Saturday 16 December 2017

Lewis Hamilton: Drivers are gagged by Formula 1's corporate atmosphere

Lewis Hamilton: Clear favourite
Lewis Hamilton: Clear favourite

Daniel Johnson

With one seemingly innocuous line, Lewis Hamilton went to the heart of what many feel is one of the many things wrong with Formula 1: the drivers - the main protagonists, after all - are not free to say what they think.

Hamilton conceded yesterday that the corporate atmosphere prompted a collective vow of silence and that it was akin to "cutting your own tail off" for any driver to speak out.

There has been plenty of trash-talking since the last race in Canada, a fairly drab affair, some of it justified and some of it propagated entirely for political purposes. Red Bull - the hosts of this event - even produced an extraordinary promotional magazine ahead of this weekend's Austrian Grand Prix which ran with a shouty cover story titled: "What's wrong with Formula 1?"

Rather than the persistent navel-gazing, what people are crying out for is direction, leadership, but with Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt - F1's chief executive and the FIA president - failing on both counts, the viewers have turned to their heroes, the drivers, to provide the lead.

Hamilton's revealing comments are a worrying indication of the climate in the sport.


The 30-year-old, who heads into this race as clear favourite, despite an off-colour display in practice yesterday, said: "It is very difficult for us drivers to say certain things, because we have sponsorship deals, partners, we've got to represent the sport in a certain way.

"You're only cutting your own tail off if you say something. At the end of the day it doesn't matter if you're emotional about something, it makes no difference whatsoever.

"If I was to tell you I prefer something to be a certain way, it makes zero difference other than you can go and write a story about it and I might get flak or I might not get flak. So we all just do we what we do.

"Ultimately we're here to drive. If you want to apply pressure you apply pressure to the top people, who make a difference."

As he spoke of his self-imposed hush, the double world champion was simultaneously professing how much he loved driving the current generation of cars.

Instead it has been left to former drivers such as Mark Webber and David Coulthard to speak for the disenchantment of the current crop.

Hamilton is by far the best and most positive story in Formula 1, but there is only so much he can do when fighting against the tide of bilge. Red Bull have been the most vocal, with Dietrich Mateschitz, the man behind the empire, seemingly ever closer to pulling the plug.

Even more bizarrely, the cover piece criticising F1 was written by Niki Lauda, the Mercedes chairman and three-time world champion.

It is hardly surprising therefore that yesterday's practice was sparsely attended, an astonishing contrast with the festival atmosphere of 12 months ago. Only 50,000 - just over half capacity - are expected for Sunday's race.

Lauda's own team continue to dominate the sport and even the Austrian warned that there is not much time left to arrest F1's decline.

"Formula 1 has been regulated to death down the years," Lauda said. "Everyone sticks their oar in. The drivers can't go beyond certain limits.

The drivers should have greater responsibility again in future and they have to be able to make more mistakes again, too, so that we can distinguish who is good and who is bad.

"The drivers are much too nice nowadays, too. None of them has any quirks and they all make sure that they never put a foot wrong. There is not much time left so I hope that we will be able to make these changes as quickly as possible so that people will have every motivation either to come to the races or to watch them on TV."

The Strategy Group, made up of Ecclestone, Todt and the six biggest teams, has largely failed so far. Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, at one stage one of Ecclestone's closest allies, is among the exasperated voices calling on the 84-year-old and Todt to sort things out, despite their implacable opposition.

"You wouldn't think it should be that difficult for those guys to come up with something," Horner said yesterday.

While executives were sharing depressed conversations, there were actually two practice sessions here. Encouragingly, it was closely-fought. Nico Rosberg topped the first, then Sebastian Vettel went fastest in the afternoon. Amid all the tales of misery, how Formula 1 could do with an exciting race to cheer everyone up. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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