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Lewis Hamilton: The world champion some find hard to like

Lewis Hamilton has joined Michael Schumacher as the most successful driver in Formula One’s history – yet despite all the acclaim, the seven-time world champion divides opinion.

With 20.6 million Instagram followers, Hamilton is by a country mile the most popular member of the Formula One grid, supported by an army of loyal fans known as “Team LH”.

“The greatest sportsman this country has ever produced – no doubts,” tweeted former Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand after Hamilton won the Turkish Grand Prix on Sunday (Nov 15).

Yet Hamilton’s rise to F1 legend status has been accompanied by articles in his homeland exploring the same question – ‘why is he disliked?’

Just as in Schmacher’s all-conquering era with Ferrari, Hamilton and Mercedes have become victims of their own success.

Mercedes are accused in the court of public opinion of being too good and turning the sport into a tedious procession – they have won the last seven constructors’ titles and Hamilton has won the last four world drivers' titles.

Hamilton tackled the issue last season.

“It’s not how F1 should be, but it is what it is right now and it has been like that in the past,” he said.

“But it is not our fault these guys are good at their jobs.”

For The Times’ Rebecca Clancy, Hamilton’s decision to move to first Switzerland and then Monaco – in part to pay less tax – was at the heart of any anti-Hamilton sentiment.

Another obstacle for some British F1 fans was the support of the once mighty McLaren team which powered him to his first title in 2008.

“Britons like underdogs,” explained The Sun.

For The Daily Telegraph, the “Marmite” factor (love him or loathe him) stems from the fact that “Hamilton’s tastes may not always sit perfectly with the traditional motor racing community”.

Celebrity friends, extravagant fashion sense, “bling” jewellery, plentiful tattoos, his spiritualism, reactions which sometimes appear over the top, the negative picture he paints of his hometown Stevenage, his Anglo-American accent – all have been used as ammunition by his detractors.

His “detached” manner also fires up his critics.

“It’s not in the tradition of British sporting heroes to be so removed,” wrote the Daily Mail’s F1 reporter, John McEvoy.

For some, it was Hamilton’s conversion to all things green and veganism in 2017 that jarred, coming from someone who criss-crosses the globe in a private jet – since sold – and spends much of his time behind the wheel of gas-guzzling F1 machines.

McEvoy wrote in the Mail in July: “The chief accusation against Hamilton is one of hypocrisy on several fronts. Many F1 insiders have heard enough of Hamilton’s self-righteous preaching.”

F1’s first black driver has this season pressed for greater diversity in the paddock, a stance sparked by his vocal support for the Black Lives Matter movement. He spoke out about the killing of George Floyd when no one else in his sport would and won widespread support for his stance.

But some observers have noted that his tone can sometimes be perceived as preaching and “can rub people the wrong way”.

His critics might not agree, but for many, like fellow British driver Lando Norris, Hamilton should be honoured, not criticised.

“There is only one other person in the whole world who has achieved what he has – and that’s Michael Schumacher,” the McLaren rookie said.

“He has led the way in many aspects – on the track, but also off it. A lot of athletes who have done such things in other sports have got knighthoods so I see no reason why he shouldn’t.

“It’s a good thing for kids who want to get into racing or who don’t know much about racing to be inspired by him and, obviously, try to achieve similar things.” 

Looking ahead,  Hamilton and his Mercedes team expect to face a ferocious new challenge from their rivals next season when he begins his pursuit of a record eighth world title.

After a dismal season that has seen them fail to register a win, Formula One’s most famous team, Ferrari, will invest heavily in bouncing back while Red Bull, who have been closest to matching Mercedes, seek more consistency and speed to close the gap.

For Hamilton, who has taken strength from his noisy support for human rights and global welfare, it will mean a rigorous tussle for his crown with the “new generation” of drivers led by Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc.  

Hamilton’s old rival and friend, four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, may also emerge as a threat with his new team, Aston Martin, if the potential shown this year by the former Racing Point outfit can be realised.

Sergio Perez, who is due to relinquish his seat to Vettel next month, finished second ahead of the German’s Ferrari in Istanbul.

The most likely scenario, however, is a repeat of the Briton’s supremacy with Mercedes on top and teammate Valtteri Bottas mounting another bid for the title.

Their rivals may run them hard and close but, with a package of new regulations due in 2022, next season is unlikely to offer the same opportunity for a reset.

Mercedes will also have one eye on the future when the racing restarts in Melbourne in March and they may be vulnerable  but, in Hamilton, as the Turkish Grand Prix proved again, they have the ace in the F1 pack, regardless of age.

Since he recovered from losing the 2016 title to then-teammate Nico Rosberg, Hamilton has reeled off four consecutive title triumphs to become the sport’s most successful driver in terms of numbers.

His victory in treacherous conditions from sixth on the grid at Istanbul was one of his very best and brought him another record formerly held by Schumacher: most wins by a driver with the same team – 73.

The German won 72 times with Ferrari, but Hamilton passed that mark on the same day he equalled his titles total and did so in 26 fewer races. He also holds records for most wins, poles, podiums and points finishes.

Verstappen, hailed as the sport’s next megastar, acknowledged that weight of evidence in a tribute to the Englishman after his own error-strewn weekend confirmed he remains a work in progress.

On Sunday, however, Hamilton warned that he felt like he “is only just getting started”, explaining that the Black Lives Matter movement has given him energy and purpose.

At 35, as his sport’s first and only black champion, he has become the face, voice and conscience of F1 and is using that platform to support the issues that have ushered in promises of change this year.

“When I was younger, I didn’t have anybody in the sport that looked like me, so it was easy to think that it’s not possible to get there because nobody of your colour has ever been there. You don’t see any black people in F1,” Hamilton said.

“Hopefully, this sends a message to the kids that are watching... that it doesn’t matter where you come from, whatever your background, it is so important for you to dream big. You can create your own path and that is what I have been able to do – and it has been so tough.” – AFP

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