I think I understood Lewis Hamilton when he said after this year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, “victory is good for the soul”. What he meant, I think, is that winning can put things right, can restore your confidence in life and people and can wipe the slate clean. “To be able to walk away with a smile is just fantastic,” said Lewis as a pre-cursor (to give the phrase its context). The “Victory is good for the soul” mantra was then quickly adopted by Vodafone McLaren Mercedes on their merchandise site on the Monday after the race.
Actually, I don’t believe it is. Victory is good for the ego and probably damaging for the soul; defeat, on the contrary, is good for the soul – good in the sense that we can learn from defeat much more than we can ever learn from success. If we look at the ways we develop as sincere human beings the progress is measured in steps rather than by 45 deg slopes. It is the big “setbacks” that force us to re-group and to work harder, to re-focus or to re-calibrate. The good days are easy and quickly pass; it is the bad days that we remember and around which we are forced to make choices. Sometimes we choose badly – but inevitably we choose; and, from that choice, comes experience and thus knowledge. And knowledge equals progress for the soul.
My point? I think Lewis Hamilton is a better driver right now than at any stage of his career – and not because he won at Abu Dhabi after Seb Vettel stopped on lap one. He’s better because of all the stuff with which he’s had to deal in 2011. Virtually all of it has been of his own making – but it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d been a victim of outside circumstances either (as he was for much of 2007). The point is that Lewis had to think a little bit in 2011 about things that normally he took for granted – about criticism from his peers, for example, about his new personal life and about the job Jenson Button has done at McLaren. I don’t know the detail of how any of these issues would have affected Lewis; none of us does – least of all the famous British popular press. What I do believe is that Lewis subconsciously would have worked on his pride and his attention to detail – elements that would certainly have improved the health of his soul.
Far more knowledgable and intelligent people than I have warned against the attractions of fame and wealth and it is in this sense that I suspect 2011 has probably been a pivotal year for Lewis. There’s nothing wrong with earning your market value – and there’s nothing wrong with fame, providing you don’t think it’s real or something you can control. The Lewis Hamilton who won in Abu Dhabi, I suspect, now knows this. That’s why he’s a better person and thus a better racing driver – and that’s why his victory there would have felt all the sweeter.