James Lawton: Hamilton must learn that although criticism has been heavy it is also well meant
Saturday 09 July 2011
On the sunlit morning after the French Grand Prix of 1976 three fine and seasoned racers took the short ferry ride from their hotel on the islet of Bandol.
To share their company even so briefly was to understand a little the light and the shade of their lives as they strived to stay at the top of Formula One.
The glamour and adventure of their existence were self-evident but then, particularly then before Sir Jackie Stewart had spent much of his life fighting indignantly for acceptable safety standards, so were the risks they ran and brooded upon.
These were underlined in the bleakest way in a little more than three years, in which time Carlos Pace of Brazil, Ronnie Peterson of Sweden and Patrick Depailler of France were all dead.
Peterson died at Monza in the Italian Grand Prix, Depailler in testing and Pace in a light aircraft crash. It was maybe inevitable that all three came back into mind in all their vivid prime, after the long years of fighting to make their marks, when at Silverstone this week Lewis Hamilton, while defending his increasingly erratic driving style and imperious manner before tomorrow's race, announced: "I'll take my driving style to my deathbed, for sure."
A flippant and somewhat tasteless remark in most circumstances, no doubt, but particularly so when even in these much safer days of car and track upholstery Hamilton's recent performances have been considered a risk to both himself and his rivals.
Felipe Massa, who proved his nerve, if it was ever in doubt, when he came back so swiftly after a life-threatening head injury caused by a piece of flying debris from Rubens Barrichello's car at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, leads the criticism when he says: "When you have some difficult races, when you're trying too much, you have to calm down a bit. It will be better for him too, because he was paying for it. He was penalised and it just wasn't with me, he even hit his own team-mate. But Lewis is a clever guy and I'm sure he already knows this."
It is a reassuring but somewhat unconfirmed conclusion when you remember that Hamilton was punished twice for incidents at Monaco, and at Montreal last month was involved in three separate incidents culminating in a collision with team-mate Jenson Button. Hamilton dismisses the complaints in young lordly fashion, saying: "You make a squeak and people over-react to it. That's the way the world is."
The way the world is, Lewis, tends to be how we individually make it, and the fact is there is a growing consensus, which includes such not inconsiderable figures as Sir Stirling Moss and Niki Lauda, saying the one you have assumed for yourself is getting ever more out of line with reality.
It means that there could be no better place than Silverstone this weekend for him to show some inkling that he understands that if much of the recent criticism has been strong, it is also well meant.
Formula One is not so filled with allure right now that it could possibly draw any comfort from continuing evidence that its most gifted pure racer seems hell-bent on dissipating the respect and admiration he inspired with that early run to the world drivers' title of 2008. Then, with the good car for which he had been so patiently groomed, he successfully drove his youth and good luck to the very edge of its possibilities.
At various times he has had everything he has either needed or wanted, except a liberating touch of humility. His father Anthony sweated on behalf of his son's ambition, and was rewarded with some painful rejection, his team McLaren gave him two years of near optimum car performance, with the help of a little bit of industrial espionage, and then, when the going was not so hot, saw him trotting off to the Red Bull team with a job application.
It is the profile of a man who still seems young for his 26 years, who has acquired many of the trappings of success, including the Pussycat Doll girlfriend and the diamond ear-rings, but not all of its most vital underpinning. When told of Lauda's criticism, Hamilton said, "I don't give a toss." He should, along with an understanding that when his erstwhile admirer Moss joins his critics, it should not be seen as an insult but a call to reason.
The great man, who decided at the age of 81 to finally step away from the driving wheel of a fast car, said this week that he was still listening to his father at the age of 50, not to learn anything of the nuances of motor racing but the way a man of achievement might deal with the rest of his life.
One positive for Hamilton's admirers is the mending of his relationship with his father and the implication, small though it is for the moment, that he may have some sense that his extraordinary success has not been entirely self-created. Such an awareness might help him make some sense of, and bring a little more maturity and style, to his current situation.
No, it is not one to sweeten the disposition of a born competitor. Now 89 points down on a Sebastian Vettel in charge of a vastly superior car and with the fastest rising graph of admiration in any corner of world sport, Hamilton brims with frustration. Nor can his mood be softened by a recent declaration of Michael Schumacher that "Baby Schumi" is poised to move beyond his own extraordinary achievements. "Records are there to be broken and Sebastian's on the way," said F1's most successful driver.
For Hamilton this is plainly a provocation. It shouldn't be. It should be an invitation to face the reality of the world as it is and not as he would like it to be. It is an option that was never granted, if he should happen to care a toss, to those three men in a boat.
Loyalty in the business of football? You can whistle for it
Dani Alves, brilliant attacking full-back though he is, helped define the level of gamesmanship existing at all levels of football with his gruesome theatrics in Barça's Champions League collision with Real Madrid.
Now he is doing pretty much the same for the concept of player loyalty, such as it is in today's so often mangled, shameless form. In support of Cesc Fabregas's passionate desire to join him at the Nou Camp, Alves recalls his own forced exit from Sevilla: "I saw the train passing by and I wanted to be in business class."
This was a corruption of the blood-tingling description of how many poor young Americans, including several presidents, found their way to Washington. "He was a poor boy born on the wrong side of the tracks," said Senator Robert Dole at the funeral of Richard Nixon, "but he heard the whistle of the train that would take him to a better life." Let's hope the consequences of Fabregas's journey do not one day cause quite such bitter debate.
Wisdom prevails as Hatton brings life back in order
Ricky Hatton's decision this week to turn his back on the ring surely provokes a sigh of relief.
Despite his notorious indiscipline, Hatton (above) at his best was an authentic fighter capable of inspiring the fiercest support. It may be that his greatest moment in the ring, victory over the hugely respected veteran Kostya Tszyu, was a combination of his own resolve and the inspired timing of the match-making of his promoter Frank Warren, but there was never any question of Hatton's willingness to go in with the best.
After being dismantled by the superb strategist Floyd Mayweather, he took on boxing's ultimate challenge against Manny Pacquaio. When clinical slaughter ensued, Hatton still retained a somewhat agonised desire to fight on. That wisdom eventually prevailed, along with success in bringing his life back into some agreeable order, is a matter for double celebration.
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