Like Pete Sampras, he's a prince of darkness
Night of darkness propels Hamilton's career of brilliance McLaren F1 driver Lewis Hamilton preparing to enter the car before he blazes his initials on the tarmac in a stunt performance as a pledge to “Never drink and drive” at the Changi Exhibition Centre yesterday. -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

LEWIS Hamilton does not visualise his race, does not chant in empty rooms, does not speak to himself in the car ("a sign of madness," he laughs). He appears normal, but great athletes rarely are. They are, in some way, quirky, finicky, obsessive, and this driver is no different. Like Pete Sampras, he's a prince of darkness.

The tennis player's room, as he recorded in his book, resembled a tomb when he slept, to the point where he blocked the light coming in under his door. The F1 driver is as fastidious.

"My phone," Hamilton says, "when you put (it) on charge, the light flashes and it lights up the room so I have to put a sock on it." If there are lights on the TV, he puts a sock in front of that. He has to cover everything; he has, we presume, a lot of socks.

Drivers at standstill remind me of taut racehorses pushing against invisible reins. Hamilton is at his natural self inside the car, a man plugged into a machine till together they become a hybrid beast. But that performer, the real one, is days away; now is he is the other performer, the manufactured one as all modern athletes are. He's peddling an image, he's doing a corporate tap dance, he's polite, funny, charming.

Everyone wants to get to know the star, press the flesh and buy the illusion that we know them. Yet the exceptional athlete is eventually unknowable, he's driven by furies and complexities beyond us which is their enduring mystery.

But Hamilton offers parts of himself. He grins at how he passed his driving test on his first try ("I think Jenson didn't," he quips). He celebrates Rodney Seow, the last local winner of the Singapore GP in 1967, and speaks respectfully of men who raced in an "incredibly dangerous" time.

He will, as part of Johnny Walker's Join the Pact campaign against drink driving, try and burn his signature rather illegibly into the tarmac at Changi Exhibition Centre in a million-dollar-plus McLaren MP412C roadcar. It is a brief sensory experience of burnt rubber, squealing wheels and immaculate control.

Then he talks, in a succession of carefully calibrated interviews. It is like a privileged audience, with a caveat of course. Ask anything, just not about his contract.

Anyway our subject is preparation and the mental space an intense athlete seeks prior to racing. He listens, then he speaks with a quiet clarity about how a night without lights is followed by a race day of calm and precision.

"You got to have a set programme," he says. Clutter is the athlete's enemy and clutter is everywhere. It could be the contract negotiations, unresolved relationships, sponsor pressure, place on the drivers' table (he is second).

"You could think about the race the whole time," he says. "The stress, the strain, what is said in the media, but you have to clear all that out somehow." It is as if the athlete's brain has its own unique filtering system.

So he listens to music. He watches a comedy on television. On the planet there's nothing else then, just him and the TV. "It takes me completely away." He may watch with his girlfriend, or brother, but concedes the "best preparation is when I'm alone".

Like his breed across sports, he has to be selfish. Later, race done, he will look for energy from fans, now he must nurse his.

It's a case, he says, of "no one come near my room, I haven't got time to speak to you. I don't care if you're the most important person in the world. This is the most important thing for me. I could give you my energy and waste some energy on you and lose the race. But I live for the race."

When he awakes on Sunday he will know from the sensation in his stomach it is race day. "Anyone that tells you that you don't have nerves is giving you a lot of crap. That's how we're built."

The excitement that prefaces the race is there, he just has to control it. You can't, he says, mimicking an over-enthusiastic performer, believe that "Oh, this is the biggest race of my life". Yet this is also his addiction. "I literally wake up every day for it."

Then, on Sunday evening it is time. To switch roles and switch on. It happens, he says, when he puts on his helmet and effectively takes off his mask. Now he is the essential Hamilton. Now he is not polite, funny, charming. Now he'd just like it if you simply got the hell out of his way.