While the Australian media obsesses about a substance-abusing football player, the mainstream press nearly everywhere else on Earth is gushing over Lewis Hamilton, a Formula One rookie whose impact on the motor-racing world and beyond is already causing journalists to dig deeper than descriptions like “the new Tiger Woods”.
Not even three months into his grand prix career, it just doesn’t do this kid justice. If he was an average citizen, the number of zeroes on his future F1 contracts would be as sickening to Lewis as it is to the rest of us. And there’s nothing that churns the stomach more than tabloid Fleet Street hacks who — finished with their latest Britney-bashing — put on their thinking-caps to dream up another Hamilton headline — “Lew ain’t seen nothing yet” is one of The Sun‘s latest efforts.
But just as the curtain was ultimately pulled back on the Wizard of Oz, so, too, is there a lot more to the saga of F1’s first-ever black driver. It was in about 1995 — when Woods was still an amateur — that Bernie Ecclestone observed that the missing F1 performers were: a Chinese driver (a billion-odd bums on sofas), a woman (half the world’s population), and a black person (minority groups).
Now, with a Chinese GP on the calendar, he’s still looking for a Chinese driver who can last two hours alongside Alonso and Raikkonen. Bernie blew his best chance of reeling in female Indy 500 sensation Danica Patrick by observing a couple of years ago that women should all be “dressed in white” to match the other household appliances.
Shortly after F1’s ‘holy trinity’ was spelt out, meanwhile, Tiger Woods’s explosive impact on golf reassured Bernie that he was right. Today, Woods is not only the world’s highest-earning sportsman, but he is also credited for swinging open the doors to a stubbornly white man’s game.
It might, therefore, be only a coincidence that, also in the ’90s, McLaren team boss Ron Dennis made quiet history by signing up a pre-pubescent boy. At the very least, in any discussion about Hamilton’s pre-F1 credentials, it is definitely not a moot point that the then 13-year-old’s paternal grandparents had in the ’50s emigrated to the UK from Grenada.
Three years before that, Hamilton first caught Ron’s attention at an awards night in London, when a starry-eyed go-karter asked one of his F1 heroes for an autograph. All around him were teenaged boys already racking up miles and success in open-wheel single-seaters, but only one — the one whose father named him after the black American sprinter Carl Lewis — went home with a F1 team boss’s phone number in his autograph book.
Hamilton’s subsequent nine-year preparation for Friday, 16 March, 2007 — the first day of official practice for his debut season of grand-prix racing in Melbourne — was as immaculate, cash-strewn and meticulous as it was unprecedented. He was on the McLaren payroll long before he was eligible to sit for his driver’s licence. He wore the same sponsors as Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard on his silver karting overalls long before he asked his first girlfriend to the movies. And the number of hours he has spent in the McLaren driver-simulator prior to his first race would put most fighter pilots to shame.
Still, after three races and three podiums, his status today as the most successful rookie in F1’s 57 years of white history has left experts, former champions and fans gasping with surprise. But they should not be. It was preordained.