, who himself got to the cusp of F1. Other racers competing that day included future F1 racers Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica, Lucas di Grassi, Giedo van der Garde and Pastor Maldonado. A few weeks later, Brown repeated the feat to win another one-off, the Monaco Kart Cup.
“The competition between us all was so fierce, and for Lewis and I it was more so, because we both wanted to be top Brit,” says Brown. “But he was so good about it: fair on the track and so nice off it. It never boiled over.”
Brown says Hamilton’s determination also stood out. Mid-season, he fell off a bike and fractured his wrist but, after presenting himself to race organisers, Hamilton was allowed to race in a cast at a European Championship round. He won both finals. “I remember seeing him in the paddock and thinking: ‘Well, surely he can’t race?’” says Brown. “Then when he went out to practice, I just thought: ‘Well, good for him, he’s trying so hard, but he’ll never win because it’s too competitive to race successfully with any kind of impediment.’
“There I was in the final going into a corner and this kart came by. It was Lewis. I probably lost another couple of tenths just trying to comprehend how on earth he’d managed it.”
Brown did get a chance in car racing, moving up to single-seaters and facing Hamilton again in the first-tier Formula Renault Championship.
His results were good, too, but he never had the money to progress and the racing dream soon ended. Today, Brown is 35 and works in an Audi car dealership, and inevitably nobody blinks more than a curious eye as we take our photos in the centre of Wandsworth. He hasn’t raced for years but is now keen to get back into the sport.
“I’m a firm believer that people can be born with a natural instinct, an innate ability to do something, and I believe Lewis and I could both claim that,” he says.
“But Lewis was the complete package, both in himself and in the support he had. As I sit here today, though, I have nothing but admiration for what he achieved.
I adored him as a person back then – he was a nice guy living life to the full, warm and open-hearted – and I’d embrace him for all his success if I saw him today. I wish I’d had the same chances, of course, but life doesn’t play out the same way for everyone.”
Get the drift, Lewis? When Autocar met Hamilton
Autocar first met Lewis Hamilton in 2000 when the 15-year-old accepted an invitation to try his hand in this magazine’s then annual Sideways Challenge event.
The idea – grounded in science rather than a love of sideways photography, of course – was to find out who could best handle a powerful rear-drive car. Chobham’s test track was doused in water and Autocar staff gave points for drift angles and control.
How did Lewis get on in the BMW Z3 M Coupé? Not great. Imagine the leap from ultra-responsive kart to heavy road car and you’ll start to get an idea. But he dealt with the disappointment with a smile, thanked everyone and then quietly asked if he could have another go. And off he went – round and round with nobody watching until he cracked it.
Source: Autocar Online