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JULY 8, 2008

What a difference a year makes


Lewis Hamilton wrestled his car to pole position at the 2007 British Grand Prix, and could seemingly do no wrong. Immediately afterwards, as dad Anthony headed down the paddock to congratulate his son, Hamilton senior was swamped by media wanting the inside track on the team's feelings.

The McLaren rookie was on top of the world, and in with a real chance of becoming World Champion in his first season.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, and at around 2pm Anthony Hamilton followed the same path down through the paddock and past the TV compound. Lewis had qualified only fourth, but he was still the highest placed British driver at his home race, and the man that most media wanted to talk to. The difference this time was that his father was heading to Race Control, while Lewis spoke to members of the press outside the FIA garage. It was a walk that Hamilton's manager made alone and without question, stopped only by one FIA official before he entered the building.

The golden boy of 2007 had fallen from media acclaim in the course of those intervening 12 months, with mutterings that his father's managerial role was not helping his cause. In Thursday's press conference Lewis had accepted a triathlon challenge from Jenson Button; with 10,000 Pounds to the charity of his choice should he win - an interesting match-up for a good cause, with obvious fitness benefits.

Dad Anthony did not see it that way and pulled the plug within the half hour.

Admittedly, there are valid arguments from both sides whether Lewis should compete in such an event, but in the overall scheme of things it was a story with a huge amount of positive PR potential. Anthony's comment that "we have a championship to concentrate on" was not tactful. Jenson may not have the car to fight for race victories but that does not mean he is just as serious about F1 as Lewis. In any case, if he wanted to axe the challenge, Anthony might ave chosen a better moment to say it. Instead he created negative headlines.

With Hamilton not even in the press conference on Saturday, having failed to qualify in the top three, his World Championship hopes seemed to be slipping away. There have been too many mistakes, attributed by some as being because Lewis has too many commitments in addition to the high expectation of the British fans.

Then came the rains of Sunday, and the requirement for total concentration, skill and focus.

What a difference 60 laps make.

All the talk on the grid was of Hamilton's qualifying error following on from two races without a point. The question was not could Lewis win but whether Heikki Kovalainen would race away to take a maiden F1 victory. British hopes had turned to just that: hopes.

But Hamilton is made of stern stuff. By the first corner Lewis was challenging for the lead. A disaster was averted at the first corner when the two McLarens touched but no damage was done and Lewis tucked in behind his team mate and waited. He had the confidence to bide his time before making his move on the fifth lap, to take a lead he barely broke sweat to hold on to.

His driving display after that certainly ranks up there with the best of them all, as the conditions allowed Hamilton to showcase his unmistakable raw talent on a more level playing field.

Rain really does sort the men from the boys and often experience brings results. It did for Rubens Barrichello, his third place being a testament to the many years he has raced in the sport. The only problem was that Rubens was over a minute back down the road from Britain's next World Champion.

Hamilton has seen two sides to the media, and British public, in his first two seasons. When he clambered from his McLaren in parc ferme, he opened his arms in a gesture that said: "Ladies and Gentlemen. That is what I can do!" It was not an "I told you so". No-one was being blanked.

His brother Nicholas had told him before the race: "You're a master in the wet" and their embrace afterwards sent out a message that it was his opinion that mattered, and no-one else's.

Lewis may have had doubters before the race, and may even have doubted himself, but the performance that followed when those five red lights went out dispelled them all. The timing couldn't have been better.

Hamilton arrived at Silverstone in a crisis. He left with the air of a champion.