At 3:30 p.m. lastFriday, in the paddock at the Canadian Grand Prix, a Vodafone McLaren Mercedespress attaché set up a standard interview backdrop of three panels festoonedwith logos. Within minutes two dozen TV cameramen had assembled in front of it.Never mind that the man they hoped to film, Lewis Hamilton, wasn't due foranother hour. They stood vigil because, at this moment in the world of autoracing, there would be no greater horror than for the 22-year-old Britishdriver to materialize with no minicam present to record the moment.
The attaché reappeared 20 minutes later with assurances that a 4:30 appearancestill held and mercifully authorized the assembled mad dogs and Englishmen ofthe press to get out of the afternoon sun. But that's how it is with Hamiltonthese days: People gather for the possibility. With a front-running drive tohis first Grand Prix victory on Sunday in Montreal, Hamilton moved to the topof the points standings in only the sixth race of his Formula One career,leapfrogging McLaren teammate and defending world champion Fernando Alonso.Hamilton heads for the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis this weekend off to thebest start of any rookie in F/1 history.
As he takes hisfirst pass of the circuits, Hamilton is also making a series of figurativeleft-hand turns into traffic. Being F/1's first black driver is the least ofit. (Willy T. Ribbs test-drove a car for Brabham in 1986, but never actuallyraced.) Hamilton is a babe in a sport that rarely treats youth kindly. Moreoverhe's a Brit driving for McLaren, a whiskered name in British motor sports thatlast won an F/1 team title in 1998. Thus Hamilton is playing out multiple rolesas the Great (fill in the blank: Black, Young, British) Hope.
Of those threemantles, race may be the easiest to bear. Hamilton has been able to draft inthe slipstream of inevitable comparisons with Tiger Woods, another outridingprodigy who brought new fans to a largely monochromatic sport. Anthony Hamiltonhas played the role of Earl Woods, the doting father who, recognizing a knackand a passion in his son, sacrificed for the sake of the boy's development.(The son of Grenadian immigrants, Anthony at one point held down three jobs soyoung Lewis Carl, named after the American track star Carl Lewis, could affordto race go-karts.)
Hamilton sharesWoods's self-possession and steady temper, even if he earns a living amidstearsplitting noise and hot asphalt, not hushed galleries and lush fairways.Like Woods, he also has a piebald racial background (his mother, Carmen, whosplit from Anthony when Lewis was two, is white). And Tiger was hardly moreprecocious than Lewis, who at age six had already appeared on a BBC children'sshow, Blue Peter, to showcase his ability to race remote-controlled cars thathis father had assembled for him. (He still races those cars with his16-year-old half-brother, Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy.) Lewis graduatedfrom the remote a couple of years later, after discovering karts during afamily vacation in Spain. At an awards banquet in December 1995, wearingborrowed black tie, 10-year-old Lewis--by then Britain's youngest-ever CadetClass Karting Champion--famously walked up to McLaren chief Ron Dennis to askfor an autograph and told him, "I want to race for you one day."
"Phone me innine years," Hamilton remembers Dennis replying.
"Confidence,devoid of all arrogance," Dennis recalls, "is the best way to describeLewis's approach to me that night."
Not three yearslater, Dennis made Hamilton the youngest driver ever to land a Formula Onecontract, signing him to apprentice in McLaren's young driver developmentprogram. Anthony Hamilton no longer had to moonlight to support his son'scareer. Lewis progressed smartly through the ranks after that: world No. 1ranking in Formula A Karting in 2000 (again, the youngest ever); the BritishFormula Renault title in '03; and championships in F/1's Double A and Triple Acircuits, Euro F/3 and GP2, in '05 and '06. The pressure wouldn't get to him onthe F/1 circuit, Hamilton told an interviewer back in March, because "Icontrol it and filter it," as if he had long ago been fitted with somethingfrom an auto parts store.
By signing Alonsoand giving Hamilton its number 2 car for this season, McLaren is facingchallenges of its own making, albeit problems that any racing team would loveto have. In the preseason McLaren executive Martin Whitmarsh sketched out whathe called an ideal scenario, in which Alonso, 25, bagged another worldchampionship and Hamilton was groomed as the driver to take the team into thefuture. Fine in theory, but reality set in two weeks ago in Monaco. With Alonsoand Hamilton running one-two late in the race, McLaren radioed Hamilton to makea pit stop. Several British journalists inferred from the rookie's postracecomments that Hamilton, who finished second, was upset that he hadn't been letloose to go after the win. The tabloids became so indignant that they brieflysuspended their excavation of Hamilton's love life (LEWIS GAVE ME GRAND PRIX ONTHE BACK SEAT OF HIS MINI blared News of the World in late May) to howl overthe injustice of it all.
Wiser heads in themotoring press challenged Fleet Street's presumption. On a perilous circuitlike Monte Carlo's, with a No. 1, world champion driver having earned the poleand holding a lead, it would be imprudent to risk a crash that could wipe outboth winner and runner-up. But the outcry, along with Dennis's comment that hisdrivers had been instructed to "hold station" over the final laps("You virtually have to decide in advance which one of the team's twodrivers will claim the victory," he said), raised enough suspicion that theFédération Internationale d'Automobile jumped in. After rabbinically parsingthe difference between midst-of-race "team orders" (forbidden) andoverarching "team strategy" (O.K.), the FIA pronounced that McLaren hadpermissibly practiced the latter. (That's one place where Hamilton partscompany with Woods: No third party ever stymied a back-nine charge againstDuval, Els and Mickelson.)
Were he not arookie, and not so preternaturally competitive, Hamilton would have betterconcealed his disappointment in front of the press in Monte Carlo. By the timehe had reached Montreal last week, he was more carefully on message. "Theteam's going to give me an equal opportunity [to win the championship]," hesaid last Thursday. "I need to remember I'm extremely privileged to be partof such a fantastic team. They want to see me win as much as I want to win. I'monly five races into my Formula One career. As team boss, [Dennis] has choicesto make."
But Hamilton alsostruck a few defiant notes. "Maybe next time I might watch what I say, butI just said what I felt. I'm only human. Sometimes your feelings need to be[expressed]. You can't always just put a big smile on your face.
"Everyweekend, when I'm matching [Alonso's] times, I do as well if not better. I'mdemonstrating that I can be world champion. I'd hate the situation Rubens wasin," Hamilton said, referring to Rubens Barrichello, who led virtually theentire 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, only to let Michael Schumacher (long cast asJohnny Carson to Barrichello's Ed McMahon) slip past him 100 meters from thefinish, at Ferrari's direction--and prompt the FIA to formally ban "teamorders."
"If that wasthe case," Hamilton continued, "I wouldn't be here muchlonger."
After Hamiltonbeat his teammate while finishing second in Alonso's home race, the SpanishGrand Prix, on May 13, the British weekly Autosport ran a headline hinting at"civil war." And Alonso might be forgiven for worrying that McLarenfavors the British driver who has been Dennis's protégé of long standing. Teampersonnel nonetheless describe a professional bonhomie, with the two engagingin good-natured bouts of NBA PlayStation in the team trailer. "We'recommitted to creating an environment where both can excel," says Dennis,who over nearly three decades had never before entrusted a McLaren car to arookie. "It is difficult at the moment. In some instances, the media don'twant the sporting answer. They want the human-interest answer. Right now, we'rein a no-win situation."
Welcome toWoe-Is-We Grand Prix: Finish one-two, and find yourselves in a no-winsituation.
"Wankers,"former world champion Niki Lauda once called men who are drawn to the cockpitof a Formula One car to indulge the need for speed. In fact, Lauda insisted,"Any joy is from fascination with perfection, not from a thrill of drivingfast."
If that's true,Hamilton would be relishing this season regardless of his record. In hisfastidiousness, his eagerness to sponge up all he can from the more than 1,000people marshaled in his support, and his imperturbability (that lapse beforethe press in Monaco excepted), he seems uncommonly well-equipped to pursue theperfect race.
Until last week,Hamilton had never driven Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, yet he grabbedthe first pole position of his F/1 career in Saturday's qualifying. Afterward,asked if he found the feeling to be better than sex, he considered thequestion. "You know what?" he said. "I'd say it is better thansex."
By qualifyingfirst, Hamilton could spend Sunday chasing perfection by outrunningimperfection all around him. Alonso missed the first turn of the race, nearlyclipping Hamilton while reentering the track from a runout. Four times theyellow flag came out, once after a crash that sent BMW Sauber's Robert Kubicapinballing from barrier to barrier, and ultimately by helicopter to thehospital. (Doctors declared him to be in stable condition and conscious with abroken leg.) Almost half of the 22 drivers to start failed to finish, includingtwo who were black-flagged for running a red light when leaving the pits."That was lots of go-karting experience there," Anthony Hamilton saidafterward. "You get that in karting, and you've got to keep your headstraight."
What the fathercalls keeping your head straight, and the mentor describes as "confidence,devoid of arrogance," is a kind of balance that hints at perfection, andDennis has known it to be there for a dozen years. Last weekend someone askedthe McLaren boss if anything about Hamilton's rookie season so far hassurprised him.
"The onlything that's surprised me," Dennis said, "is that Lewis would put sexafter pole position."
Gonzo for Alonso
Richard Deitsch profiles Hamilton's teammate and rivalFernando Alonso.
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The new face of F/1 has quickly given the sport a jolt of buzz with hisunprecedented start.
In Montreal, Hamilton was one of only a dozen drivers to finish.
After his win the rookie soaked up the moment with his dad, who worked threejobs to pay for his racing.