Formula One drivers get to meet exciting characters at almost every grand prix of the year with the motorsport scene typically associated with the glamorous lifestyle of celebrities.
Here in Abu Dhabi, we’ve witnessed a wide array of personalities show up in the Yas Marina Circuit paddock, from Prince Harry, to Pharrell Williams, to Ronaldo, to Sir Paul McCartney… the list goes on and on.
There is one guest Lewis Hamilton was thrilled to invite to a grand prix recently – tennis legend Serena Williams, who is a good friend of the British driver and was at his race in Mexico last month.
I asked Hamilton about what it’s like having an inspirational figure like Williams around and what kind of things he can learn from the 22-time grand slam champion.
“I was actually with Serena last week in LA,” Hamilton replied.
“She came out to Mexico which for me was a real honour to have someone of her power, someone who has achieved so much. We kind of come from similar backgrounds, similar relationships with our parents, having that father figure being the lead.
“Growing up watching her career, absolutely being inspired by her and still today by her drive and her sheer… just, she’s, if not, the greatest athlete we have of our generation today so very proud to have had her there and be friends with her.
“We generally don’t talk a lot about our sports… we generally have a lot of fun when we are around each other.
“We’re always laughing and joking and enjoying life away from sport, so it’s generally not something we talk about, although because she’s been to a grand prix she’s really interested in cars now and she has asked me a lot of questions.
“I’m absolutely mesmerised by what she has achieved and definitely inspired by her as an athlete and as a human being and so trying to learn from her. Every now and then she’ll give me a bit of that magic in her words. Venus (her sister) talks a lot about wisdom and about her growth and about the process of being a sportsman or sportswoman so generally from both of them, I take a lot of inspiration and admire them both hugely.”
It’s been fascinating seeing how different Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have been approaching this title-deciding grand prix.
Rosberg has been unwavering in his one-track minded approach. He’s been using the exact same answer for almost everything question he’s being asked – he is focused on the win, not thinking about anything else – and says he’s sticking to the same routine because it helps him treat this race like any other.
Hamilton on the other hand has been sounding way more relaxed and even said he was going out last night.
“It’s (a routine) not important at all for me. Sometimes you have commitments, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you have room service, sometimes you don’t. I’ve got my mum here and a bunch of really close friends of mine so I’m going to go out tonight and have a good time with them,” said the three-time world champion.
We’ll find out which one of them had the winning formula.
Yes, it looks like Mission Impossible for Lewis Hamilton but his performance during Saturday’s qualifiers showed that when he is full-on he is formidable and beating Rosberg by three tenths of a second to take pole position put the heat on his Mercedes team-mate.
It was also telling to watch the body language of both drivers after qualifying. Hamilton was joking while Rosberg looked disappointed that he had been so comprehensively outpaced. The German is a cool character but just maybe the pressure is beginning to tell. The title is, after all, his to lose.
Hamilton has to win this race to have any chance of retaining his crown. He then needs Rosberg to suffer a mechanic failure, crash, or miss out on a podium place, most likely to the Red Bulls or Ferrari to pull off what would be an extraordinary comeback from being 43 points adrift of his team-mate after the Spanish Grand Prix and then 33 points behind with just four races left.
Hamilton could, if he chose to, try to back up Rosberg to leave him within the clutches of the Red Bulls or Ferrari. Unlikely, but you never know. If he finishes second then Rosberg only has to finish sixth; third place means the German will win the title with eighth. Anything lower than that is game over for the Brit.
Rosberg won’t be bothered by those scenarios when he is sitting on the front row of the grid because his instinct, like all F1 drivers, will be to push for victory. Hamilton, Rosberg, Daniel Ricciardo who starts third on the grid, and Kimi Raikkonen in fourth will all be thinking the same so the sprint down to the first corner could be interesting.
Hamilton, who has had a couple of dodgy starts from pole this season, can’t afford to collide with his team-mate at the first corner because if that happens and he has to retire from the race he can kiss goodbye to his title and Rosberg isn’t the type to take his team-mate out – you would think!
Rosberg can be thankful that Max Verstappen starts from sixth on the grid but even from there he has the ability and the killer instinct to have a go, given the slightest opportunity. So don’t rule out some interference from him.
It is also interesting that Red Bull have chosen to start the race on super-soft tyres rather than faster degrading ultra-soft which means they should be able to go longer into the race before stopping for new rubber.
Only two drivers, Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel have won this race from pole but Hamilton will be determined to make it three. At some stage Rosberg, if he is running second or third, has to make a decision on whether to settle for a podium position and that could be risky, if he is under any kind of pressure from rivals.
So there is still plenty for Rosberg to think about but if he does win the title tonight to emulate his dad Keke, who won the title in 1982, and join Graham and Damon Hill as the only father-and-son world champions then he will be a worthy winner.
He has been consistent all season, will have proved he can deal with immense pressure and will have beaten Hamilton, who he described himself as the benchmark and the man many believe is still the best driver on the grid. But it’s not done yet!
The Toro Rosso machine just keeps on churning, producing one exciting talent after the other for Formula One’s big leagues, and it looks like Carlos Sainz is shaping up to be their latest star in the making.
The 22-year-old Spaniard, named after his two-time world rally championship-winning father, was destined for a career in motorsport and he’s been doing himself – and his family name – proud with some impressive work for Toro Rosso over the past six months.
Driving for the team which has helped launch the career of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, Sainz Jr is yet another example of how the Red Bull development system continues to be a success.
And while Red Bull’s senior team looks set for the next two years with Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, there’s no denying that Sainz is showing signs that he is a talent not to be overlooked.
Following a “frustrating” 2015 rookie season which was marred by reliability issues, Sainz turned a new leaf in 2016, and hit his stride in May when he clinched a valuable sixth-place finish at his home grand prix in Barcelona.
He has finished in the points 10 times this season, including three P6’s – the last of which came two weeks ago in a stormy race at Interlagos in Brazil.
Although the Toro Rosso car became less competitive as the season went on, Sainz grew in confidence with each race. His progress coincided with the departure of his team-mate Verstappen, who was promoted to Red Bull Racing after the first four races of 2016, with Daniil Kvyat relegated down to Toro Rosso.
Did Verstappen’s team switch have anything to do with Sainz’s improvement?
“I know there’s a coincidence there, that Max left and suddenly I started to show up. But I still think nothing would have changed,” Sainz said in Abu Dhabi where he starts today’s race 21st on the grid.
“I still think P6, or P7 if Max would have finished in front, would have been possible in Spain. I still think I would have fought for a podium in Monaco like I did…China pit stop with Vettel slowing me down in the pit entry while I was P6, didn’t happen in Spain.
“It’s very small details that suddenly stopped happening to me from Spain onwards that have nothing to do with Max and suddenly I could show better results.”
In a year where the title battle between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg has grabbed the headlines, and teenage sensation Verstappen has stolen the show, Sainz insists he has plenty to be proud of, having amassed 46 points to lie 12th in the Drivers’ Championship heading into today’s season-finale.
“I’m very happy with 2016 and the way it went and I also feel like a completely different driver compared to 2015 – both in terms of results and in terms of feeling,” added Sainz.
“In 2015 I was probably a very frustrated driver with a lot of reliability problems, not being able to show my full potential and I knew that 2016 it was time to show it and time to discover it to F1 people.
“All of a sudden in Spain it clicked, I stopped having problems, stopped having bad pit stops, stopped having just stuff that was not allowing me (to perform), and all of a sudden everything changed.
“My perception, also the perception of the team, everything changed towards a much more positive environment.”
Sainz produced a stellar drive in Brazil earlier this month but it took a backseat to the acrobatic show put on by Verstappen, who fought in the wet from P16 all the way to the podium.
It is perhaps unfair that Sainz’s exploits did not get the attention they deserved but the Madrileno does not need outside validation to feel good about his drive.
“Maybe towards the outside, towards the media, the fans (don’t realise what I did) but inside myself I know that I qualified two seconds off a Red Bull on the dry and I know that in the wet the Toro Rosso doesn’t pick up two seconds of lap-time per lap, I know the Toro Rosso is still off the pace in the wet as it was in the dry,” he explained.
“I also know in the last stint fighting against a Red Bull, a Force India, a Ferrari and another Red Bull. I was at the end of the life of my tyre and I had a Toro Rosso; not a Force India, not a Red Bull, not a Ferrari.
“I was extremely proud about that drive. No regrets, super happy about it, not just because a guy did a very good job like Max did, it made my result any less. I was feeling as good as I could feel at that point.”
At 22, Sainz’s maturity and level-headedness stands out the most and it’s not surprising when he mentions a crash in qualifying as the most valuable lesson he had in 2016.
“I think a big boost for me was for example the race of Canada where I think I made one of my only mistakes this year – that was to crash in qualifying in the famous ‘Wall of Champions’ but then suddenly on Sunday I came back with a completely different mind and made I think one of my best races of the season to come up P9 from 16 on the grid,” he says.
“And that moment there when you go through a very bad moment but you come back stronger and do a good result it gives you a bit of confidence that even if you make mistakes in the rest of the year you can come back and that gave me a boost for the rest of the season.”