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Saudi International: Ones to watch

LONDON: The Saudi International sees a host of big names tee it up at the untested Royal Greens Golf and Country club. Here we run the rule over the main contenders to lift the trophy come Sunday afternoon. JUSTIN ROSE, one Major, world No.1 WHAT HE SAID “We’ve seen in the past players who play…

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Saudi International: Ones to watch

LONDON: The Saudi International sees a host of big names tee it up at the untested Royal Greens Golf and Country club. Here we run the rule over the main contenders to lift the trophy come Sunday afternoon.
JUSTIN ROSE, one Major, world No.1
WHAT HE SAID
“We’ve seen in the past players who play well in the Middle East early in the year going on to have very successful seasons. Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year, for example, or Danny Willett three years ago winning in Dubai and then at the Masters. The Saudi International is an opportunity for players to lay down a marker in a strong field.”
ARAB NEWS SAYS
Rose comes into the tournament on the back of a hugely impressive win at Torrey Pines. He will be looking for a good week against a strong field to lay down another marker that he is the man to beat this year.

 

BROOKS KOEPKA, three Majors, world No. 2
WHAT HE SAID
“I always want to play against the world’s best players as it helps to sharpen my game. I enjoy the intensity of coming down the back nine on Sunday with a chance to win and that is even better when you are playing against the likes of my good friend DJ or Justin or Henrik, the list goes on.”
ARAB NEWS SAYS
The big-hitting American lost his world No. 1 ranking to Rose and will be out to show that with his three Majors in the past 18 months he is the true best in the business.

 

DUSTIN JOHNSON, one Major, World No. 3
WHAT HE SAID
“There are so many great players, you’ve got to bring your game every single week. It’s very important to come prepared every wee, no matter where you’re playing, what the tournament is and compete. It’s definitely going to be a good year, and I am definitely looking to challenge Rosey for the top spot.”
ARAB NEWS SAYS
There is a sense that having continued to win titles at a greater pace than anyone else over the past few years DJ is impatient for more Majors and returning to top spot. A good showing here will set his stall for the season.

 

BRYSON DECHAMBEAU, Dubai Desert Classic champions, World No. 5
WHAT HE SAID
“I’ve kind of already checked one off the box, winning internationally and winning on The European Tour. The next one is going to be a major. I’ve got to get that done. I know I can. I know I’ve got the game for it. It’s just about making, again, the proper adjustments and taking control of the pressure when it comes.”
ARAB NEWS SAYS
DeChambeau is golf’s man of the moment. The idiosyncratic golfer won last week in Dubai and the feeling is that he is going to the very top of the game. For a host of reasons the American is one to watch.

 

SERGIO GARCIA, 2017 US Master champion, world No. 27
WHAT HE SAID
“Any win, any win is good. It doesn’t matter where, I’ve always said it, it doesn’t matter where or against who. Winning nowadays is tough anywhere in the world. But when you are playing against the quality of this field it means a bit more. It would be nice to win here and that’s what I am going to try to do.”
ARAB NEWS SAYS

The Spaniard ended last year with another win at Valderrama and is looking to start the year on a high has won in Dubai and likes desert style golf so will be expecting a good finish.

 

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African teams shine: 5 things we learned from second round of group matches at 2021 FIFA Arab Cup

JEDDAH: When you have seen Earth from space, your perspective on life, quite literally, changes. The first Arab, and Muslim, to get that life-changing view, Prince Sultan bin Salman, has already lived a life few could imagine. Perhaps one that is a metaphor for the Kingdom’s hunger to always strive for the next achievement.“Well, I…

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African teams shine: 5 things we learned from second round of group matches at 2021 FIFA Arab Cup

JEDDAH: When you have seen Earth from space, your perspective on life, quite literally, changes.

The first Arab, and Muslim, to get that life-changing view, Prince Sultan bin Salman, has already lived a life few could imagine. Perhaps one that is a metaphor for the Kingdom’s hunger to always strive for the next achievement.“Well, I haven’t started yet achieving anything I really wanted, so give me time, we’re still at the beginning,” Prince Sultan said with a knowing smile, “but every experience has its own dimensions, and I took it on in my life not to compare experiences.”

In this photo dated 1979, Prince Sultan bin Salman with the late Prince Fahd bin Salman and Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf Al-Saud at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, California in the US. (Supplied)
From the vastness of space to the desolation of the desert, it is all about appreciating the moment.“I could be walking with my camels in the desert,” he said. “On the space shuttle experience, it was a completely separate experience. As pilots, we’re very excited. But then when you go into space, (the) shuttle is really not a pilot experience. You think it’s like ‘I’m a pilot, I’m going to enjoy seeing the Earth for a bit of further destination distance.’”

In his book “Seven Days in Space”, the prince expands on becoming the first Arab astronaut at the age of only 28.

Prince Sultan’s passion these days is flying Learjets, a legacy of his days as a pilot with the Royal Saudi Air Force in the 1980s. His trip on the Space Shuttle Discovery would take place from June 17 through June 24, 1985. But it was in the 1970s that he fell in love with cars — his own and, eventually, Formula One cars.The first-ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix may be hours away but the Kingdom’s historical connection with F1, perhaps a forgotten one, stretches back to the late 1970s and early ‘80s. And for that, Prince Sultan can take a big share of the credit.It was a chance meeting with Frank Williams — who passed away last week at the age of 79 — in Colorado in 1978 that would lead to Saudi Arabia’s first steps into F1. Prince Sultan remembers him with genuine affection.

It’s going to become an industry in Saudi, and it’s going to become something that we make, and we’d be proud of. You’ll see Saudi Arabia surpassing in technology and development and of course, in drivers.

Prince Sultan bin Salman

“Frank Williams, God bless his soul,” he said. “He was a good man, he loved Saudi Arabia, and I really wished that he would have come to this (grand prix) because I was communicating that when he came, we’ll do a joint interview on television about how the team started.”Soon the owner of Williams racing, established in 1977, and its technical director, Patrick Head, were visiting the Kingdom, where Prince Sultan introduced him to his late brother and mentor, Prince Fahd bin Salman, and Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf Al-Saud, the fomer ambassador for Saudi Arabia to Italy and the UK.“And then the sponsorships started falling in,” said Prince Sultan.These partners were Al Bilad, which gave its name to the team, and national airline and major sponsor Saudia, which backed the team to the tune of $100,000, a fortune in those days.

Prince Sultan bin Salman poses with a modern-day edition of the famous Saudi-sponsored Williams Formula One car of the early 1980s, with F1 champion Alan Jones to his right (Supplied)
The two Williams cars would also carry numbers associated with Prince Sultan.“I was born on June 27,” he said, “so we have the two cars 27 and 6. And then we had 28, which is the backup car. So when Frank and I were talking, Frank said he was willing to do anything. I wish I’d said I’d like to own half of the team for bringing in a sponsor and all that. He would have done that, but I was in it for fun.”And fun he would have. A famous trip to California for the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1979 – in which  saw the trio of Saudi Princes enjoying the company of the likes of Williams, legendary drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt, and former Beatle George Harrison.

Well, I haven’t started yet achieving anything I really wanted, so give me time, we’re still at the beginning.

Prince Sultan bin Salman

“Harrison had a very nice personality,” said Prince Sultan. “I met some of those rock and roll stars in America, and we’d go to concerts. But George Harrison was very, very polite, nice to be with. We would go to dinners and events, he would sit at the same table, and we’d talk. He offered once that if I came to London, he would introduce me to a couple of The Beatles.”With “Fly Saudia” adorning its wings, Williams stormed to the Constructors Championship in 1980 and 1981. The Australian Alan Jones, who had posted the team’s first ever win at that memorable Long Beach Grand Prix, drove Williams to the Driver’s Championship in the first of those triumphs, and in 1983, Keke Rosberg — father of 2016 F1 champion Nico — retained the individual title for the team despite winning only one race all season.On Saturday, Dec. 4, Prince Sultan’s story with F1 came full circle as he visited Jeddah Corniche Circuit and alongside Alan Jones, Jackie Stewart, Saudi Minister of Sport Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal and Aramco CEO Amin Nasser, paused for photos on a modern day reproduction of those iconic Williams cars from the early 1980s.

For Jones in particular, this was a poignant reunion four decades after his championship win with Williams.

The prince is still a fan of F1 and joked that he will not be cheering for Lewis Hamilton as “he’s won everything” and should leave something to the others.I’m always in favor of the young drivers who have just come to this industry,” said Prince Sultan.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The first-ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix may be hours away but the Kingdom’s historical connection with F1, perhaps a forgotten one, stretches back to the late 1970s and early ‘80s. And for that, Prince Sultan can take a big share of the credit.

• It was a chance meeting with Frank Williams — who passed away last week at the age of 79 — in Colorado in 1978 that would lead to Saudi Arabia’s first steps into F1. Prince Sultan remembers him with genuine affection.

Conditions for the first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix are ideal, he believes. “It comes down to, of course, Jeddah is at sea level and there’s the fantastic timing of December now,” he said. “So the cars are not going to suffer. It reminds me of Long Beach because it’s right on the ocean, it’s on the beach. We don’t have the Queen Mary parked there, but we have beautiful Jeddah and it’s really tremendous, we’re all looking forward to it.”Prince Sultan is proud of all things Saudi and highlights the achievements of its engineers, artists, photographers and sportsmen. He sees a time when world class drivers will be added to the list.“Eventually, we’re going to have Saudi drivers (in) F1,” he said. “It is genetic here, I’m telling you, it’s genetic here to be able to do a lot of things, and completely connect very quickly. The talent is here.”Prince Sultan added: “If you want the definitive thing from me, I say Saudi Arabia not only has to host F1 — we have to go beyond that. We have to do what Saudi Arabia does best, not to beat this or to be better than that, but we need to do our own car and push the technology that will filter down to other things we do here in Saudi, and we need to build it and design it.”The motorsport industry in the Kingdom has already taken major steps in recent years, with the hosting of the Dakar Rally, Formula E and Extreme E, and now, the grandest of the lot.“Saudi Arabia’s relationship with F1 is not going to stop, I’m sure, by hosting it on the racetrack,” he said. “It’s going to become an industry in Saudi, and it’s going to become something that we make, and we’d be proud of. You’ll see Saudi Arabia surpassing in technology and development and of course, in drivers.” We’re still at the beginning.

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Aston Martin team principal, Saudi athletes talk F1 ahead of Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

JEDDAH: The first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is almost here, and the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time could not be more relaxed, considering what is at stake. A potential record-breaking eighth championship is back within tantalizing reach. And as the eyes of the world turn to the newly completed Jeddah Corniche Circuit,…

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Aston Martin team principal, Saudi athletes talk F1 ahead of Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

JEDDAH: The first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is almost here, and the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time could not be more relaxed, considering what is at stake.

A potential record-breaking eighth championship is back within tantalizing reach. And as the eyes of the world turn to the newly completed Jeddah Corniche Circuit, F1 has never been more popular.

And some of its newest fans have come from a most unexpected source. “I think it’s changed the game,” said Lewis Hamilton.

High praise indeed. Not for a new car, or some revolutionary technical innovation, though. Hamilton was referencing the Netflix show “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” and how it had brought the sport to a whole new global audience.

“I don’t think anybody knew what it was going to do for the sport exactly. Definitely thought it would be positive, but it’s changed the sport for good I think,” the reigning world champion added.

“I think it’s been the best thing because our sport is often quite difficult for people to understand. If you turn the TV on, you have no clue what’s going on. It’s very intricate, very complex, and there’s so many moving parts.”

The world’s most exclusive sport suddenly seems that little bit more welcoming to outsiders these days.

The 36-year-old Mercedes driver said: “Most people play football at school, play tennis, or try out these other sports. Most people don’t get the chance to race cars, so it’s been great for that show to be able to showcase that there are actual personalities within sport and the excitement in depth rather than just what you see on TV.

“And now there’s this whirlwind of new fan following, and yes the close championship makes it even more exciting.”

Not that Hamilton’s profile needed boosting.

Lewis Hamilton has helped design IWC’s Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition ‘Lewis Hamilton’. (IWC Schaffhausen)
Seven-time world champion, possessor of most pole positions (102) and race wins (102), and now gunning for a record eighth driver championship with Mercedes, Hamilton is coming off a sensational win at the first ever Qatar Grand Prix which has cut Max Verstappen’s lead at the top of the standings to eight points.

“The track was awesome. When we started driving it, just with the wind direction and the grip level, the speed of all the corners, they were all medium- and high-speed corners, I was sure the racing was not going to be great there. But it actually was, surprisingly.

“Qualifying lap, single lap, felt incredible and we had good preparation,” Hamilton added.

Having won the previous weekend in Brazil, Hamilton and Mercedes initially struggled in Doha.

“The Friday was a difficult day for me, I was nowhere, and I just kept my head down and studied hard and was fortunate, I felt, to turn it around and have a great Saturday and Sunday.

“I definitely didn’t know that at this point I’d be this close (to Verstappen in the standings) and have the performance that we finally were able to unlock with the car. I’m super grateful for it,” he said.

Next up for the rivals is this weekend’s inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, and yet another new track in Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

“I think all the drivers have driven the simulator; it is incredibly quick. It is a bit reminiscent of Montreal in terms of the long straight track that they have there, but they’re all curved at this track, and also there’s not a lot of run-off area so it really is quite a street circuit, and right in the city.

“It looks pretty epic to be honest, but we won’t fully know until we feel the rollercoaster ride of the real G-Force and speed, once we get there,” Hamilton added.

The reigning Formula 1 world champion says his interest off the track have helped him keep perspective in his racing career. (IWC Schaffhausen)
The British driver will be hoping to take the championship to the last race in Abu Dhabi, where the Yas Marina Circuit has been reconfigured for the first time since its completion in 2009.

He said: “It’s obviously an incredible circuit with the whole build-out of the place, I think they spent the most on that circuit than any other circuit, so it’s a great spectacle, beautiful last race of the season. But the layout has always been very, very difficult to follow and overtaking is quite difficult.

“It’s quite interesting that they’ve made these changes and I really think it’s going to unlock the potential of that circuit, to be more of a racing circuit. Because it’s so hard for us to follow each other, when they make these types of small changes, it’s hard to follow those through.

“So, from the simulator driving that I’ve done it looks like it’s going to make it very, very difficult to hold, to even keep position. It looks like it could be something where you’re constantly switching and changing. They might move to one of the best racing circuits, we’ll see when we get there,” he added.

Of Hamilton’s seven titles, six have been won with Mercedes in the last seven years, and such was his dominance at times, often it seemed that he was racing against himself, and history.

The closeness of this season’s battle with Verstappen and Red Bull is something Hamilton is cherishing.

“I really am because each year you’re faced with different scenarios. I wouldn’t say that it’s ever been a choice for me. I’ve never had it easy, in my younger days starting with an old go-kart, having to always race from the back.

“And particularly in karting, there was always wheel-to-wheel racing, super close. It was always down to that last lap, you had to be very, very tactical to make sure you came out first. I miss that in racing, and as you get through your cars you get less and less of that, and it’s more about positioning and holding the position.”

Red Bull have certainly raised the stakes this season, but Hamilton and Mercedes have risen to the challenge in recent weeks; the gap to Verstappen is down to only eight points in the drivers’ championship, while the team now leads Red Bull by five points.

Hamilton said: “Then of course we have all these disparities between cars each year, one team does well, and the other team doesn’t. We’ve done well for quite a few years, it’s amazing to now have this close battle again because it’s reminiscent of my karting days in terms of how close it is.

“But it also meant that we all have to elevate and perfect our craft even more. That’s what sport is about, right? That’s why it’s been super exciting. It’s been challenging for my engineers, for the mechanics, how do they dig deep and squeeze more out of their potential. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, but something I’ve really enjoyed.”

Should Hamilton win the title in Abu Dhabi, it will be a very popular victory among the natives. The organizers of the race at Yas Marina Circuit still speak with pride at how Hamilton — who races in No. 44 — took part in the UAE’s 44th National Day celebrations in 2015.

Having spent a significant part of his life racing around the world, Hamilton has seen first-hand how F1 has grown in the Middle East.

“Each time we go out to Bahrain, the crowds seem to get bigger and bigger. Abu Dhabi gets bigger and bigger each time we go and of course we have more and more presence now particularly with Qatar and Saudi,” he added.

Crucially, more young people are taking up motorsports in this part of the world, especially karting.

“I just spoke to someone from Saudi, I don’t know a lot of people in Saudi, but they are talking to me about how there are a lot of girls, and boys, where their first choice is not football, it’s racing,” Hamilton said.

“It’s quite cool to see there is a new generation out in the Middle East that are car crazy and want to be racing. So, who knows, maybe in the future we’re going to see a Formula 1 driver from somewhere in the Middle East, I think that could be quite cool. Would be even better if that was female.”

Hamilton, famously, has developed many interests, and supported many causes, outside racing.

“Being an athlete, being a sportsman, most often that’s all you do and for me it’s been important to find other outlets, other areas, because if you focus on one thing it doesn’t always lead to happiness.

“You’ve got to be able to fill and explore your other potential, other avenues that you might be good at. It’s always great to be able to turn your mind off from racing, and focus on something else, something that you can be creative with,” he added.

Unlike most other drivers, or athletes, Hamilton has had ventures into music and fashion. He has also built a close relationship with Swiss watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen — for whom he is an ambassador — over the last few years, helping design his very own timepiece, Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition Lewis Hamilton.

“So, I really enjoyed the whole process, from sitting in the car at Hockenheim with Christopher (Grainger-Herr, chief executive officer of IWC Schaffhausen), driving to the airport and talking about a potential collaboration, and talking about the intricacies of a watch, and saying I want my own watch one day, to now having my own timepiece.

“It was really challenging for me, sitting there working with them because I have a lot of appreciation for the brand’s work and expertise, but I also wanted to add my own touch. I had questions like, what can we change on the dial? The tourbillon, I want to get the tourbillon in one of my pieces because it’s one of my favorite movements, if not my favorite movement,” he said.

In recent years, activism has played a big part in Hamilton’s life away from F1, and he has become an outspoken advocate for social equality, diversity in sport, and environmental sustainability, his own X44 team taking part in the first ever electric SUV rally series, Extreme E, this year.

Hamilton noted that it was vital for him to work with people who shared his values.

“So, I’ve been on calls with my partners at IWC Schaffhausen talking about things like, what are you doing during this time about diversity? How diverse is your company, what are your goals, how are you going to be more inclusive moving forward? And they’re fully on board with that.

“That for me is amazing to see, that people are conscious of sustainability, brands are conscious of the impact that we’re having on the planet. I only really like to engage with people that are like-minded in that sense, rather than just business-minded,” he added.

Far from being distractions, his interests away from racing have helped him keep an almost zen-like sense of perspective in his career, as his continued brilliance on the track has shown.

He said: “Tapping into different things helps take the pressure off this crazy, intense world that I have over here. Because if I stop and think about that and only think about the racing, I have 2,000 people working flat out, depending on me at the end to pull it through.

“Partners, and my own expectations can be super overwhelming, so these other things help me dilute that pressure and feed that energy into something positive.”

Still, when he lands in Jeddah for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix this weekend, expect one thing, and one thing only, to be on Lewis Hamilton’s mind.

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Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family

JEDDAH: The first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is almost here, and the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time could not be more relaxed, considering what is at stake. A potential record-breaking eighth championship is back within tantalizing reach. And as the eyes of the world turn to the newly completed Jeddah Corniche Circuit,…

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Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family

JEDDAH: The first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is almost here, and the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time could not be more relaxed, considering what is at stake.

A potential record-breaking eighth championship is back within tantalizing reach. And as the eyes of the world turn to the newly completed Jeddah Corniche Circuit, F1 has never been more popular.

And some of its newest fans have come from a most unexpected source. “I think it’s changed the game,” said Lewis Hamilton.

High praise indeed. Not for a new car, or some revolutionary technical innovation, though. Hamilton was referencing the Netflix show “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” and how it had brought the sport to a whole new global audience.

“I don’t think anybody knew what it was going to do for the sport exactly. Definitely thought it would be positive, but it’s changed the sport for good I think,” the reigning world champion added.

“I think it’s been the best thing because our sport is often quite difficult for people to understand. If you turn the TV on, you have no clue what’s going on. It’s very intricate, very complex, and there’s so many moving parts.”

The world’s most exclusive sport suddenly seems that little bit more welcoming to outsiders these days.

The 36-year-old Mercedes driver said: “Most people play football at school, play tennis, or try out these other sports. Most people don’t get the chance to race cars, so it’s been great for that show to be able to showcase that there are actual personalities within sport and the excitement in depth rather than just what you see on TV.

“And now there’s this whirlwind of new fan following, and yes the close championship makes it even more exciting.”

Not that Hamilton’s profile needed boosting.

Lewis Hamilton has helped design IWC’s Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition ‘Lewis Hamilton’. (IWC)
Seven-time world champion, possessor of most pole positions (102) and race wins (102), and now gunning for a record eighth driver championship with Mercedes, Hamilton is coming off a sensational win at the first ever Qatar Grand Prix which has cut Max Verstappen’s lead at the top of the standings to eight points.

“The track was awesome. When we started driving it, just with the wind direction and the grip level, the speed of all the corners, they were all medium- and high-speed corners, I was sure the racing was not going to be great there. But it actually was, surprisingly.

“Qualifying lap, single lap, felt incredible and we had good preparation,” Hamilton added.

Having won the previous weekend in Brazil, Hamilton and Mercedes initially struggled in Doha.

“The Friday was a difficult day for me, I was nowhere, and I just kept my head down and studied hard and was fortunate, I felt, to turn it around and have a great Saturday and Sunday.

“I definitely didn’t know that at this point I’d be this close (to Verstappen in the standings) and have the performance that we finally were able to unlock with the car. I’m super grateful for it,” he said.

Next up for the rivals is this weekend’s inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, and yet another new track in Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

“I think all the drivers have driven the simulator; it is incredibly quick. It is a bit reminiscent of Montreal in terms of the long straight track that they have there, but they’re all curved at this track, and also there’s not a lot of run-off area so it really is quite a street circuit, and right in the city.

“It looks pretty epic to be honest, but we won’t fully know until we feel the rollercoaster ride of the real G-Force and speed, once we get there,” Hamilton added.

The reigning Formula 1 world champion says his interest off the track have helped him keep perspective in his racing career. (IWC)
The British driver will be hoping to take the championship to the last race in Abu Dhabi, where the Yas Marina Circuit has been reconfigured for the first time since its completion in 2009.

He said: “It’s obviously an incredible circuit with the whole build-out of the place, I think they spent the most on that circuit than any other circuit, so it’s a great spectacle, beautiful last race of the season. But the layout has always been very, very difficult to follow and overtaking is quite difficult.

“It’s quite interesting that they’ve made these changes and I really think it’s going to unlock the potential of that circuit, to be more of a racing circuit. Because it’s so hard for us to follow each other, when they make these types of small changes, it’s hard to follow those through.

“So, from the simulator driving that I’ve done it looks like it’s going to make it very, very difficult to hold, to even keep position. It looks like it could be something where you’re constantly switching and changing. They might move to one of the best racing circuits, we’ll see when we get there,” he added.

Of Hamilton’s seven titles, six have been won with Mercedes in the last seven years, and such was his dominance at times, often it seemed that he was racing against himself, and history.

The closeness of this season’s battle with Verstappen and Red Bull is something Hamilton is cherishing.

“I really am because each year you’re faced with different scenarios. I wouldn’t say that it’s ever been a choice for me. I’ve never had it easy, in my younger days starting with an old go-kart, having to always race from the back.

“And particularly in karting, there was always wheel-to-wheel racing, super close. It was always down to that last lap, you had to be very, very tactical to make sure you came out first. I miss that in racing, and as you get through your cars you get less and less of that, and it’s more about positioning and holding the position.”

Red Bull have certainly raised the stakes this season, but Hamilton and Mercedes have risen to the challenge in recent weeks; the gap to Verstappen is down to only eight points in the drivers’ championship, while the team now leads Red Bull by five points.

Hamilton said: “Then of course we have all these disparities between cars each year, one team does well, and the other team doesn’t. We’ve done well for quite a few years, it’s amazing to now have this close battle again because it’s reminiscent of my karting days in terms of how close it is.

“But it also meant that we all have to elevate and perfect our craft even more. That’s what sport is about, right? That’s why it’s been super exciting. It’s been challenging for my engineers, for the mechanics, how do they dig deep and squeeze more out of their potential. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, but something I’ve really enjoyed.”

Should Hamilton win the title in Abu Dhabi, it will be a very popular victory among the natives. The organizers of the race at Yas Marina Circuit still speak with pride at how Hamilton — who races in No. 44 — took part in the UAE’s 44th National Day celebrations in 2015.

Having spent a significant part of his life racing around the world, Hamilton has seen first-hand how F1 has grown in the Middle East.

“Each time we go out to Bahrain, the crowds seem to get bigger and bigger. Abu Dhabi gets bigger and bigger each time we go and of course we have more and more presence now particularly with Qatar and Saudi,” he added.

Crucially, more young people are taking up motorsports in this part of the world, especially karting.

“I just spoke to someone from Saudi, I don’t know a lot of people in Saudi, but they are talking to me about how there are a lot of girls, and boys, where their first choice is not football, it’s racing,” Hamilton said.

“It’s quite cool to see there is a new generation out in the Middle East that are car crazy and want to be racing. So, who knows, maybe in the future we’re going to see a Formula 1 driver from somewhere in the Middle East, I think that could be quite cool. Would be even better if that was female.”

Hamilton, famously, has developed many interests, and supported many causes, outside racing.

“Being an athlete, being a sportsman, most often that’s all you do and for me it’s been important to find other outlets, other areas, because if you focus on one thing it doesn’t always lead to happiness.

“You’ve got to be able to fill and explore your other potential, other avenues that you might be good at. It’s always great to be able to turn your mind off from racing, and focus on something else, something that you can be creative with,” he added.

Unlike most other drivers, or athletes, Hamilton has had ventures into music and fashion. He has also built a close relationship with Swiss watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen — for whom he is an ambassador — over the last few years, helping design his very own timepiece, Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition Lewis Hamilton.

“So, I really enjoyed the whole process, from sitting in the car at Hockenheim with Christopher (Grainger-Herr, chief executive officer of IWC Schaffhausen), driving to the airport and talking about a potential collaboration, and talking about the intricacies of a watch, and saying I want my own watch one day, to now having my own timepiece.

“It was really challenging for me, sitting there working with them because I have a lot of appreciation for the brand’s work and expertise, but I also wanted to add my own touch. I had questions like, what can we change on the dial? The tourbillon, I want to get the tourbillon in one of my pieces because it’s one of my favorite movements, if not my favorite movement,” he said.

In recent years, activism has played a big part in Hamilton’s life away from F1, and he has become an outspoken advocate for social equality, diversity in sport, and environmental sustainability, his own X44 team taking part in the first ever electric SUV rally series, Extreme E, this year.

Hamilton noted that it was vital for him to work with people who shared his values.

“So, I’ve been on calls with my partners at IWC Schaffhausen talking about things like, what are you doing during this time about diversity? How diverse is your company, what are your goals, how are you going to be more inclusive moving forward? And they’re fully on board with that.

“That for me is amazing to see, that people are conscious of sustainability, brands are conscious of the impact that we’re having on the planet. I only really like to engage with people that are like-minded in that sense, rather than just business-minded,” he added.

Far from being distractions, his interests away from racing have helped him keep an almost zen-like sense of perspective in his career, as his continued brilliance on the track has shown.

He said: “Tapping into different things helps take the pressure off this crazy, intense world that I have over here. Because if I stop and think about that and only think about the racing, I have 2,000 people working flat out, depending on me at the end to pull it through.

“Partners, and my own expectations can be super overwhelming, so these other things help me dilute that pressure and feed that energy into something positive.”

Still, when he lands in Jeddah for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix this weekend, expect one thing, and one thing only, to be on Lewis Hamilton’s mind.

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