Two world titles in sight, a genius driver — so why is Hamilton unloved?
Lewis Hamilton drives in the desert next Sunday not only to make history but to earn a place in the public’s hearts. He will race in Abu Dhabi to become a double world champion after an immensely hard-fought campaign; Great Britain’s first since Sir Jackie Stewart in 1971. Yet the kind of hero status enjoyed by Stewart, Nigel Mansell and even Damon Hill in the intervening 43 years may never come Hamilton’s way, despite his abundant talent.
This year the 29-year-old has matured as a driver and as a man. He is more comfortable and relaxed in himself than he has ever been. There is a greater authenticity to Hamilton now, with those gloomy, petulant moods slowly receding. But for all this growth, he is still not one of the darlings of British sport.
Put simply, there will always be someone who pips him to the post for the BBC Sports Personality award. When Hamilton came within a whisker of winning the championship in his first season — perhaps the most sensational debut ever in Formula One — he lost to the boxer Joe Calzaghe. The following year, 2008, after so memorably clinching his first title in Brazil, it was Chris Hoy. This year it is almost certain to be golfer Rory Mcllroy. As fine as these sportsmen are, it seems there is always someone else.
Hill — a driver who would accept that he does not share Hamilton’s natural speed — was even given the accolade twice, once when he lost the title in the final race, and once when he won it. The public understood Hill. He was a gentleman racer, son of two-time champion Graham Hill, trying to prove his worth and live up to the family name having entered Formula One relatively late age.
Hamilton is far less easy to fathom. Is he the polite racer from Stevenage who just wants to do right by his family and fans? Or the aspiring music mogul, the superstar who once had H.A.M. — short for ‘Hard as a M — — — — — r’ – emblazoned on his helmet, and still carries the message on his Twitter page? Hill, now a Sky television pundit, sympathises with his predicament. “It’s more difficult these days for drivers to appeal to the public,” he said. “I wonder if it’s to do with the way the sport is perceived. It seems to be existing in its own bubble more so than in the past. Lewis is very popular, the British Grand Prix showed that. It’s just been a tricky ride.”
Sir Stirling Moss, arguably the finest F1 driver never to win the championship, is a fan, heaping praise and predicting every British record will fall Hamilton’s way. But, in the public’s eyes at least, he hits the nail on the head. “He can be more of a pop idol than he is a racing driver,” Moss said. “But he is b — — – quick. I think mentally in driving he is 40 or 50, but in other things he’s 15. But there we are — he leads his life as he likes.”
Mrs Moss interrupts. “He’s gone off to America more, I think that’s why he’s not so well loved,” Susie Moss says. “As a young driver, and when he won his first championship, he was such a lovely guy. Such a gentle, normal person. Now he’s much more of a superstar, and more volatile.” Sir Stirling agrees. “He was one of the racing crowd before and now he’s whatever you call those superstars. And that’s not really the way we English go. We’re more reserved.”
That famous image of a boyish 23-year-old, stood under an umbrella with his father Anthony on the grid in Sao Paulo, captured all he was then. He was sheltered — literally and figuratively — both by his father and the equally overbearing paternal influence of Ron Dennis, the McLaren boss.
This mesh of influences produced a young man with skills behind the wheel which were well beyond his years, having been groomed for Formula One since he was a child. Yet there was an immaturity towards everything else, making for a sportsman who was part open, honest and affable, and part belligerent, guarded and divisive. While a less friendly side can linger — one of my fellow correspondents has been banned from his press briefings all season — Hamilton is a more level-headed, rounded individual now.
David Coulthard, the 13-time grand prix winner, has been through it all with Hamilton. From the driver who was followed around by the then-rookie driver, to friends treating each other with mutual respect. “Lewis has managed to grow up in public,” the Scot says. “He’s finally comfortable within himself, and happy with who he is. I don’t think there is a bad bone in his body. He has continued to learn, grow and evolve. He will continue to need guidance, but who doesn’t“
Coulthard suggests that the lack of warm feeling is partly due to the system which produces modern Formula One drivers. “They can seem like they are products of a system. People like the underdogs. Lewis was part of the McLaren system and it was a question of when he got to Formula One, not if. I don’t think it’s anything of his doing.” As Stewart, a three-time champion, puts it: “He was picked up and put on a Kashmir magic carpet.” However, the journey from 2008 to now has been a tortuous one. Six years ago, he had the motor racing world at his feet and a period of total domination looked inevitable.
It has not been so simple: through a mix of uncompetitive cars at McLaren, and his own drops in form, Hamilton has had to watch others do most of the winning. He split with Anthony, left McLaren for Mercedes — questioned at the time but a move that now looks inspired — and joined Simon Fuller’s XIX Entertainment. He has recently split with XIX as well as enjoying the father-son relationship with Anthony he always hankered after.
Along the way there have been turbulent times. In 2011, his annus horribilis, he was outclassed by McLaren team-mate Jenson Button, uttering the infamous “maybe it’s because I’m black” quote in Monaco, after a row with race stewards.
This season, again in Monaco, he struggled to control his emotions after his fallout with his Mercedes rival Nico Rosberg. “I was disappointed that he didn’t handle that Monaco weekend as he might have done, with that conflict,” Stewart says.
There are still some baffling moments when, after winning pole position, he appears inexplicably glum. But such instances are on the wane. In Belgium, after being taken out by Rosberg, he gave one of his calmest and most eloquent interviews on the BBC.
So we return to the original question: who is Lewis Hamilton, and is he worthy of a place both in the pantheon of British greats but also in the esteem of the public? Most importantly he is himself, whatever amalgam of influences he has taken growing up in the public’s glare.
Hamilton’s tastes may not always sit perfectly with the traditional motor racing community. The bizarre Andy Warhol pendant he wore in Austin was just one example. His manner of speaking occasionally falls into a strange American twang. There was a particularly amusing moment in Japan, when he compared Ayrton Senna’s decision to deliberately crash into Alain Prost as when “some dude comes and messes with your chick, and you want to kill that dude!”
But one fact outweighs the significance of any misalignment of his taste with that of the public: he is being himself. Sincerity and honesty trumps all. In a sport where massive corporations stifle drivers into becoming bland PR machines, Hamilton’s propensity to be outspoken and spill the beans on Mercedes’ internal rivalry, should be applauded. As Bernie Ecclestone recognised when anointing Hamilton as his preferred champion, he is the only star Formula One has got.
As far as the driving goes, there is still plenty to do to be recognised as a great, worthy of comparison with the likes of Jim Clark, the double world champion who died at Hockenheim in 1968. “It’s too early for that,” Stewart said. “It takes multiple world championships, not winning in the best cars, and carrying with you a sort of dignity and style such as Juan Manuel Fangio [the five-time champion] had. He projected the sport and continued in such a dignified manner even after he retired, to represent the sport in such a blue-chip fashion.”
But if Hamilton wins next Sunday, and keeps winning in the dominant Mercedes in years to come, the British records will continue to fall. Whether the public will truly embrace him is less certain. With careers in music or elsewhere on the horizon, we should cherish him while we can.