He’s the greatest British driver of his generation. He’s a four-time world champion. He’s done all this in a rich person’s sport despite being born into humble beginnings.
And yet Lewis Hamilton gets it in the neck week in, week out, for being… well, for being Lewis Hamilton.
You’d think Hamilton had done more than enough to have National Treasure Status fully conferred but… no. Not even close.
Hamilton has fans, a lot of fans, and he also has haters. A lot of haters, and a great many of them are British.
When, for example, Hamilton’s race fell apart in Baku, thanks to a loose headrest and some bumping from Sebastian Vettel, there was undisguised glee from plenty of British motorsport fans.
But why? Why is cheeky chappy Jenson Button, who scraped one world championship, so much more popular? Or Britain’s grumpiest moustache, ‘Our Nige’ Mansell, who also took just one F1 title?
The race card
Hamilton was born to a white mother and black father (Anthony, pictured), and he learned karate as a youngster to help defend himself against bullies.
In his karting days, Hamilton would be the only black driver at races, week in, week out. He wasn’t just an obvious target for racists, he was the only target.
That’s continued right through into his F1 career. Right now, if you go on to F1 message boards, you’ll find some referencing Hamilton’s race in oblique or, occasionally, not-so-oblique terms, if the moderators haven’t been paying attention.
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The sport has had to crack down on racism around Hamilton – early in his F1 career, Hamilton’s colour was mocked by fans in Barcelona and Brazil. For his part, Hamilton got on with winning.
But, abhorrent as the racism is, it would be wrong to say that skin colour is the only thing that marks Hamilton out as being different.
Matters of taste
The lad from Stevenage done good. Got a place in Monaco, hangs out with the Biebers (pictured, top) and Pharrells and Kanye Wests (pictured above).
He dabbles in music and fancies himself as a bit of an R’n’B dude, and is mystified when he gets grief for his hobby.
And he is a sharp, sharp dresser. You may not like his style but there’s no denying some serious effort goes into the Lewis Hamilton wardrobe.
Hamilton’s public image is different, very different, from others on the F1 grid. He’s certainly not the only F1 star who lives in Monaco, and he’s not the only one who dresses sharply. He’s not even the only one who has bought a private jet.
But he wears the earrings, rocks the tattoos, lives the showbiz life better than anyone else in the sport and, in doing so, distances himself from a lot of the fans who would otherwise identify with him.
There are very few people who can pull this trick off. Amongst British sports stars, David Beckham is the proof that it is possible to promote yourself as a luxury brand … but it’s hard to think of other examples.
And Beckham, lest we forget, sounds like he’s English when he opens his mouth.
Talking the talk
Full disclosure. I’m Scottish and, as such, am disbarred from criticising anyone’s accent.
Anyone who can string a couple of sentences together that a random, English-speaking stranger could understand without an interpreter has the edge on me and plenty of my fellow countrymen, by the way big man.
Hamilton’s regular accent, that pleasant, polite Home Counties number, is just dandy. I could listen to it all day.
But, over the years, he’s had a tendency on occasion to drift into a weird mid-Atlantic drawl. I like to imagine he sounds to Americans like Dick Van Dyke (Mary Poppins period) sounds to Brits – enthusiastic but bonkers.
It’s a dangerous thing, messing with your accent. If you’re clocked as trying to sound cool, you’ll lose cool points.
Hamilton is in no danger of topping the table of bad Brit accents, at least not while Steve McClaren and Joey Barton are still considered interview fodder.
But the Hamilton drawl, on the occasions it has surfaced, is such a distraction. ‘Why is he speaking like that?’ ‘Who does he think he is?’ ‘Why’s he trying to be American?’
When you change your accent, one of the messages you’re sending out is ‘I don’t belong in that tribe anymore’. And that can be a problem for your fans.
Confidence v arrogance: Every champ’s conundrum
There are only four world champions on the F1 grid. Three of them have won more than once – Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso (pictured) – and each of the three has that arrogance that comes with being at the top of your game.
Each of the three is loved and loathed by different fans, and all three are exceptionally gifted communicators as well as drivers.
The other champ is Raikkonen, who has a rather different take on communication – say nothing, and say it with a scowl.
It’s no coincidence that Kimi is a firm favourite among fans; his straight-talking is legendary, as is his partying. What you see, as they say, is what you get.
But Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso are masters of mind games as well, each of them experienced in talking themselves into an advantageous position – often at the expense of team-mates.
Sometimes, that approach can make you sound untrustworthy, or plain stupid.
And it’s not just fans who pay attention.
Earlier this year, after Alonso had managed to qualify an impressive fifth for the Indianapolis 500, Hamilton told L’Equipe: ‘I looked at the times and, frankly, for his first ever qualifying, for Fernando to be fifth – what does that say about Indy?’
Ouch. But you take on IndyCar at your peril, and Hamilton was promptly flamed by 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan, who told Globo: ‘What can I say? The guy (Hamilton) competed in a two-car world championship last year and was second, so I don’t think he can say much. It was a pleasure to have Fernando here. He is humble, not like some of his colleagues who were making comments this month.’
He’s had it easy. Hasn’t he?
Hamilton can’t win this one. He may have come from humble beginnings but he had the backing of McLaren from early on, and has raced F1 in only McLarens (when they were still good) and Mercedes.
Amongst some fans, there’s resentment that Hamilton didn’t do some ‘hard years’ in F1 – like Senna wrestling results for Toleman (pictured) and Lotus, Vettel scoring a win for Toro Rosso or Alonso cutting his teeth at Minardi.
And there’s his treatment of team-mates. Champions and team-mates – there’s always a long list of horror stories, whether the champion is Schumacher, Alonso, Senna or Hamilton.
Even in Baku, Hamilton was on the radio asking if fellow Merc driver Valtteri Bottas could sacrifice his race to slow Vettel and let Hamilton have a shot at overtaking the German. In the end, Bottas got on with dragging his Merc into a creditable second place.
As Hamilton has found, sometimes it’s not enough just to be a winner.
I remember being at Monza when Vettel won that rain-soaked race for Toro Rosso in 2008. The joy in the pitlane, from all teams, was remarkable. There was genuine happiness that this talented, cheery, Monty Python-loving youngster had made his mark on the sport.
That’s not how Vettel would be described now … it’s not just Hamilton whose reputation has been battered by years of success.
So why’s he not loved more?
Hamilton’s a rare talent, one of F1’s finest. He’s a winner, and can do humble, thanking his team, thanking fans, thanking God. He can certainly point the finger too and, over the years, he’s had his fair share of whiney moments.
But he’s an outsider in the F1 world.
The way he dresses, the way he talks, the people he hangs out with, he’s not one of ‘us’.
We like to think we welcome outsiders but, when we see Hamilton with Bieber or Pharrell, we don’t get it.
When we see Hamilton tweeting from a press conference, we don’t get it.
When we see Hamilton talking about his R’n’B ambitions, we don’t get it.
When we hear Hamilton talking in that mid-Atlantic drawl, we don’t get it (and nor does anyone else).
You see, it’s as much to do with us – remember, motorsport in Britain is still largely a white, rock-loving, beer-drinking fraternity – as it is with Hamilton.
We can imagine popping down the pub with Mansell or Button, or Coulthard or Brundle, but not with Hamilton. He’s more of a nightclub kinda guy.
And I reckon we’re wrong; Hamilton’s perspective on life would be all the more fascinating because it’s such a different life to our own.
I’ll get the drinks in, Lewis – and, no, I’m not ordering Cristal.