Awe and wonder

What a wonderful Formula 1 season we are having. Awesome.

And if I sound like some hackneyed pop magazine writer, I apologise. The thing is that when I write "wonderful" and "awesome" I am using those words in a very literal sense and not with the hyperbole of modern publishing. We have in Formula 1 this year a young driver who has inspired both awe and wonder.

And it is the best thing that has happened to F1 for years.

We journalists are a cynical lot but on Sunday night in Kuala Lumpur we found ourselves trying to think of anyone who has made such an impact on this sport in such a short space of time. And we failed. Lewis Hamilton has astonished us all, even those of us who suspected before he arrived that here was a great talent.

In Formula 1 you just never know. You can see the most impressive drivers in the junior formulae and yet when they arrive in F1, sometimes you see them fade into the pecking order. It is very hard to predict who will do what. One would never have rated Nigel Mansell or Damon Hill based on the results they achieved before Formula 1. While the likes of Ivan Capelli or Stefano Modena looked like the real deal but ultimately disappointed. We have seen other drivers arrive in F1 and make a big impression in a very short time but more often than not this has been because they were in the right machinery at the right moment and at the right stage in their careers. The Williams-Renaults of the late 1990s may have flattered one or two of the drivers who drove them while Fernando Alonso's ability was not immediately obvious in a Minardi. The way one measures talent is to see how a youngster does against his team mate and against the clock. If a car is half a second off the pace and yet a driver can qualify it a four-tenths of a second off pole position it suggests that if that driver was in one of the cars ahead of him on the grid, he would translate that advantage into stardom. And thus half of the battle is to be in the right place at the right time. It is no accident that some of the great drivers of the modern era had legal troubles early in their careers: Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen all had to fight legal battles to be where they needed to be.

And knowing where to be is a skill in itself, as Jenson Button must now be feeling. Yes, had he been in a Williams last year it would have been a painful experience, but what would he be able to do in a Williams this year, compared to what he will achieve in a Honda?

Lewis Hamilton is not in the best car. At least not yet. What is astonishing is that in two races he is as close to Fernando Alonso, a man who has won two World Championships, as he is. It is incredible (again in the literal sense) that he has been able to deal with the top drivers of the day with the assurance that he has had. He says himself that he didn't know how things would go this year. He was not sure. He knows that he is very good but what he wanted to know was exactly how good he is when measured against the best of the best. There were questions that had to be answered but with each race Hamilton is answering those questions for us and - more importantly - for himself. And with those answers will come confidence.

In the two races thus far we have seen two extraordinary performances. In Australia he impressed us but in Malaysia he amazed us. He has not made the mistakes of youth that other drivers - even great drivers - made early in their careers. At least not yet. He has been able to soak up the pressures as though he has been doing it all his life.

We can only sit here and wonder if he will one day end up being better than all of them.

The one thing we know is that Lewis is a natural.

"His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings," Ernest Hemingway once wrote of F Scott Fitzgerald. "He understood it no more than the butterfly did."

How can one explain such things? How can one explain that John Stuart Mill could read Greek at the age of three or that William Sidis taught himself eight languages by the time he was eight and went to Harvard at 11? How can one explain that Korean Kim Ung-Yong was able to write and play chess at the age of seven months or that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could play the piano brilliantly when blindfolded, with his hands crossed, when he was five year old? How was it that the singer Dido attended the Guildhall School of Music in London at the age of six when most students are in their late teens?

These are all things that are incomprehensible to normal folk and inspire awe and wonder.

Perhaps it is too early to praise Hamilton too highly. One swallow does not make a summer.

The skill itself is not the exceptional thing. We have seen other drivers with these kinds of talent, but what is extraordinary is the fact that Lewis has it all at such an early moment in his career; that he has the poise and the confidence of a veteran after just two race weekends. He has been properly prepared for the job he has to do and for that one must recognise the work done by his family and by the team. He seems sensible and grounded; a grown-up in a world where brats are tolerated rather too much.

"I think the reason for that is that since I was 10 I was at the race track every weekend. I wasn't hanging out and doing stuff with my friends," he said last September. "I was with Dad and I had to be best friends with my Dad. You want to fit in and mix with the grown-ups and so you have to learn at a faster pace than other kids. It is tough growing-up and missing your childhood, because you never get it back, but if I make it in F1 I can have all the toys that I want!"

Success is not an easy thing to handle. There are going to be distractions and adversities in the years to come and it will be how Lewis handles these which may ultimately define his place in the history of the sport.

"The toughest thing about success," said songwriter Irving Berlin, "is that you've got to keep on being a success."

You are only as good as your last race.

But when one looks at Lewis Hamilton's last race, one has to say that this is a very brilliant young man.

Print Feature