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Can Lewis Hamilton ever be loved?

Bryan Edwards

While many recognised the successes of Michael Schumacher, he was never a hero to generations: his achievements were simply a target while those of e.g. Clarke, Senna and a handful of others were as much a matter of folk-lore as numbers. These, like Jenson Button and Filipe Massa had drawn adoration, even love. Lewis Hamilton currently holds pretty much every record there is to hold in Formula One but the status of icon eludes him. How come?

Hamilton is becoming a major force in sport: his talent is prodigious, his skill is reaching levels that most others will never come close to. But Hamilton is not Ronnie Petersen or Fernando Alonso: his skills have been developed, he is a natural racer but not, arguably, a natural racing driver. In karting, he was a phenomenal racer, but there was always the openly expressed criticism that his position as a McLaren protegé owed as much to his racial mix as to his abilities. But that was both unfair and untrue: he was a poor kid from a difficult home situation who was cheeky enough to speak directly to Ron Dennis and therefore to both attract attention and, later, support.

The media, always looking for an angle, made much, on his arrival in Formula One, of his being black. For the avoidance of doubt, he isn't. He's mixed black and Caucasian. And like so many mixed race children he has exceptional levels of talent in something - and an identity crisis.

And so, while Jenson Button, after a year of being branded a playboy, became a beloved English sporting icon, Hamilton went on a voyage of discovery during which he associated himself with what many would consider "the wrong sort." There were many who wanted him to settle down and concentrate on his racing. His on-off relationship with risqué pop star Nicole Scherzinger drew demands for them to marry and live together and to split up in equal measure. Both say that they still sometimes regret the eventual (final?) split after seven years but the fact is, as Button found when he married the woman who had been the love of his life. Jessica Michibata, shortly after his father died, two busy people dating at a distance is one thing but marriage where you rarely see each other is another.

Even so, where Hamilton really missed his mark was in his adoption of the accoutrements of the New York rap, etc. scene: the baseball caps, the tattoos, the bling, the attitude. The thing that marks out all of those drivers who have become so loved is their fierce competitiveness on the track and their humility off it. This is why Sebastian Vettel is so actively disliked by so many: he's seen as an arrogant prig that, despite his talent, means people really don't want him in their living rooms on a Sunday afternoon.

Lance Stroll may be only just old enough to share the champagne on the podium (and in some countries still not) and he has had to overcome the criticism that his position in F1 owes more to his father's money than to his own talent (a criticism he is destroying race by race) but the thing that will make him popular is that, while his father stands at the back of the pit, shunning attention, his mother and sister, huge teeth-filled smiles challenging the cameras to ignore them, are right at the front cheering him on, as was Pink-Shirted Papa throughout Button's career. F1 always has been a sport that families enjoy together, either in front of the telly or, even, across internet communications while in different places and families of fans like to see families on screen. Hamilton's best moments are when his brother is with him. In Monza, the cameras couldn't get enough of Massa's son playing football in the sodden pit-lane with his dad and pit crew. The recent re-appearance of Hamilton's father and mother are positive signs that the tensions that disrupted his emotional state are reducing. And as that happens, his driving is becoming the stuff of legends - and his attitude is changing from enfant terrible to one who is taking his rightful place in a sport that kills people, albeit less often than it once did. And, incredibly, it seems almost as if he's just getting started: his stature grows race by race, even if he doesn't win.

While Hamilton's record run of record breaking continues apace - his latest, this weekend in Monza, being that he is now the holder of the most pole positions ever - there is something different about Hamilton. The ridiculous haircuts have been pruned, the beard is, race by race, less of a statement. The ostentatious jewellery is hugely toned down. There's nothing he can, realistically, do about the tattoos but he does not reveal them so much. In short, he's learning that humility off the track pays dividends on it. He's in a period of transition where the media is having to get used to writing about his performance, talent and even his increasing normality in his daily life. It is significant that, having run out of things to be snide about, the British media, in particular, went to town on his (I think) perfectly sensible decision to take a couple of days R&R instead of doing what was, after all, a voluntary PR exercise in London in the lead up to the 2017 British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

Hamilton's emotions are now increasingly reserved for when something good happens and, mostly, when things go wrong, he does not throw a tantrum. His joy when he wins a race is something that was almost (figuratively) beaten out of him as a junior karter: winning was expected and while praise was there, he never really felt that he could display the joy of doing something special.

The fascinating thing is that the less he becomes gossip-column material, the more people are warming to him. Slowly.

It's taken a while and there is no doubt that the warmth shown to e.g. Mark Webber won't come his way easily, Hamilton is, at last, becoming a person that fans can start to feel a liking for. There is only one person in motorsport today that has a truly fanatical following: Valentino Rossi. And he's almost never appeared in a gossip column: over his long career he's not given many interviews. I remember one where he said he'd moved to a small Oxfordshire village because no one knew him and he could walk down the street in peace. That soon changed and he moved back to Italy - to a village where the locals protect him from visitors.

It is often said that luck is the result of hard work and Hamilton works harder than most. Hamilton does not have the natural car control of e.g. Max Verstappen, Danny Ricciardo on the current grid or, say, James Hunt. Hamilton is a battler in the Nigel Mansell mould, a driver who needs confidence in his car to do well. Indeed, Hamilton often sounds almost neurotic as he constantly checks with his engineers as to the condition of his car and what sometimes seem imaginary problems. Clearly, he still cannot believe in his success and is always waiting for someone or something to take it away from him. But he doesn't whine - he's looking for data to protect against possible problems. Indeed, sometimes he needs to be more assertive with his team, losing as he has points due to a pit-wall strategy that, in the car, he knew was wrong.

When he's good, he's exceptional. And he's good far more often than he isn't. His performance at Monza 2017 was perhaps one of the most commanding drives in F1 history. For the last portion of the race, not only was his engine turned down to conserve future life but his position on the track bore more similarity to a slowing down lap than a full-on race pace - and still he was circulating as fast as the Ferraris that were more than half a minute behind. Yes, in a 52 lap race, even allowing for the last few laps cruising, his average lap speed was still more than half-a-second faster than that of Sebastian Vettel in the car that many thought was the car of choice for that weekend. Some of the Tiffosi booed him but for many it sounded more ironic than the jeers aimed at Vettel at other tracks.

Hamilton is a genuine superstar but so far without star quality. If he can continue the recent personal development that may change. I hope so, for it marks the end of what seems to have been, at least in recent years, a self-generated troubled life.

There is no doubt there is massive respect for him. Now it's time there was affection, too.