Thursday, 2 June 2011

Defend The Indefensible: Hamilton Had A Point!


In true Fighting Talk style, the challenge is to claim that Lewis Hamilton had a point when he made his post race comments which have seen him castigated by all and sundry, following last Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix.

At first glance this is not an easy task. It appears that the brakes on Hamilton's tongue are not carbon fibre as he struggled to slow down his over-heated tongue from spouting forth every random, frustrated thought going through his brain. You could see the battle between brain and tongue being played out live to the television cameras. He knew he probably shouldn't be saying what he was, but at the same time could not stop himself. So what exactly did this momentary loss of reason teach us?

The first, and biggest, lesson was that Lewis Hamilton is a better racing driver than he is a stand up comedian. While the Monaco stewards, and in turn the governing body, may well have taken issue with both of these skills, his references to 'is it cos I is black?' is unlikely to have won him any friends in the paddock, halls of power or even among the fans watching. It may have been said in jest, but Lewis has rightly now apologised for remarks that were certainly in bad taste. In light of the genuine struggles that many people still have to overcome because of the colour of their skin, such remarks from a privileged racing driver were hard to swallow.

His comments that his fellow drivers were 'frickin stupid' should make for an interesting reception for Hamilton at the Canadian Grand Prix from those fellow drivers. Although we can safely assume that those comments were aimed primarily at Felipe Massa and Pastor Maldonado, they will be comments that will not gain favour with any of his colleagues. There are only 24 drivers in the elite world of Formula 1 racing, and following those remarks Lewis may well find that it is a lonelier world once you have alienated yourself from your fellow drivers. Nobody has a divine right to win, or even to successfully overtake. Claiming that drivers were stupid for not giving way just because Lewis wanted to pass shows a poor lack of judgement.

Then there is the issue of the race stewards. Putting aside the fact that references to being persecuted because he is black were a joke, there was no hiding the fact that Lewis feels genuinely angry and hard done by because of the amount of times he is being called to explain himself to the stewards. Claiming that the actions of the stewards (not just the Monaco stewards) were a 'frickin joke' was another step towards alienating himself from those he has to deal with as he carries out his beloved passion for racing. Questioning either their integrity or abilities is unlikely to help him in these dealings. As Martin Brundle pointed out in commentary, Lewis has a mindset that looks to blame everybody but himself in these situations. It is a mindset that will need to be dealt with for the sake of Lewis' career.

But wait a minute. I'm not doing very well at this fighting talk lark. I'm meant to be defending Lewis - not adding to the criticisms. Luckily for me, the challenge was to claim that Lewis had a point. I only need to find one aspect of what he said that made some sense, and I can find two.

The first is so obvious that it leaves no room for argument. Lewis was asked how he felt. That his comments were an accurate description of how he felt is beyond dispute. They may not have been the best thought through comments ever made in a post race interview, but they were brutally honest. In an age when we can predict most of the words that are about to come out of a drivers mouth at any given time, there was a refreshing quality to hearing a driver speak his mind. Toeing the party line has become a skill that most drivers are as adept at as they are at driving their cars. Corporate sponsors need to be satisfied and that means giving safe, banal answers to any question faced. Don't rock the boat (especially at Monaco - its a deep harbour!).

David Coulthard has warned that we (both fans, and in particular the media) cannot have it both ways. We long for drivers to give honest, insightful answers to questions. We want the low down on what is really going on. However, when we receive those insights and honest feedback we are quick to criticise when the answers are not politically correct. Despite some of the comments being inadvisable, we should at least appreciate the honesty of his answers. Don't expect it to last though. The reaction to his comments will probably ensure that Lewis will be playing it safe from now on. Expect the remainder of the season to be filled with Lewis Hamilton making Kimi Raikonen's interviews look exciting!

The other, perhaps more significant, area where Lewis had a point is in the general concept that fans want to see overtaking and wheel to wheel racing. We do not want to see processions of cars lapping our racing circuits. It is of course in Lewis' interest to promote this style of racing as it is where he excels. However, this does not dilute the point.

The response to this year's rule changes, which have undoubtedly led to more overtaking and excitement, has been very positive. Increased overtaking opportunities inevitably lead to the more exciting drivers, such as Hamilton, being involved in more incidents. Hamilton's aggression is part of what makes him such an exciting driver. There is no doubt that this adds to the spectacle on offer. However, it is also a risky strategy. At times it will win him races - at others it will cost him races. This is no different than it is for 'boring' safety first drivers. At times their desire to avoid incidents will cost them races when they miss opportunities for success. At other times it will win them races as others fall away in front of them. This is just part and parcel of racing.

Monaco, however, is unique. It presents a dilemma to the Formula 1 world. If the circuit was removed from its location, it would never be allowed a place on the racing calendar. It fails in terms of safety, track length and overtaking opportunities. However, it is not removed from its location. This is Monaco and it is special. Nobody wants to see it removed from the calendar. The place is steeped in motor racing history and has a special place in any Formula 1 fan's heart. And there is the dilemma.

We want exciting races, but we also want safe races. As a result of this rules have been drawn up that stewards must follow to decide what is safe racing and what is not. These rules, while not perfect, work well at every circuit - every circuit except Monaco! At Monaco no overtaking manoeuvres are risk free. There is no point on the circuit where two evenly matched cars, on the same lap, can pass without risk of incident. Each overtake relies upon both drivers co-operating to avoid incident. Everytime a driver attempts an overtake they risk causing a collision. These collisions would certainly be avoidable as the driver could have chosen not to overtake. Nobody wants to see a race where the only passing takes place in the pit lane though.

Lewis Hamilton is able to claim some moral high ground on this point. Despite the fact that he is an extremely competitive racer, he allowed Micheal Schumacher room when overtaken at the hairpin. Yes, contact was made - but it was not even an incident that required consideration from the stewards. It can be argued that the only difference between that manoeuvre and the manoeuvre Hamilton attempted on Massa was the room given by the other car. I am not arguing that Massa was in the wrong - he wasn't. However, perhaps it is time for the stewards to adopt a more flexible approach to Monaco.

We are already more than happy to offer an element of leeway when it comes to other aspects such as safety or track layout. Why not offer some leeway in what qualifies as a racing incident? I am not pretending to have the answers to this dilemma. We want to see racing, yet we don't want to see a race where only a few cars avoid being knocked off the track. Lewis Hamilton's outburst may not have provided any answers to this dilemma either, but he definately had a point in raising the question.

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