MAY 10, 2006

The F1 world discovers Lewis Hamilton

Social observers sometimes remark that F1 is not a truly global sport because it features no black drivers and no Chinese but the fact is that it does not matter if you are an eskimo or a Navajo as long as you are one of the fastest men in the world. The problem for F1 has always been that there were few opportunities for anyone other than wealthy Europeans and occasional wealthy Brazilians. If you come from outside Europe you are at a disadvantage. Until recent years even Australians and Americans struggled to get into F1 because to make the grade one had to learn about racing in Europe. There is evidence of this in the last few days with the fate that has befallen Yuji Ide, a fast driver in Japan who had too much to learn in too short a space of time.

Formula 1 is a very insular world with many of those involved never looking beyond the boundaries of the paddock into other areas of the sport, let alone the big world that exists out there somewhere. In order to get noticed a driver outside Formula 1 has to do something pretty spectacular. And thus it is that in recent days Formula 1 has discovered Lewis Hamilton, after the young British driver demanded the attention of the paddock with two extraordinary victories in GP2 at the Nurburgring. Hamilton is a GP2 new boy. He is driving for the most successful team but what has really stood out is not the fact that he has started winning but rather that he is doing it in such a way as to humiliate his team mate Alexandre Premat, a man who has a year of GP2 experience and was pretty evenly matched with Nico Rosberg in 2005.

Hamilton seems to be in a different league and given the rave reviews that Rosberg has had this year for his efforts with Williams, Hamilton will make an even bigger splash if he does get a chance in a good car in F1. Going straight into a McLaren is not going to be an easy thing to achieve. Ron Dennis tried that with F1 debutants Andrea de Cesaris and Michael Andretti and neither relationship was a success. But we forget sometimes that McLaren also tried that with Ayrton Senna and the Brazilian turned down the offer.

Hamilton was born in Tewin, a small Hertfordshire village between Welwyn Garden City and Hertford. It has a church, two pubs, a telephone box and a shop. His father Anthony is an IT manager who describes the family as having been "middle of the road". Anthony's parents were originally from Trinidad and when eight-year-old Lewis first went kart racing at Buckmore Park he stood out for two reasons: the first was that he was quick; the second was that he was black.

If he does make it to F1 Hamilton will not be the first black F1 driver. Willy T Ribbs tested for Brabham at Estoril in January 1986. One might argue that he will be the first black man to race in the World Championship but at the same time one can hardly accuse Narain Karthikeyan of being white. Ultimately, however, the colour is not the thing that matters. Hamilton will be judged on his performance. His credentials are impressive: a world and European karting champion, the British Formula Renault Champion, the European Formula 3 Champion and now, an instant success in GP2.

He seems to be getting better as he gets more horsepower to handle - and that is what is really important.