Fuel on the Formula One fire

Has there ever been a face quite as misleading as Lewis Hamilton’s? With the sweetest of smiles, pencil-thin sideburns and an almost hairless face, he looks like a cherub in leathers. But don’t be fooled. Hamilton is one of the toughest men in sport.

At 22 years old, he has iron in his soul, ice in his veins and the most ferocious commitment to winning. And if winning means taking on his teammate and current world champion, Fernando Alonso, in a game of Death Race 2007, so be it.

I read this quote twice to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating: “It will be interesting to see ... whether he [Alonso] will have the thing Michael Schumacher had, where he’ll do anything—anything—that is he doesn’t care whether he runs himself or anyone else on the grid off the road. Will he do absolutely anything? It will ruin his reputation more than mine, because I’d never do that. I want to win this fair and square.”

Brilliant. It has to be one of the most deadly character assassinations since Princess Di’s on the royal family—and it’s delivered with the same equanimity.

In those few sentences he has implied that a) Alonso might be prepared to kill either himself or Hamilton to get one over on him, b) that Michael Schumacher’s seven world titles are down to gamesmanship at best, cheating at worst and c) that he, Hamilton, is the embodiment of all things noble, pure and genius-like.

It’s easy to forget this is Hamilton’s first season. Any normal Formula One rookie would be bedding down quietly, paying due respect to his senior partner and telling the world he’s just happy to be here.

Not Hamilton, though. He is as fearless off the track as he is on it—having bad-mouthed Alonso he can’t escape him because they are teammates. And his ego is positively turbocharged. For a tyro to be such an accomplished feudster is rare indeed. Yes, Alonso has tried to drive him off the road; yes, he did the dirty on McLaren by threatening to turn evidence against them over Spygate; and yes, he has whinged this season about being ill-treated.

But Hamilton has happily chucked fuel on the fire. In an era when sports stars are trained to say nothing, Hamilton is a welcome blast of honesty, an inspiring mix of innocence and arrogance. We’ve not had a sporting feud like this in decades.

It was well known that Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham did not talk to each other at Manchester United, but nor did they talk about each other to the press. Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer exchanged punches at Newcastle, but that was just how they expressed affection—now they are happily reunited at West Ham United.

Andy Caddick and Darren Gough may have bickered over who was the better England bowler, but there was a mutual respect. As for Sebastian Coe and Linford Christie, true, they despised each other while piling on the medals for Britain in the 1986 European Championships, but even so their feud didn’t erupt till 2001.

But these rows were relatively small fry. They certainly weren’t a matter of life or death—as this one could be. The feud Hamilton and Alonso’s most resembles is the one between their formula one predecessors Ayrton Senna (Hamilton’s hero) and Alain Prost at McLaren in the late 1980s.

“Metaphorically,” Prost said at the time, “Senna wanted to destroy me.”

By 1989 they had dispensed with metaphors—forcing each other off the track at Suzuka in Japan. Eighteen years later, in Japan again, Hamilton voiced his fear that Alonso was out to get him. At the same time, he said that McLaren wasn’t big enough for the both of them and he wasn’t going to be the one to budge.

Not surprisingly, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone is loving it and has been waxing nostalgic about the golden age of Prost, Senna and Formula One cojones.

At the weekend, before Hamilton’s victory, he announced that his dream scenario would be if Hamilton and Alonso smashed into each other on the last lap of the last race of the season and the championship winner is the one with most points at the time of the crash.

Imagine the publicity, he said. Imagine. You’d almost think that Ecclestone had forgotten Senna died at the wheel of his car, smashing into a wall at Imola in the San Marino Grand Prix.

Let’s hope Ecclestone is denied his fantasy. With Hamilton leading by 12 points and only two races to go, it looks as if he will be the first rookie to win the world championship, the first British winner since Damon Hill and the youngest-ever champion.

Ecclestone should be satisfied that Hamilton has single-handedly revived Formula One without wishing a pile-up on him. His achievements are phenomenal—not least in making this most boring of sports enthralling.—Â

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