Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Lewis Hamilton, then and now.

Do you remember this chubby faced little driver, the boy from Stevenage who done good and won a world title?
I used to think he was the second coming, I really did. He would get into the car week after week and absolutely spank it to the limit where even the angels get nervous.

That first year Hamilton rocked up there was a big hoopla about it all. This virtually unknown kid that had won a few lower formula races and stuff, the regular media had never heard of him, the F1 press pack kind of knew who he was. The only thing they had for Lewis was the fabled “I done told Ron Dennis I was going to drive for him one day" heart warming story. The day Lewis the karting prodigy walked up to Ron at the Autosport awards and buttonholed Mr McLaren for a job, it was precocious and heart warming all at once. How cute, how just like Lewis. Ron was instantly smitten with this boy with a gleam in his eye so he immediately wrote the boy a cheque and told him to come down the factory for a seat fitting on Monday morning. “You and me lad, we’ll go all the way. Natch".

When you think about it though, just how many people walk up to Ron and ask him for sponsorship of their fledging journey to F1 on a daily basis? Right now how many dads are calling the McLaren factory looking to impress the boss do you think, hundred? thousands? If you’ve ever called the McLaren PR department looking for a few caps to give away as prizes for instants, you’ll know they could teach the North Koreans a thing or two about stonewalling interested parties.

But the reality was Lewis was picked up by McLaren and fast tracked into F1 with much fanfare by a team riding high. He joined Alonso who was no fool and together they got on like a house on fire, a house full of fireworks and other highly explosive handbags. McLaren got caught cheating, Alonso spectacularly threw his toys out of the pram, Lewis almost won the title at his first go, there were accusation of favouritism, Hamilton and Alonso stopped talking to each other and Kimi sneaked the title from under the McLaren drivers noses. The narrative in 2007 was Lewis the rookie turning up and blowing the world champion out of the water, he was no respecter of titles, he was there to win and show the world what a plucky lad could do given half a chance.

I always used to think that it was Alonso that threw a hissy fit that year and Hamilton was an innocent victim of a spiteful hate campaign by the Spanish media. After Coughlin gate and Alonso’s big huff off to Renault, that became the accepted history, as time has gone on however, I’m starting to question that view.

The “Plucky young lad” image was cemented with the title winning run in 2008. He was almost robbed of the title by The FIA sticking their oar in, Massa player the villain to Hamilton’s young British hero role and we all lapped it up. The Evil FIA rooting for Ferrari and the swarthy Brazilian foreign type, against by the rules McLaren and our clean living  boy next door Brit, it was a great year with a title that went down to the last corner of the last race. It was an amazing year and you had to take sides, you were either old school dirty cheating Ferrari or stiff upper lip straight bat playing McLaren.  

The final image that year was a beaming Hamilton wet from champagne wrapped in the union jack, eyes gleaming and waving to the press pack as the Brazilian fans had gone home hours ago after witnessing Massa win the race, but lose the title in such a cruel way.

The years following that title winning season, were not good. Jenson rocked up in a car still being bolted together in Australia 2009 after Honda quite at the 11th hour and Mercedes lent the new Brawn team some second hand engines. It turned out the Brawn chassis had a few clever tricks under its skirts and blow the opposition away. Only Redbull in a portent of the seasons to come came close to stopping the Brawn fairy tale that year. Lewis tried really, really hard but McLaren had thrown everything at 2008 and failed to carry the momentum into 2009. Brawn had a good car while McLaren only had the best driver.  Lewis still went out and drove the nuts of the car each week, but he made mistakes and too often over drove the car.

And Lewis started to change; being champion gets you invited to swanky parties, people who have no idea the engine is in the back of on F1 car want to be seen with the cute kid from Englandhamshire who won that car race thing.  Suddenly what he wore was just as important as how far up the championship table he was. He got himself a celeb girlfriend and told his dad he was going to get himself a new manager. A manager who could get him invited to better parties and suddenly he was standing next to the likes of Sean Combs and Samuel L Jackson. Most notably Lewis started sporting earring studs, nothing to obvious or ostentatious just small black studs.

There just isn’t the same level of adulation in the UK for athletes and celebrities as there is in America. Especially for the black stars, the whole stiff upper lip, know your place, embarrassment thing. The biggest sporting celebration in the UK is the BBC sports personality award at the end of the year. An event where the 84 year old retired post mistress from Little Puddlington who teaches wheelchair bound kids to play tiddlywinks is given a longer standing ovation than the eventual Sports personality. In the UK being a billionaire, super fit, highly talented and driven world champion just isn't as good as the inspirational old lady smelling slightly of moth balls.

Lewis found he rather liked America and the adulation he gets there. He didn’t have to be the humble plucky lad from Blighty who lived in a quite village in the sticks any more. He could be the Formula one world champion Lewis Hamilton and hang out with Kanye west at the MTV video awards, he could meet black America and be accepted as an equal.

Back in the world of F1 the 2010 season was another to forget. Jenson joined him as Brawn turned into Mercedes. McLaren built a better car, but it wasn’t as good as the Redbull or the Ferraris this time.  Vettel sneaked it from Webber and Alonso, Lewis was distant and grumpy. Diamond studs appeared and the tattoos got bigger and more obvious.

2011 and the wheels really started to come off the car for Lewis, the on/off celeb girlfriend was all the media wanted to talk about when they weren’t asking why he kept hitting Massa. He spent more time in the steward's office than the podium that year.  He replied to the press pack questioning after yet another telling off with “maybe it is because I is black”. The red faced loons and F1 media failed to get the reference or the joke.  Vettel was unstoppable all year long taking back to back titles.

2012 and McLaren are in full on comedy team mode, the car was pretty good but McLaren contrived to lose the drivers title to Vettel yet again, with poor strategy calls and a pit crew straight out of the keystone cop. As Vettel breezed to his third straight title helped by the FIA failing to show any backbone and Pirellis capitulation to Redbulls “safety” concerns. Lewis feeling straight jacked by the McLaren hive mind PR machine, quit for Mercedes and a new start. He told the press the reason was he wasn't allowed to keep the trophies he won; he only got copies from McLaren weeks later.

2013 and every team apart from Redbull were building their new rules for 2014 cars back at the factory so weren’t really trying that year. Redbull and Vettel romped home virtually unchallenged. Ferrari desperate as ever to appear competitive put up a bit of a fight, but they failed as usual.  Lewis spent half the season designing a baseball cap that met his exacting standards. A hat … ! and that hat became part of a “look” Lewis adopted, A hat that never left his head and was used, with the big celeb dark glasses, to hide away from the press and fans alike. The year was not a total success, but nor was it a disaster with a win in Hungary and a handful of thirds, a respectable start with the new team. Freed from McLarens strict PR rules, Lewis could pick and choose the events he attended and who could interview him.  The narrative changed from humble plucky young lad to grizzled ex world champ, a loner, the intense young man with nothing but thoughts of victory and looking cool when he wins.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with win at all costs, just as long as you remember shake the beaten guys hand and don’t screw over your friends. The sort of friends you came up through the ranks with, good mates whose fathers are themselves ex world champions. Long days spent travelling all over Europe and beyond, sleeping in dingy hotels and more often than not the back of dad's car.  The sort of mate you measure yourself against in the beginning then realise you can beat with ease and keep him around to make you look good.  

Yeah, don’t screw those friends over or it makes you look like a brat.

In 2014 Lewis cut the ties with the old image, the old life and his friends. Nico suddenly was the enemy and just another person to beat, all those long hot summers learning their trade round the European tracks meant nothing when it came to the rub. Lewis now moved in the exalted circles of the triple A entertainment circuit. The earrings got bigger and brighter, much, much brighter. Big fat flash gold chains became the signature symbol of success. The humble English lad from the sticks became the humble God fearing Lewis Hamilton Brand #teamLH.

It took a bit of effort, but he won the title in 2014, Nico made him work for it, but it wasn’t really in any doubt. Everything he learnt as Alonso’s understudy that first year came into play. And it was Nico that was seen to be throwing his toys out of the pram this time. Nico that had to cheat to beat Lewis and Nico that made all the mistakes.

But it was Nico that, I think, came out of the season with the most respect. It was Nico that went to Lewis before the crowning of the world champion after the race and shock his hand. He was the first to congratulate the new champion and it was Nico that paid tribute to Lewis.

Now in 2015 Lewis is on course to cruise to the title this year. Vettel in the Ferrari is the only driver looking to take the fight to Mercedes as Nico is completely out qualified and raced. Lewis has already got the pole position trophy secures. The only race he has failed to make the podium so far was Hungary. The third in Monaco was only third because the team screwed up in the closing stages.

Yes, I know, to win the world championship takes a certain .... ruthlessness. You have to be prepared to sacrifice friends and loved ones to achieve the ultimate goal in single seat motor sports. It's not an easy thing to do and doing multiple times takes a single minded determination.

But let us turn to Vettel for a moment and the point of this little piece.

I'm prepared now, to admit that Vettel won the title in 2010 by being better than Alonso and Webber. Those two were looking at each other and missed the German Lad who won the race that mattered.

 I will always question how legitimate Redbulls cars were in 2011 and 2012. They were doing something clever with suspension and ride heights. The engines were clearly using off throttle over run far more effectively over Newey's exquisite bodywork.  

In 2013 no one else turned up to the party.

But Vettel, and this is painful to say .. wasn't that smug about it all really. No , no he wasn't. That's what we wanted, we wanted to dislike him because he was winning and it all looked too easy whilst Alonso and Hamilton couldn't get a look in. Okay he was a bit mean to Webber a couple of times. But he did it on the track. You never heard reports of him bad mouthing Webber, and he did sort of apologies afterwards.

Yes he waved that finger around, but he only does it when he's on the podium and he's won, when he actually has the right to do it.

But Vettel never paraded a flash private yet around or took to wearing more and more jewellery around the paddock. Check out the instagram accounts for both Vettel and Lewis, see who likes to display the trappings of success. For the Singapore GP Lewis is finally releasing some of his music he's been recording at home, the fabled rap album.

I think the tipping point for me was Monza and the drivers' tribute to Justin Wilson, and yes I know this moment has been done ad infinitum.

The camera cuts to the driver in the garage waiting to go out and pay the tribute. All gathered together talking and smiling, apart from the world champion who has his ear buds in, hat on and big old glasses coving that impassive race face. Lewis was off to the side not talking to anyone as Vettel strides in and tells Jenson that the drivers are going now. I didn't ask, he didn't check his watch and defer to the world champion. He confidently strode in and told the driver to start moving.
Out they troop onto the trailer to stand, heads bowed and uncovered as a mark or respect to a fallen comrade, killed so cruelly by a bit of flying debris a week earlier. Well almost all the heads were uncovered.

Lewis didn't uncover his because he had just dyed his hair blonde and wasn't showing anyone his new hair colour until he'd won the race! A little bit of me died there. It really did. His image was more important than showing some respect. Yeah, it's just a hat, I know, I know. But he walked passed everyone else because he was the last up there, talking on his phone, he saw them take their hats off. If he hadn't just dyed his hair would he have been so precious about the hat?

Its just bad form really. 

I still think he's one of the best drivers I've ever seen. And I'll always root for him, the same as I rooted for Nigel and his endless brummy whinging. But I'm not sure in the extremely unlikely event I'm ever offered the chance to have lunch with Lewis I would take it now, I think Vettel or Jenson or even Alonso would be more interesting and less self obsessed company. 

Right enough slaying of idols, Singapore this weekend. Lewis will probably win, but watch out for the Redbulls who are pinning their hopes on a slew of updates.  As Hungary showed when top speed isn't so important they've got a sweat handling car can take the fight to Ferrari and Williams.
Ferrari's engine update gave Mercedes something to think about at Monza, Vettel will be buzzing after that result so I think another podium is within easy reach.  Nico will be the one to lose out again.   
Williams need something to happen here. Ferrari has the beating of them now and Redbull are up for the fight. But the boys from Didcot are bringing their A game apparently, lots of sponsors to impress and third place in the championship to secure.

The on going "Whose going to buy Lotus this week" story will drag on. As an engineer working in an industry facing plenty of redundancies at the moment myself, I really feel for the workers back at the Lotus factory. Not knowing if you'll have a job next month is a terrible thing to have to live with. Whilst the money men argue over "historical payment" real people have mortgages to pay and school uniforms to buy. The sooner things get sorted out the better. 

Force India, Indian summer will continue as Perez continues to do a good job of reminding everyone he used to be thought off as something special.

The rest who cares, Mehri will we last as usual.

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