Saturday 23 September 2017

Nothing black and white in Hamilton's racism claims

F1's most exciting star shines a light on race relations in a sport still considered elitist, writes David Kennedy

Monaco showcases wealth and power like no other place on the Grand Prix trail. Like a magnet, it attracts the great and the good, the high and the mighty, and enormous egos at bursting point in the tiny, just shy of two square kilometre, principality.

Crème de la crème doesn't just describe the corporate hi-flyers, it's the colour of their yachts, the linen suits of their owners, and, for the most part, the colour of their skin.

So when Lewis Hamilton pulled the 'race issue' card at the end of the Grand Prix, having been penalised twice, it turned the spotlight on a sport that some perceive to be elitist, white and, at times, racist.

So what exactly did the Englishman say to provoke the powers that be into waving the rulebook, particularly article 151c, which forbids bringing the sport into disrepute.

After emerging from a meeting with race stewards, Hamilton was asked by a TV interviewer how it went. "You know what? Out of six races I've been to the stewards five times. It's a joke. It's an absolute frickin' joke." When it was put to him that perhaps he was being targeted, he said: "Maybe it's because I'm black. That's what Ali G says. I dunno."

The wrath of the FIA was felt almost as fast as the apologies were unleashed by a contrite Hamilton.

But is there any freedom of speech in F1? Are you allowed to express your views, whether they are said in the heat of post-competition anger or disguised as humour?

The fact is Hamilton is black in a mainly white man's sport. The teams and venues might be international but that's it. Sure it's changing, but those particular wheels are the slowest moving of all.

Maybe Hamilton feels the weight of the world upon his shoulders as he carries the aspirations of many youngsters like him. Though they probably know they could never achieve his greatness, he nonetheless represents hope. Growing up in England, Hamilton would have experienced racism, as his father and grandfather had before him (the latter worked on the London Underground in the 1950s).

Despite Hamilton's jovial protestations, there is no question that any of the five stewards chose to admonish him because of the colour of his skin. That said, it might make the next steward think twice about a borderline incident, so in that respect he got his message across.

Maybe had Hamilton familiarised himself with Sun Tzu's Art of War, and in particular the maxim from the sixth-century Chinese military strategist that "one should choose one's battles wisely" he wouldn't have got into the scrapes, as he clattered off Felipe Massa's Ferrari on the way to a clumsy late race shunt with Pastor Maldonado.

But he's a racer and that's the nature of the beast. "I will never stop racing the way I do," he said. "That's what got me here."

Which bring us onto another subject that deserves debate: namely, the ongoing discrimination in the rulebook against overtaking drivers.

Hamilton is the most exciting talent in Grand Prix racing right now, an edgy genius whose reputation is founded on an uncompromising attitude to racing and a determination to stick the nose of his McLaren into gaps that exist only between blinks, unseen by mere mortal eyes. Along with Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, Hamilton is F1 royalty, helping to define an era that is set to be recalled fondly, by F1 cognoscenti, in decades to come.

He races clean and takes chances which don't always come off, but the intention is invariably honourable. Collateral damage is the price you pay for drivers that race on the limit. That should be understood by everyone who takes out a racing licence. This isn't golf.

It's frustrating for Hamilton that he should be called to account on a regular basis for putting his heart and soul into a race from lights out to flag fall.

The stewards, hamstrung by a rule book that places undue emphasis on drivers who 'cause an avoidable accident', should be given the freedom instead to target drivers who obsessively defend their position to the point of letting the car in front disappear up the road.

Vettel has rarely had to concern himself with the complications of overtaking this season but the German produced a magnificent maiden Monaco win that will give him a warm glow when he reflects on it in his twilight years. The pity is we were robbed of a cliffhanger finish by the late race stoppage.

Next weekend is Canada, nominally a street track, but in sharp contrast to Monaco, almost guaranteed to provide plenty of overtaking. It was Hamilton, Jenson Button, Alonso, Vettel, Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg who took the top six spots in 2010.

There will be great excitement in Canada for one young hopeful who finished runner-up in the GP3 championship last season with Ireland's Status GP team. On Friday, the Marussia Virgin F1 team announced the signing of Toronto-born Robert Wickens as their reserve driver. The 22-year-old is ecstatic. He is currently lying second in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series, one point behind the leader. Having achieved great success in GP3, Marussia went on to sponsor Wickens in the Renault series and now they have shown the ultimate faith by signing them to their F1 programme.

He will continue to concentrate on his racing programme but will attend any Grands Prix which don't clash with his schedule. Timo Glock and Jerome D'Ambrosio are the principle Marussia Virgin drivers, with the latter in the news recently having had difficulty extracting funding from his sponsor.

The Canadian media will be out in force for the official launch a few days prior to the Grand Prix, not least because the last Canadian driver was Jacques Villeneuve, who bowed out five years ago. Wickens is a champion-in-the-making. Watch this space.

The FIA, meanwhile, has announced that the Bahrain Grand Prix, which was cancelled as the season opener due to protests and unrest, will be re-scheduled for October 30. The Indian Grand Prix will be pushed back as a result and the season could close in mid-December making it the longest calendar since 1963. Any later and we'll have Bernie Ecclestone dressed as Santa Claus delivering presents from a Ferrari F1 car.

Senna, the new movie about the deceased triple world champion, is finally being shown in cinemas. The film won best World Documentary Audience Award at Sundance. It is simply inspiring. It captures the essence of a talent that was honed, finely tuned but also flawed. You come away from it empowered by what the man achieved and depressed by the tragedy of that fateful day in Imola 1994. I felt privileged to have met the legend, to have known the man, to have witnessed his brilliance and watched his genius. This film brings it all alive again. Go and see it.

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