Lewis Hamilton is as naturally gifted a sportsman as Britain has ever produced. The glassy-eyed seven-year-old who first appeared on Blue Peter in 1992 has been transformed into a Formula 1 icon, driven by incredible natural talent and a need to be the best. With 33 race wins, he now has more victories to his name than any other Brit, while his two world titles put him level with greats like Jim Clark and Graham Hill, and just one behind Sir Jackie Stewart.
And yet he is not hugely popular in his home nation. In fact, he's not even Britain's most popular active F1 driver.
That mantle belongs to Jenson Button. You get a sense of this from the thousands of fans who fill the grandstands and banks at Silverstone during the British Grand Prix. When Lewis comes by, a cheer goes up; when Jenson cruises past, the crowd break into raptures. Some British fans will even boo Hamilton, whereas none would dare denounce Button. Lewis may have won BBC Sports Personality of the Year (in which roughly 0.3 percent of the population voted for him), but he seems to be grudgingly respected for his ability, not loved for who he is.
Publicly, he and Button are judged very differently. Hamilton is often censured by fans and the media for choosing to live in a tax haven and – until today, if you believe the internet – for dating an American pop star, yet no one seems to care that Button is a resident of Monaco who has recently married a Japanese-Argentine model.
It feels like double standards. And this has led some – including Joseph Harker, the former editor of the Black Briton newspaper – to suggest that Hamilton's lack of acceptance is partly because of the colour of his skin. Whether or not racism is the reason, he is undeniably far less popular than he is talented.
Born in Stevenage to a white mother and a black father, Hamilton is an exception in Formula 1, a sport dominated by wealthy white men. Lewis comes from a background countless other Britons can relate to: his paternal grandparents were immigrants from Grenada in the 1950s; his parents divorced while he was an infant; he grew up in a council flat; and his father worked insanely hard to fund his son's hobby. It's the sort of against-the-odds story that made Nigel Mansell – who re-mortgaged his house to stay in racing – so popular with British fans. They called the dour Midlander "Our Nige"; no one ever talks about "Our Lewis".
Instead, Hamilton is criticised. He is seen as privileged because he was picked up by the McLaren Formula 1 team at a young age and ruthlessly prepared for stardom. That ignores the years beforehand when he and his dad were pulling all-nighters in the garage to prepare for the next race, or the challenges a black father and son faced in the almost exclusively white world of British karting. Without this hard work, he would not have been picked up by McLaren in the first place.
Sometimes the criticism gets weirdly personal, not least when Hamilton is sniped at for his dress sense. There's no question that his style is unique in motor sport; at the British Racing Drivers' Club awards he wore a trilby and jumper-over-shirt combo, while everyone else was sporting bog-standard suit and tie getups. At the end-of-season prize-giving ceremony, Hamilton arrived for the pre-event interviews wearing hi-tops, purple trousers and another hat. The men sat next to him – the touring car and sports car world champions – were in black shoes and grey suits. Lewis looked like he'd arrived from another planet. He looked like Pharrell Williams, only with a slightly better handle on how ridiculous a hat should ever be.
But then it's not strange to dress similarly to your mates. Lewis and Pharrell may not chat on the phone every night, but they've hung out enough to suggest they get on. They were photographed together at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Presumably Pharrell was there to enjoy the race and offer Lewis a few words of support, though some saw it as an attempt to distract Hamilton with the trappings of celebrity.
This was another dubious criticism levelled at Hamilton in 2014. One broadcaster questioned "the celebrity red carpet lifestyle, the pop star girlfriend and bling earrings that seem to suggest he's not always totally focused on the job he should be doing". Given that Hamilton won 11 of the 19 races last year – more than twice as many as his teammate and closest rival Nico Rosberg – you might equally suggest that he's found a decent work-life balance. Maybe he could have won 12 or 13 if he wasn't dating a Pussycat Doll, but the trade-off hardly seems worth it.
It's not as if Lewis is photographed falling out of clubs at 4AM with coked-up glamour models; you're more likely to see an Instagram photo of him and his long-term girlfriend in Waitrose buying Weetabix. It's painfully boring, but if your 10-year-old kid needs a role model, Hamilton is a very solid candidate.
Even traits he should be praised for are vilified. After winning the world title, Hamilton revealed that he's not particularly keen on alcohol, instead preferring a glass of juice to celebrate. That's a pretty good example to set for a nation where binge drinking is a serious problem; it's also culturally considerate to avoid getting blind-drunk in an Arab state. But the British press' reaction was one of barely-concealed scorn, with several newspapers seemingly more interested in Hamilton's failure to organise a piss-up than his second world title.
And then there's the religion. Hamilton is covered in tattoos, though these alone aren't a problem. Button has a few, but his are accepted because they're the sort of shit tribal pieces you'd see on rugby players or the edgy one from a 90s boy band. Hamilton's seem to mean something, like the full back-piece complete with crucifix and the words "Still I Rise".
He also has a habit of thanking God for his success in a way that British sporting idols just don't do. Jonny Wilkinson didn't give credit to a higher being for his Rugby World Cup winner's medal, just as Chris Hoy didn't offer a shout-out to Jesus for the ability to ride a bicycle. Yes, we have an established church, but that doesn't mean we like it. If anything, Hamilton's God-thanking is seen as a very American trait.
And this is the crux of Hamilton's image problem: he is perceived as having embraced American culture at the expense of his British ways. The Pharrell-y outfits, the boring sobriety and the mid-Atlantic accent all jar back home, particularly with the predominantly middle-class, middle-England motor sport fanbase. Would he be viewed differently if he shopped at Topman, spoke like Frank Lampard and hung out with Kasabian? He'd still be seen as a knob, but he'd be a very different kind of knob: he'd be a British knob. The fact that he waves a Union Jack and shouts "England" when he wins seems like lip service when the man outside the car comes across as so un-British.
The fans adored Mansell, a sullen git with a dodgy moustache who moaned interminably when things weren't going his way and moaned slightly less when they were. They feel the same about Button, the half-grown-up 90s kid with a fondness for harmless laddish banter. The fans feel they could take either to their local for a pint. But they couldn't take Hamilton: the landlord would scoff when he ordered a J20 and the regulars would take the piss out of his hat.
People like sporting idols they can relate to. Liverpool fans love Steven Gerrard because, if he hadn't made it as a player, he'd be sat in the Kop with them; the fact he ended up scrapping with a DJ for not playing the right music may seem bizarre to an American, but to a Brit it sounds like fairly regular Saturday night behaviour. And so what if Joe Calzaghe did a bit of coke after quitting boxing? People from small towns in South Wales do that sort of thing every weekend. Lewis Hamilton doesn't even get pissed when he wins the world championship.
The colour of his skin is not what prevents Hamilton from achieving national hero status in Britain. He has plenty of fans, but many others simply don't like him because he isn't their kind of guy. We're constantly being told that our so-called British identity is under threat, and Hamilton has adopted another country's culture at the expense of his own.
That clearly rankles with some. But whether they like him or not, Lewis Hamilton is almost certainly the most gifted driver British fans will ever have to cheer for.
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