Hamilton & Son: ice is melting for the first family of Formula One
Driver's father is to attend the British Grand Prix tomorrow – his first race since the pair parted company. David Tremayne reports
Saturday 10 July 2010
"If Lewis does make it into Formula One next year, I really don't expect to be going to many races," Anthony Hamilton said back in Hungary during one of those lazy conversations you tend to have now and then over a coffee in the paddock. "And I'm not sure it would be right for me to continue as his manager."
Well, continue he did. Both as his manager and to go to races. That was until Lewis announced that he had parted company, professionally, with his father in March this year. Since then, Anthony has not attended a single grand prix, and relations between the two have been said to be frosty. That all appears to be changing this weekend, though, as Hamilton Snr attends the British GP.
Back then in Hungary Hamilton, still only 21, was fighting for the GP2 championship. McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh had made it very clear that, to stand any chance of being considered for the Formula One team in 2007, he had to win the GP2 title that season, so the pressure was on. But it was early August, and the Hamiltons were a week or so away from the news they were desperate to hear, that the team really were going to give Lewis his big break.
Strangely, given what was to come, nobody, even in the Formula One paddock, really knew much about Lewis Hamilton, let alone Anthony. The maelstrom that would sweep both to international prominence – the son doing his great things on the track as the father stood nervously in the pits willing him on – had yet to gather the momentum that would be such a feature of the rookie year in 2007. And 2008, when the 23-year-old became champion of the world.
And then came March 2010, and the news that Anthony Hamilton would no longer be managing his son's career, nor coming to races. At the time, Hamilton Jnr said: "A long time ago my father and I discussed this, that he would always be my dad but that at some point it would no longer be right for him to be my manager. We just never knew when that would happen."
Anthony had been there since Lewis started karting at the age of eight. "He's always been there for me," Hamilton said. "Other managers do it for money or other things, but dad did it for love and all the right reasons. There is no sense that we've outgrown each other. He is building his sports management business, he is very focused on GP Preparation, his new venture, and he was instrumental in helping Paul di Resta to get his test drive with Force India. And he is looking after young Nick de Fries, an extremely talented karter who could be the next to follow in my wheeltracks. Our goal was to get to F1, and he's done his job." Back in March, he added: "Anthony has always done things for me for the right reasons, to protect and to guide. No one could have done a better job and I'm thankful that he was there in the tricky situations. I had an unbelievable guy supporting me. It wasn't just emotion controlling him; he had a very logical thought process too. And I still have that support from him as my dad now, rather than as my manager."
It sounded convincing, but behind the scenes there were stories of a dramatic falling-out over Lewis's relationship with the singer Nicole Scherzinger. Hamilton Jnr remained tight-lipped, beyond reconfirming later in the season that he would look for new management as and when he felt the time was right.
This weekend, Anthony Hamilton is his son's guest. Yesterday morning he and his wife Linda, Hamilton's stepmother, visited the grandly titled McLaren Brand Centre for the first time this season, bringing Anthony into contact with John Button at a race for the first time since their offspring became team-mates.
It was Button Jnr, Jenson, who won that race in Hungary when Anthony was suggesting abstinence from race attendance. At the time, it was a long overdue success for the 26-year-old from Frome, whom Lewis admits looking up to in his own days in Cadet karting, when Button was in a more senior category.
Rather like the impending duel between Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher in 1994, much was expected, before the Hamiltons' split, of the manner in which each of the fathers handled the other. There could be no greater contrast between the two. Anthony, 50 now, is tightly wound, ambitious, the man who worked two jobs to keep his boy karting before his suggestion that Lewis introduce himself to the McLaren chief Ron Dennis at the Autosport Awards in 1995 led, indirectly, to the team's sponsorship and mentoring that would eventually take him all the way down the yellow brick road.
John Button, meanwhile, past 60, is a jack-the-lad, salt-of-the-earth fellow, known as "Sloop" as in the Beach Boys song "Sloop John B", a laid-back ex-rallycrosser, whose income came from building engines for young karters via his Rocketsport business. In a nice twist, one of his customers, later one of the top drivers to whom he supplied free engines, was one L Hamilton. Thus the wheel of motor sport turns.
John does not need to be ambitious. He's having the time of his life, travelling the world to watch his kid race and, just as Anthony did a year sooner, seeing him crowned world champion. It's payback for his parental support early in the game. He's droll, outrageously funny at times, always good for an amusing story or anecdote. There because he just loves racing. He's immensely popular.
Of course, he's savvy. Smart enough to drop in the odd word here and there, as he did prior to Brazil last year when some thought his son might fumble his title chance.
"The idea that Jenson should have gone out and tried to win every race is just for the romantics," John said. "What he has been doing for the past few races, rightly in my opinion, has been managing the championship. If you look back, after winning in Monaco, which was the sixth race of the season, Jenson had a lead of 16 points in the championship. If you'd told him that nine races later he would still be leading by 14 points, I think he would have snapped your hand off.
"What people who are doubting his ability to finish the job have conveniently forgotten is that he has led this championship from day one. Jenson's just been starting in the wrong spot, not falling apart in the races as some people have accused him of doing."
Where Anthony was so hands-on that at times insiders were moved to question who was really running McLaren, Button Snr has always been happy in the background. An observer, not a kingmaker. Right from the moment in 2000 when his tearful son told him at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, when Frank Williams finally revealed that Jenson was his choice to partner Ralf Schumacher, "Dad, I'm a Formula One driver," John Button has been the very antithesis of the racing father. And though he has had a say in his son's management, it is not a role he has ever felt moved to fulfil himself.
The parents' bond, however, is knowing how it feels like to spend your last dollar just to keep your son racing.
In the end, though, the psychological battle, Anthony versus John, like Senna versus Schumacher, was something the Formula One world would be denied. And undoubtedly that has helped Lewis and Jenson to maintain their cordial partnership.
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