Sunday, 8 November 2015

Lewis Hamilton 2015 World Champion - Sign of the times

Glory often comes as an affirmation. A vindication. Well, that goes for most pursuits aside from F1 its seems. Or at the very least aside from the glory achieved by Lewis Hamilton.

Lewis Hamilton's third title started another debate
about where he rates
Photo: Octane Photography
You'll be aware that he's just sealed his third F1 world drivers' championship, only the tenth ever so to do. With this also, even with the rather lengthy previous of British champions, he is just the second among his countrymen to achieve as many as well as the very first to take any titles back-to-back. And yet. In response alongside the plaudits about as prominent were the varied attempts to decode this particularly complex enigma; to unravel the knotted question of just how good he is; ascertain just where he fits. And really it's nothing new, it's just the latest manifestation. Hamilton has long been a driver who divides opinion more than just about any other in history.

Perhaps it's just in the nature of the age. After all Sebastian Vettel too has divided opinion notoriously throughout his time at the top. As had Fernando Alonso for a good while; even now the odd contrary yelp can be heard. I always recall a friend of mine saying that had Twitter existed in 1957 there would have been people on there insisting that Fangio wasn't up to much - perhaps social media lends itself to what euphemistically might be called a thousand flowers blooming. It may tell us something, possibly, that the legendary scribe Denis Jenkinson who watched them both first hand always reckoned Alberto Ascari was the better of the two.

We can form a hypothesis about it too. The further you delve back into F1 past the more that media coverage becomes rudimentary or even non-existent, and the eulogies from the few that were there is the main thing that survives into the modern day. History is written by the winners after all. Whereas now the scrutiny and exposure of all drivers is infinitely more searching and pitiless. No wonder our view of them is rather warts and all.

More broadly people in and around F1 are it seems for a number of reasons particularly prone to nostalgia right now. That Mark Webber's recent claims that back in the day there was more driving talent depth than now, something that didn't stand up to a great deal of scrutiny if you chose to apply some, was swallowed so readily by so many rather summed up the determination around that things are not what they used to be, particularly in the challenge offered up to drivers.

With his latest title Lewis knocked off a few records
Photo: Octane Photography
Further indicating that there's something in the age, if Seb and Lewis share this tendency to split views you could argue that they share very little else besides a driving talent. A stick used to beat Vettel is his lack of success on the way up; not so with Lewis who was long since marked out as a rising star before his F1 bow. Another was that (before this season anyway) virtually all of Seb's success had come in a single team, and where he had apparently firm number one status. Not with Lewis. It's often said that we don't see much of Vettel between races; that we don't know him. That hardly can be said of Lewis of course.

Just as with Vettel though you wonder what else exactly Lewis has got to do to convert his doubters? Of course precisely where he places can be debated endlessly and in any case is largely subjective, but surely Lewis doubtlessly is among the greats and will remain there? And again just as with Seb I don't begin to understand why some are so resistant to the idea. Indeed in a few ways - for the reasons outlined - it's even more bewildering.

Martin Brundle is not one for hyperbole, indeed if we think back to ITV's F1 coverage in 2007 Brundle almost alone kept his patriotic gushing in check, yet in the build-up to the recent US Grand Prix he outlined that whichever way you interpret them Lewis's achievements are hard to argue with. "He's a three-times world champion, 42 wins from 163 starts [at the time] in his whole career, is extraordinary, it's a quarter" he said. "He moved teams at exactly the right time, he's led an extraordinary number of laps and Grands Prix that he's competed in, I just think everything supports [him being a great driver]. And how he's gone about his business, he's had tough team mates in Alonso, [Jenson] Button and [Nico] Rosberg, and I just think back to the very first lap he ever did of a Grand Prix in 2007 in Melbourne when he just went around the outside and laid a marker down and I think he's continued to lay those markers down all through his career".

Lewis's debut campaign was stunning
"Lewis Hamilton 2007" by Tom!! - Flickr. Licensed under
CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.
Take his freshman 2007 for starters indeed. Yes you can list the mitigating circumstances around his being able to lead the drivers' table for much of his debut season, and only miss out on the title with a late year stumble that was mainly not his doing. And up against none other than Alonso as stable mate (so much for a lack of intra-team challenge). Yes, not many get to leap straight into a front-running car; yes, he got thousands of miles of testing before his first race; yes he had intense grooming as a F1 pilot since his teenage years. But that this has almost never happened before or since should tell us something. If you'd, say, stuck Ayrton Senna into a McLaren in 1984 would he have gone toe-to-toe with Alain Prost or Niki Lauda for that year's championship? Probably not; if nothing else his lack of physical fitness at that point would likely have counted against him.

We know about Hamilton's sheer speed, which often has left others gasping. It was the main thing after spending three years alongside him that Button noted any stable mate of Lewis's will experience, that there will be days that what Hamilton can do with the same car, particularly an ill-handling one, will make your jaw drop. "Lewis is one of the fastest drivers the sport has seen" Jenson said in public. In private apparently, after seeing Lewis's telemetry, he said to his Dad something like "If Lewis ever works out how to get the best from himself and the engineers, the rest of us might as well go home". Not for nothing has it pretty much been beyond dispute in the paddock since he stepped into F1 that Lewis is the fastest out there. Not the best necessarily, but the fastest.

We know about the stunning drives too, such as in Silverstone's teeming rain in 2008, when he made all others look like they were, well, slow. Inept. Cautious. We know about his abilities as a racer, his combativeness, his (usually) impeccable judgement, and then his bravery which is right up there. Keke Rosberg in advance of Lewis's F1 debut promised the uninitiated that: "He's unbelievably brave – I mean, Gilles-brave". Accolades hardly come higher, and Lewis has consistently made good on it.

His drive in Silverstone in 2008 was stunning
"Lewis Hamilton 2008 Britain 6" by Carlina Xavier from
London, England - It's time for a comeback. Licensed under CC
BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.
There has often been a lot of Gilles Villeneuve about Lewis, not only in style but also in attitude. Like Gilles he operates very close to the racer pure. He's also never as far as we can tell, and supported by his public pronouncements, wanted 'number one' advantage within a team and also among the top-level drivers has been the most willing to be paired alongside another from that top-level. In part because his faith in his ability is sufficient but partly too he appears to genuinely relish such a battle. Few of his contemporaries can say the same.

Yet this all in a strange sense has been used as a negative too, that such is the obvious nature of Lewis's instinctive skill plenty have assumed it's all he offers. A summing-up-in-three-words of him based on the common perception might be 'fast but brainless'. The first bit is true, the next bit not. Yes Lewis has displayed an emotional streak that has on occasion led him to disengage his brain for short periods (see for example him tweeting out his and Jenson's telemetry after Spa's qualifying in 2012). This has long been his Achilles' Heel, albeit a sporadic one, and possibly explains the one conspicuous trough of his career of the 2011 campaign, related it seems to an on-off transatlantic romance.

But ask those who've worked with him closely such as Mercedes's technical head Paddy Lowe - who of course has worked with Lewis pretty much constantly since he arrived in F1 - or its engine boss Andy Cowell and they will in contrast describe him as one to immerse himself in the detail, and possessed of an extraordinary ability to get his head around things. A man restless; always looking to improve. And with a Nigel Mansell-like urge to forever demonstrate what he can do.

Remember too we used to say he'd never be able to adapt to gumball Pirellis. Then that he'd never adapt to the 'efficiency' formula. He did and then some in both cases. Will Buxton has confirmed that Lewis had this deep and varied skillset and no-stone-unturned approach in his pre-F1 days too, stating that his prevailing reputation "could not be further from the truth". Buxton theorised indeed that Lewis may even have consciously cultivated the fast-but-dopey image in order for his opponents to underestimate him. Taking his cue from Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, Buxton said "the greatest trick that Lewis Hamilton ever pulled, was convincing the world that he wasn't smart".

Lewis has been better than ever in 2015
Photo: Octane Photography
As we've seen recently too Lewis is even starting to take a proactive approach to pit calls. He also self-admittedly focussed on his qualifying weakness of 2014 and fixed it, sending him even further ahead of the pack. These days he appears to have improved his mental approach immensely. The rather self-destructive side, judging by outcomes at least, has had a lid placed on it. No wonder that in 2015 many spoke of a Lewis that was better than ever, and is developing into something a lot like a complete performer.

And given he's only 30 and current sits pretty in terms of his team and equipment, he's far from done yet either.

Another thing Lewis shares with Seb is in facing the contention that everything he's done has been in the best car. Kevin Eason in The Times cautioned indeed the day after clinching his third title that Lewis's Merc machine was "possibly the most superior of any age in F1", a claim which seems at least slightly dubious. Daniel Johnson in the Daily Telegraph in a similar sense added: "Without wanting to belittle Lewis Hamilton's achievements, he has been driving comfortably the best car in Formula 1 this year".

Rarely do I have truck with such arguments. If nothing else they tend to be self-fulfilling as the best drivers almost always end up in the best cars (only if you make a conscious decision to avoid them like Stirling Moss or are a bad careerist like Fernando Alonso do you not). Also if nothing else you'll have a team mate to beat. Let's not forget either the audacious call, against virtually all advice, that Lewis made to get into the dominant Mercedes in the first place too.

It's easily forgotten that Lewis's 2012 campaign
was an excellent one
Photo: Octane Photography
And as Brundle added, "he hasn't always had the best car, but he's made the most of what he's got". Lewis is now completing his ninth year in F1, in that time he has had the best car in at most four of them and even there in 2007 and 2008 you could debate the point, leaving at least five without. But Lewis has won at least one race, and in all aside from 2013 has won more than one, in each of his F1 seasons. And underlining the achievement finding others in history that can claim the same is a needle-in-haystack activity. Yes as with his 2007 record you can argue about the mitigating circumstances, but again that it almost never happens should tell you something. Really only in his annus horribilis in 2011 did he let his exalted standards slip, and even there his extraordinary ability was shown in flashes, not least in three excellent race victories. In this time too in Alonso, Vettel and several others he's had a cast of contemporaries that bear comparison with just about any era ever.

And as with most of the greats it is what he's done when not in the best car that his personal contribution has been most obvious. While we rightly laud Fernando Alonso's 2012 season as one of the most astonishing ever, it's easy to forget that Lewis's wasn't too far off. A distant fourth in the final points standings, just two points ahead of his team mate Button, doesn't look like much but without wretched luck Lewis could have claimed the title that year and in a car that was hardly the class of the field. Technical failures while leading comfortably in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, being wiped out of the lead by Nico Hulkenberg in Brazil plus being moved from an easy pole to the back of the grid in Spain after running out of fuel on his slowing down lap due to a team error, cost him four likely wins and the points swing would have been enough to push the championship his way. And how would we feel about Lewis had that happened?

For much of the 2010 season too he looked good for another title win against the head, until back-to-back retirements in Monza and Singapore, in accidents which in fairness he showed iffy judgement in, fatally undermined his challenge.

Judging something that's happening in the here and now in a historical context is never easy. Jackie Stewart - the man Lewis joined as the only British three-times champion - stated indeed over the Austin weekend that in his view legendary status is something that should only be conferred several years after you stop.

Some think that his third title has confirmed
his legendary status
Photo: Octane Photography
Autosport certainly has made its mind up already though, judging by its one-word front cover headline of 'Legend!' after Lewis's title triumph. Brundle too reckoned the championship brought "full and indisputable 'legend' status". Eason though in conjunction with his caution above added that "even Hamilton acknowledges that his statistical elevation must be accompanied by something else, the mystical quality that could turn him into a legend.

"He is unsure what he does next to push himself into that cluster of drivers whose name trips easily off the tongue when legends are discussed - Fangio, Clark, Stewart, Lauda, Schumacher, Senna."

Yet Johnson too noted that "there are very few drivers who have won the world championship not in the best car, and he [Lewis] is arguably one of the few to have done it, in 2008." And Paul Weaver in The Guardian reckons that towards the end of this year Lewis has "become an indisputably great [driver]".

Again just as with Vettel though too it seems a lot of the criticism of Lewis out there is based on his persona rather than his driving, and doubts about one appear to reinforce the other. If you needed evidence of such in Lewis's case then his latest title win, just like that 12 months ago, sprouted a number of 'is he likeable'-type articles in the British press (the subtext being that in the author's view he isn't).

As intimated much of Lewis's lifestyle is played out in full glare too, meticulously updated on Twitter and the like, and it seems for some it all amounts to something of a rap sheet. His appearances at red carpet events, association with musicians, film stars and the like (including twerking with Rihanna), his red private jet, his tattoos, bleached hair, ear rings, dress sense (including hats), pursuit of a rap career, penchant for self-help book style inspirational quotes...

Is it all about his lifestyle?
Photo: Octane Photography
Perhaps there's an explanation kicking around in here. Of course a look through the British Grand Prix crowd, or at the evidence of his landslide victory in last year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year award when he was not the favourite to win, shows that Lewis has plenty of support in his homeland. Yet I've argued before in this article for Grand Prix Times that many in England when it comes to sport appear to have a severe mistrust of ostentation, perhaps even of talent, instead preferring the homespun, industrious, gritty self-effacing sort - which for many reasons is far from Lewis's image.

Eason said of Lewis perhaps in this ilk: "His lifestyle is controversial and his devotion to the rap culture of Hollywood seems to have alienated him from his roots". Stirling Moss too may have been reflecting a little more than he realised when he said of Hamilton last year: "He was one of the racing crowd before and now he's whatever you call those superstars. And that's not really the way we English go. We're more reserved."

But at its worst much of the criticism Lewis gets for his lifestyle appears the most egregious kind of stuffy, self-appointed, self-important moralising. Really the only grounds we have to object to this stuff is if it was illegal (nope), immoral (nope) or having a negative impact on his driving (not as far as we can tell, indeed there is more evidence that the opposite is true - as Allan McNish noted "His outside interests make him smile and if you're smiling you enjoy your job. And if you enjoy your job you do it 100% better than if you don't"). Beyond that, it's his life for chrissakes. And I for one much prefer it to to the apparently deliberately constrained version of Lewis we got in his F1 early days. Plus whatever you think of it, it gives the impression of being much closer to the real him.

And Mark Hughes hit the nail on the head when he wrote that "much of the vitriol directed towards him comes from what the image is - not the fact that he's trying to convey it. He's from a culture with very different social mores to those of the conservative motor racing crowd. He's the rapper in the yacht club and many fans don't like the fact that he has diamond ear studs, wears his trousers like Drake, tattoos his body. But what would they expect him to be into - Pink Floyd and Ben Sherman? He's not of that world or generation. What really is the difference between those choices and Jackie Stewart's long hair in the '60s or Jochen Rindt's pink shorts and mohair coats?"

Hamilton clearly has a vast following
Photo: Octane Photography
Quite. Many of those who seethe at Hamilton on these grounds will in their next breath laud James Hunt's drinking and womanising (and the rest), will blissfully reminisce about Innes Ireland's high jinks, while lamenting that 'characters' of that ilk are not around today. Just how they square this in their own minds is anyone's guess.

It appears that their view represents little more than that of the 'grumpy old man', making the sort of mistake every generation is prone to make looking at the next one. Forgetting they're not of their age; forgetting that it's not aimed at them. As Bob Dylan advised us upwards of half a century ago in The Times They Are a-Changin' ,"don't criticise what you can't understand".

Plus rather than simply tolerate it we should thank our lucky stars for what Lewis gets up to. Not for nothing did it become for a while almost an annual event for Bernie Ecclestone to lament that F1 world champions didn't act like them and take responsibility to promote the sport. Also not for nothing is he not complaining now.

It perhaps gets better, as Lewis's activities mean the sport, indirectly at least, is promoted in areas it ordinarily would be nowhere near. Further F1's viewing figures among young people apparently have been pretty scary for a while, and it's noticeable too when looking around most F1 crowds, certainly when looking around the F1 paddock and drivers, that there are rather few people from ethnic minorities. On both of these fronts Lewis's activities have the potential to expand following of the sport in areas where it currently is short. And therefore do the sport a tremendous amount of good.

Hamilton can expand the sport's following in areas
where it's short
Photo: Octane Photography
Think too of what Bobby Epstein, the man in charge of the United States Grand Prix, that vital market for F1, had to say recently. "Hollywood is based in America. This is the centre of the entertainment business. Formula 1 has some great personalities and we shouldn't hold them back. They are the people who sell tickets. Lewis has recognised that and he's got outside the traditional comfort zone for some people in F1. I think it's great. We need more of that. He's a personality. Cars don't have the same personality. Fans relate to human beings, not metal..."

Lewis's boss Toto Wolff said similarly that "he's a rock star racing driver, who's not only very fast in the car but he's able to touch people". Lowe added that: "Surveys have shown the is the most marketable sportsman in the world bar none...people enjoy his qualities, the spectacle he creates...there's a drama around him. I've followed him around public places and it's debilitating - he couldn't walk down the street anywhere in Europe or Japan without being mobbed within 15 seconds".

And while his detractors will speak (usually from afar) of a Lewis that is brattish, those who work with him closely will tell you of actually of a decent, thoughtful and respectful man, one who is not at all haughty or aloof and absolutely treats colleagues on a level. One that also is in his own way rather humble. "He's actually a really lovely person to work with" says Cowell. "I don't think I've ever encountered a driver who is so readily looks to blame himself...He is humble if it's gone wrong...He doesn't seek anywhere to hide even if there are obvious places he could.

"In general he is not so much a demanding character as someone who contributes enquires but in a respectful way...and he's hugely motivational because of what he does in the car".

Lewis's relationship with his team is a good one
Photo: Octane Photography
Brundle found the same thing after filming a feature with the Mercedes team in which some team members paid tribute to Lewis. "I got the same feeling when we didn't have cameras there" he said. "I was there four or five hours...I got a clear feeling that Lewis was very welcome in the team and respected and integrated in the team...those words weren't for show".

As mentioned he does have this emotional streak and he is perhaps unfortunate that these days radio messages are laid bare on the world TV feed for all of us to judge, as it is that very situation where emotional outbursts are most likely. But that's it - it reflects a genuinely emotional nature rather than an objectionable personality. "Because he's an emotional person, when he thinks something, he'll just say it" said Lowe. "He'll even say things he didn't mean and will then regret it. We just deal with it.

"We all have a certain behaviours and teams work around the strengths and the weaknesses of the people they have. No one falls out over it. Lewis talked to me about it and I've just said be who you are...that's what works for you". Indeed, if his emotional side is a weakness in this sense then equally it likely plays its part in his motivation and intensity in competition we've already cited.

Perhaps the rest of us watching on should conclude something similar. Stop analysing; stop trying to grab it and pick it apart; just let the whole thing flow through you. Just enjoy. And there has been and will be a lot to enjoy. Even if you're one of those who doesn't feel so inclined right now, the day someday will come inevitably when Lewis Hamilton if not an F1 driver anymore. And, believe me, on that day you'll miss him.

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