Just after the Malaysian Grand Prix, Negative Camber posted a couple of rants up over at Formula 1 Blog about the excuses that the British media were making for Lewis Hamilton after his mediocre showing.
First of all, the media have used the fact that Hamilton was unable to drink water as a convenient explanation of his poor form. It has to be said, the nadir is this headline in The Daily
Excess : Thirsty work but Lewis shows bottle.
What all of these stories fail to mention is the fact that Robert Kubica was also unable to drink his water because it was too hot. He joked that he might as well put tea in the bottle instead. Additionally, Kubica had been ill all week. All of this didn’t stop him from finishing second in the race.
Not only this, but Fernando Alonso also had a problem with his drink! On the Renault podcast this week they made the same joke about tea. Admittedly, Alonso’s performance was not so stellar either. But it goes to show that this water problem does not make Hamilton as much of a hero as the British press is attempting to make out.
Water problems do not only afflict drivers in Malaysia. In the Australian Grand Prix, in similarly hot conditions, Heidfeld’s drink mechanism completely failed before the beginning of the race, as you will see in the liveblog from that race (discussion 5:27 onwards). Despite this, Quick Nick was good enough to finish 2nd.
In short: nice try, British press, but the excuse just doesn’t cut it.
A different explanation was put forward by Maurice Hamilton in a blog post for the Top Gear website.
This was not Lewis Hamilton’s weekend. He woke on Saturday morning to an unspecified personal problem ‘I’m not telling you about it but it’s something I’ve learned to deal with’ and his day – and subsequently, his race – went downhill from there.
The only other place I have heard this mentioned was very briefly on the BBC’s Chequered Flag podcast, which is co-presented by… Maurice Hamilton. The nature of Lewis Hamilton’s problem is sketchy. David Croft suggested it may just be that he got out on the wrong side of his bed. But if there is something more serious occupying Hamilton’s mind, that may be a more plausible explanation for his scruffy weekend. It certainly explains why he was on top on Friday but decidedly mediocre from Saturday onwards.
If Lewis Hamilton does have a problem in his private life, he has my sympathy. But a great driver knows how to cope with such things. I remember when Michael Schumacher’s mother died. Personal problems do not get much bigger than that. Yet the next day he took the race victory in Imola.
If you think I am judging Lewis Hamilton harshly here, you are right. So what is the point I am trying to make? Well, it brings me on to Negative Camber’s second post and the accompanying rant that can be found on this week’s Formula 1 Blog podcast.
It is difficult to fault Negative Camber’s point that it was premature of British journalists to start comparing Hamilton to legendary drivers like Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna. It still angers me to this day that Matt Bishop said on the radio that Hamilton was in a league with Fangio, Clark, Senna, Schumacher — and no-one else.
It was just such a ridiculous thing to say. It simply devalues the achievements of the four truly great drivers that Bishop placed in that ‘top tier’. It does absolutely no justice to the legacies of Fangio, Clark and Senna.
And Bishop said that just three races into Hamilton’s career! We hadn’t even seen Hamilton win a race yet. In fairness, he has since achieved that. But we also hadn’t seen him drive a wet race — and we’ve since seen him fail that challenge. We also hadn’t seen him face a championship battle — and we’ve since seen him fail that challenge.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. It now seems to be taken as read — in the British press at least, though not so much in he rest of the world it seems (I wonder why!) — that Hamilton is one of the greatest drivers ever to have lived. Negative Camber is right to say that if you are going to treat a driver like this so early on in his career, you should expect little less than perfection. You expect to see a Schumacher-grade performance week-in, week-out.
Of course, Schumacher had his off days, as does every other human being on the planet. But this is the point. Careers are made of ups and downs. They are not made in one season, and they are certainly not made of three races.
At some points during a career, a driver will find himself in a good car, in good circumstances and with luck on his side. This was the situation with Hamilton, at least in the first half of 2007. At other points, a driver will find himself in more challenging circumstances and luck won’t quite go his way. And that is when you find out if a driver really is worth the hype.
The point is that it’s swings and roundabouts. Lewis Hamilton had a problematic pitstop during the Malaysian Grand Prix. This was the most convincing of the explanations of Hamilton’s below-par result put forward by the British journalists.
Now, I have seen a lot of people saying that he was “destined” for a podium were it not for that pitstop problem. This could well be true. Hamilton was, after all, ahead of Kovalainen before the first round of pitstops. But if bad luck cost him the podium, good luck would also have won him it. Massa’s spin automatically promoted Hamilton one position. In F1, you take the rough with the smooth.
Moreover, the press raves about Hamilton being a prodigious passer. Yet he struggled for several laps to find a way past Webber and Trulli. Extending the “what if” argument, I could just as easily say that Hamilton would have been destined for a podium if he was able to pass Webber early on in the race. The fact that he didn’t get that podium place was down to his lack of skill.
Complaints about the bad luck of the pitstop also ignore the possibility (and I admit that it is just a possibility, before anyone starts moaning in the comments, but at least I acknowledge both sides of the story) that the problem could have been caused by Hamilton’s driving style. We have seen Hamilton struggle in terms of tyre management a few times now. I think it is notable that most of Hamilton’s major mechanical failures have been tyre-related. He obviously pushes them too hard.
In Malaysia, we saw some bad wear on his left front tyre. The pitcrew had trouble getting his right front tyre off. It is feasible that Hamilton’s driving style could have been the root of the problem.
When you begin to point out the defects in the story that has been built by the British F1
storytellers the standard fallback is to enthuse about his “amazing rookie season”. No doubt about it, Hamilton’s rookie season was indeed amazing. The stats speak for themselves.
But who was the most successful rookie before Lewis Hamilton? Jacques Villeneuve, that’s who. The circumstances are quite similar actually. Both drivers took four wins (although Villeneuve did so when the season had fewer races), both drivers gave their more experienced team mate a run for their money and both drivers were in what was almost certainly the best car at the time.
Arguably, Jacques Villeneuve’s task was more difficult than Hamilton’s. Hamilton was groomed for the position for over a decade and methodically made his way through the standard route to F1. Hamilton’s last destination before F1 was GP2, a series that is specifically designed as F1’s feeder series.
Meanwhile, Jacques Villeneuve took the less conventional route via CART IndyCar. These are very different cars to F1 machines. We have since seen a succession of drivers make the move from CART or IndyCar to F1. All of them were disappointments by F1 standards. Indeed, after his rather good first two seasons, Jacques Villeneuve’s F1 career was one long spiralling disaster.
There is no dispute as to whether or not Lewis Hamilton is good. Everyone knows that Hamilton is good. The question is this: Is he good in a Clark, Senna or Schumacher sense? Or is he good in a Jacques Villeneuve sense?
The answer on 27 March 2008 is that we simply don’t know. Hamilton may very well turn out to be this generation’s Senna. When that happens — and we will only know after a few more years — then I will be celebrating his success. But it is disingenuous to say today that he is this generation’s Senna. There is simply no way of knowing if that is the truth.
Now consider the possibility that Hamilton isn’t this generation’s Senna, contrary to what the British journalists have been saying. Then what? The journalists, having colluded to make a mountain out of a molehill in order to further their careers, will then have serious egg on their collective face. Then they will have to come up with their excuses. And we all know what happens then. In traditional British media style, they will rip Lewis Hamilton apart.
So when I sound a note of caution about Lewis Hamilton it is not just because I am a party pooper. It is basic common sense that stops me from comparing Hamilton to the likes of Senna and Clark until he has truly established himself as being worthy of such company.
Because if he underperforms from now on (and it is an if), the British public will be ready to rip him apart for the crime of being good rather than great. And how awful would that be?
Where does blogging come into this? Well, there is an old debate about whether blogs, podcasts and the like are competing with and / or threatening the future of traditional media outlets.
My normal response to this is that the debate is a red herring. Blogs and the MSM can complement each other, but they do not often compete with each other. The point is to recognise where your competitive advantage is.
The mainstream media has the resources to cover a story properly, from all the angles. They can afford to hire trained journalists. In short, their competitive advantage is in balanced reporting. This means that if I turn to the section of the newspaper headed “Formula 1” I expect to see a Formula 1 report, not a barely disguised Lewis Hamilton report.
And don’t give me this “of course the British papers will follow the British driver” tosh. Formula 1 drivers don’t represent countries — they represent themselves! F1 has never been a sport about nationalities. Despite the dominance of Ferrari, Italy has never won a scratch in an F1 season. F1 is a sport about teams of constructors and individual drivers.
Normally you would turn to the blogs for the polemics and the opinionated rants. But it is clear to me that, in Britain at least, the roles have been reversed. British F1 fans have nowhere to turn for an unslanted professional take on events. Now it is up to the bloggers to step up to the plate.
I’m not just saying this. Despite what I have said in this post, I have become less irate about the British media’s coverage over the winter. This might be because I have become immune to it having been subjected to it all last season. But I have another theory — I have subconsciously stopped looking to the mainstream media as my first destination of F1 news and opinion. I wasn’t even aware of what the British journalists were writing until I read Negative Camber’s posts and heard his rants.
In the past I always listened to the BBC’s Chequered Flag podcast first. Sometime, without consciously realising it, I swapped to listening to Sidepodcast and Formula 1 Blog’s podcast before listening to any mainstream media offering. This must be because I am getting a better overall view of events from the amateurs than I am from the professionals. What a sorry state for the British media to be in.