Sebastian Vettel may be the man most likely to thwart Lewis Hamilton’s hopes of a second world championship this season, but as the McLaren driver arrived in the tropical metropolis of Kuala Lumpur it was not the German on his mind but the man he describes as his “nemesis”, Fernando Alonso.
“I will always think that my nemesis and my closest rival will always be Fernando,” said an unusually reflective Hamilton. “Just because of my history, when I started out. I see him as my Prost, if we were [Alain] Prost and [Aryton] Senna. If you were to say ‘choose a driver’ [that I would like to be] I would clearly choose Ayrton. And maybe I would put him as Prost.”
The rivalry between Senna and Prost, which is brilliantly captured in the new film, Senna, was one of the most bitter in all sport. The difficult relationship between Hamilton and Alonso in 2007, when the Spaniard was unsettled and ultimately driven from McLaren by Hamilton’s rookie brilliance, had its moments, too. Hamilton, probably, has never received proper credit for his performances that season, when he missed the championship by a single point.
But is not Vettel his true nemesis now? “I don’t think so. If he continues to have a car like he does now then, maybe, but I think when we get equal pace then we will see some serious racing. Maybe he [Vettel] is the new Mansell? Not that I would rate him like I do Mansell.” Ouch.
But with the next race, in Malaysia, almost two weeks away Hamilton is less concerned with racing rivals than his relationship with his family. He is close, once more, with his father and former manager Anthony. And this week he will return to England to see his brother Nicolas, who has cerebral palsy, race for the first time.
“I can’t miss my brother’s first race [at Brands Hatch next weekend]. It’s OK. I can sleep on the flight. I can still stay in this time zone. I’ll just head back to see his qualifying and race and then pop back out. It’s cool. I’ll get to watch lots of movies on the plane.
“Me and my brother are close. I mean, everyone has their situations in life, but it has been tough for him. I can understand what he has been through because I am the closest person to him, but even I cannot comprehend what it must have been like to have the difficulties he has had. And now he gets to have the opportunity to live the dream himself. Me and my dad will be there.”
The relationship between Hamilton and his father has been strained for the past year, since Hamilton decided that he no longer wanted Anthony to manage his affairs. But they have been closer in recent months and were seen together at the Australian Grand Prix. Anthony now manages the latest British FI hope, Paul di Resta.
“This weekend has been great. I don’t know whether you saw me and my dad spent a lot of time together. I asked him if he would like to be on the grid with me and he said ‘I would love to do that’. It just felt fantastic this weekend.
“I felt the support that my dad gave me – it was the same as he has always given me but without the stress. I said to him ‘I know you have to go down the other end of the grid’ and he said ‘No. Paul understands that I want to be up this end as well.’
“My dad was just there as my dad. He has always given me immense support, but I think it was support mixed with some stress. But this time it was just ‘I’m so proud to see you out there’ and it was just fantastic. Really, really great. Things are pretty good. Great times and they can only get better.”
Then, suddenly, it was back to racing. “Finally I’ve got something I can fight with, something I can take the fight to the Bulls with,” he said, following McLaren’s revival in Melbourne and his second place.
“Malaysia is a massive downforce track so you’re going to see Red Bull as quick if not quicker. But I have no doubts our car can be competitive as well.”
Meanwhile, the McLaren team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, said: “We leave here [Melbourne] knowing we had a car capable of taking two places on the podium. It was genuine pace. Both drivers and the team had a difficult winter and it is fantastic to come out of it that strong. We have to dig deep, it’s a long championship and we have to improve race by race.”