Moss: 'Hamilton is an impressive young man – a fighter. He'll go a long way'
With Lewis Hamilton on the brink of ruling the world, British greats Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart and Damon Hill tell David Tremayne how he would wear the crown
Friday 31 October 2008
Sir Stirling Moss does not agree with the increasing tendency in some quarters to describe Lewis Hamilton as arrogant. Much of that appears to have come from his fellow drivers, whose general envy of his increasingly dominant position and self-confidence manifested itself clearly after the Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps where few sympathised when the FIA stewards deprived him of his victory for cutting a chicane.
As Hamilton stands on the cusp of the world championship in Brazil this weekend, one of the most respected drivers of all time has no doubt that he has what it takes to get the job done. The man best known for never winning the championship yet arguably the best all-rounder ever, has long recognised traces of himself in Hamilton. "He is a very impressive young man, the most impressive young driver I've seen in a long while," Moss says. "He has the car control and he has the calmness when he is driving, but he is also a fighter and has a great manner about him. He'll go a long way."
The paradox of the criticism and Hamilton's likely success begs a key question. What sort of world champion would he make?
When Sir Jackie Stewart was narrowly beaten to the title in 1968 by Graham Hill, he admitted: "On a personal level, I don't believe I was ready to be world champion then. Winning the title is about far more than standing on a podium and waving at the crowd, and, with hindsight, I don't think I was equipped to cope with the pressures and the demands not just of the racing but also of having to fulfil my associations with Ford, Elf and Dunlop."
When Stewart did win the crown in 1969, the first of his three, he described his life thereafter as a rocket ship that created many challenges, not the least the endless round of appearance for sponsors keen to cash in on their joint success, promotional events, lunches, dinners, photographic sessions, interviews, speeches that had to be made.
"My schedule became a frantic blur, with scarcely a spare hour, let alone a spare day or weekend, in my diary."
Back then, the promotional side of the sport was still developing. Today, it is an intrinsic part of what a driver faces every weekend and Hamilton has shown himself to be as adept at mastering that as he is on the track, barring the odd moment of impetuosity. When the title slipped from his grasp and into rival Kimi Raikkonen's at the 11th hour in Brazil last year, he handled a brutally disappointing moment with a maturity that suggested that, unlike Stewart all those years earlier, he would have been ready to win in his rookie season.
"We have just had one of the most fantastic Formula One seasons ever," he said, "and a year ago if you had said that I would be in contention for the title all the way through to the final race, I would have said you were dreaming.
"In the end, we lost by a point, but we'll be back. If we don't win it next year, then we will win it the year after that."
Earlier this year McLaren released a piece of promotional film that gave a telling insight into the real Lewis Hamilton as he attended a special event at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London which caters for sick children and their families, on behalf of sponsor Vodafone.
Former champion Alain Prost once said of Formula One that it was important to keep it in its proper perspective because it doesn't cure cancer. GOSH seeks to do just that, and to hold out hope to those whose lives do not revolve around understeer, tyre temperature, and lap times, but instead embrace issues of life and death of those who are the most precious.
The film is moving and it is inspirational to watch the expressions on the faces of young people into whose troubled lives some dramatic glamour and excitement has been introduced. Hamilton handled it brilliantly, and it was more than evident in his interaction with patients that he was genuinely involved with what he was doing. That, his maturity and his on-track performance confirm that he is now ready to follow in the wheeltracks of British greats such as Jim Clark, Stewart and John Surtees.
Britain's last world champion Damon Hill, who won the title with Williams in 1996, has no doubts what kind of champion Hamilton would make.
"Exceptional," he says immediately. "But I'm not sure there is an ambassadorial role to it all. The feeling is that it's just great to have won, to go to bed and to say 'I got the job done, it's in the bag.' You can't rewind and erase that. It's there forever.
"The risk will be if too much expectation is heaped upon him, in the form of some role that he does not necessarily need. People want heroes to be perfect and to live up to their own wishes. That can be a constraint. If you are not careful you won't see what he is really like and that would not be good for the sport.
"Sport is about revealing people as they really are under stress and in difficult situations. We admire those who do well, but you can go too far expecting them to be leaders in other fields, or supermen. My concern is that overall image becomes so valuable that it is over-protected to the point where it is everything.
"Lewis doesn't need anyone shaping opinion about him. The trap to avoid is trying to be all things to all men. He wants to maximise his opportunity and success and that is entirely legitimate, but image can be moulded too perfectly and that can create problems. Staying in touch with reality is the key point to what he should be doing as champion. He is where he is because he is exceptionally gifted at what he does.
"He is very talented and is a charming guy. He is respectful of those around him and he wants to be popular, but he shouldn't try to please everyone. A champion should only fulfil so much of anyone's expectations. I sense he wants to race and to win and that will give him an extended career.
"I think he will win this world championship, and some more. Maybe he will even challenge Michael Schumacher's tally, though I think circumstances today are different so that may be more difficult. But that will be the unfolding story with Lewis, won't it?"
Articulate, good looking – and quick – Lewis Hamilton looks and acts the part already, and is the kind of athlete whose stardom will enable him to cross social barriers. Those who have spent a lot of time observing him closely, in the paddock and in action on the race track, in television interviews, or launching the Motor Sport Association's Go Motorsport and associated Let's Go Karting campaigns to attract more people into the sport, have been nothing but impressed.
And they have little doubt that he will make a fine champion who will not only care about his sport but will, in time, like Stewart and Hill, put back as much as he takes out.
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