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By Frank Worrall
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2015 Frank Worrall
All rights reserved.
THE REAL SPECIAL ONE
First up, a humble apology to Lewis Hamilton from myself and Damon Hill: hands up, I was one of the majority who agreed with Damon in January 2007 when he said that Lewis would probably get half a season to prove himself. I also thought maybe he'd find it all too much and be shunted quietly aside, shell-shocked, perhaps back into GP2 until he was really ready for the big-time with a more experienced driver stepping up to bolster Fernando Alonso's assault on a surely inevitable third World Drivers' title. Sorry, Lewis ...
It just goes to show you how wrong you can be. Even the great Damon Hill called it incorrectly, and if anybody should know about drivers, it's him. There again, the signs that Lewis was hardly thrown in without any prior training were certainly there. There was the 9-year apprenticeship with McLaren, the usually infallible judgment of the McLaren team boss, 'Big Ron' Dennis, and Lewis' performances and results the previous season in GP2, when he roared to that Drivers' title. One thing's for certain: Lewis Hamilton is no one-season wonder. The boy is here for the long run. Finally, there's a British hero we can all praise to the ceilings in the secure knowledge that he's always going to be a contender and not just another in the traditional long line of national sporting figures who promise so much only invariably, inevitably, to deliver so little.
Lewis Hamilton is the real thing: he's the Real Special One, comfortably taking the mantle that was once the preserve of Chelsea's former big-talking football manager, José Mourinho. The youngster who quickly became known as the 'Stevenage Rocket' on the Formula One circuit soon knocked down the record book skittles as he notched up one achievement after another. The first black Formula One driver, the first rookie to achieve more than two consecutive podium finishes, the first black driver to win a Formula One grand prix, only the second driver to win more than one race in his first Formula One Championship season since its inception, the first driver to achieve consecutive wins from pole position in a debut season, the youngest Briton ever to win a grand prix and the youngest driver to lead the World Championship ... and, of course, the first rookie and black driver to be a serious contender for the title in his first season.
As the records show, this was a truly astonishing debut campaign, and one that is only the beginning of many achievements. By the end of the season, Lewis Hamilton was odds-on favourite to lift the coveted BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in December 2007 – in fact, five months earlier in July, bookmaker Paddy Power was refusing to take any more bets on Lewis. Thanks to him, this was also a season that changed the face of Formula One forever, bringing in a larger, more diverse audience. Motorsport was transformed from a rather dull spectator sport into one that had us all, and not just the traditional diehards, gripped with excitement as it hurtled towards a thrilling finale.
Lewis said he was taken aback by his overnight transformation from relative obscurity to worldwide fame. He said: 'It's amazing, I've received letters this week from young kids telling me that all of a sudden they want to be racing drivers. I remember when I was in the same position and now I just try to be a good role model. The fame has come all of a sudden and I'm starting to appreciate the importance of my actions – especially when young kids are looking up to me.'
Formula One expert and Sun contributor Chris Hockley was also stunned at the way Lewis had changed the demographic of the sport. He told me it had been an incredibly swift reversal of fortune: 'Yes, his rocket- ship rise to fame has bumped up British TV audiences for grands prix by a whopping 50 per cent. And enthusiasm for Formula One is soaring across the world – even in the stock-car domain of America, they were forced to sit up and take notice when this upstart rookie kid beat off the reigning World Champ to win the US Grand Prix.
'It's a fairytale, you see, enacted across the globe. And all of a sudden everyone, from barmaids to vicars, from paperboys to company directors, has an opinion on Lewis, and asks after his progress. No more is Formula One the preserve of anoraks, petrolheads and techno-junkies who salivate at the prospect of a 0.63 per cent increase in front aerofoil downforce eked out by Ferrari's engineers. Now wives, who decades ago gave up trying to understand their husbands' weird obsession with "watching cars go round in circles" are dallying at the telly and asking: "How's Lewis doing?" Surely it won't be long before traffic cops tell speeding motorists: "Who do you think you are, Lewis Hamilton?"'
Lewis Hamilton was certainly a breath of fresh air during 2007 – some would even argue that he was the very saviour of a Formula One that had lost its way and no longer had the ingredients to thrill. His story could be straight out of an Hollywood script, but its beauty is that it is real and the great thing about Lewis is that, in a sport littered with characters who are usually just the opposite, he is so down-to-earth. In a sport dominated by big money and star names, he is, after just one season, the biggest star of all by virtue of his extraordinary talent, skills and utter lack of pretension. Lewis is a very likeable, no-edges young man. He also seems to have appeared from nowhere, although of course there's a hinterland of many years of slog and determination behind the starry tale of the boy born to be King of Formula One.
I asked one of the McLaren crew if this was why they seemed so behind their new boy. On condition of anonymity, he told me that it was one of the reasons, at the same time giving a hint of the team's thinking on the feud between Lewis and his team-mate Fernando Alonso, ever-present in his debut campaign. 'The thing is there's been all this stuff in the press with Alonso saying we favour Lewis because he is British ... but that's rubbish. We're all in this together; we're all McLaren. Big Ron [Ron Dennis] wouldn't have any of that kind of thing in his team – if anything, it was Lewis as the rookie who got the slower car.
'But Lewis is a special talent – he works harder than most seasoned drivers and he's got that touch of magic that most don't have. I watch him in the practice sessions and it reminds me of why I wanted to be part of Formula One in the first place. A lot of the time it seems that Alonso's raging, that he's flat out, trying to cling on to his title, but Lewis was often beating him hands down – looking as if he hasn't broken sweat, always gracious and the crowds love him.
'The thing is, Alonso's a great driver, a great champion and a nice guy underneath it all, but Lewis is something special. Forget all the stuff about being the first black guy and all that – he could be the best driver of his generation irrelevant of all that. It gives me the shivers to be around that to see it happening and, yes, even Big Ron's got a spring in his step these days.'
Indeed, he had. There were even suggestions that, similarly to football manager Sir Alex Ferguson, the rise of a young star within his ranks had re-energised the old man of motor racing and forced him to scrap any plans for premature retirement. When Lewis won his first grand prix, the big man had tears in his eyes, although he would later claim that it was the champagne that was making them sting! It is also true that Dennis' wife Lisa has a soft spot for Lewis. She seemed to cheer loudly when he eclipsed Alonso's lap time for pole in Montreal (1:15.707 against the Spaniard's 1:16.163).
And, in another poignant moment, I am told Big Ron rushed off to a private room after Lewis crashed during practice at the Nürburgring at the end of July 2007. A McLaren backroom boy told me that Ron could be seen holding his head in his hands. He had tears running down his face as Lewis was hurriedly taken away from the circuit to hospital with an oxygen mask over his face, a drip connected to his arm.
The son of a former British Rail worker, Lewis Hamilton is mixed-race. His father Anthony's family originates from the Caribbean island Grenada and he is the first driver of Afro-Caribbean origin to race in Formula One. Anthony scrimped and saved, at one point taking on three jobs to give his son a chance in the racing world. He has become a hugely supportive influence. Lewis later paid tribute to him, saying: 'I have been incredibly fortunate having my father's support, because I don't recall any of the other competitors [in the early karting days] coming from the same background as us – they all had wealthy parents. I know there will be setbacks during my career but I have the attitude that if it was easy to win championships everybody would be doing it.
'I guess that approach springs from the fact that, ever since I was 9 or 10, I have spent every weekend at a racetrack, so I wasn't hanging out and doing stuff with my friends. I was with Dad, and was best friends with him. If you want to fit in and mix with the grown-ups you have to learn at a faster pace than other youngsters. And although I suppose I missed out on doing the silly things at school, I quickly realised I can have all the toys I want if I keep working and winning at McLaren.'
It was that brand of tunnel vision determination that put Lewis on the road to success from the age of 6, when he first excelled at karting. That talent, in turn, was to earn him a life-changing spin-off: with his now legendary meeting with Ron Dennis, as a starry-eyed youngster in 1995. With no doubts about his own talent and no hesitation, he asked for his future employer's autograph while the other boys at the event nervously stood by. 'He looked me square in the face and informed me where he was going in his life,' Dennis recalls. 'Without breaking eye contact, he told me how he was going to go about his career. It impressed the hell out of me.'
Dennis started following his career and a few years later signed him up to McLaren's Driver Development Programme, investing £5million in him over nine years. During that time, Lewis learned the ropes under the master; his natural talent honed with one ultimate aim: to make him World Champion. He would become the best, but never got carried away as his success snowballed over the years. 'Confidence is often coupled with arrogance,' Dennis said, 'but there isn't an ounce of arrogance about Lewis.'
Lewis later admitted that was correct; he put his success down to hard work and his faith. From a devout Catholic family, he would say 'My faith is very important to me. I'm a true believer. I really believe that my talent is God-given and that I've been truly blessed. I guess every driver is talented but some of us are prepared to work harder to make the most of our talent. Some don't possess the talent of someone like Kimi Raikkonen [Ferrari's number one driver and, after Alonso, Lewis' main rival], but they've worked harder to become better than him. I don't know if I have more talent than Fernando Alonso, but I do know I've worked very hard.'
His impact on Formula One was both instant and remarkable, drawing comparisons to Tiger Woods and his success in the world of golf. Like Woods, Lewis was articulate, good-looking and possessed a similar talent. He had this to say on the Tiger comparisons: 'It's obviously nice to be compared to somebody like Tiger Woods but you just have to remember I'm not Tiger Woods, I'm Lewis Hamilton and this is Formula One – it is not golf. Whether or not it can have a similar impact, I'm not sure. It will be good for the sport if it can. I hope my purpose here serves its place.'
Top Formula One journalist Rory Ross maintained Lewis had made a much bigger impact worldwide than he or anyone else had imagined: 'His popularity has spread like morning sunlight. In Brazil, he has eclipsed Felipe Massa, the Brazilian Ferrari driver, especially in the Favelas, where they see in Hamilton one of their own doing well. In Spain, he is more popular than Fernando Alonso, much to the irritation of the Spanish champion.'
And Kevin Eason of The Times commented: 'Bernie Ecclestone is rubbing his hands with glee. Formula One's ringmaster was stuck with a show that was losing fans in increasing numbers. Schumacher was a serial winner, but outside Germany and Italy, home of the retired former champion's Ferrari team, he was a turn- off for millions. Hamilton is pure box office ... and the interest is coming from all over the world, with camera crews from places as far afield as Colombia and Russia queuing for interviews.'
Unlike Tiger Woods, Lewis Hamilton has had to rise above a much more talented playing field of rivals. Woods' ascent came at a time of relative mediocrity in golf, but Lewis had to overcome drivers of immeasurable quality and defiance, opponents and team-mates alike. It was a measure of his ability and maturity that he had the double World Champion almost in tears, certainly tears of fury at times during the season.
The duel between the two was another reason why the masses tuned into Formula One in 2007; to see if the young lamb could stave off the aggressive tactics of his older, seemingly less wise team-mate. Alonso had transferred from Renault to McLaren, believing it to be a dream move: he had always wanted a car like the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-22. He believed it his destiny to show just how good he was in that new car, that he was a champion truly worthy of creating his own era after the dominant years of Michael Schumacher.
Alonso niggled at Lewis as the season – and Lewis' remarkable results – unfolded. He claimed he had never been 'completely comfortable' and added that he believed Lewis was unfairly favoured by McLaren because he was a British driver and they were a British team. He said: 'We knew all the support and help would go his way.' The Spaniard was playing the victim. Later he would try to unnerve Lewis and undermine his confidence by saying his team-mate was 'lucky'.
Ron Dennis has continually refuted Alonso's claims, saying: 'There is a healthy competition between the teams working on each car but I can categorically state that both drivers have equal equipment, support and opportunity to win.' It seemed he was determined not to appear biased towards his protégé in much the same way as the father who employs his son in the family firm and deliberately gives him a harder time than the rest of the staff to prove there is no favouritism. At times, it appeared Lewis was getting a rough deal from the man known in the pit lane as his surrogate father.
To an extent, you could see Big Ron's dilemma. He was paying the World Champion £10 million a year and Lewis a basic £340,000. In Alonso he had made a major investment and was therefore keen to see him happy. I don't doubt that in an ideal world Dennis always wanted to see Alonso champion again and Lewis second.
But the script did not run to type in the first nine races. After Silverstone Alonso was 12 points behind Lewis and constantly moaning to the Spanish press about how bad a deal he was getting. He had come to McLaren expecting to be treated as an incoming hero and had thought Lewis would be a willing No. 2 to his own garlanded, victorious warrior. He was a young pup to offer the occasional scrap of advice, a boy he could teach to drive almost as majestically as himself. But for a World Champion with five years' more experience of Formula One than Lewis, Alonso sometimes came across as incredibly insensitive, too earnest and grim. It was hard for the public to take a shine to him and he seemed to allow the young whippersnapper to get under his skin. He lost the all-important psychological battle with a boy on his debut campaign and his behaviour was at best immature, but at times ungracious and somewhat unbecoming of a double World Champion.
As the season went on, Lewis appeared perturbed and puzzled by the Spaniard's attitude towards him. In comparison, he was always friendly and approachable, and made time for the people who matter the most – the fans. One Formula One fan, Allison Foster, said 'The way that Hamilton treats his fans separates him from most other drivers. It's great to see a driver who acknowledges the fans' support, and I hope he keeps it up.' She gave the name of one British driver who was supposedly far less personable: 'In his home Grand Prix, with 20 people who just wanted an autograph, he refused to even acknowledge that the crowd was there and left without a word to these people who had been up since 3am to support him. I guess the difference is that Lewis remembers what is was like to be a fan, trying to give the driver you support a bit of encouragement.'
Excerpted from Lewis Hamilton by Frank Worrall. Copyright © 2015 Frank Worrall. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Real Special One 1
2 Roots, Rock Reggae 20
3 Boy Racer 35
4 A Winning Formula 56
5 In Senna's Footsteps 79
6 Big Ron Manager 97
7 Wizard in Oz 115
8 The Rumble in the Jungle 135
9 The Boy Who Saved Formula One 154
10 Monte Carlo - and Bust 172
11 Canada High 186
12 American Idol 204
13 Race Driver 221
14 Silver Lining 233
15 Schuey and the Brit Parade 252
16 The Feud With Alonso 263
17 Frozen Out by the Iceman 283
18 Down to the Wire 306
19 A Load of Bull 330
20 Dark before the New Dawn 343
21 Make Mine a Double 355