After two months burning rubber on the other side of the world, Formula One finally returns to its European homeland this weekend. Friendlier time zones and live BBC coverage mean more of us will be able to watch the “upgraded” Lewis Hamilton. The 29-year-old is in the form of his life, with three straight wins after four races.
“In the past I used to think Lewis was a bit arrogant,” says BBC Formula One presenter Suzi Perry, who joined Formula One in 2012, the same year Hamilton moved from McLaren to Mercedes. “I don’t think I was alone in thinking that either. But personally, I’ve completely changed my mind about him.
“Lewis Hamilton has come out like a scalded cat this season. I don’t think he’s winning just because he has the best car. There’s more to it than that. I noticed him start to relax last year. He seems to be ‘discovering himself ’ at Mercedes, even at this quite late age.
“He doesn’t have the barriers around him that he did at McLaren. He’s moved away from very strong characters: McLaren boss Ron Dennis, his own dad, the controlling McLaren machine. After 2013’s learning season, this year he really has turned all that to his advantage.”
Naturally, for the poor person holding the microphone, it makes a difference if the driver they’re interviewing has had a good result after sweating through 60 draining laps.
“You always get a better interview with a driver who’s happy. When we show Lewis footage back after a race it’s often the first time he’s seen it. You can see the excitement in his eyes. He lives it, he enjoys it, and it’s really interesting to watch his body language. It tells you what he was thinking, the mistakes he was trying to avoid. He clarifies everything beautifully now.”
It’s a sign of his maturity: his single-minded drive to beat both rivals and team-mates is still there, but the idea of Hamilton, for instance, tweeting sensitive technical data as he did during the 2012 season is inconceivable now.
“Last year he wasn’t 100 per cent comfortable in the car, but then you’d expect that: the car wasn’t built around him, it had been designed for Michael Schumacher.
“This year, it’s Lewis’s car through and through. It fits him like a glove, and psychologi- cally that makes a massive difference.”
There’s a marked contrast, too, between Hamilton’s demeanour and that of struggling four-time Championship winner Sebastian Vettel, who appeared to disobey another Red Bull team order in China when he refused to let his faster team-mate, Australian Daniel Ricciardo, pass. “There was a little bit of a deba- cle with the team orders scenario,” says Perry.
“I questioned [Red Bull Team Principal] Christian Horner afterwards, and asked him whether he felt the delay in Sebastian moving over for Daniel cost him a place on the podium [Ricciardo finished a few seconds off third- placed Fernando Alonso]. Horner believed it hadn’t cost Daniel – that’s always up for debate,” explains Perry.
“It was strange how it unravelled, and it’s not good for the team. When you’re following a story like that, you wonder: who exactly in the team is supposed to know what’s going on?”
Perry’s persistence in questioning Red Bull’s poor form shows she, like Hamilton, is more certain of her place in Formula One.
“Last year was odd for me,” she admits. “I had been to many of the circuits before while cover- ing the bike racing. It was the same places, but with different people. I was the new girl, and all eyes were on me. I found it quite uncomfortable, if I’m being completely honest. This year I feel more relaxed. I’ve done the job now, I’ve got a good relationship with David Coulthard, we know what we’re doing, and we can just get on with covering the racing and enjoying each other’s company.
With the upcoming run of classic European circuits – Silverstone, Monza, Spa, “the real racers’ tracks” as Perry calls them – she’s in her element. Her only headache? No live BBC coverage for Monaco, for many the glamorous highlight of the season.
“I would love it if we were live for every race. It’s the overwhelming reaction I get, people wishing we weren’t a highlights package, wishing we were live. Yeah, so do I! The rights were too expensive, BBC had to do a deal with Sky in order to show any Formula One at all.
“I’ve inherited that situation, it all happened before I arrived – not that I could have done anything about it. I would love to say we’re doing them all live again. That would be my dream, because it’s not as much fun doing highlights. We want to tell you what’s going on right now, not what’s happened historically. That’s not what any broadcaster wants.”
Perry may have sympathy for viewers demand- ing more live action, but has little time for the other big debate among Formula One fans.
“A lot of viewers were getting in touch about the engine noise. As far as I’m concerned that’s all a bit passé now. People associate that big booming V8 noise with Formula One, and with the turbo sound it’s very different. But what’s great about it is you can hear all the different parts of the power unit working. It’s not as loud, but it’s tuneful.” So there.
Live Formula One: Spanish Grand Prix, Sunday 12:15pm (race 1pm) BBC1