Tuesday, 29 March 2016

In defence of our controversial champ: F1 would be lost without rockstar Lewis Hamilton

AS THE Formula One circus moves to Bahrain this week GARY CHAPPELL argues that Britain's world champion should not be criticised for bringing a touch of showbiz to the sport.

The joke was that Lewis Hamilton was obsessively taking selfies behind the wheel of his Mercedes on the grid of the Australian Grand Prix hence his poor start.
In defence of our controversial champ: F1 would be lost without rockstar Lewis Hamilton
World champion Lewis Hamilton is one of F1's most prized assets
That he failed to win the opening race of the season from pole position means the agenda-clutching critics were a sickly picture of smug, smirking elitists, as they sharpened their knives for the latest bout of Hamilton baiting.

Police cited insufficient evidence for choosing not to charge Hamilton with dangerous driving, after he was accused of taking selfies while riding a Harley Davidson on holiday in New Zealand. The photos and videos were posted to Snapchat.

He was also widely ridiculed for saying that his flight to Australia might go to China because there were a lot of Chinese people on board.

And some did not like the fact that he publicly criticised a casino for "treating him like dirt". That is just this year. He crashed his Zonda Pagani super car - it cost £1.5million - last year and was widely ridiculed for that.

And there was criticism for driving offences in 2007 and 2010; getting caught speeding at 122mph in France, then issuing an apology for "driving in an over-exuberant manner" after police in Australia spotted him deliberately losing traction. He also lives in a tax haven; as if the people who make the rules are whiter than white and don't take us all for a ride.

So, OK, what's the answer? Take Lewis Hamilton out of Formula One and what are you left with? A bland, uninteresting, stale, mediocre sport, watered down and controlled by PR's with a God complex.

Last season, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff described Hamilton to me as "a rockstar driver". Wolff hit the nail on the head. Hamilton is exactly that and, like it or not, he is a godsend for F1.
Hamilton has been mocked for the amount of selfies he takes by fans and critics
Hamilton has been mocked for the amount of selfies he takes by fans and critics
Bernie Ecclestone knows it too and has said almost as much. Lewis takes Bernie's sport into all different facets of life; fashion, music, the working classes. But his prada sunglasses and gleaming white teeth appearance continues to make him a figure of fun to many in the paddock.

Hamilton is almost a throwback. He is a character, whether you like his thick gold chains [I don't personally but I wouldn't go around taking the mickey], his obsession with tattoos, his compulsion over the way his crash helmet spoils his hair, whether his hair is actually his own, whether he does actually use foundation, as some in the paddock have suggested, in order to fulfil that perfect complexion, or not.

And F1 needs its characters. If Hamilton did not light up the track each time his car took to the tarmac, the savage, sneering, mocking critics might be justified.

But what is it really? Because here we have a naturally gifted "rockstar" driver who has won the world title three times and could quite easily win it as many times as he likes; a free spirit who is in dreamland; cash, girls, a private jet, whatever he wants and he goes about his business with a bit of pizzaz. A modern-day character.

Yet many seem hell bent of pulling him to pieces, bullying, mocking, turning their nose up at another human being who has it all but who might be a bit different from the majority, whose background might not be awash with cash, private education or the upper middle-classes. Would he be better if he drank like a fish and smoked 20 a day?

One journalistic colleague of mine wrote recently that the late James Hunt, revered now, hankered after even, might well have been torn to pieces if he were allowed free reign on social media. Or would he? Would we just have chuckled along and said: "Oh, that James Hunt eh."

I want my F1 stars to be just that. Stars. Larger than life. Non-human almost. Make-believe. Then I want to get the human interest story that makes them seem real, a story the man on the street can relate to.

What child is going to think, 'Oh, do you know what? After all, it is actually OK to take a picture of myself the next time I'm out on my motorbike"? How many children do you see riding motorbikes in your town?

The criticism is taking the moral high-ground for the sake of it. It is an attempt to spread their air of superiority.

I say, this newspaper says: give Lewis Hamilton a break. Without him in this sport, we would be lost.

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