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Still I rise: Tattooed in three-inch high letters across Lewis Hamilton’s back is the title from Tupac’s third posthumous album.
For his part, Tupac took inspiration from poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou – the two famously crossed paths back in 1992.
Still I rise. It’s the most famous of Hamilton’s many tattoos, and it references two of the biggest names in black American culture.
That tells you a great deal about who and what Hamilton identifies with – and it’s a long way from Stevenage, where Hamilton was born to a black father and white mother.
And it may go some way towards explaining why Hamilton, despite his remarkable success in Formula 1, divides opinion like no other driver on the grid.
Always an outsider – but an outsider with talent
Hamilton was always different to those around him in the world of motorsports. His skin colour ensured that.
In this respect, motorsports isn’t really that much different to other sports – in the 1970s, West Brom’s ‘Three Degrees’ of Regis, Batson and Cunningham were big news because they were black as well as talented. It was 1978 before Viv Anderson became the first black player to win a senior England cap.
Hamilton learned karate to protect himself against bullies, while his dad Anthony took on multiple jobs to support his son’s burgeoning karting career.
They started as outsiders and, right up until Hamilton exploded on the F1 scene, they remained, in many eyes, outsiders.
These days, when F1 fans see Hamilton hanging with his A-list homies, plenty of them mock him for turning his back on his roots, and being sucked into a world of bling a million miles from Stevenage and those bullies.
Hard to blame him, really. Hamilton identifies himself as black – remember his ill-advised ‘joke’ at Monaco in 2011, when he channelled his inner Ali G to have a dig at race stewards?
And in the world of high fashion and rap, he has found a place where he feels he belongs, is welcome, fits in. That’s an alien world to many F1 fans, and what people don’t understand, they often fear or hate.
So there’s one of the reasons that Hamilton divides opinion… it’s simply because he’s different. And because racism is a thing.
I’m confident but he’s arrogant
Champions have many things in common, and one of them is confidence – the confidence of knowing you can do the job and the added confidence of knowing you’ve done it better than everyone else.
The flip side of confidence is arrogance.
There are four current and former World Champions on the grid, and each of them can be described as arrogant.
Hamilton is often accused of showing a ‘sense of entitlement’ at races, and of being whiney when things go wrong.
Sebastian Vettel’s radio communications with his pit sometimes sound as if he believes no one else has a right to be on the track.
Fernando Alonso has made and, to some extent, wrecked his career with an attitude that has won him titles and simultaneously destroyed his relationship with teams.
And even the most popular ex-champion on the grid, Kimi Raikkonen, has his own arrogance. Loved by fans for his abrupt way with interviewers, Raikkonen’s disdain for the sport’s PR side is in itself pretty stuck up, if amusing.
So, when fans accuse Hamilton of arrogance, they’re probably correct. It’s just the way champions tend to be.
And if you want to see someone else showing signs of both arrogance and title-winning talent, look no further than Red Bull wunderkind Max Verstappen. You see, it’s a winning formula.
And I mean that most sincerely, folks
Back in the dark days of the 1970s, TV host Hughie Green was famous for hosting talent circus Opportunity Knocks, and infamous for his catchphrase, ‘And I mean that most sincerely, folks’. A more insincere-sounding phrase is hard to imagine.
Now, Hamilton gives a damn about things. He gives a damn about his racecraft, his diet, his fitness, he gives a damn about the many charities he supports. He gives a damn about his family.
But, when he tries to be all sincere, he reminds me of Hughie Green. Case in point: after the Mexican Grand Prix, having just clinched the 2017 drivers’ title, Hamilton went out of his way to praise the Mexican fans as the best anywhere.
Which would have been nice, except I’ve lost count of the number of races where he’s said the local fans were the best in the world.
On one F1 forum, I chortled at a post titled ‘The country with the best crowd/fans according to Lewis Hamilton’ … it was a photo of the entire 2017 race calendar.
Everybody gets thanked, Hamilton feels ‘blessed’ to be so talented, yada-yada.
He’s just too smooth and lacking in sincerity and, unfortunately, he’s no stand-up comedian.
That’s why fans flock to the likes of grumpy-but-sincere Raikkonen, cheery-and-sincere Button, sincerely-miserable Mansell. These are our heroes – we want to believe them, and we want them to believe their own words.
And we’d quite like them to entertain us, not just give us a Sunday-school lecture.
Bemused by the music, F1 fans?
Lewis has dabbled in the recording studio – he loves his music, he hangs out with famous rap and R&B types, it’s not such a big surprise, even if it does come across as a bit self-regarding.
But you can always rely on F1’s smiler-in-chief, Daniel Ricciardo, to pop any conceit. This is him, via Twitter, back in 2016:
‘This rap game ain’t easy but feel my next career move. I would if I could. Should, hood good. Bling, zing ming ding. Ah hell I still got it’.
Got to be a Grammy in that.
Hamilton is not the only F1 type with a musical bent. Eddie Jordan is forever smashing a drum kit in four-four time.
And Damon Hill even played on a Def Leppard album. Which was pretty impressive for a lad who formed a punk band called Sex Hitler and the Hormones.
Hamilton does seem to take it quite seriously and, of course, R&B isn’t everyone’s soundtrack of choice in the world of motorsports.
I do wonder how different things would be for Hamilton if he played rock or blues, something more familiar to the bulk of fans – because part of the issue, yet again, is not that Hamilton is odd, but simply that he represents a world which is unfamiliar to the bulk of the F1 following.
Discussing Justin Timberlake’s show during the US Grand Prix weekend this year, pundit Martin Brundle sounded quite proud that he couldn’t hum a single one of Timberlake’s hits. Even I can do that.
The thing is, the fact that F1 may be followed by a large number of fogeys isn’t a problem for Timberlake, or Hamilton; it’s a problem for F1, which desperately needs to attract more young fans if the sport isn’t to start withering.
OK, the private life stuff that’s not our business
Full disclosure. I like that Hamilton rocks up at fashion events. I like that he hangs out with famous people. I like that he gets in trouble for tweeting from press conferences (actually, I especially love that).
I like his driving too, he is rather good.
When Lewis steps out, he spreads the word about F1 to a wider audience, and this is a good thing.
But he lives in an environment in which his private and public lives can overlap. If his private life is damaging his driving ability, I’m going to feel frustrated.
And if his Twitter feed shows him palling about with Bieber, I’m going to wrinkle my nose up – just as I’m going to go ‘Wow’ whenever I think of him meeting Nelson Mandela back in 2008, before his first championship.
We all sit in judgment of one another, like it or not, and Hamilton gives us more living to judge in a season than most people experience in a lifetime.
We’re bound to dislike some of it – and that’s our fault, not his.