[1 December 2008]
Where were the crowds taking to the street in celebration? Where were the tears of joy from a global community aching for change? Where, I ask you, was Oprah?
Motorsport, apparently, has entered a new, better era. 23-year-old Lewis Hamilton, the precociously handsome son of a black father and white mother (remind you of anyone?), is the Formula One Champion of the World. For the very first time someone other than a white bloke sits atop the ultimate motorsport throne. Cool.
It’s a terrific story. Born and raised in the concrete jungle of Stevenage, a satellite town north of London so rough it would need 20 years of investment and redevelopment to work its way up to sh**hole, the six-year-old Hamilton displayed a talent for racing piloting remote control cars. Seizing on this, his father Anthony devoted himself to furthering his son’s career, working three jobs to fund the karts, fuel and travel expenses that allowed Lewis to compete. Tough as it sounds, Hamilton Senior had even more on his plate, with Lewis’ brother Nicholas, suffering from cerebral palsy.
Unlike, say Tiger Woods, Hamilton has even been outspoken on the subject of racism. After developing a feud with Spanish driver Fernando Alonso in 2007, Hamilton was on the receiving end of abuse while testing on a circuit in Barcelona earlier this year, a small section of that crowd having ‘blacked-up’ for the occasion. Before the final and decisive race this year, a widely publicised Spanish blog site appeared full of racist abuse directed at Hamilton. Formula One’s diminutive dictator, Bernie Ecclestone, dismissed the racism issue as a joke. Hamilton insisted that it wasn’t, demanding an apology.
On paper, Hamilton is the ultimate barrier-breaking sporting hero. So where is the love?
Certainly, Lewis won his World Title in dramatic enough fashion, snatching the championship points he needed by seizing fifth place on the last lap of the last race of the year. That’s right. Fifth place. Taste that glory.
Moving from the UK to Switzerland wasn’t a smart move. He claimed that he was tired of being recognised everywhere he went. Considering that he’s been advertising anything he could put his name to since he first stepped into his McLaren, celebrity was a price he was obviously willing to pay. At the time of writing he’s all over British TVs reminding us to check our tyre pressure before we head out for a drive. Like he spends every morning banging away on a foot pump on his fleet of sportscars. No one enjoys having their millions taxed, but at least have the decency to admit that’s why you’re leaving the country that you’re supposedly driving for.
He has the money and he has the girl. Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Lewis did. He’s shacked up with Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger. Although with any celebrity hook-up, one has to question the relationship’s authenticity. At last year’s US Grand Prix (the last race I consciously attempted to watch incidentally), Pharrell Williams was caught wandering around the starting grid, droning on about Hamilton’s ‘brand potential’. Best have an American celebrity girlfriend when thinking about cracking the least Formula One-friendly country on Earth.
But I digress.
I love sport. I’m the sort of guy who would willingly be nailed to my sofa if it meant I could stay in front of the TV for a busy sports weekend, especially if it helped me escape a trip to Ikea. But I didn’t watch the big race. I didn’t care. I’m unmoved. And I’m not alone.
Twenty years ago, Formula One was Europe’s second most popular sport after King Soccer. Led by racing giants like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, Sunday afternoon Grand Prix were sacred slabs of can’t-miss TV.
Those days are long gone. All but Formula One’s staunchest fans have abandoned the sport for fresh pastures. Years of high-speed parades made an entire generation of one-time race fans realised they had better things to do on a Sunday than watching cars drive around in circles, the order of the procession occasionally changing when a car was having its tyres replaced.
Formula One and Ecclestone knew it was losing its audience too. The only fresh interest was coming from the new economic powerhouses of Asia, which desperately wanted a slice of old-school European glamour, as did the advertisers willing to slap their logos on the cars and drivers’ overalls, guaranteed a global audience of hopelessly addicted, free-spending car nuts. Grand Prix started popping up in Malaysia, Bahrain, Singapore and China. They can have them.
That’s the problem the first non-white motor racing celebrity is facing. Apathy. And that’s no use for a sports personality. Love ’em or hate ’em, divisive personalities like Mike Tyson, Terrell Owens, David Beckham, Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher and Kobe Bryant generate headlines and excitement. You may be cheering for them to win. You may be aching to see the look on their faces when it all goes horrifically wrong. Whichever it is, it’s their presence that compels you to watch.
Hamilton, for all his skill and determination to drive through barriers, and the perceived arrogance that comes from being a millionaire tax exile with a super-hot girlfriend, has still been unable to transcend what has become the most boring sport still clinging to a global stage. And there’s absolutely nothing he or his sport can do to get a generation of kids interested in it. He’s just another invisible driver in a helmet finishing fifth and waiting for the worldwide advertising campaigns to arrive at their doorsteps.
Will Hamilton’s arrival on the world stage herald an influx of black drivers into the sport? Has Tiger Woods changed golf? All you need is a set of clubs and a few balls to compete at that sport. Not cheap, but a damn sight less expensive than a racecar.
Perhaps the first few races of the 2009 Formula One season will draw slightly larger crowds and TV audiences. It’s unlikely they’ll stick around when confronted with the ugly reality of the wealth, arrogance and tedium of what desperately clings onto the pretence of being the world’s biggest motorsport.
Not that Lewis Hamilton would care what Joe and Joanna Public thinks about any of this. Why would he? Sipping champagne with his Pussycat Doll in his palace in Switzerland, I’m sure he has better things to think about.