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Hamilton facing difficult questions

Lewis splits F1 with reckless approach

Oliver Brett @sport_oliver

The dichotomy is stark.

On the one hand, you have Formula One, the sport.

Sanitized, formulaic and packed with artificial sweeteners – such as Kers and DRS – that only the nerds understand, the modern grand prix is as far removed from its organic roots as can be.

Then you have the man who is its most marketable asset. Supremely talented, earmarked for greatness as soon as his feet could reach the pedals of a go-kart and a world champion at the age of 23, Lewis Hamilton is a driver whose rare combination of panache, courage and sheer skill is easily identifiable to anyone who might randomly switch on their TV on a Sunday afternoon wondering if there’s a decent Western on.

Sure, he puts some people’s noses out of joint – stewards, rival team bosses, the more conservative drivers on the grid. Driving the way he does, that’s bound to happen. But in a sport that sometimes threatens to provide a cure for insomnia (despite the wailing engine noise), it’s Hamilton who so often produces the much-needed thrills that provide its lifeblood.

In fact, excluding F1’s ultimate excitement catalyst, the rain, Hamilton is its lifeblood. And the rain cannot, yet, be summoned to appear on cue by Bernie Ecclestone.

We are halfway through the 2011 season and, if you look at the statistics, everyone should be talking about a young German with tousled blond hair, impeccable manners and a cheeky grin. But while Sebastian Vettel might appear an acceptable choice as a future husband for your daughter, there is no guarantee your daughter would fancy him in the first place.

He drives his Red Bull so efficiently that it sometimes appears to be fuelled by the same alarming ingredients that go into a can of the beverage the car’s livery promotes, an acquired taste if ever there was one.

Vettel, with six wins from the first nine races, needs to finish on top of the podium in eight of the remaining 10 to break Michael Schumacher’s 2004 record for the most wins in a season. With the drivers’ championship sewn up, at least realistically, I hope that’s what Vettel’s target is – though somehow I suspect it isn’t.

However, even the most po-faced of the BBC commentators (who, let’s face it, make up about half the total number of British-based F1 pundits/experts) would agree on this: Vettel is not the outstanding driver in F1.

In that case, who is? The contenders are the prodigiously moody Spaniard in the Ferrari, Fernando Alonso, and his former team-mate Hamilton.

I am not going to try to solve that conundrum, though it is fascinating to check the record book and recall that in the only season in which they drove for the same team (2007), they finished with an identical points tally.

So if it is hard to logically separate Alonso’s driving ability from Hamilton’s driving ability, why is the Englishman so much more important for F1?

The answer comes, in part, from that audacious driving style he was born with – a hunger to eat up the field, to do almost whatever it takes to get his car ahead of the one in front.

Hamilton knows that at times he is skating on decidedly thin ice, but he clearly feels the sport’s regulators have at times unfairly targeted him for punishment.

This season, McLaren have been consistently the third-fastest team. In other words, in every race, Hamilton has four cars that should, assuming they are driven properly, not only start from superior grid positions but also be nigh-on impossible to overtake.

This is an unacceptable situation for the young Englishman, who has not always been at his focused best in 2011. A chequered season has had one notable high – a stunning drive to win against the odds in China – and its low point, an impatient, immature drive in the wet Canadian GP, when, after a series of early mishaps, he collided with team-mate Jenson Button and was forced to retire.

In Monaco, he was overtaken by Schumacher’s Mercedes, before picking up a drive-through penalty after bumping Felipe Massa.

After that iconic race, the frustrations boiled over, albeit briefly. Hamilton said afterwards: “It’s an absolute frickin’ joke. I’ve been to see the stewards five times out of six this season.”

Asked to elaborate on why this might be the case, Hamilton instead tried a risque joke: “Maybe it’s because I’m black. That’s what Ali G says.”

Rightly, people did not make too much of those comments, though there was, buried in his little aside, acknowledgement of his ethnic heritage. And it’s not the first time he has alluded to it unexpectedly.

Ahead of the final race of his remarkable debut season, when Hamilton, Alonso and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen were all gunning for the drivers’ championship (Raikkonen won by a single point), he was asked what it would mean to him to become the first black champion.

It was a question many young sportsmen would have safely deflected away. Hamilton took the opposite route, saying: “It will show that not only white people can do it, but also black people, Indians, Japanese and Chinese. It will be good to mean something. Outside of Formula One, my heroes are foremost my father, then Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

“Being black is not a negative. It’s a positive, if anything, because I’m different. In the future, it can open doors to different cultures and that is what motorsport is trying to do anyway.”

And there’s another key to Hamilton’s extra clout in the marketability stakes. Like Alonso, he is young and gifted, but, uniquely in the sport, he is also black.

The last ingredient is the suggestion, hotly disputed though it will be, that he recalls the swagger of the late, great Ayrton Senna. Not that Hamilton himself would feel too humble were he likened to the heroic Brazilian.

Here he is speaking way back in 2006, aged 21, with journalists beginning to notice his achievements in F1’s feeder series: “Ayrton Senna was the coolest, smoothest driver I have ever seen. He was the man. That’s what I want to be.” And if you ever forget that Hamilton is comfortable with the association, the distinctive yellow helmet he wears when racing just serves as a gentle reminder.

At the start of the 2010 season, Hamilton made a decision that must have been very difficult: he sacked his father, Anthony, as his manager.

It was, however, a necessary move. His father, who had nurtured his career from the outset, buying him his first kart and holding down three jobs, was also an overly oppressive influence who had not felt able to allow Hamilton the chance to discover the world like an ordinary adult does.

The decision by Ron Dennis to step down as McLaren’s team principal also came into effect at the start of 2010. Dennis had taken an active role in mentoring Hamilton since he was little more than an enthusiastic kid from Stevenage.

Hamilton actually enjoyed a pretty decent 2010, finishing fourth in the drivers’ championship despite lacking the pace of the Red Bulls.

However, I would argue that the maturity he was able to show beyond his years in 2008 and 2009 was not so evident that year, particularly in the final third of the season – and at times this season he has appeared wayward and distracted.

Before the most recent GP, at his home track of Silverstone, all the talk centred on Hamilton’s exuberant, or perhaps over-exuberant, attitude to race-driving.

With critics lining up from previous generations, Sir Stirling Moss and Niki Lauda among them, and Massa also fanning the flames, Hamilton was adamant he was not prepared to tone it down.

“I’ll take my driving style to my deathbed, for sure,” he said. “People overreact to everything. You make a squeak and people overreact to it. That’s the way of this world.”

When it came to race day, however, the overly rash, foolhardy Hamilton we had seen in Monaco and Montreal was not in evidence.

In his home GP, even though McLaren were again off the pace, he provided a few thrilling overtakes and a more mature overall performance. It still brought him only fourth place, but it was enough to satisfy his fans, who roared their approval.

There is so much more to come from Hamilton. At 26, he has perhaps a decade or so left in the sport (Schumacher is still competing at 42) and it would be a travesty if he did not add at least one more world title.

For that to happen, he may need to secure a judicious move away from McLaren, but his notoriously ambitious agent, Simon Fuller, should be able to help him in that regard.

Hamilton will always be an exciting driver with the willpower and ability to perform outlandish overtakes. He cannot, as he so freely acknowledges, do very much to change that.

With just a bit more consistency, and a little good grace, he can become both a serial champion and a perfect role model for future young drivers, from every background, to look up to.

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One Response to “The Hamilton Dilemma”

  1. Amanda July 25, 2011

    Great article, I have to say that Lewis is by far my favourite F1 driver not just because he is the hottest! Long after every one jumped off the Lewis bandwagon because he no longer had the fastest car on the grid. He has continued to prove time and time again that he has the passion and drive to win, even when every thing seems to be against him. Yet again on Sunday, he showed us he still has what it takes to win and I hope to see more of his exciting and skilful driving in the chase to knock Vettel off the top spot and who knows, even bring home another championship.

    Reply

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