Sunday 25 August 2019

Hamilton's critics miss point about great world champion

Home-grown snipers shouldn't detract from achievements of driver who defied all the odds

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning his fourth Formula One drivers' championship after the Mexican Grand Prix Photo: PA Wire
Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning his fourth Formula One drivers' championship after the Mexican Grand Prix Photo: PA Wire

David Kennedy

Lewis Hamilton bagged his fourth world championship title in Mexico last weekend, a feat that is nothing short of extraordinary.

An underwhelming ninth-place race finish copper-fastened his childhood ambition, to be the best Formula One driver Britain ever produced. In the process he beat, in the appropriate car number 44, the venerated Jackie Stewart, who recorded his third title, 44 years ago.

Lewis moved into the rarefied atmosphere of five drivers in the world with four or more world championships: Sebastian Vettel (four), Alain Prost (four), Juan Manuel Fangio (five), and Michael Schumacher (seven). He chose early in his career to emulate the helmet colours of Ayrton Senna and now he wears one more coronet than his Brazilian hero. This is the stuff of fairy tales.

And yet despite his elevation to these dizzy heights, the news was met with a peculiar ambivalence in some quarters back in Britain. Headlines, accolades or gushing endorsements were somewhat muted. This newly-minted four-times world champion and 'Made in Britain' superstar didn't unite a nation in applause and reverence that was befitting his accomplishment. In fact, Hamilton's phenomenal achievement may ultimately be measured by the number of awards or honours he won't receive in his country of birth.

Despite his humble origins and his family's sacrifices to get him there, Lewis bears no outward signs of malice towards the naysayers. When over the years he comprehensively trounced his white, blue-eyed, middle-class British opponents, his critics chose to castigate him for being a tax exile and living in Monaco, ignoring the fact that Jenson Button and David Coulthard do too, or that Stewart chose Switzerland to park his wealth. That's what well-paid sports stars do, and it's not illegal.

Following his historic weekend, one headline in a British broadsheet was lamentable: 'Why people just don't like Lewis Hamilton (but they should)'.

I don't know if the writer appreciates what it's like to drive on the limit in the wet at 220kph as you kiss the armco barrier, which could be catastrophic if you get it wrong, or to lock wheels with fellow gladiators that are prepared to die to get into the corner first, but I'd hazard a guess that the nearest he's come to danger is running across the road to an ice-cream van in a cul-de-sac on a sunny day.

The less-than-generous headline was neither witty nor informed and is followed with a slide-show that labels Hamilton 'divisive' because of his sartorial dress sense or 'insulting' because he wore a thawb in Bahrain. The final 26 seconds of the two-and-a-bit-minute-long video momentarily refers to Hamilton's charity work.

You give a sportsman their due and when they have entered a different league to the rest of the cosy cartel of caucasian champions, who, compared to Hamilton, came into this world with a canteen of gold cutlery in their gobs, and you show them the courtesy they deserve.

When Hamilton emerged from the partying to celebrate his success he would have been deeply hurt but sanguine to see such a disparaging appraisal. 'Black titles matter' is a topic worthy of debate.

The article goes on to say, 'At the age of 32, he could easily go on to break Michael Schumacher's record of seven titles'. Well actually that's probably not going to happen. There is new blood in the F1 pipeline and it doesn't get easier to win titles in your thirties, it gets harder. It would be great if he did of course.

An awful lot of people would have told Hamilton what not to do on his way up, imagining he was getting above himself. I'm sure this incredibly disciplined and reflective man must have wanted to punch their lights out, especially back in the days when he was seemingly picked on for the slightest racing infringement.

Hamilton won't allow others to parody him, like they did with Frank Bruno, but some observers don't like it when they can't pigeon-hole their champions. He is his own person, he's bright, intelligent, articulate with forthright opinions. He's political too, as his recent satire of Trump showed. That sort of innate confidence throws people off their prejudiced perch.

Lewis Hamilton won his fourth title with the fastest car last weekend precisely because he honed his extraordinary skill to help make it a winning car. He has won more races than any other British driver. He has the most pole positions of any driver. He has the most career points. He will almost certainly finish the season with the most podium finishes in a season.

Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel summed it up best when he said after losing the title: "It's disappointing obviously, but it's not that important. What's more important is what Lewis has done. He's done a superb job all year round and deserves to win the title, so congratulations to him and it's not about anybody else today. It's about him. It's his day." There's the respectful voice of someone who knows what it takes to be a world champion.

Ron Dennis, Hamilton's former boss at McLaren, put his faith in the kid when he was a teenage karter and knee-high to a grasshopper, well done to him. Aki Hintsa, his mentor, doctor and friend, was instrumental in him getting that seat in McLaren and guiding him in his career. Hamilton visited Hintsa in hospital last year, the day before the Finn succumbed to cancer at 58 years of age.

If fame brings loneliness and success is ice-cold and isolating it might be wise for those who write the weather bulletin of great sporting success to bring a bit of warmth to their subject's achievements.

Mercedes won their fourth consecutive constructors' title in Austin, Texas, in the race prior to Mexico. They don't spend half a billion dollars a year and not expect these results. Ferrari was second for the third consecutive year. As long as they ignore the latent talent that is out there and keep plugging away with what was once good, they will forever be the bridesmaid.

Well done Lewis Hamilton, four times world champion. Let's hope you're treated as an equal and that the professionalism and toil that marked your journey to becoming the one of the very best drivers in the world, and the best of the Brits, is recognised for what it is, a gargantuan achievement against the odds.

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