There really should only be one conceivable winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award, given that Lewis Hamilton’s contributions this year have extended way beyond surpassing Michael Schumacher’s race and title wins and establishing a Commission to investigate the lack of diversity in motor racing.
Less widely known is the story of the 11-year-old Bahrainian boy who wrote to Hamilton a few weeks back, pleading for help because his father faced capital punishment over the death of a policemen at a protest in 2014. Nations with dubious human rights records get away with their sports-washing because the competitors don’t want to raise inconvenient truths about the hosts. But with firmness and self-effacement, Hamilton did speak out. ‘There is a young man on death row and his son writes me a letter, that really hits home,’ he said. ‘I won’t let this go unnoticed.’
The 35-year-old’s intervention in a case of grave concern did not elicit huge publicity and that seems to reflect the Lewis Hamilton paradox. He is Britain’s greatest active sporting competitor. He sees how sport can drive change in the wider world. And yet the British nation still has a lukewarm attachment to him.
Lewis Hamilton’s victory in the Turkish Grand Prix earned him a seventh F1 Championship title
When a third world title had taken Hamilton level with Sir Jackie Stewart as Britain’s most successful driver of all time in 2015, one of ensuing articles was headlined ‘The champion it is mathematically impossible to like’.. Reasons cited for this included an ‘irritatingly glamorous life’, his ‘questionable musical aspirations’ and ‘apparent lack of grace’.
That title certainly had triggered a strange and not entirely flattering performance when Hamilton, interviewed in the paddock of Austen’s Circuit of the Americas after winning the US Grand Prix, wanted it to be known that he was living it large. ‘Up until last year I didn’t really drink a lot,’ he said. ‘That’s changed a lot this year. You would be really proud if you knew how much I consumed.’ The F1 hell-raiser James Hunt would be proud of his lifestyle, he declared. The partying or the women? he was asked. ‘Both,’ he replied.
At the time, you wondered whether a strategic review of Hamilton’s PR might be wise. He’d just split with popstar girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger – a relationship didn’t exactly enhance the optics – and if that year’s SPOTY vote was anything to go by, the British public was singularly unimpressed. To have emulated the great Sir Jackie was a monumental achievement, yet the prize went to a team captain: Andy Murray, who had led Britain to a first Davis Cup. Rugby league star Kevin Sinfield, heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill and even Tyson Fury all came in ahead of Hamilton.
Hamilton won BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2013, and has been runner-up four times
Hamilton had recorded his single SPOTY win – still one fewer than Damon Hill and Nigel Mansell – the previous year, though Murray is one who really know how it feels to be a national treasure. It helps, of course, that he actually lives within this nation. The eye-catching rationale Hamilton offered for becoming a tax exile in Switzerland – the climate is good – again made you wonder about a blind spot. ‘Switzerland has a great feel,’ he wrote in his 2008 autobiography. ‘I had never been there until this year and I absolutely loved it. Nice in the winter, Nice in the summer. Nice all round.’ Mansell, Geraint Thomas, who beat Hamilton into SPOTY second place two years ago, and Sir Jackie were all tax exiles too, though no-one ever seemed to talk about that.
Murray’s far greater popularity is also enhanced by his highs, lows, triumphs and disasters playing out so publicly. Hamilton, meanwhile, is buried in a cockpit, hidden behind a helmet, the skills required to pilot around corners at 200mph largely unfelt to the human eye. Even if you disregard the lazy assertion that F1 is a sport in which the best cars win, many find the sport predictable and lacking a dramatic narrative. F1 lost 8.6 million television viewers in Britain in 2019 alone.
The theory that it’s all about the Mercedes W11 was not exactly dispelled when George Russell, his hands too big for his steering wheel and wearing race boots a size too small as he crammed into the cockpit, excelled when deputising for him at the Sakhir Grand Prix, two weeks ago. No wonder, the doubters contended, that Hamilton was so keen to rush back.
Sir Andy Murray has won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award a record three times
Well, there’s a lot more to it than the car. The ice-cold temperament, feather-light throttle control and brake pedal action involved in negotiating competitors, corners and unseen forces of nature, while turbulence plays havoc with the vehicle’s balance.
Some feel there is an element of latent racism about Hamilton’s struggle to attract recognition. ‘There’s an accepted narrative about a young black athlete confounding a challenging background to make it in sport. It’s one people can get comfortable with. He doesn’t seem to persuade them that he conforms to it,’ says one BAME voice – reluctant, like several others, to put their name to the thought.
Hamilton’s background was actually very challenging. A mixed race, working class boy from a Stevenage housing estate, he shattered F1’s white hegemony when he landed within it 13 years ago.
Marcus Rashford, another of those whose contribution has been stellar this year, has been helped by the brand agency Roc Nation to fill in the detail of such an upbringing and effect change. Hamilton, meanwhile, remains concealed behind a wall of blandness. A combined social media following of 15 million implies popularity, but very little of the real individual is revealed by it. The Hamilton Commission he has founded could be as ground-breaking as Rashford’s own food poverty panel, though it has received a fraction of the profile.
A new Sky Sports documentary helps. Hamilton’s discussion of the events of the last year is free of the defensiveness we sometimes see before a media which has often irritated him. Yet that conversation, in the F1 bubble with staff wandering around in the background, does not get close to the Hamilton some know.
Hamilton’s Commission aims to improve the representation of Black people in motorsport
They tell of the boy who’d celebrate wins in the British Cadet Kart Championship by belting out ‘We are the Champions’ with his father, as they’d travel home from races in the family’s old camper van. The young racer whose fear on his first Silverstone test day with McClaren Mercedes was crashing the car. The world champion who was visibly moved on a recent private visit to the Tamburello corner where Ayrton Senna was killed in his Williams-Renault.
Those who know him best say the real Hamilton, currently on the brink of agreeing a new Mercedes contract, emerges in such private moments, free from the need to adhere to a public image.
‘He has an outstanding natural talent and an inquisitive curiosity, a tenacity,’ Mercedes’ outgoing engine chief Andy Cowell told the Beyond The Grid podcast, a few months ago. ‘He’ll push for progress. He’ll push for people to hear his viewpoint. But as an individual, he’s not competitive to the point of being nasty. There are some individuals on the planet who push competitiveness to the point where it bubbles over to point of nasty; just not being sporting. He doesn’t want to get away with things. He wants to win fair and square.’
Hamilton is set to extend his contract at Mercedes after Team Principal Toto Wolff did the same