A new hero for our times

By Martin Jacques (THE GUARDIAN, 22/10/07):

A black formula one world champion seemed, even last year, unthinkable, yet Lewis Hamilton so nearly made it. This is a sport that has long suffered from an almost total white-out. Apart from the Japanese, virtually every face in the paddock, let alone on the starting grid, was, until recently, white. This is hardly surprising. The more expensive and/or exclusive a sport, the whiter it tends to be: the fact almost has the force of a law. That is the main reason why the Rugby World Cup, the Pacific islands excepted, was so desperately white, the Springboks included.

But then along came Lewis Hamilton. It is fair to say that no rookie has ever taken formula one by storm like this. Hamilton admittedly had one key advantage. In formula one the car can make a difference in a way that a driver cannot. Whereas Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna spent their early seasons in second-rate machinery, Hamilton walked into the equal best car on the grid. His first season none the less has, by any standards, been extraordinary.

From the very first race he has displayed both great speed and remarkable maturity. Normally with a new driver one expects the red mist to descend and silly errors to be committed: Hamilton made but two such mistakes, though alas they proved fatal to his world championship hopes. The true measure of his performance is provided by his team-mate, Fernando Alonso, already twice world champion. Alonso quite reasonably expected to be the dominant driver in the McLaren team, given his own record and Hamilton’s lack of experience. In fact, from the outset, Hamilton proved more than a match for Alonso in speed and consistency: Alonso’s driving has been rather more error-prone than Hamilton’s. There has been no luck in Hamilton’s achievement, finishing one point behind Kimi Raikkonen.

At 22, Hamilton can surely look forward to a hugely successful career. It is too early to suggest that he can take his place alongside the greatest drivers of the modern era, such as Senna and Schumacher, but the fact that one can even think in these terms is testimony to the arrival of a remarkable talent.

It is entirely possible that Hamilton will emerge as the dominant driver of the next decade. As such, he is also destined to become a cultural icon. Hamilton, like Senna, is endowed with great charisma. Confronted with a microphone, the vast majority of drivers are reduced to corporate-speak. Hamilton, by contrast, is utterly at home: eloquent, poised, confident and intelligent. But it is the fact that he is black that, above all, makes him irresistibly different.

Hamilton’s ethnic origins are likely to have a huge national and global impact. Unlike Tiger Woods, who has always been reticent on this score, Hamilton is clearly comfortable with who he is and where he comes from. In a recent interview to coincide with Black History Month, Hamilton said: “Outside of formula one my heroes are foremost my father, then Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.” He added: “Being black is not a negative. It’s a positive, if anything, because I’m different. In the future it can open doors to different cultures and that is what motor sport is trying to do anyway. It will show that not only white people can do it, but also black people, Indians, Japanese and Chinese. It will be good to mean something.”

Not least, Hamilton defies the British white stereotype of young black men, perpetrated with a new vengeance by much of the media. He is highly articulate, extremely intelligent, very successful, blessed with great charm and likability, and is close to his father, who has been a huge influence on him. Hamilton marks the arrival of a new black British role model – and a new kind of image for Britain in the world.