Lewis Hamilton looks to future in F1 while helping end Mercedes’ 2022 slump

Lewis Hamilton F1 future
Bryn Lennon - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Lewis Hamilton is coming off a crushing defeat for a record eighth Formula One championship and on the verge of the first winless season of his 16-year career — but he also is looking toward his F1 future.

His Mercedes has been a beast to drive all season and a flaw in its design created a bouncing effect that causes his teeth to chatter and his back to ache.

New teammate George Russell outranks him in the season standings – Russell is fourth, Hamilton is sixth – and a 24-race schedule is looming for next season, when Hamilton will be 38 years old.

Many thought he’d quit the sport when he lost last year’s F1 championship to Max Verstappen in a controversial series of calls in the December season finale at Abu Dhabi, but he returned for what will go down as arguably one of the most difficult seasons for the driver who holds the F1 record with 103 career victories.

Now comes word that Hamilton has opened talks with Mercedes on a multiyear contract extension on a deal that expires at the end of next season.

Ahead of the Sao Paulo Grand Prix in Brazil, where earlier this week Hamilton was awarded honorary citizenship, The Associated Press asked Hamilton why he wants to continue to race into his 40s and why he didn’t quit F1 following the injustice he believes he was dealt last year in Abu Dhabi.

He used an analogy of a rare day off he had last week to explain how he’s wired. He’d traveled to Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California, where Hamilton spent eight hours in the wave pool.

“I was in the pool the whole time, and I fall and I stumble off of a wave and I get back up and try to do it again. And I continue to do that, and that’s just something in my DNA,” Hamilton told the AP. “I love this sport. I love racing. I would have definitely said at the end of last year that I lost a bit of the love for it, because, as you know, it was difficult.

“But I just refuse to let that moment be a deciding factor in my life and my career. And I still feel fit and focused and there’s no stopping. You know? We want to get number eight.”

It won’t be this season as Verstappen clinched a second consecutive F1 title last month, and despite the progress Mercedes has made in improving its car this year, the team still can’t challenge Red Bull on speed for wins.

Verstappen, meanwhile, has won a record 14 times this season and heads to Interlagos hoping to extend Red Bull’s winning streak to nine consecutive races.

Hamilton, however, is coming off consecutive runner-up finishes to Verstappen that have buoyed Mercedes. And he finished second to Russell in Saturday’s sprint race to give the team the front row Sunday.

“Even though we’ve had the most difficult year this year, I feel that we have climbed mountains together as a team,” Hamilton told The AP recently. “It’s been one of the most beautiful experiences to see everyone working so hard. And you know, we just had two seconds in a row, and that feels like wins for us.”

Hamilton last November won in Brazil to start a three-race winning streak that sent him into the Abu Dhabi finale tied with Verstappen for the championship. Hamilton dominated the entire race until a late caution scrambled the finish and the since-fired race director broke from protocol in his rulings.

It allowed Verstappen to pass Hamilton for the win and the championship, and Hamilton vanished from public view immediately after the race. He told the AP that two month period after Abu Dhabi was the hardest he’s ever had to work on his mental health.

“It was one of the hardest times of my career, for sure I struggled,” Hamilton told the AP, explaining how he surrounded himself with immediate family, put down his phone, and avoided social media and all news. He also went to the beach with his niece and nephew and let them bury him in the sand.

“So I get up every day and focus on being present and making the most of the time that I had and creating memories. It was to keep myself in a happy place and not focus on racing.”

Hamilton has not won since that three-race streak ahead of Abu Dhabi, which wasn’t really what he expected when he re-emerged at the end of January to begin preparations for 2022. Mercedes wasn’t aware it had taken a wrong turn in the development of its car and would need the entire season to undo the damage.

“You just pivot. Instead of how do we get on top of this car and fight for the championship, it was `OK, we’re most likely not going to be fighting for the championship, so how do I steer this ship that’s going in the wrong direction? How do I keep this team motivated?”‘ explained Hamilton. “We have dug deeper and become a stronger, more complete team. So I know that when we build the car that I dream of, next year, I know as a team we are more solid and have a better foundation than ever before.”

That Hamilton isn’t planning to retire anytime soon is not a surprise to Russell, who has found his fellow Englishman to be the consummate professional and teammate. Russell said Hamilton is dedicated to turning Mercedes around.

“He’s definitely not lifted his foot off the throttle pedal, and he’s definitely the last few races performing probably better than ever,” Russell said. “For me to have the opportunity to be his teammate, to go directly head-to-head with him and grow on this journey that we’re on together, because it really does feel like a journey that the two of us are on, along with the rest of the team, in trying to bring Mercedes back to winning ways.

“I think we’ve got a really, really great relationship, transparent relationship and yeah, be great to be teammates for a number of years to come.”

Heart of Racing program aims to elevate new generation of women to star in sports cars

women sports cars
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/Heart of Racing

(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)

Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality

It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.

“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.

Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”

During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.

Hannah Grisham at the Heart of Racing shootout (Mike Levitt/LAT)

Heart of Racing held its first female driver shootout last November at the APEX Motor Club in Phoenix, Arizona, to select two women who will co-drive an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the SRO SprintX Championship.

The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.

The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.

“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”

So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).

Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).

“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”

Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.

James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”

Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.

Hannah Grisham reviews data with Heart of Racing sports car driver Gray Newell during the team’s shootout last November (Mike Levitt/LAT).

“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.

“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”

IMSA has celebrated female champions and race winners, notably Katherine Legge (who is running GTD full time this season with Sheena Monk for Gradient Racing). The field at Sebring and Daytona also included the Iron Dames Lamborghini (a female-dominated team).

The Heart of Racing’s female driver shootout drew interested candidates from around the world (Mike Levitt/LAT).

James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.

“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”

“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”

Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.

“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.

“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”

Rianna O’Meara-Hunt was one of two women selected by the Heart of Racing to drive in the SRO SprintX Championship this year (Mike Levitt/LAT).

Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.

“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.

“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”