James Lawton: Hamilton's genius shines brightest of all on a gloomy day for McLaren
The Briton overcame the handicap of a team that seems to be in deepening disarray
Monday 11 July 2011
No, we didn't get an exactly contrite Lewis Hamilton, give or take a few platitudes.
These came when he larded some distinctly acerbic exchanges over the team radio with the concession that at least, and at last, he had been given a car a little more worthy of his ability to drive it with exceptional flair and spirit.
The fact is that if we had wanted to find a world-class sportsman possessing any less in-built humility than the 2008 world champion we would have had to send out the tracker dogs at dawn without any guarantee of success. And this was despite the presence at Silverstone of Ian Poulter, the highly ranked English golfer who not so long ago declared that he was the most likely man to separate Tiger Woods from sole possession of the mountain top.
Hamilton even cracked that he now has a platinum card priority pass for his routine attendance at stewards' inquiries, though no one was suggesting that his late collision with recent critic Felipe Massa was anything more than a "racing incident". Furthermore, it came at the end of one of those duels which make the endless politics and arcane engineering controversies of Formula One an almost acceptable price for such sure-fire surges of the blood.
This, indeed, was the best of Hamilton. He may not have the most embraceable manner, in either triumph or defeat, but no one ever said he wasn't a superb natural born racer.
Yesterday his triumph was to turn back a tide of reproach, and even the suspicion that his temperament was simply not up the inevitable frustrations of a business where sheer driving talent is so often thrust into the margins of winning and losing, and produce a supreme example of why he has long been considered worth all the trouble and exasperation.
He drove with trademarked self-belief and adventure away from the ignominy of 10th place on the grid after McLaren's potentially catastrophic miscalculations in Saturday's qualifying and yesterday's fuel load.
It was a performance of such excellent nerve and fine judgment that it was hardly surprising he took such a dim view of the team advice that he was in danger of running out of gas.
Certainly his demand for more precise information seemed entirely reasonable, rather than another burst of pique, as Massa made a swarming challenge for a hard-won fourth place going into the last lap.
Hamilton hung on in a way that his father Anthony now advises him to do at McLaren despite increasingly strained relations.
"I believe there can be a happy ending," says the man who urges his son to recall that it was the former McLaren chief Ron Dennis who provided the vital support when the sheer weight of family financial pressure made the brilliant boy's ambitions so tenuous.
With Ferrari re-emerging from a quiet corner of the pit-lane with Fernando Alonso's brilliantly managed victory yesterday, and Red Bull tightening their grip on the constructors' championship with the second and third places of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, Hamilton Senior's belief in a significant McLaren revival any time soon may be something of a stretch on his son's patience.
Certainly the sense of a team in deepening disarray was hardly deflected by the confusion over Hamilton's ability to charge without restraint at the end of the race and the disaster of Jenson Button's elimination when he was allowed to drive out of the pit minus a right front wheel-nut.
Button, who earlier had contributed one of the finest moments of a tumultuous afternoon when he completed a take-over move on Massa which was graced not only by impeccable judgment but the purity of competitive spirit displayed by the duellists, was as glum as you might have expected. He believed that McLaren had shown some stirrings and that it had not been unreasonable to believe that both he and Hamilton had made serious attempts at reaching the podium.
What we were left with in all the circumstances of half-wet, half-dry track and the need for so many hair-trigger decisions, was fresh evidence of the fine line driven between success and failure by the elite racers.
Vettel might easily have been celebrating still another victory but for his own pit-lane calamity, one that left him stalled as Alonso so faultlessly seized his moment, and what was the difference for Webber between the success his pole position promised and another place in the wake of his commanding team-mate? It was the order of his team chief Christian Horner that he should hold his position – or, if you like, stop racing at the climax of some quite relentless effort.
Horner was utterly unrepentant, saying: "We can't afford to give anything away. Ferrari was quick today but second and third was a strong team effort. We didn't want our drivers both finishing up in the fence. How silly would that have looked? We would have been made to look like idiots."
Webber's expression seemed to say that the alternative was not so brilliant. It was that the imperatives of the team, the ratcheting up of established power, had once again in Formula One come at the cost of an old-fashioned idea that the sport's greatest appeal will always be the brilliance of its drivers – and their freedom to go to the limits of their nerve and their judgment.
The former champion Jacques Villeneuve once said: "The reason you risk so much is that there is nothing in your life quite like the sensation of going to the edge. You always want to be in that place, you always want to be going for it."
Yesterday two of Formula One's most gifted performers were drawn back from such coursing of their blood. One was told to hold his position, another to go easy on the fuel. This is not to say that after all the talk of exhaust diffusers the British Grand Prix didn't provide much exhilarating action – only that on this occasion at least Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber, not to mention Jenson Button, were maybe entitled to a passing sulk.
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