Lewis Hamilton’s greatness goes far beyond the F1 track

Among the great and the good, Lewis Hamilton stands out. His greatness is unquestionable. Even if he fails to win an eighth Formula One world championship in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, he is a giant of the sport.

His personal development as a positive influence has arguably been even more impressive than his feats behind the wheel. The only obligation required of sportspeople is they do their job well. They are not required to become role models or take stances on social matters. When they do step outside their profession, they are frequently told to keep politics out of sport and to stick to what they are good at. Critics queue up to expose any hint of hypocrisy. It takes a brave individual to put their head above the parapet. Especially if they are black. And even more so in an overwhelmingly white sport.

The challenges facing Hamilton are illustrated most clearly by F1’s ‘We race as one’ moment before each Grand Prix. While the 36-year-old kneels, the majority of his fellow drivers remain standing. The juxtaposition of the words ‘race’ and ‘as one’ is jarring. Hamilton has, unlike his colleagues, experienced some of the forces that led to the Black Lives Matter protests. He has had to live with racism in both its overt and casual forms. They can disassemble any way they like, but 11 of the 20 drivers on the grid cannot even be bothered to make the most superficial gesture in support of someone who is supposed to be one of their own.

As a younger driver, Hamilton sometimes gave the impression that the external world had little to do with him. He was fixated on his own performance and little else. Since then he has grown significantly as a person and is engaged in issues that resonate away from the track.

This has made him a target for the snipers. When he expressed his discomfort with driving in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, he was met with a barrage of “then why are you going, then, you don’t need the money?” type comments.

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One of the disheartening aspects of the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United has been the speed with which some fans turned into apologists for the desert kingdom. No one expected supporters to break ties with the club, but the sight of some wearing robes and keffiyehs has been dispiriting. Riyadh’s record on human rights is enough to make anyone queasy.

Despite these qualms, it is unrealistic to expect Geordies to break off a lifetime’s connection with their team. Likewise, no one should have expected Hamilton to drop out of one of the most important races of his career because of his discomfort with the regime. If anything, Hamilton’s words in Jeddah – calling the Kingdom’s repressive laws against homosexuality “terrifying” and wearing a rainbow helmet – was an antidote to sportswashing. He threw the spotlight on areas that the Saudi government would rather not see highlighted.

Lewis Hamilton wore a rainbow helmet in Saudi Arabai

Compare this to his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who said, “I can’t wait to come back next year,” in a post-race interview.

Most Newcastle supporters – and those of Manchester City, who are owned by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, Sunday’s race venue – will recognise Hamilton’s confliction. Yet supporters and sportspeople should not be held to higher standards than governments who trade with and are allies with repressive regimes. Hamilton could have ignored the situation and gone about his business in Jeddah without making a public statement. Instead he put himself in the line of fire. He is an example for the footballers who will go to the World Cup in Qatar. Many will be keen to ensure that their presence at the tournament is not seen as an endorsement of the host nation’s government.

A proportion of the British public remain lukewarm about Hamilton. Like all elite champions you can pick holes in his personality. Some of the carping about the country’s most successful driver seems to have gone beyond this, though. Some of the latest criticism is breathtaking.

Bernie Ecclestone, the man who controlled F1 for decades, this month suggested Hamilton should have retired before attempting to surpass Michael Schumacher’s tally of seven world championships. The 91-year-old followed up by accusing the Briton of “bullying” Max Verstappen, his title rival. Both attacks on Hamilton are curious as the most exciting season in recent history comes to a close. The Dutchman is a brilliant racer but some of the Red Bull driver’s in-race behaviour has come close to the edge on a number of occasions during the campaign. Some of the 24-year-old’s antics have verged on reckless.

Perhaps Ecclestone is dismayed that Hamilton broke ranks over Saudi Arabia. It was not the sort of conduct he approved of when he was controlling F1. Or maybe the basis of the feud is explained by Ecclestone’s reaction to Hamilton’s efforts to increase diversity in the sport. “In a lot of cases, black people are more racist than what white people are,” the nonagenarian said.

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This is the sort of viewpoint that the man from Stevenage has had to contend with throughout his life, never mind his career. He has had much tougher challenges to overcome than Verstappen.

Whatever happens in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton’s reputation has been enhanced this season. On and off the track. His voice grows stronger by the year and what he has to say is right much more often than it is wrong.

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