The Nick Townsend column: Lord of the rings succeeds despite high-pitched whine
British legend hails world champion-elect but rookie's jealous rivals ensure Corinthian spirit has left the sport
Sunday 07 October 2007
Sir Stirling Moss, whose manicured tones are still evocative of a fifties matinee idol, spluttered his indignation. "They are simply jealous of our chap," he declared when told of the imbroglio created by Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel's accusations of bad driving on the part of Lewis Hamilton in last Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix. Even in a quite extraordinary F1 season, it says much about the lack of nobility in the sport that the young Briton, on the cusp of achieving a world championship, the distinction that eluded Moss, arguably the finest all-round racing driver of all time, could have seen his endeavours come to nothing because of an amateur cameraman's video posted on YouTube.
If it had been on a public road the police would have told the drivers to sort the shunt out among themselves and between their insurance companies. After all, the race was in a temporary state of limbo (the safety car was out). While Moss deferred to no one on the track, not even his one-time team-mate Juan Manuel Fangio when both drove for Mercedes-Benz, he clearly found the protests of Webber and Vettel risible. But then we are speaking about the man whose sportsmanship was so supreme that his act of magnanimity resulted in him yielding the 1958 world championship to his rival Mike Hawthorn.
The latter could have received a penalty in Portugal that would, in retrospect, have denied him the points that he needed to beat Moss. Not only did Moss refuse to stand by and see Hawthorn unjustly penalised, as he perceived it, but he also simply refused to accept gaining an advantage in such a way. Hence his defence of Hawthorn who would proceed to become Britain's first world champion by just one point, though he had only won one race that year to Moss's four.
In today's climate, there's as much chance of such benevolence as Gordon Ramsay publishing a guide to kitchen karma. Whether we attribute such attitudes to the multi-millions pumped into the teams and cars, piloted by young mega-wealthy men, under intense pressure to claim points, it is reality. Virtually disappeared is any semblance of the Corinthian spirit that once bonded competitors.
Fortunately, good sense, a commodity not always evident within F1, prevailed, albeit belatedly, when the stewards cleared him. Not before Hamilton, who could have received a 10-point penalty or even exclusion from today's Chinese Grand Prix, indulged in a flash of road rage when he declared: "If this is the way it's going to be, it's not somewhere I really want to be." With the sport's ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone describing Hamilton as "a miracle worker" who had "resurrected" F1, it was inconceivable that the stewards should administer draconian action – just as, frankly, there was absolutely no substance in the Briton's implied threat to quit a sport that some estimates have claimed will earn him £250 million over the next five years. Presumably, any residual anger was mollified when he secured pole in yesterday's qualifying session. "Job done," his team acclaimed the performance. It should be complete by the time most of our readers reach for their newspaper this morning.
Hamilton will have increased his education significantly this week, however. And not just how to negotiate a circuit new to him. Now he recognises that political adroitness is as crucial as skill behind the wheel. Not that he won't have surmised, well before now, that no one is going to make it easy for him, this season or in future ones. Not officials. Not rivals. Not their teams. Certainly not his own team-mate, Fernando Alonso, whose popularity profile in the British tabloid media is currently about on a par with that of the Portuguese police.
Hamilton soon came to realise that the high-pitched whine in the McLaren garage didn't always materialise from the cars. But then it was never supposed to be like this in his rookie season. Where Alonso was concerned, this was merely the talented apprentice following the guv'nor around the shop floor, nodding dutifully and occasionally getting his chance to work the lathe himself. One can comprehend the Spaniard's chagrin, if not his petulant manner of articulating it as Hamilton has racked up victories and podium finishes at circuits, some of which, like China and Brazil, he has never encountered before, and, at the time of writing, was one victory from the world championship.
It is, by any standards, a fantastic tale, as this son of a former railway clerk has conquered this sport demanding such highly tuned physical and mental faculties so swiftly to become king of the circuits. Or should that be lord of the rings? McLaren have equipped him with a fast, reliable conveyance, of course, as the cynics will continue to remind us. And fortune has occasionally blessed him; not least when the spy scandal resulted in only a (admittedly a hefty only) fine for McLaren, not for the team's drivers.
Max Mosley, president of F1's ruling body, the FIA, insists that a world title won by Hamilton (or Alonso) would inevitably be tainted "when history is written..." One hesitates to even quote the words of a man who was recently so gratuitously offensive towards that great stalwart of motor racing, Sir Jackie Stewart, describing him as "a certified halfwit". But Mosley fails to comprehend that outside the rarefied atmosphere that exists within the F1 hierarchy, history will recall only the exceptional, instinctive talent, remarkable focus, and courage required to galvanise the performances Hamilton manages from McLaren's cars.
As Moss says: "It isn't just that he is a driver, he obviously can drive, but he is a racer, he can see a gap and he's in it. And apart from that he is such a nice bloke. And when you think what he has done on the way up in karts, and GP2, he has won so many things he could be big-headed. But he has none of that."
Hamilton will recognise already that the track ahead may be strewn with financial rewards but also with potential political hazards and dilemmas over whom to bestow his undoubted gifts on whenever he and McLaren team principal Ron Dennis part company (although Alonso appears certain to depart first). Immediately the chequered flag signals his world championship, speculation over Hamilton's future will reach a crescendo.
For the moment, Hamilton's father, Anthony, instrumental in all his son's major decisions, is not minded to sever the umbilical cord with the team. "We are in a long-term relationship with McLaren," he has said. "At the moment, we have got no plans to make any escapes because they are a good, honest team full of integrity and we are happy here – but everything changes after a while."
For the moment the race early today in Shanghai takes precedence over all other considerations. Whether triumph arrives this week or next, the man who, at the start of the season, would have been regarded as the most unlikely world champion, can luxuriate in the acclaim and his nailed-on BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, an honour claimed by Moss 46 years ago. On that night, we can be assured that the go-kart footage of the boy Hamilton will be replayed once again, and we will be reminded of how the child from a broken home on a Stevenage council estate, the kid bullied at primary school, ascended to the zenith of motorsport. Fantasy become fact; and an inspiration to all.
Meanwhile, back home in Britain, Hamilton can be assured that traffic cops are already perfecting their opening gambit to speeding drivers: Who do you think you are? Lewis Hamilton?
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