Weekend of missed chances: Hamilton's title bid ends in heartbreak...

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The Independent Online

When Lewis Hamilton shared an emotional bearhug with his father moments before leaping into the cockpit of his McClaren in the sweltering heat of Brazil yesterday, he knew it would be more than just the hopes of his family riding with him round the Interlagos race track.

For on the shoulders of this remarkable 22-year-old who grew up on a housing estate in Stevenage were resting the dreams of a nation for whom sporting triumph has become an increasingly intoxicating if rare pleasure.

Some 71 laps later, after a series of dramatic setbacks and a nail-biting fight back from 18th position, Hamilton's cherished hope of becoming the youngest driver, not to mention the first black man, to win the F1 World Championship, had come to nought, as he could manage only seventh, allowing the title to go to rival Kimi Raikkonen.

For the millions of fans cheering him on from the comfort of a Sunday tea time sofa it was a depressing end to a week that offered so much in the way of hope.

On Saturday night, for the England rugby team, it was also a case of a bridge too far as the battle-scarred veterans failed, despite the drama of a disallowed try, in their bid to grind out another victory against the odds, this time against South Africa's Springboks.

For football fans it had also been a dismal seven days with England facing almost certain exit from Euro 2008 after Wayne Rooney put his team in the lead only for them then to recklessly concede two late goals to Russia on a chilly night in Moscow on an unloved plastic pitch.

It was a similarly grim tale for football fans north of the border as Scotland, in typically capricious fashion, fell foul of Georgia despite already having beaten France home and away. It now appears likely that they, along with Wales, Northern Ireland and England, will watch from the sidelines next summer while Europe's best teams strut their stuff in Austria and Switzerland. Along with the absence of the Republic of Ireland, it will be the first time since 1984 that the British Isles has failed to field a single team in a major international football tournament.

But as for Hamilton, at the opposite end of the experience spectrum to the ageing England rugby pack, surely too much was being asked of him? Driving in his first season he had only ever experienced the Brazilian circuit on the screen of a simulator.

With four victories under his belt and already clutching an impressive number of records – most consecutive podium finishes, most wins in a debut season, most pole positions – not to mention surviving unscathed from a 175mph crash, Hamilton had sent national expectations through the roof.

Hamilton's father Anthony, displayed the kind of assurance that has helped his son become the most bankable young star in sport as he refused to be cowed by the result yesterday insisting it had been a fantastic year. "Things are sent to try you, and we are going to be positive, we are going to come back next year," he said.

Next year, Hamilton will indeed be wiser, a lot richer, and, if anything, more determined to prove that his precocious genius is no flash in the pan. It is also expected that he will be spared the considerable stress of sharing a garage with Fernando Alonso at McClaren with who he has endured a troubled and destabilising relationship, largely as a result merely of upstaging the older driver.

The next few months will be a crucial time in the life of the young Briton. Named after US Olympic gold medal winner Carl Lewis, Hamilton split his early life between his separated parents. His first taste of racing came from radio-controlled cars aged five. He finished second in the national championships of that discipline the following year. By the aged of eight he was a fixture on the karting scene and, whe ne was 10 years old, rang McClaren boss Ron Dennis, telling him he was destined to win races for the famous team – a prediction, thanks to the unstinting support of the company, that came true.

Despite failing to clinch victory in China courtesy of a disastrous error in the penultimate Grand Prix of the season two weeks ago he started second on the grid and was favourite to win in Sao Paulo. But it was not be.

Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone will be disappointed too. He had also been hoping for the Briton to win yesterday, describing him as a "breath of fresh air". With a coterie of famous friends and a fairytale life story soon to be the stuff of a multi-million pound autobiography, Hamilton helped bring the sport to new audiences and added a further touch of glamour to the track.

The odds on Hamilton winning the title next year last night stood at 2-1. Plenty will be staked on him – Raikkonen's victory saved the bookmakers from a huge payout on the Briton this year. Yes, the bookies were able to see the bright side of the disastrous results across the field of homegrown sporting endeavour having been inundated with bets after offering 10-1 for three English victories – in football, rugby and motor racing – today, that looks an ambitious bet..

... as England rugby fans suffer the pain of defeat

By Jonathan Brown

Rolling home after a heavy night in Paris, the consensus among rugby fans returning from the World Cup final was that a wonderful weekend had been marred only by England's defeat.

Some were bleary-eyed after hours of late carousing in the French capital's bars, others were weighed down by trolley-loads of luggage after weeks of following the tournament's every match. But at Waterloo Station's Eurostar terminal yesterday afternoon, they seemed only slightly dejected by the result.

Verdicts on the overall quality of the game, however, varied wildly between praise for its combatative nature to criticism of England's reliance upon kicking. But the fans were united in appreciation of the electric atmosphere within the Stade de France.

Keith Barrett, of Oxfordshire, had seen England's triumph in Sydney four years ago. This time it was not to be, but he remained upbeat. "It was a good match," he said. "I loved the fact that it was so competitive. There were always chances."

Stephen Osborne, of Alton, said: "The atmosphere was great, the fans kept singing throughout the whole match – but the match itself was pretty poor.

"They used the wrong tactics. They shouldn't have kicked all the time."

David Gubbin and Reg Williams, returning to Exeter, said the consensus of opinion among England fans was that the result was down to the Australian referee's decision not to give England a try which appeared to have been scored by Mark Cueto in the second half.

"That was definitely a try from where we were looking at it," said Mr Gubbin. The minor grumbles didn't end there. "Getting to the stadium was a problem and they ran out of programmes an hour and a half before the game started. But everyone was very hospitable and very friendly. The game was what we expected – it was very close. But we gave them too many silly penalties."

As England supporters dashed away to get their connections, groups of South Africans sporting their sides' jerseys and lugging vast amounts of baggage congregated in the arrivals hall for a last drink or queued for taxis.

They were joined by a few New Zealanders, who had expected to be in the final and so made the trip anyway. Perhaps slightly bitter, they couldn't resist putting the boot into the spectacle. Kiwi Brad Allnutt, of Auckland, had been less impressed by the game. He said: "There was too much kicking. England never deserved to win – they were kicking all day and should have tried to attack in the last 20 minutes. They drew South Africa into a kicking game as well."

Springbok supporter Rob Barnett-Harris, returning with his wife Val to Cape Town via London, said: "We've been over there for six weeks, watching it all. In the final, the rugby itself wasn't great. There wasn't really any high point as such to the match – it was a pretty dull game. The tensest time was actually the three minutes it took to adjudicate on whether there had been a try or not." After the result, the fireworks and celebrations afterwards were the best part of the occasion, he said.

Mr Allnutt and the Barnett-Harrises complained that Paris was quiet after the match and they were unable to find anywhere still open past 1am – but perhaps they should have followed the England supporters, who were determined to enjoy their team's achievement in making the final at all after receiving a 36 – 0 thumping from their opponents in the group stages five weeks earlier.

"Win or lose, you know what us Brits are like," said Paul White, of London. "The atmosphere in Paris was great. In the game, we were on the back foot from the beginning. It was a pretty scrappy final, as finals go, but I suppose that's what you'd expect at that stage of the tournament. At the end of the day, I think the decisions went against us, and that's what cost us."

"I got to bed at 6.30 this morning," said Carl Foster, of Epsom. "I'd say two-thirds of the stadium were England fans and the noise was tremendous."

Springboks conquer the world ... again

It was like 1995 all over again. The Springboks won the World Cup and the president donned the green and gold strip and had his picture taken with the victorious players from a predominantly white team.

Except this time instead of a dignified Nelson Mandela shaking hands with the grinning captain, it was Thabo Mbeki being awkwardly hoisted onto the players' shoulders.

Back in 1995, the mood of the new Rainbow Nation was one of hope and reconciliation as the country celebrated the Springbok's victory over the All Blacks. By contrast, Mbeki kitted out in Springbok colours flew out to Paris with fresh concerns over crime and security after the fatal shooting of reggae legend Lucky Dube in front of his children during a carjacking in Johannesburg. Despite a national outpouring of grief, South Africans were still glued to television screens on Saturday night to watch the Boks lift the World Cup for a second time.

But after the celebrations die down, the South African Rugby Football Union must find new coach as Jake White stands down from what is arguably the most politically sensitive job in world rugby.

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