Grand Prix rarely attracts the same attention as football but all that has now changed. There is a simple, two-word explanation for the sudden rush of bums to sofas every time the start lights illuminate: Lewis Hamilton. The emergence of the lad from Stevenage has been the sporting story of the year. No matter how many goals Jonny Wilkinson dropped in Paris, it has been Hamilton’s exploits that deserve recognition as the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
There is no denying that we are thrilled with Hamilton’s success because he is British. This is a nation, like no other, with petrol running in its veins and the story of the young local hero heading to the front of the grid has excited fans in a way that has not happened since the glory days of Nigel Mansell. At Silverstone in the summer, you could smell the desire for a Hamilton victory hanging in the air (or was that just the whiff from the burger stand?) as the thousands gathered to witness his bold assault on history.
He’s a racing driver, pin-up, icon and multi-millionaire, but Lewis Hamilton remains a master of understatement. Asked about a year that has seen him go from unknown rookie to the pinnacle of the world’s most glamorous sport, he says simply: “A lot’s changed in my life just recently.” It’s hard to imagine that many 22-year-olds from a council estate would be so calm about standing on the brink of a billion-dollar fortune.
Lewis missed out on the World Championship by a single point but no rookie has ever got so close before. And his skill, bravery and speed allied to clean-cut good looks and megawatt smile have made him the most bankable poster boy in sport. And he has the earnings to match. Last season with McLaren, the young star earned £340,000 plus £7,000 per point – totalling £1,089,000. But his first million is just the start. Next year he will be paid £10m by his team – making him the second highest-paid British sports star behind David Beckham. But bonuses and sponsorship deals with Vodafone and Tag Heuer watches will net him close to another £10m in 2008 alone. And sports industry experts predict he will be the first £100m-a-year driver and sport’s second dollar billionaire, after Tiger Woods. Philip Beresford, editor of the Sunday Times Rich List, said: “The key to getting rich when you’re young is discipline. Lewis has many of the same characteristics as Tiger and companies are clamouring to sign him.”
Hamilton’s arrival has added real spice to the event, creating a soap opera way more intriguing than that on offer on the other side. He has done it by driving a very large and fast nail into the corrupt, anti-competitive notion of team orders, the absurdity that has blighted F1 for years. The manner in which a junior driver in a winning position was obliged to slow down and let through his senior partner (usually Schumacher) was a system that cheated the fan and made the neutral observer disappear elsewhere. This wasn’t a sport, it was a mechanical pecking order.
Hamilton proved to be way too single-minded ever to buy the idea that he should defer. When, in the early days of the season, he found himself with an advantage over his team mate Fernando Alonso, he pursued it, even if it meant embarrassing the world champion. Although Lewis didn’t gain the title, he as at the very least, revitalised interest in a sport which was heading to the gallows.
By Gemma Casey