Race debate revs up ahead of F1 opener
Barely had the gates opened at Melbourne's Albert Park than Lewis Hamilton had stirred up a race row by characterising Formula One as a white-only environment.
Posting a video of the Australian paddock on his Instagram account, the four-time world champion captioned it with the words: "There is barely any diversity in F1. Still nothing's changed in the 11 years I've been here. Kids, people, there are so many jobs in this sport in which anybody, no matter ethnicity or background, can make it and fit in."
After a winter spent deleting all content on his social media accounts - a reaction to widespread criticism he faced for saying of his nephew's princess costume at Christmas, "boys don't wear dresses" - Hamilton returned with a vengeance yesterday.
His comments came minutes after he told championship rival Sebastian Vettel, in a joke caught off-microphone at their joint press conference: "Blacks don't crack."
There is no denying Hamilton has a point: 11 years since he made his debut here in Melbourne, F1 remains the most homogeneous of sports in ethnic terms, where he remains the only black driver.
When told of his comments, Mercedes stressed that they had a dozen nationalities represented within the team. Liberty Media, F1's owners, declined to comment.
Hamilton explained last year how he felt that he had been a force for progress for F1.
"People come up to me from different ethnic backgrounds," he said. "I have Asian families, black families, Mexican families come up and saying, 'My kid wants to be you one day', and I can assure you that when I started racing, there weren't people from those places.
"I take great pride in that, like Venus and Serena Williams, like Tiger Woods, who really broke a mould and knocked down barriers for others."
In his first appearance of 2018 alongside Vettel, Hamilton was quick to break the ice, shaking the German's hand. He did not extend the same treatment, though, to former Mercedes team-mate-turned-pundit Nico Rosberg, who recently suggested his main weakness was inconsistency.
Hamilton, having won the 2017 world title with five victories in six races after the summer break, regarded that verdict with thinly veiled contempt. "I think I proved that's not the case last year," he said.
Vettel, for his part, is yet to detect susceptibilities in Hamilton's armour. "There aren't many," he acknowledged, smiling.
Hamilton is poised to sign a three-year contract extension at Mercedes which is worth an estimated £120 million.
While Mercedes have been widely tipped to enjoy another dominant campaign, Hamilton was wary.
"There is a lot of hype around our team," he said, "but I find it difficult to take much notice."
© Daily Telegraph, London