James Lawton: Lingering fear that Hamilton is a mere passenger on drive toward greatness
This was a race so stunningly soporific it made a vicar's sermon seem like a riot
Tuesday 21 October 2008
It may well be that Lewis Hamilton is just two weeks away from proclaiming himself a true world champion in Brazil, someone to be placed alongside local hero Ayrton Senna and stand a little more comfortably – and solidly – on such high terrain of sport.
Yet why is there, once again, an uncomfortable feeling that the drums are beating just a little too loud and too prematurely?
It is because of the British habit of mistaking precocious talent and its accompanying hype for a sure-fire statement of greatness.
Any number of Formula One experts will tell you that Hamilton is indeed imbued with exceptional gifts, that he is startlingly quick, and that allied with the pronounced technical edge of his team such talent is bound to deliver triumph at Interlagos. But then of course the same assumptions were made this time last year and with disastrous consequences. What has changed? Not much. Hamilton has another season's experience and he is still producing breathtaking passages of nerveless brilliance. But then he is also still showing a dismaying tendency to believe that more or less anything he does, however unorthodox, or frankly rash, is justified by the fact that he is doing it.
Such an attitude has provoked in Sir Jackie Stewart, whose assessment of Hamilton's potential had always been as ungrudging as that of some starry-eyed petrol-head, a worry about a fast developing arrogance.
It's true that any world-beating sportsman without some degree of that trait is likely to experience a touch of difficulty in the tightest corners but if it can be an asset it is, and as we have seen perhaps too often in the wunderkind's career, also a potentially deadly flaw. His warmest admirers pronounced victory in Shanghai the perfect statement of intent before the final drive to glory, but was it, after a most cursory examination of a race so stunningly soporific it probably made the local vicar's Sunday morning sermon seem, by comparison, like a riot of intrigue and fascination, really so?
It was hard to say so when you considered the gulf that so clearly existed between Hamilton's flawlessly sparking McLaren and the labourings of Felipe Massa's Ferrari. No doubt, Hamilton produced a drive of flawless competence, but he did it without any of the pressure he can anticipate in Brazil.
Indeed it was a race so lacking in essential drama it surely threw into a favourable light some of the proposals of Max Mosley, the head of the world motor racing authority, FIA, for Formula One's future under the shadow of a potential world recession. Some say that Mosley's chief intent is to rearrange his legacy, to be remembered not as an indefatigable standard bearer for kinky sex without risk of public exposure but the man who managed to pull off the extraordinary feat of making Grand Prix racing slimlined, eco-friendly, somewhat less than financially voracious and also something giving off glimmerings of what might be described as genuinely competitive sport.
This is not what we saw in Shanghai. What we had was a talented driver exploiting the overwhelming odds in his favour. It was of course scarcely a new development. Throw in a few showers, a miscalculation or two by the drivers or the pit crew of the top team, and, well maybe, we might get a contest. Otherwise, tune in to the procession.
Mosley's suggestion that the same basic equipment be supplied to all the teams, and that the vast expense of testing be sharply reduced, is a hammer blow to Formula One's relentlessly defined image of extravagance and a certain kind of vulgar glamour. A few years ago the face of Ross Brawn, then technical director of the then all-conquering Ferrari team, was suffused with contempt when he was asked what his team would do if the hours of permitted testing were reduced in the interests of closer competition.
He said, with a lack of compassion for the peasants worthy of Marie-Antoinette, that Ferrari would probably build another wind tunnel and hire an extra army of engineers.
Around about the same time veteran drivers David Coulthard and Heinz-Harald Frentzen were similarly unimpressed when an old remark of 1976 world champion, the late James Hunt, was put to them. Hunt had said that with the rate of engineering development the role of the driver was progressively diminishing and then in another 20 years it might be no more than a 10 per cent contribution to success or failure. Both Coulthard and Frentzen said that Hunt belonged to another age, as did their questioner, and that was true enough. But it was an age when men like Hunt and Niki Lauda had authentic racing duels. It wasn't an age when someone like Sir Frank Williams would say that picking a new driver was a little like fixing the tail on a stage donkey.
"Really you are in the dark to a large extent," said Sir Frank, "because you can't be too sure whether the new guy has been so fast because of his talent or his car."
Yes, of course, there will always be a testing ground of difficult conditions and new pressure, but if Hamilton's progress has been spectacular, how much of it has truly been due to the superiority of his driving rather than the preparation of his car? In the last few days, Hamilton's critics in the drivers' room have been categorised as a gang seething with envy of a young man who has, maybe, failed to show much of an appreciation of his own good luck. Almost certainly there is something to this, but then Stewart's assessment was scarcely shaped by the perspective of personal disappointment, not from the high plateau of three world titles in five years.
There is also, but perhaps we should just whisper this, a theory in some areas of the pit lane that Hamilton's talent would not necessarily sweep away that of such as Robert Kubica and Niko Rosberg if Mosley and the credit crunch just happened to impose the idea of standard equipment.
None of this, of course, disperses any of the pressure building around the shoulders of Hamilton as he approaches his latest test of nerve and maturity. Nor should it cast any shadow across the celebration of his army of fans if this time he seizes his day and produces the performance of a champion.
Whatever the force of patriotism, however, it seems reasonable to hope for something that resembles a genuine race. That, after Shanghai, might just remove the last suspicion that we are not saluting a racer of the ages – but the tail of a stage donkey.
Mourinho may have to face going out of fashion in Milan
Jose Mourinho's announcement that he may well return to England at the end of his stint with Internazionale was delivered as you would expect, as though, that is, he carried it down from the mountain top written on a tablet of stone.
But can even his most ardent devotees be as beguiled by the prospect as they were before a successor at Chelsea, Luiz Felipe Scolari, proved that it is possible to produce winning football that also has a touch of something that could easily be mistaken for beauty?
For the moment at least Mourinho (right) is as much a darling of the Italian media as he was for most of their English counterparts. He fills in oceans of TV air time, striking poses that remind you of his early declaration at Stamford Bridge that he was starring in his own movie, and his rent-a-quote service has shown no signs of flagging.
Yet there is another dynamic at work. Mourinho inherited a team of champions at Internazionale and his duty is to maintain success rather than deliver it fresh and dazzling as he did at Chelsea.
Sooner or later this may require some modification of his imperious style – and perhaps some refinement of his hard-driving, but basically functional coaching style.
This is especially so with evidence that Ronaldinho has perhaps rediscovered some of his old passion and confidence for city rivals Milan. In the recent derby, Ronaldinho scored a goal filled with all his old conviction and at the weekend he combined in the sweetest possible way with his Brazilian team-mate Kaka.
Mourinho's Inter have a two-point lead, but with two of the world's best players enjoying each other's company on the field his own team shares he may feel he is no longer the biggest show in town. Perhaps that's why he is yearning for his old film set in England. It probably doesn't help that Big Phil is getting such warm reviews.
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