Some may call it the hardest job in Formula 1. Lewis Hamilton dominates not only his rivals on the track, but the headlines too. Few racing drivers have ever transcended the sport quite like him. How then is one supposed to standout as his teammate? Alexandre Premat knows all about these challenges.
In 2006, he shared a team with the four-time world champion in GP2 — now Formula 2 — as both were going all out to not only win the championship but earn one of the sport’s most coveted prizes; a seat in F1.
Premat and Hamilton drove for the French-based ART Grand Prix team, the same team which has helped the likes of Nico Hulkenburg, Jules Bianchi, Romain Grosjean, Stoffel Vandoorne, Sergey Sirotkin and George Russell on their journey to F1. Premat was well aware of Hamilton before this time though.
“I knew him from go-karts, but the first time I properly met Lewis was in 2002 in Formula Renault. I raced against him again in Formula 3 in 2004. I straight away got on with Lewis. I got to know him both as a person and a racing car driver. I would say that we became good friends from then and we had good fights together all with respect personally.
“We formed a small community from Formula 3, with Nico Rosberg, Nelson Piquet and Christian Klien. We did a lot of training camps; it was good fun.”
Hamilton has a heated track record with teammates, including high profile falling outs with both Fernando Alonso and childhood friend Nico Rosberg. Premat also drove alongside Rosberg in 2005 and was quick to insist that his and Lewis’ relationship did not fall apart so spectacularly when they became teammates.
“When he was my teammate in 2006 in GP2, the feeling straight away was very good, we knew that he would only spend a year in GP2, he was keen to do the same as Nico Rosberg [graduate straight to F1.] He was trying to get as much as he could from me and from the team to win the championship but the relationship between him and I during the whole of GP2 was very fantastic and I was a good teammate for him.
“Formula 1 is very different from Formula 3 and GP 2, it’s more political and there is more scrutiny before, during and after the races. In Formula 1 you have to be different from yourself and I think he did pretty well. People like Lewis Hamilton or they don’t. There is no middle. I wasn’t rooting for either Nico or Lewis because I was good friends with both.”
Perhaps uniquely, Premat’s take away from his time as Hamilton’s teammate was a lasting friendship.
“He was a younger guy; I remember he couldn’t drive so I used to drive him to races and between the airports. We were having dinner together all the time and that’s why we were a strong pair. He was a good person towards me and the team, a real hard worker and a cool guy.
“We were young guys trying to make our lives, our dream to drive in F1. I still see him every year when I go to a Grand Prix. Whenever I’m with him, I’m sitting with him for 20-25 minutes speaking, just like in 2006. For me he is the same person, his personality and passion is the same.”
There were times during the 2006 season when their friendship was tested though. The biggest of these occurring, ironically, at the Circuit de Catalunya. The track at which, ten years later, Hamilton and Rosberg would collide on the opening lap, each blaming the other for the incident that prematurely ended the races of both Mercedes cars.
“I was coming back and I knew it was the last lap, he opened the door and I went for it. There was small contact, we went wheel-to-wheel and then he span and I won the race. I remember when he jumped out of his car, he was still angry for sure, mad that he didn’t win the race but the connection was still there.
“He was not rude to me, maybe it impacted him mentally, he felt that he had to work a little bit more for the rest of the season.”
Here we can trace the development of Hamilton’s ability to bounce back from adversity. Hamilton followed up Barcelona by winning the next three races and finishing on the podium in seven of the final ten races. This ensured he clinched the championship with 114 points, 12 clear of his nearest challenger, Nelson Piquet Jr, with Premat finishing third on 66 points.
Premat recognises the obvious talent of his teammate but maintains that he could have put up more of a fight in the championship.
“As he won so many races in go-karts, it was good for me to compete against him; wherever you went he was the benchmark. In qualifying he was super, super fast but in the race, I would say I was the same speed as him but in GP2, the qualifying position is so important.
“I had electrical issues on my car, so I lost a lot of points and after that couldn’t catch Lewis and Piquet in the championship, that was really hard.”
These issues left Premat trailing Hamilton by 34 points heading into the penultimate round in Istanbul. Realistically, it was only going to be Hamilton or Piquet who would be crowned GP2 champion. With this in mind, while in third position in race one, he took the unusual decision to allow Hamilton to pass him of his own accord.
“I remember in Turkey I didn’t get the information from the team, but he was super-fast, so I let him through to help him in the championship. He came to me and said you didn’t need to do that but sometimes, even in GP2, when you’re going really hard because you want to go to Formula 1, you can help your teammate to win the championship, it’s part of life.”
Team orders, although now legal, remain a contentious part of F1. Ordering Bottas to allow Hamilton past him in Russia drew wide-spread criticism of Mercedes, with even the reserved Bottas visibly upset with the decision. Unsurprisingly, Premat has little issue with this decision.
“When you’re a racing car driver it’s not like when you’re an athlete and if you’re the fastest you will win the race for sure. Formula 1 is very political unfortunately. If you look at the points, you can say it wouldn’t affect much if Bottas had won the race, but they wanted to just make sure they secured the championship so it’s part of the job for Bottas. For Valtteri to win one more race or one less won’t change his life. You know your job; you stick with your orders from the team.
“In DTM, I was leading the race on the last lap, I was told I had to let Martin Tomczyk by, so I did and the next year I was re-signed on a two-year contract. I don’t have regrets; life changes and I’m not thinking about that anymore.”
Premat was never put in such a situation during his time alongside Hamilton but did admit that there was a sense within the team that they needed to do all they could to help Lewis on his way.
“For sure we knew he’d make an impact, he’d win a championship, maybe they favoured Lewis a little more, but that’s motor racing, sometimes there are people that are more rated than others. I was part of the team, so I was happy to be his teammate and drive with the freedom to see where I was against him. I knew he would be in Formula 1.”
Premat was absolutely right. Hamilton’s championship win persuaded Ron Dennis to give him a McLaren race seat for the 2007 season. On debut, he came within a point of winning the world championship but achieved the feat the following year with a dramatic last-lap pass on Timo Glock in Brazil.
He now stands on the brink of a fifth — a feat that would bring him level with Juan Manuel Fangio. The only man to boast a better record would be Michael Schumacher with his total of 91 wins and seven world titles. Premat sees no reason why Hamilton can’t go on to eclipse the German.
“Lewis is in Formula 1 to break records, he wants everything: race victories, world championships and he’s already got the pole record. Even when he doesn’t have the best car, he is able to get the best out of the team and himself. He will be the best driver in the world in the next two or three years and he will stay for a long time.”
Hamilton accomplishes all of this in his own way. He leads a rock star lifestyle and is regularly globetrotting between races, whether it be for music, fashion or social commitments. His success has silenced the critics who once accused him of not being focused on his racing, something Premat wholly disagrees with.
“He lives his life; he wants to get connections and send a message to people that he is more than a racing driver. We were talking about this in 2006, he always wanted to be like Ayrton Senna, but Lewis doesn’t want to just be involved in motor racing, he has wider interests, particularly in fashion.
“What he’s doing now is good for the sport. For sure, you need to be focused on the championship for the 19-20 races, but the emotions can be so strong between races, you need to have a balance between your racing and your real life and I think he’s found a good combination. He gets energy and power from meeting people from all over the world that gives him strength for his focus in F1.”
Premat completed tests in F1 but moved on from GP2 to pursue a successful career, first in DTM and now in Supercars and it will be a big day on Sunday as both former teammates go for glory.
Hamilton will win a fifth world title if he outscores Sebastian Vettel by eight points in Austin. Meanwhile, Premat will be going for the Enduro Cup in the final round on the Gold Coast with co-driver Scott McLaughlin, a race he has won for the last two years.
Featured photograph/Lorenzo Bellanca/GP2 Series Media Service