Hamilton has met the greats, so now it's time he joined them
Dinner with Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton is all very well, writes Chris McGrath, but Britain's brightest talent knows he must retain his focus and restore a faltering reputation
Saturday 05 July 2008
The voices fill his ears, just as the manic ululation of the engines – rising, falling, rising – buffeted those who came to watch his rehearsals yesterday. Voices in every register: infatuated, manipulative, stern. And somehow, somewhere amid the sound and fury, this weekend Lewis Hamilton must find a tranquil zone of his own, a stillness akin to the tiny cockpit of his car, that bubble at the heart of the chaotic Formula One matrix of technology, politics and money.
Still only 23, a mere sophomore, Hamilton contests his second British Grand Prix tomorrow with a wary sense that things are a little different this time. A cacophony of voices say so, not least his own – into which a series of driving gaffes have sometimes introduced a new, somewhat defensive tone. Of course he does not really worry that he might be pelted with rotten vegetables on his home circuit; but it is instructive that he raised the image on account of "things that have been said and written".
No doubt some of the criticism has been too inane to warrant his attention. The fact is that ploughing into the back of a rival at a red light, as he did at 30mph in Montreal, is a disaster far too proximate to our own mundane experience to be resisted by any observer with an ordinary sense of mischief. But he has also been offered counsel by men who have shared the peculiar pressures and privileges of his situation, and these are surely voices he might heed.
Damon Hill, for instance, says that hunger may make Hamilton over-extend at times, while Sir Jackie Stewart, three times a world champion, observes that everyone should make allowances for his inexperience – not least Hamilton himself. In his own second season Stewart had a harrowing experience at Spa, trapped in his car as he became soaked with leaking fuel, dreading a lethal spark and eventually freed only by drivers who had also crashed nearby. After that, he learnt to absorb the lessons of experience, to become clinical: "I worked out that the biggest enemy was emotion. Whenever I did not control emotion, I lost the plot." Hamilton should take his time, according to Stewart; not expect too much of himself.
That is easier said than done, of course, when so much is expected of him by everyone else. His diary sometimes seems almost as blurred as his car, the third fastest in yesterday's practice. A few days ago he sat two seats from Nelson Mandela at his 90th birthday dinner, and opposite Bill Clinton. In the meantime he has commuted from his sanctuary in Geneva to a bewildering variety of appointments, from photo shoots to sailing races.
None condensed his multiplying existence more expressively than an appearance in Amsterdam on Tuesday – or perhaps "apparition" would be a better word. Launching a new partnership with Reebok, Hamilton appeared on stage and began talking. He was then joined by Lewis Hamilton, identically attired, distinguishable only by a bump on the lip – traced to a mishap in a kayak during the fortnight since the creation of the adjacent hologram.
The hologram then identified itself by becoming fluorescent, and transparent, before vanishing. By all accounts, it had been eerily authentic. But its latent ironies are no less persuasive. For it must be increasingly difficult for the composed, pleasant young man who disclosed such talent last year to guard against assimilation into some counterfeit, commercial, celebrity construct.
In fairness, the hazard is not wholly of his own making. Though moving in increasingly glitzy circles, he remains disciplined, sober and professional. Yesterday he signed autographs and posed for photographs with a readiness that doubtless reflected the time, not so long ago, when he would himself loiter here for his heroes. Meeting Mandela did not cause him to puff out his chest, but to speak with awed humility of the supermen whose example had emancipated black people the world over – whether by the dignity of Mandela, or the pride of Muhammad Ali.
But it is by precisely the same token that he is of such infinite value to Reebok, not to mention his employers and their many sponsors. Over the next five years, Hamilton will receive £10m from Reebok for 10 days of his time per annum. They looked up and down the pit lane, and saw men who seem to recede forever into their helmets. And then they saw this priceless pioneer, the Tiger of the grid, with a smile to traverse oceans.
David Coulthard, returning for a final time to the scene of two famous victories, has cautioned his young friend as to the future. Contrasting the paths chosen by Kimi Raikkonen and David Beckham, the Scotsman affectionately warned Hamilton that there would be an inevitable price for following the latter.
Only one voice, however, seems guaranteed Hamilton's total attention – that of his father and manager, Anthony. At a press conference on Thursday, Hamilton and Jenson Button goaded each other over their relative fitness until, with mischievous encouragement from Coulthard, they agreed a £10,000 triathlon challenge for charity. It took less than an hour for Hamilton's father to call it off.
Their relationship irresistibly evokes another young athlete who has just staggered under the unreasonable weight of national expectation. Andy Murray, whose mother remains his rock as tides of opinion ebb and flow around him, proved unable to share Hamilton's burden this weekend. The difference, of course, is that Hamilton has already converted world-class potential to achievement, with a record four wins in his rookie season as well as third place here.
His return represents the perfect test of theories that Hamilton, one way or another, has lost something of his focus since. In warning him against too much emotion, against over-extending, his predecessors know that these temptations will never be greater than here and now. He denies any anxiety – as well he might, having won in Monaco only three races ago – but will be desperate to perform for the fans, to redress his recent errors. Nigel Mansell reckoned that the patriotism of the Silverstone crowd was "worth a second a lap". It is up to Hamilton whether that means one second fewer, or one second more.
Silverstone practice times
1 F Massa (Br) Ferrari ......... 1min 19.575sec
2 H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren-Merc ......... 1:19.587
3 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Merc......... 1:19.623
4 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari ......... 1:19.948
5 R Kubica (Pol) BMW-Sauber ......... 1:20.367
6 F Alonso (Sp) Renault ......... 1:20.436
7 S Vettel (Ger) Toro Rosso-Ferrari ......... 1:20.588
8 N Piquet (Br) Renault ......... 1:20.653
9 D Coulthard (GB) RedBull-Renault ......... 1:20.698
10 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota ......... 1:20.744
11 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault ......... 1:20.892
12 T Glock (Ger) Toyota ......... 1:21.102
13 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW-Sauber ......... 1:21.107
14 S Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari ......... 1:21.166
15 J Trulli (It) Toyota ......... 1:21.265
16 K Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota 1:21.282
17 J Button (GB) Honda ......... 1:21.901
18 A Sutil (Ger) Force India-Ferrari ......... 1:22.169
19 G Fisichella (It) Force India-Ferrari 1:22.219 20 R Barrichello (Br) Honda ......... 1:24.123
1 Kovalainen 1min 19.989sec; 2 Webber 1:20.520; 3 Hamilton 1:20.543; 4 Coulthard 1:20.589; 5 Rosberg 1:20.748; 6 Vettel 1:20.805; 7 Button 1:20.929; 8 Massa 1:20.943; 9 Nakajima 1:20.985; 10 Barrichello 1:21.002; 11 Kubica 1:21.023; 12 Raikkonen 1:21.275; 13 Heidfeld 1:21.453; 14 Glock 1:21.472; 15 Alonso 1:21.511; 16 Fisichella 1:21.520; 17 Bourdais 1:21.634; 18 Piquet 1:21.642; 19 Sutil 1:21.756; 20 Trulli 1:22.196.
1 Massa 48; 2 Kubica 46; 3 Raikkonen 43; 4 Hamilton 38; 5 Heidfeld 28; 6 Kovalainen 20; 7 Trulli 18; 8 Webber 18; 9 Alonso 10; 10 Rosberg 8; 11 Nakajima 7; 12 Coulthard 6; 13 Glock 5; 14 Vettel 5; 15 Barrichello 5; 16 Button 3; 17 Piquet 2; 18 Bourdais 2; 19 Fisichella 0; 20 A Sutil 0.
1 Ferrari 91; 2 BMW-Sauber 74; 3 McLaren-Mercedes 58; 4 Red Bull-Renault 24; 5 Toyota 23; 6 Williams-Toyota 15; 7 Renault 12; 8 Honda 8; 9 Scuderia Torro Rosso-Ferrari 7; 10 Force India-Ferrari 0.
*Super Aguri have withdrawn from the 2008 championship.
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