Kevin Garside: Lewis Hamilton remains hard to love after his fast-lane feuds
The Way I See It: Hamilton smashed the F1 stereotypes to gain his access to the paddock
Will he, won't he? Significance was sought in Lewis Hamilton's cruelly premature exit from a Singapore Grand Prix he was leading from pole yesterday. The slow walk from his abandoned car with hands behind the back, a turn of the head to look askance at the scene; for those who like their symbolism this was an open goal, the moment of departure from McLaren.
Whether he accepts the geld on offer at Mercedes or not, there is an element in all of this that both saddens and puzzles, and that is the manifest lack of affection for a driver who might yet finish his career as the most successful British racer of them all. Hamilton, a mixed-race kid from a housing estate in Stevenage, ought to be Grand Prix gold. In terms of his working-class background and his ethnicity, Hamilton smashed the great Formula One stereotypes to gain access to the paddock, yet his portrayal is all too often negative.
The helping hand from McLaren from the age of 13 was, of course, a huge benefit but that was not the point of discovery. Hamilton was a karting world champion by the time the ears of Ron Dennis pricked up. And we can see from the hard-nosed negotiations taking place now that Dennis is no sentimentalist when it comes to throwing McLaren's money about. He was not investing in the teenage Hamilton out of a refined sense of altruism. He was backing his instinct for spotting a winner.
No rookie in the modern era has defied convention the way Hamilton did, roughing up a double world champion on the other side of the garage, and ultimately forcing his exit. In retrospect, McLaren's handling of the Alonso/Hamilton dynamic in 2007 was naïve. Fernando Alonso did not do himself any favours in allowing emotion to colour his racing judgment, particularly in the Budapest crucible, where the McLaren roof eventually caved in under the strain of deteriorating relations.
In the Spaniard's defence, as the senior figure, he should not have been exposed to Hamilton's unbridled ambition. Having watched it unravel at close quarters, I suspect Dennis was surprised by how good Hamilton was but was too inflexible in his thinking to take the necessary steps to balance the internal dynamic by discriminating in the world champion's favour. He trilled out the sporting mantra familiar at McLaren about letting their drivers race. A fine principle that took no account of the reality he had created.
Alonso was in his ear as early as the third race in the Bahrain paddock. By Monaco Hamilton was calling his own shots, informing his boss via the FIA press conference that he was no No 2 after being warned off the attack with the race won. The feud polarised the paddock with many feeling huge sympathy for the great Alonso, about whom Dennis thought highly enough to wrestle from Renault in Brazil at the end of his first championship victory and while still contracted to the French team.
To the critics Hamilton was a spoiled brat lacking respect for a champion, the beneficiary of a privileged background at McLaren. It is a weird kind of privilege that requires your father to take on three jobs to get you started, but none of that mattered when the boy became a man. The mud has to a degree stuck, making Hamilton hard to love despite his obvious racing merit.
There have been some PR howlers of his own and McLaren's, which have compounded the grim perceptions. The move to Switzerland was a typically clumsy example, presented as an escape from unwanted attention on the streets of his own country rather than the acceptance made by many before him of the commercial imperative to live in a tax haven abroad. Sir Jackie Stewart raised his family in a Swiss canton and no one batted an eyelid. David Coulthard and Jenson Button preferred Monte Carlo without inviting any stick. At least they took themselves off-shore as well as their wages.
And then there was the 2009 lying incident in Melbourne when, under pressure from his elders, Hamilton changed his story about slowing to let Jarno Trulli pass him under the yellow flag. Under questioning from reporters at the race's end Hamilton did as his instincts told him and informed them that the team had instructed him to slow. When later called to explain the incident to the stewards he stuck with the party line imposed by McLaren that Trulli had transgressed. There is no defence for that but there is an explanation if you give any weight to the idea that an inexperienced driver, which despite being world champion Hamilton most assuredly was in F1 terms, would necessarily bow to the hefty controlling instincts of the McLaren regime, which were absolute at the time.
I recall a hotel room in Brazil after his thrilling championship win in 2008 when Hamilton talked us through his elation. There was not a hint of hubris. Indeed there was very little about himself. He spoke with genuine warmth about the sacrifices made by his family on his behalf and the support of his team, without which he was nothing. Sounded like a hero to me. But then, what do I know?
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