The Year in Review: Sport

Fast learner
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The Independent Online

It is clear now that if you cut Lewis Hamilton, there is little evidence of blood. He has a small intake of breath, flicks an invisible gear lever and drives on, a warm/glacial (take your pick) smile in place and a thousand certainties at hand. His father Anthony who at one early point in his son's astonishingly precocious rise to superstardom did three jobs to support his conviction that if he could get his son to the starting grid of Formula One, the rest would fall into place as inevitably as a sunrise certainly does not discourage this idea of implacable, almost surreally untouchable ambition.

At the French Grand Prix at Magny Cours in July, Hamilton Senior was first presented with the idea that the boy who had raced from nowhere, who had such titans of the sport as Sir Jackie Stewart and Sir Stirling Moss engaged in a battle of superlatives while discussing his potential, had yet to show us how he would deal with the bad days.

The question was timed well enough, because at the French track Ferrari were plainly back in competitive condition, while the McLaren-Mercedes cars of Hamilton and his restive team-mate and reigning world champion Fernando Alonso were performing relatively sluggishly. There was also a coming rite of passage the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Hamilton's father had a touch of indignation in his voice. "What some people don't understand," he said, "is that Lewis hasn't just appeared as some ready-made driving star. For 14 years, since he first got into a go-kart, Lewis has known what it is to lose as much as to win. For all those years, he has been winning and losing and going into all the grey areas in between. So I don't for a minute fear any inability by him to deal with setbacks. But then, to be honest, I also know they are not exactly on his agenda.

"He has never considered anything more than the odd reverse that he knows must come to any career any life."

Odd reverse? By season's end in Brazil, where he paid homage to the memory of the great Brazilian Ayrton Senna, they had accumulated almost as quickly as the wheezes and bangs of a misfiring engine. He didn't win in France, nor at Silverstone where the immaculate conception of his Formula One career was blemished by his first measurable mistake. Then, not once but twice, the historic prospect of a rookie winning the world title at his first attempt (Moss never landed the honour in his long and often breathtaking career) was blown away in the slipstream of Ferrari's nerveless Finn, Kimi Raikkonen. In Shanghai, there was a shredded tyre. In Sao Paulo, a rush of blood.

Hamilton's smile remained, though, an impenetrable mask; as it did when the huge audience at the lavishly staged BBC Sports Personality of the Year gasped when the award, against popular expectation, went to the ageing boxing champion Joe Calzaghe rather than the instant hero of the Top Gear culture.

If young Lewis was as startled as most of the rest of the audience, he was rather more composed than when, earlier, Michael Parkinson performed a small ambush when discussing the decision to escape the British paparazzi for a quieter life in Switzerland. Parky wondered if this might also have something to do with tax advantages. "Yes, that too," admitted the boy wonder in a rare moment of discomfort.

None of this, however, has disrupted seriously the idea that, like Michael Schumacher and Senna before him, Hamilton is a rough and cynical sport's man of destiny. While many found it outrageous that he and his team-mate Alonso should have kept their driver's championship points which would eventually leave Hamilton in second place in the title race despite his team's huge fine for industrial espionage against their rivals, Ferrari, the hero was again impervious to questioning voices: He said: "I have my job to do and I will continue to do it. McLaren is a team and I'm proud to be part of it."

What cannot be doubted is the extraordinary level of Hamilton's natural talent and a commitment that was evident from virtually his toddling days, a force that persuaded Ron Dennis, the head of the McLaren team, that the boy would almost certainly drive for him at some distant point in the future. Kees van de Grint, the chief engineer of Bridgestone, the sole tyre supplier for Formula One, is steeped in the sport and has been watching the development of Hamilton with much absorption. "Sometimes it is possible to make a mistake about a young driver," he says. "I remember very much believing a few years ago in an Italian kid, Gianfranco Pacchino, after seeing him win an F3 race in Monaco. 'This boy has everything,' I said, but it didn't prove so.

"Lewis Hamilton? So far he has been phenomenal, and quite frankly at the moment there is only one question in my mind: will he be better than Michael Schumacher? I have always considered Michael the greatest and most motivated driver of all. Of course, we cannot rush to judgment because Michael's career is done, all his achievements are laid out before us, and Lewis is just starting. I also accept that we see the best of someone when the going is hardest, and that was always when Schumacher pulled out the very best of himself.

"Will Lewis do the same next year? It is by far the biggest question in Formula One, and that is the mark of his achievement in just one season."

As for Hamilton himself, he says he cannot wait for a resumption of the charge. (French traffic cops would perhaps agree, having handed him a month's ban for clocking 120mph 40 over the limit.) "I've been happy with the way I have been able to handle the disappointment at the end of the season," he said. "It has only made me more determined to be champion of the world." Who really knows if there is a breath of uncertainty behind the unchanging mask of Lewis Hamilton? Only time, perhaps measured in fractions of seconds, will tell. Meanwhile, it can be said that no one who has finished second has ever made such a claim on a dazzling future.