The 22-year-old driving sensation has taken motor racing by storm. It's just a shame that it's such a deadly dull dud of a sport.
He’s young, gifted and black. He’s already being compared to Tiger Woods - and not just because he’s a great driver. And he’s British. Clear the road, there’s a juggernaut of hyperbole heading this way about 22-year-old Lewis Hamilton.
In fairness to Hamilton, he has had an unprecedented run of success for a rookie driver on the grand prix circuit. He won for the first time in Montreal on Sunday, but he’s never finished outside the top three in his first six races and he is top of the driver’s championship, eight points clear of team-mate and current world champion Fernando Alonso. In fact, Alonso is already getting so irritated by the attention Hamilton is receiving (and his success) that he’s squealing to the Spanish press about favouritism within the McLaren team. And this after Hamilton was ordered by McLaren team bosses not to attempt to overtake Alonso during the previous race in Monaco, effectively handing the Spaniard victory on a plate. Dead sulky, them Latin types.
Here’s a taster of the kind of thing that’s getting up Alonso’s nose: ‘Lewis Hamilton may not be the youngest driver to win a Formula One race, but his victory in yesterday’s Canadian grand prix will take its place among the most remarkable achievements in the history of the sport. As the first driver whose approach to the job comes close to matching the sophistication of his machine, he has single-handedly raised the stakes for his own generation and those to come.’ So says Richard Williams in the Guardian, swiftly forgetting all the other fabulous drivers in the past - including the recently retired seven-time world champion, Michael Schumacher - who were clearly a bunch of amateurs.
And yet Williams provides one of the more measured commentaries on Hamilton’s sole win as a grand prix driver. Other journalists have gone into underwear-soiling overdrive.
Before we get too excited, we should remember that Hamilton is by no means a shoo-in for the championship. There have been six races so far. There are 11 to go, and the season doesn’t conclude until 21 October, in Brazil. Plenty of time for accidents, bad luck, equipment failure or a simple loss of form. Not that I’m wishing any of the above on Hamilton, who is clearly very talented, but it’s time for the hysterical British press to calm down.
After all, Hamilton happens to have landed a drive in what is currently the best car in Formula One. While other drivers work their way through the ranks of lesser teams - or never go any further - young Lewis has an absolute beast of a vehicle at his disposal. If we compare the way Hamilton burst on to the scene with, for example, Michael Owen’s emergence 10 years ago, it all seems a bit cushy. Would we have been quite so impressed with the way the young prodigy skipped past Argentina’s defenders at the 1998 World Cup if the opposition had all been forced to wear flip-flops instead of football boots? I don’t think so. Yet the advantage of driving for McLaren seems just as unfair.
There are also the potential distractions of life ‘in the fast lane’. Hamilton is young, passably good-looking (even if he still looks about 12), and now fairly wealthy - with a bucketload of big-money endorsements no doubt waiting to be signed. He’s surrounded by very attractive women who seem to have a thing about racing drivers and who will no doubt want to be shown a good time. Racing drivers are in some ways perfect company for aspiring models since they’re probably not allowed to eat either. After all, there’s no point in some engineering whizzkid shaving thousandths of a second off the car’s lap-time only for some lard-arse to get behind the wheel.
Let’s hope for the sake of his career that Hamilton turns out to be as single-minded and, frankly, boring as Michael Owen - or the pants-wetting eulogies of the British media will seem like premature congratulation.
Still, ‘boring’ shouldn’t be a stretch for someone in such a dull sport. Driving a Formula One car must be fantastic. They’re fast, they look cool and they’re almost pointlessly noisy. When I was young, they experimented with motor racing on the streets of my hometown, Birmingham. Even a mile-and-a-half away, the sound of cars hurtling past the Central Mosque was pretty loud. Hitting 200mph on the straight, or whizzing round tight bends at speeds that would get your licence taken off you if you did them on the motorway, is about as thrilling as it gets.
Watching such cars going round and round for 70-odd laps is as dull as ditchwater. On a Sunday afternoon, even the EastEnders omnibus is a rollercoaster ride of thrills in comparison.
This is Formula One, where they can have lengthy conversations about how much fuel they’ve got, what kind of tyres they’re using or whether they will stop once or twice. That’s the kind of conversation I have with the missus when we’re on the motorway: to stop once, but make it a really good one - say, a service station with a Marks and Spencer Simply Food that sells really nice sandwiches - or stop twice and slum it with whatever swill passes for coffee from Wimpy these days.
This is the sport which is supposed to be at the cutting edge of automotive technology but seems to devote inordinate energy to concocting rules to make the cars go slower. If you happen to be in one of the top cars - basically, a McLaren or a Ferrari - the object of the exercise is to get to the first corner in front and only take as many pit stops as your main rival. Then, unless the pit crew manage to set fire to the car, the rest of the race is a procession.
It’s not even that dangerous, anymore. In a sport where the very best have been killed (like Ayrton Senna in 1994) or burnt to within an inch of their lives (like Niki Lauda in 1976), Sunday’s race was notable for a hair-raising crash in which the driver, Robert Kubica, suffered a slight concussion and a sprained ankle. No one wants to see people hurt, of course; but the feeling that drivers were operating at the limits of personal safety certainly gave the sport some edge in the past.
Perhaps I’m being churlish. After all, given that Hamilton’s only serious competition at the moment appears to be his teammate Alonso, the grand prix season is already turning into a two-horse race. So, much like the Premiership, then.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.