MONZA, Italy (AP) — On his ride home, still high from his 40th victory in Formula One, Lewis Hamilton gave selfie- and autograph-hunters waiting outside the paddock at Monza a star-struck moment of shareable, likable ecstasy.
Sunglasses on, baseball cap backward, the world champion deliberately locked the front brake of his powerful Brutale 800 Dragster motorbike and violently gunned the throttle.
With nowhere to go, the 140 horsepower coursing through the rear wheel clawed at the road like leashed huskies, tearing a hole in the tarmac and melting his tire rubber. The fans loved the petrol-head virility and craziness of it. Hooting and hollering his name, they drank in the thick cloud of acrid smoke like it was sweet perfume and filmed on mobile phones. @Monza! #LOL!
In a season rendered increasingly dull by Hamilton’s metronomic dominance on the track, F1 can count itself lucky that its British superstar has grown into such a generous and entertaining showman.
The newly dyed blonde hair, the eagle freshly tattooed under his race number—44—below his right ear and, above all, the near-flawless driving of his turbocharged V6 hybrid Mercedes all point to a man comfortable with himself, chock-full of confidence and on a roll that, should it continue at this relentless pace, will carry him into the sport’s pantheon of greats.
The impetuous and impatient streaks that used to be weak spots of Hamilton’s seem to have burned away like morning mist. Same goes for sometimes poorly thought-out words and deeds that made one wonder whether the young man growing up in the public spotlight perhaps lacked the level head and maturity to convert his natural speed into multiple championships.
Having turned 30 this year, seasoned by 160 races and nine seasons in F1, and blessed to be driving by far the quickest car, Hamilton isn’t simply cruising toward his third world title, he is carving out his very own era. The risk he took cutting his umbilical cord with McLaren to join Mercedes in 2013 looks inspired now, the mark of a man who knew what was best for him when others weren’t so sure.
Another crown, seemingly inevitable now considering the 53-point cushion he carries into the final seven races, will elevate Hamilton into very illustrious company, with Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart and Jack Brabham. The Hamilton-Mercedes combo is so superior—with speed to spare at Monza—that it already seems written that he’ll also win a fourth title next year to join Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel.
How tedious that success, the predictability, could quickly become if Hamilton wasn’t putting in overtime to the F1 show.
He didn’t have to stop for those waiting fans in Monza, climb off his bike, sign their autographs, pose for their selfies, patiently deal with their touching and pawing, and then delight them again with another cloud of burning rubber before roaring away. But he did.
He didn’t have to spend longer than anyone else talking to every waiting TV crew after the race, until he was the last driver left. But he did.
He didn’t have to repeatedly thank his parents and Mercedes mechanics for everything they’ve done and do for him. But he did.
“They say you can be on cloud nine,” he said, “but my feet are on the ground.”
Hamilton’s social media feeds, the photos with film and rock stars, of fast cars and exotic locations, collectively tell the story of a kid from a town north of London leading and loving his charmed life as F1’s first black star. Good for him.
For traditionalists, those who complain that modern F1 is short on characters and compelling tales, who hark back to golden oldies and past rivalries, perhaps Hamilton can seem a bit alien. The partying with Rihanna, the trans-Atlantic hops, the diamond earrings, the body ink.
Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s 84-year-old commercial chief, made himself look out of touch by opining this month that “Lewis is going a bit over the top,” completely missing the point that Hamilton’s bling, his OTT side, is part of who he is and of his appeal.
Besides, it’s his life. From the racing perspective, the way Hamilton lives it clearly works.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester or on Facebook.