Kevin Garside: Can Lewis Hamilton finally win hearts as well as the world championship?

COMMENT: Next Sunday he has another opportunity to certificate his position in the pantheon with a second world title

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The Independent Online

It might just have been the first time in the history of Formula One that Stevenage was preferred to Monaco. While most of us would be shelling out for speedy boarding, it was a no-brainer for Lewis Hamilton, who chose the Hertfordshire commuter town above the Côte d’Azur to prepare for the season’s final reckoning in Abu Dhabi.

We should note that the Stevenage to which Hamilton repaired last week was not quite the locale where he was raised. Nevertheless there was enough of the familiar and the soothing in the atmosphere at the upgraded family home to keep Hamilton’s head the right way round.

Ten victories that have given him a lead of 17 points over Nico Rosberg, his Mercedes team-mate and rival for the drivers’ crown, ought to have ensured a stress-free denouement en route to a second world championship. In any other season it would have done. Sixth would have been sufficient to see him home before the sport accepted Bernie Ecclestone’s brainstorm of a double-points finale.

It could have been worse. Ecclestone wanted the points gimmick to extend over the final three races. Now even he accepts it is unlikely to feature at all next season. Amen to that. There is enough bad karma around the sport without the integrity of grand prix racing being further eroded by madcap schemes out of step with authentic competition.

Hamilton is fortunate that, mechanical/technical gremlins notwithstanding, he could drive with the speed-limiter on and still be quicker than all but his team-mate. A total of 11 one-two finishes in 18 races demonstrates the overwhelming dominance of the outstanding car of the year.

A Mercedes has failed to win only three times and as worthy as Daniel Ricciardo was on each occasion he was essentially profiting from Mercedes donations. It might also be considered a boon for Hamilton that he is required to finish at least as high as second to guarantee the championship.

When he was last in contention at the final race he needed only a top-five finish in Brazil six years ago to get the job done. McLaren approached the weekend accordingly, setting a conservative course, and almost paid the price. Who would have thought it would hose it down at Interlagos?

With Hamilton cruising along serenely in fourth, one place ahead of team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, who was having no trouble in the shotgun role, the rain came to wash McLaren’s calculations into the bin. Timo Glock gambled on his intermediates lasting when the heavens opened again with only a few laps remaining, allowing Hamilton to squeeze past the ailing Toyota at the final corner to take that fifth spot.

 

Then, as now, he had been the better man, though in this intra-team duel not by anywhere near the margin some expected. Rosberg has proved a tough, adhesive adversary and, barring the odd misdemeanour in Monaco and Spa, an unblemished one. Those uncharacteristic “lapses of concentration”, blocking Hamilton’s final qualifying lap in Monaco and clipping his rear at Spa, did not reflect well on Rosberg, but beyond that he has been a model sportsman. And in qualifying, where his technical excellence is set only against the clock, he has been the sharper animal. It is his misfortune to be up against a racer with a preternatural appreciation of risk and a heart the size of a cannonball.

It is a pity and in some ways a mystery that Hamilton has not achieved the crossover status of his British forebears in Formula One. Sir Jackie Stewart is a national treasure; James Hunt acquired iconic status posthumously; Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill each won the Sports Personality of the Year award twice; yet Hamilton has yet to win hearts universally.

At least a part of the blame must go to McLaren and the overbearing control reflex that sought to package Hamilton according to the team’s corporate sensitivities.

Had they trusted him more maybe the nation might have followed suit. Instead a distance was allowed to develop between the character his family and friends might recognise and the bloke in a silver race suit.

There was also the irreverence with which Hamilton set about double world champion Fernando Alonso on debut in 2007. Alonso-lovers the world over took a dim view of that, a dislike that in some parts found crude, racist expression.

McLaren’s restored chief executive officer Ron Dennis believed it wrong to recognise Hamilton’s ethnicity at all. Though laudable to see him simply as a racing driver, as opposed to a black racing driver, that approach ignored the importance of the historic step taken by a mixed-race kid from a Stevenage housing estate.

Hamilton is, by definition, a one-off. His talent ranks among the very best; even Alonso is an admirer.

Next Sunday he has another opportunity to certificate his position in the pantheon with a second world title, and, you never know, make gains in the affections of those not yet onside.

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