Boring sport, inspiring sportsman
Formula One may be dull, but its new champ Lewis Hamilton is risk-taking and arrogant: just as he should be.
Where were you when Lewis Hamilton became Formula One world champion? Thirteen million Brits were watching on television. Not me though. I’d just popped out to Tesco for a spot of late Sunday shopping. Shared National Experience or a loaf of bread? It’s a no-brainer. Dinner wins every time.
Missing Shared National Experiences has become something of a habit for me. England beating Germany 5-1 in Munich? Nah, on holiday in Italy. England winning the Ashes in 2005? Nope, on a beach in France. England beating Croatia 4-1 in Zagreb? Er, playing seven a-side football. And now Hamilton snatches the world title on the last bend at Interlagos while your esteemed sports columnist is picking up the groceries.
Not that I’m particularly bothered about missing the Brazilian grand prix. Or any grand prix for that matter. Formula One doesn’t really do it for me. Why? I don’t particularly care that it’s seen as a rich man’s sport. It obviously ain’t football – you need more than jumpers for goalposts to play. But while F1 is unarguably elitist, the concept of motor racing isn’t. Whether its motor bikes, go karts, quad bikes or souped-up Ford Escorts, every boy racer thinks he’s Michael Schumacher or Ayrton Senna.
Personally, I’m no petrolhead. I enjoy driving but I’m not really that interested in cars. I can’t get too excited about engine size. You won’t find me under the bonnet of my car on a Sunday morning. And I’d rather watch a cookery programme than Top Gear. In short, the car fetishism aspect of F1 doesn’t really appeal to me.
But that’s not my gripe with motor racing. No, my problem with F1 is that it’s all got rather too safe and predictable. This isn’t a bloodlust issue, I must stress. I don’t particularly enjoy watching racing drivers being killed or maimed. But whisper it, a motor race with no overtaking or crashes is about as thrilling as watching rush hour on the M25. These days, F1 races are not decided by the skill or courage of the drivers, but by teams of technicians and logistics boffins. It’s only when it rains, as it did in the closing stages at Interlagos, that things start getting a bit more unpredictable and exciting.
Whatever you think of F1 as a sport, Hamilton is a British sporting champion who should be celebrated, right? Well, not quite. While you won’t find me in the huddle by the watercooler discussing tyre changes or refuelling strategies, I’m equally repelled by the moaners who’ve been complaining about Hamilton’s tax-exile status or arrogant attitude. On the Monday morning phone-in on BBC Radio 5, callers’ opinions were sharply divided. While some were just glad to see a British champion, many were unhappy that he had moved to Switzerland for tax reasons. British motor racing legend Stirling Moss echoed these complaints. ‘The only shame is that he doesn’t live in England’, said Moss. ‘I don’t agree with him living abroad as a tax exile.’
Others have taken issue with Hamilton’s cocky attitude. A contributor to one website wrote: ‘He is arrogant, he is confrontational, he is selfish. In short, he is an entirely un-British sportsman.’ Hamilton undoubtedly has plenty of self-belief. Bucketloads of the stuff. And, as a consequence, he hasn’t exactly endeared himself to other F1 drivers. ‘I think he has slightly too high an opinion of himself, and that irritates the other drivers’, Bernie Ecclestone recently remarked. Several drivers, including Mark Webber, Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock, have criticised Hamilton for his aggressive driving style. Renault team principal Flavio Briatore recently said of Hamilton: ‘He is no Muhammad Ali. He is a youngster who still has to show his worth.’
So, there’s lots of bad blood between Hamilton and his rivals. What’s the big deal? The point of sport is to win, not to be nice to your opponents. And so what if Lewis Hamilton is a little bit cocky and arrogant? Winners tend to be a bit full of themselves. It goes with the terrain. Far better that Hamilton is too arrogant than riddled with self-doubt. You don’t get win any points in F1 for humility. It’s not a popularity contest, it’s a race.
Sadly, it seems, despite the euphoria generated by Team GB’s Olympic medal haul, we’re still uncomfortable with a winning mentality. We don’t particularly like losing, but we’d rather a gracious loser than an arrogant, strutting winner. There are parallels between Lewis Hamilton and Andy Murray. Both men excel in their respective sports, but aren’t universally loved by their compatriots. As the Telegraph’s Liz Hunt said of the Scottish tennis star: ‘Murray is too aggressive, too surly, too focused, too hairy and utterly charmless.’ (1)
British sporting champions are a rare and endangered species. So why are we so ambivalent about genuine homegrown winners like Hamilton and Murray? I think we still haven’t rid ourselves of the Victorian belief that sport is an instrument for moral improvement; that fair play is more important than playing to win. The naked win-at-all-costs mentality jars with our Corinthian attachment to the ‘ethos of sport’. Today, the instrumentalist view that sport is a moralising force has been recast in the contemporary demand that sports stars should be role models, that how they conduct themselves matters just as much as whether they win.
As I said, I’m no F1 fan but I think we should lay off Hamilton. His job isn’t to drive carefully, be nice to his rivals, show humility, or conduct himself like a saint. His job is to drive a racing car very fast. End of. That’s all he should be judged on.
PLUS: Read Mick Hume in The Times on Lewis Hamilton: click here.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.
(1) Forget sportsmanship – it’s all about winning, by Duleep Allirajah