Time for home driver to restore some pride at Silverstone
Sir Jackie Stewart's presence in the paddock serves as a reminder of the heady days when fans expected to see a local win
Well, he is halfway to happiness. There is no knocking pole at your home grand prix, but if Lewis Hamilton does not repeat his Silverstone success of 2008 today, the euphoria of yesterday's rapid lap will not sustain him.
Since the days of Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill, pickings here have not been rich for the petrol-head nation. And before that we had only the episodic knocks of John Watson in 1981 and James Hunt in 1977 to remind us of the dominance laid down by Jim Clark and Sir Jackie Stewart in the Sixties. Hamilton's arresting drive in the wet five years ago was the first win by a Briton since David Coulthard's back-to-back nirvana in 1999-2000. This is Jenson Button's 14th visit to Silverstone as an F1 driver and he has yet to claim even a podium finish.
That this event is still attracting 300,000 souls when domestic desire is so rarely rewarded is testament to the heritage and tradition of racing here. Stewart is still very much a presence in the paddock in his capacity as a consultant to Lotus. His two wins here came in world championship-winning years of 1969, when he finished a lap clear of the field in the Matra, and in the Tyrell of 1971. The importance of what might be today cannot be overstated. "It is one of the big ones to win. It is where it all started in F1 terms and where so much of the industry is based," said Stewart.
"And for Lewis to win his own GP is a big deal. Any British driver has to win this race. There is great history to it, great heritage, great integrity. The fans are incredibly loyal, and a big part of the story. They come back year after year. A win here would rejuvenate Lewis in a way no other victory could."
Hamilton has lost a little of his shine since he burst across the F1 landscape straight from GP2 six years ago, caught between the overly controlling PR in his early days at McLaren and some muddled thinking of his own. But given an opportunity to shine, he invariably takes it, and yesterday was arguably as dramatic as any. And the crowd showed its appreciation, cheering him home as he trashed the time set by his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, as racing heroes are supposed to do, when the window was closing on his last flying lap.
The gap of four tenths of a second was impressive, if not necessarily instructive. One row behind sits Sebastian Vettel, whose car is far kinder to its tyres. Hamilton hopes the flowing characteristics of Silverstone's rapid sectors, with corners opening into helpful straights, will have a cooling effect on rubber that perishes all too quickly on his Mercedes. Should Vettel prevail, they can at least raise a glass in Milton Keynes, and after all, he does feel "a little bit English" as he told us after his victory here in 2009, having worshipped Mansell as a kid.
Perhaps the support of a Ryder Cup warrior will be significant. Ian Poulter was in the paddock yesterday and returns for an adrenalin fix today. Poulter saw a Mercedes home first at his last grand prix in Monaco. Maybe he is the charm the team never knew they had and it would be only fair were Hamilton the beneficiary of his stardust on this occasion since Rosberg romped home in the principality.
There is no doubt that Rosberg's robust refusal to yield to the incoming Hamilton has spiced the Mercedes dynamic. Having seen Michael Schumacher into permanent retirement, Rosberg was never going to be anything other than respectfully hostile to Hamilton. His pole-to-flag victory at Monaco was a vindication of his credentials. Hamilton has something similar for which to aim today, as his team principal, Ross Brawn, acknowledged.
"I have not experienced that for quite a while," Brawn said. "Seeing the reaction of the crowd to pole position made the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end. It was quite a special reaction, quite a special occasion. If we were to win the race by any chance, I think it would be one to flag up in my case book, certainly. Brawn GP provided some great memories from the British perspective but we were not that strong when we came here, so this would be a very special win to add to the résumé. We are obviously a German organisation but we are based in Britain, so it would be great for the team, but I don't want to anticipate too much in case I put the mockers on it."
As Brawn pointed out, next week's German Grand Prix at Nürburgring presents Mercedes with a second "home" race to create a heightened frisson, not that Hamilton and Rosberg require any help from geography to stoke the coals of competition. "It is super tough between the two of them. They are desperate to beat each other but in the right spirit, which is good," Brawn said.
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