The child prodigy Lewis Hamilton is a man now but needs a guiding hand more than ever
Tiger Woods lost his father, slewed off the rails, and has so far been unable to find his way back. Mike Tyson lost his mentor and surrogate parent, Cus D’Amato, and slipped his emotional moorings, never to recover. Now Lewis Hamilton appears to be demonstrating, week by week, that the decision to cut himself free from his father’s guiding influence is having a questionable effect on his career.
Not that Hamilton is ready to admit as much. “I’ll take my driving style to my deathbed, for sure,” he told the BBC on Friday after his erratic behaviour of recent months had come under renewed criticism from Felipe Massa, the victim of a Hamilton-induced accident in Monaco.
“When you have some difficult races, when maybe you’re trying too much, you have to calm down a bit,” Massa said after arriving at Silverstone here for Sunday’s British Grand Prix. “It would be better for him, too, because he was paying for it. He was penalised in a few races. And it was not just with me. He even hit his own team?mate.”
Once a prodigy, the world champion of 2008 is no longer a child. Hamilton is 26 now, a fully grown and highly marketable man whose face can be seen in every high street, selling mortgages and mohair suits. His talent at the wheel of a Formula One car is unquestioned. But his displays of truculence in the face of temporary misfortune seem to have been drawn from another sport, or another world, altogether.
Four years ago in Melbourne, while the 21-year-old was on the podium celebrating a brilliant third-place finish on his grand prix debut, Niki Lauda was among the motor racing immortals queuing up to praise him. “I’ve never seen anybody perform in his first race like he did,” the three-times champion said. That same day Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart also spoke with the unfettered enthusiasm of fans. To Moss, Hamilton had unlimited potential. “He’s the best thing I’ve seen in Formula One since I came into it in the 50s,” he said. To Stewart, the secret of Hamilton’s freakish composure in the heat of battle was his exemplary “mind-management”.
Recently, however, Hamilton has given those cheerleaders many reasons to revise their approval. Moss and Stewart were critical of his performance in Monaco, where he responded to a piece of misfortune in qualifying with an impetuosity that provoked mid-race collisions with Massa and Pastor Maldonado. His attempt to blame the victims was equally ill-received.
There were further incidents with Mark Webber and Jenson Button in Montreal a fortnight later, drawing an outburst from Lauda that was remarkable even by the Austrian’s normal standard of bluntness. “He is completely mad,” Lauda said. “You cannot drive like this. It will result in someone getting killed.”
Hamilton’s reponse came during the next race weekend, in Valencia. “What Niki Lauda thinks of me, I really couldn’t give a toss about it,” he told the London Evening Standard. This is a sport in which respect for former champions, particularly those of earlier generations, is a given. But Hamilton said that the only opinion he would have taken seriously was that of Ayrton Senna, his boyhood idol. It was an example of Hamilton’s defiance in the face of criticism which has also encompassed his behaviour out of the cockpit.
In the Montreal paddock last month he was surrounded by a posse of friends and associates. One of them, the rapper Ice-T, took a camera into the McLaren garage and made a film which ended up on YouTube. Its commentary created a stir. “Here we are, in the McLaren pit, some place you’ll never be in your fucking life,” Ice-T announced. “All you F1 fans, I know all you motherfuckers right now are jackin’ off to this. This is Lewis’s car. See that steering wheel? Cost more than your fucking house.”
Welcome to the world in which Hamilton now chooses to move, particularly since last year, when he severed the link with his father, Anthony, who had put him into a go-kart at the age of six and managed his career all the way to the 2008 Formula One world championship. After many months of deliberation, Hamilton signed up with Simon Fuller, the music business entrepreneur who invented Pop Idol and whose company, XIX Entertainment, manages David and Victoria Beckham, Annie Lennox, Jennifer Lopez and Andy Murray.
Hamilton has never disguised his attraction to the world of show business. As well as Ice-T, the rappers Sean “Puffy” Combs and Pharrell Williams are friends. His girlfriend is the singer Nicole Schertzinger, a former Pussycat Doll. During his deliberations over the choice of new management, he spoke about wanting to expand the appeal of his “brand”.
Many drivers of previous generations – Moss, Stewart and Lauda in particular – were acutely aware of their commercial value. None of them, however, allowed it to affect their performance on the track. But Hamilton’s embrace of celebrity appears to have saddled him with a sense of self-importance that is seriously disturbed when another driver – currently Sebastian Vettel, the winner of six of this season’s eight races – consistently gets the better of him.
In his mind this appears to be affront to the natural order, and his frustration brings a desperate ragged edge to his driving. Back in 2007 he could spot a gap that no one else had seen and thread his car through it. Now he seems to want to bash his way, as if by divine right, through gaps that do not exist. Senna suffered from the same delusion in his battles with Alain Prost.
Back in 2007, in that sunlit Melbourne paddock, Stewart spoke of the work Hamilton had done with Dr Kerry Spackman, a neuroscientist from New Zealand who specialises in preparing athletes’ minds. A few weeks later, when Hamilton was leading the championship, Spackman told me how their extensive collaboration on reinforcing mental processes had enhanced Hamilton’s decision-making capacity.
“What he has,” Spackman said, “is what Michael Schumacher had. It’s a structure and a process for how they learn and improve. Schumacher had a filing system in his mind, and every experience was a learning experience. That enabled him to improve every day. The same is true of Lewis. In an emergency, he’s exceptionally well prepared. He probably has 25 solutions in his mind. Most people turn up and drive and just deal with situations as they occur. He has the structure to handle it.”
The result was obvious when Hamilton overtook two cars – one of them driven by Fernando Alonso, his team-mate and the reigning world champion – in the first corner on the first lap of his first grand prix. Shortly after that conversation, however, for reasons that have never been explained, Spackman stopped working with Hamilton, which makes something else the mind-management expert said that day seem freighted, in the light of recent events, with a new resonance. “For a driver,” he remarked, “your on-track performance is so incredibly affected by what happens off the track – by your private life, by how you go about life. Other people in F1, things trigger them into a downward spiral pretty quickly. But Lewis is very good at that. He’s got a pretty well?rounded emotional system.”
No doubt Hamilton would claim that nothing has changed. Others, without disputing the continued existence of that sublime talent, would disagree. First he did without the man who had helped him to manage his mind: his Cus D’Amato. Then he dismissed the father who had shaped his career decisions: his Earl Woods. As he struggles to find the path to that second championship while watching Vettel disappear into the distance, their replacements – impresarios, rappers, marketing experts – have yet to demonstrate their value.