Englishman in his element finds clarity of focus to pass Silverstone's mental test
Monday 07 July 2008
This was the kind of non-event that suits the organisers down to the ground. True, they might sooner have done without the bit nearer the sky, but then it is beginning to look as though Lewis Hamilton will never be better than when it rains on his parade – as it did in Monaco last month, and in Japan last year. At the same time, nobody should be deceived that his protracted lap of honour here yesterday qualifies him merely as some kind of foul-weather friend, an Englishman quite literally in his element. Rather this was a defining moment in his emergence as a man for all seasons, one who can handle the pressures of his calling with the same flair as he embraces its privileges.
In an environment where every hundredth of a second is precious, Hamilton separated himself from his pursuers by a margin that might have been adequately measured by an egg-timer. Admittedly, Kimi Raikkonen was breathing down his neck when rashly electing not to change tyres, and when the rain came down it was like a tumbril upon his own. For Hamilton, however, such a booming success in his home grand prix, at only the second attempt, instantly exorcised all the demons – real or imagined – that had followed him here.
A mutually querulous tone had developed between Hamilton and his critics, who were tracing his recent errors on the track to multiplying distractions off it. Afterwards even Hamilton confessed a degree of turmoil, having been "flat out" during the preceding fortnight. But conditions that caused many of his rivals to lose their heads instead prompted Hamilton to retrieve that precarious, critical balance between the contradictions of the cockpit. For 100 minutes, he never once strayed from the clinical margin between speed and attrition, passion and detachment.
And as he jumped on to his car and raised his arms aloft, his redemption seemed absolute, whether computed by the fervour of the crowd, or the points that restore him to a share of the lead for the drivers' championship.
Afterwards he recalled the words of Martin Luther King, whose towering role in black emancipation makes him feel so humble about his own: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy."
If the conditions were inimical to driving, then they could hardly have provided a better test of focus. In 1984, another Briton, Nigel Mansell, notoriously spun out of the lead in Monaco after charging clear of Ayrton Senna at a rate of two seconds a lap. Nine years later, at Donington Park, Senna himself produced a glissando symphony, the paradigm performance for these conditions.
Senna was Hamilton's idol, rain or shine, and in the solitude of a lead he seized as early as the fourth circuit, he sensed a crossroads between those two precedents. As he continued to outrun the field, lap by lap, the McLaren technicians began to implore him to ease up a little. Hamilton felt so comfortable that he could not believe his ears. "I wasn't pushing," he said. "And I didn't want to slow down, because the moment you do that you lose concentration. I had to imagine what would happen if I was 60 seconds ahead and fell off. That would have been so embarrassing. There's no way you could come back from that, you would have to retire!"
As it was, he instead encouraged the suspicion that his name will one day have lasting resonance among those previously carved on the Silverstone roll of honour – all the way back to Luigi Villoresi, Emmanuel de Graffenried, Giuseppe Farina. And now, after 60 years, they are saying there is only to be one more grand prix here.
In the circumstances, this was a suitably funereal day, one that reiterated the modern British capacity to sacrifice all personal dignity to touch the satin of glamour. In the bleachers – perhaps the most expensive in all sport – they huddled against unspeakable weather, in heroically awful raiment, their umbrellas exploding inside out, their plastic wraps crackling in the rain and wind. They would not have got those Wellingtons off the ground on a morning like this, back in 1943.
As the pit lane began to growl with restive engines, however, the Red Arrows stooped recklessly between the treetops and the clouds, and there would soon be an answering precision from Hamilton in his own cockpit. During the preceding fortnight, previous champions such as Sir Jackie Stewart and Damon Hill had counselled against the temptations of over-commitment, whether of the pedal or the heart. Perhaps he heard their advice, perhaps not. But he certainly seems to have heeded it. Afterwards he said that the conditions had ensured a purely mental test, one demanding 100 per cent – "no more, and no less". This was no mere truism, of the sort habitually favoured by vacuous young sportsmen. For it was upon that succinct, critical qualification that he built this performance; above all, upon the two words, "no more".
Between them, the weather and the shock of the Donington Park contract had imbued the race with an elegiac timbre, but its winner salvaged the mood. His lips showed limitless joy, but his words scrupulously observed the boundaries of modesty. Hamilton had scattered the vultures that had begun to circle over his own commercial and social doings – and perhaps, now that he is back on track, he can do the same for those of the sport in general.
After all, it sometimes seems as though eyes are everywhere in Formula One. Espionage, from the boardroom to the bedroom, was the common denominator in both the melodramas that had, during the past year, implied a grotesque addiction to intrigue. So many eyes, winking or leering.
Hamilton provides the most wholesome of contrasts. As he pulled up his visor, all you could see were his eyes. But you could see that five-mile grin. This, remember, is the young man who always makes a point of eye contact with the fans as he signs autographs or poses for photographs.
As it happens, he was complaining after the race that he "couldn't see a thing" for most of the time, because of the rain across his visor. But the reality is that this was the day he proved the perfect clarity of his focus. Having said that, you have to wonder quite how he will drive once he can see where he is going.
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