Lewis Hamilton: Formula 1′s most successful rookie, 2007 championship runner-up, five times Grand Prix winner. And the most hated man in Formula 1.
From the banners at the Spanish Grand Prix, to the streams of abuse on internet forums, the crop of hate websites that have sprung up and even the series of anti-Hamilton Youtube videos, the British driver has taken over Michael Schumacher’s mantle as the man who is liked and loathed in roughly equal measure.
Why is that?
Popular is uncool
Hamilton may be hated, but he is also very popular. Taking Britain as an example, F1 fans today can be broadly divided between those who have followed the sport for years, like myself, and those who’ve been drawn to it recently by the popularity of Hamilton.
According to ITV, their F1 broadcasts were watched by 40% more people last year because of Hamilton, so we’re talking about a significant number of newcomers to the sport.
Now I like F1 a lot (you may have noticed) and I’ve got nothing against Hamilton, but even I find the saturation coverage of Hamilton a lot to take.
And I think a lot of other people react negatively against the fawning, sycophantic tripe written about Hamilton, and don’t like him as a result.
‘Twas ever thus, of course. Before Hamilton the British media’s darling was Jenson Button, and it was pretty clear from the debate we had about Button earlier this week how his over-exposure earlier in his career had coloured people’s opinions of him.
With Hamilton, there were some insinuations last year that his value to the sport made the governing body reluctant to punish him, which no doubt deepened the growing dislike.
There is a perception that Hamilton has a false media persona. A typical example of which was be that painful interview with Heikki Kovalainen ITV broadcast before the start of the Australian Grand Prix, with all that unconvincing chummyness. It brought back memories of the photo calls with Fernando Alonso last year when the two plainly weren’t getting on.
Hamming it up is one thing, but Hamilton’s not shy to use the media for his own ends either. His frustration at the team’s strategy in the Monaco Grand Prix last year, which he felt cost him the chance of beating Alonso, bubbled to the surface in his now notorious words: “it says number two on my car and I’m the number two driver.”
This, his critics say, is the real Hamilton: sweetness and light until something goes wrong – and then he bares his teeth.
The Fernando Alonso factor
It should have been a perfect match. Experienced, confident, double champion meets paired with the rookie to whom everything is new. Alonso does the winning, Hamilton does the learning.
But it became clear things were not going to work that way as early as the first qualifying session of the season, when Alonso reacted to Hamilton’s speed in Q2 by choosing to do an extra lap to guarantee himself first choice on strategy.
As we all know all hell broke loose between the pair in 2007. There are essentially two competing explanations for why that happened:
(a) Hamilton was so quick it rattled Alonso, leading him to demand preferential treatment from McLaren and, when he didn’t get it, blasted the team in his home press. He leapt at the opportunity to blackmail Ron Dennis when the spy scandal blew up. Alonso’s fans sympathised with their hero’s plight, believe everything he said, and hate Hamilton as a result.
(b) McLaren misled Alonso over whether he’d be the number one driver in 2008, and then undermined his efforts to win the world championship. Ron Dennis lied and claimed Alonso threatened to blackmail him over the spygate affair after Alonso had been double-crossed by Hamilton in qualifying at Hungary.
What do I think? As with most things I think the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes – although not halfway between.
Hamilton is no angel. What he did at Hungary last year was clearly an attempt to provoke Alonso. But the idea that McLaren would bring a double world champion into the team specifically to compromise his ability to win the championship defies logic, common sense and history. Even Pat Symonds of Alonso’s beloved Renault team acknowledged Alonso could not stand being beaten by a team mate even if Giancarlo Fisichella only managed it once or twice.
I don’t think there’s any doubt Hamilton’s catastrophic relationship with Alonso is the largest cause of the widespread hatred of Hamilton – whichever explanation for it you agree with.
Fernando Alonso brought legions of new fans to the sport in Spain. You only have to look how packed the Circuit de Cataluya has been in recent years compared to the late 1990s to see that.
Inevitably, many of those fans may have little or no knowledge of F1 prior to about 2005. As far as they are concerned, Alonso is number one – this is the man that beat Michael Schumacher, after all.
Many have reasoned that it is simply not possible Alonso could have been beaten by a rookie, and as Hamilton is a British driver in a British team they suspected a conspiracy.
No. I honestly don’t think racism has anything to do with it.
I know many of you disagreed with me when I said I supported the FIA’s anti-racism campaign. I still think it’s the right thing to do.
But I do think the racism that was displayed at the Circuit de Catalunya in testing in February (and may have been seen at the Chinese Grand Prix last year) was intended as an expression of hatred towards Lewis Hamilton the person and not his race. That does not excuse it, of course.
Over to you
Do you agree Lewis Hamilton is the most hated driver in Formula 1? What has he done to provoke it? Is it deserved or undeserved?
If you’d like to dip into the stack of articles that touched on this subject last year – which provoked pages of debate – here are a few places to start:
- Alonso is not the victim of a McLaren conspiracy
- Some drivers are more equal than others
- Alonso and Hamilton want split
- The stewards’ full verdict on McLaren & Alonso
- British tabloids blame Alonso
- When did the Hamilton backlash start?