Hamilton is an inspiration to black Britain – but his sport will remain white, writes Martin Jacques
There is little doubt, even at this early stage of his first season in Formula One, that Lewis Hamilton is a special talent, far eclipsing recent British drivers such as Jenson Button and David Coulthard. He has the great advantage of driving for one of F1’s most successful teams in a sport where equipment counts for far more than in any other. Michael Schumacher in a Toro Rosso would have made for great entertainment, but even his genius would still have been reduced to life in mid-field. Even with the advantage of driving for McLaren, though, Hamilton still looks exceptional – extremely fast, cool, mature beyond his years, and not in the least fazed by having the world champion, Fernando Alonso, as his team-mate. From his very first race, it felt as if Hamilton was born to be at the front of the grid, displaying, like Schumacher in 1991, an extraordinary self-confidence, an inner-belief that he was inferior to no driver. Yet this has been combined with a humility that is at once endearing and disarming.
There is one other characteristic that makes Hamilton stand out from the F1 crowd. He is black. I vividly recall that, at the European Grand Prix at Jerez in 1994, my wife, who was of Indian origin, was the only non-white person in the paddock. A decade or so later, you now find the odd black mechanic or brown PR officer, but Formula One remains hugely white. It seems an iron law that the more expensive and exclusive the sport, the whiter are its participants and spectators. Where the costs of entry are minimal, there is a wide avenue of opportunity for those with little or nothing, which is why football is just about the most democratic sport of all: African and Brazilian footballers compete on a level playing field with their rich, white, European counterparts. Contrast that with golf, where expensive real estate means that the cost of entry for a golf club is out of reach of the vast majority of those of colour. Cast your eye down the entry list for the US Open and it is overwhelmingly white.
As a black man in a white sport, Hamilton’s presence on the grid is testament to his remarkable talent and determination, the devoted support and encouragement of his father (a relationship that bears strong echoes of that between Tiger Woods and his father Earl), and the exceptional backing – since Hamilton was a mere 13 – of McLaren boss Ron Dennis. Hamilton’s success is likely to have a huge effect in Britain. The popularity of F1 depends on having a national hero, and not since Damon Hill and Nigel Mansell has Britain been in that position. Arguably he will prove rather more successful than either, perhaps joining the pantheons of earlier greats such as Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark and Stirling Moss. That he is so likeable and humble can only enhance his popularity. That he is black in a white sport that has never previously been required to think about colour (as Ron Dennis’s unfortunate request that Hamilton should not be asked any questions about colour in our interview rather illustrates) adds a fascinating dimension to his impact and influence. Jackie Stewart recently recalled how Hamilton had been invited to a youth club, of which Stewart is the president, in London’s East End, to meet children from disadvantaged backgrounds. ‘He was magic,’ Stewart said. ‘It was mostly one-parent families, mostly black, a very mixed group, and he was just the best guest ever. This is a troubled area with gangs who shoot people. Lewis shows kids that if they think a little differently they don’t have to go this route.’
In a mega-buck sport such as Formula One, the idea that one of its heroes could be seen in such terms is nothing short of staggering. Stewart is not fantasising when he suggests that Hamilton could be one of the biggest names the sport has ever known.
But first he has to deliver the goods on the track. By the end of this, his first season, we will know more. Rest assured, though, that a new phenomenon has been born. We should not forget, however, that dominant as Tiger Woods has been, his example has made precious little difference to the number of black golfers in the majors, nor has it opened up golf clubs to those of colour. Even if Hamilton becomes the biggest name F1 has ever seen, it will remain an overwhelmingly white sport.