Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix 2015

Briton brings his own touch of black magic

Lewis Hamilton's jet-setting lifestyle and his huge social-media appeal, combined with his penchant for Cartier bracelets, diamond earrings and tattoos, make him a superstar of the sport.
Lewis Hamilton's jet-setting lifestyle and his huge social-media appeal, combined with his penchant for Cartier bracelets, diamond earrings and tattoos, make him a superstar of the sport.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Lewis Hamilton's jet-setting lifestyle and his huge social-media appeal, combined with his penchant for Cartier bracelets, diamond earrings and tattoos, make him a superstar of the sport.
Lewis Hamilton's jet-setting lifestyle and his huge social-media appeal, combined with his penchant for Cartier bracelets, diamond earrings and tattoos, make him a superstar of the sport.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Lewis Hamilton is carving a unique niche in Formula One history

It is go time at the Singapore Grand Prix. There are whispers at the Marina Bay Street Circuit of how Lewis Hamilton is on the cusp of history - as a win under the island's city lights could see him equal one of the sport's greatest records.

The 30-year-old Briton, though, is unfazed. On a Thursday night, on the eve of his defence of his Singapore GP crown, the reigning world champion preferred to talk about his other loves in the high-octane life of an F1 ace.

The Cartier bracelets he sports hint of his love for fashion, which has seen him grace red carpets from London to New York.

His diamond earrings and African lion tattoo give a glimpse of his songwriting, hip-hop side.

Fast-driving just as he is smooth-talking, easy on the eye just as he is charming to the sponsors, Hamilton brings a touch of the late James Hunt to the sport, although he already has one more world title than the 1976 champion and is poised to win a third.

Perhaps F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone summed it up best by calling Hamilton the "best world champion we've had", acknowledging not just his skill and marketability, but his unrivalled social-media following as well.

Ranked 55th on Forbes' celebrity earnings list, Hamilton is Britain's best-paid sportsman with annual earnings upwards of £36 million (S$78.3 million).

With a bank account increasing substantially after each race, one could say the Mercedes driver has made it in a sport where no black driver has ever made inroads. Yet, the former karting champion, who grew up in a middle-class family in Stevenage, has bigger plans.

He saw how Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods transcended race and rivals to dominate basketball and golf in a manner unlike any athlete before them. They swept titles in their sports, cementing legacies through astute endorsements and meaningful charity work.

Hamilton now stands on the brink of joining F1 royalty, as a win tomorrow will see him tie Sebastian Vettel and the late Ayrton Senna with 41 race triumphs - and lift him to joint third in the list of all-time wins, behind only Alain Prost (51) and Michael Schumacher (91).

However, Hamilton has already surpassed four-time world champion Vettel in terms of poles won (49 to 45) and podium places (81 to 74), even though he is inching closer to a third world title.

Speaking to The Straits Times in an interview organised by team sponsor Hugo Boss, the Briton recalled how motor racing was once "white-dominated" - to the point that his family drew glares and whispers at karting races.

"I look at people like Jordan, Tiger, in terms of what they did for their sports," he said.

"My family went through a lot at my races growing up but we kept our heads down... we beat people (on track) and it was the greatest feeling.

"Now, there are Asian kids, black kids, even white kids coming up and saying, 'I want to do what you guys have done'."

What he has done, in the words of Red Bull rival Daniel Ricciardo, who won three races last year, is "quite simply ridiculous and amazing".

At speeds of 300kmh, the slightest twitch on the steering wheel or mis-step on the pedal can prove costly. Yet, Hamilton rarely falters, sometimes coasting through tracks as if the 19 other drivers are mere distractions - with his seven wins and 11 poles this year from 12 races proof of his dominance.

No doubt, the Mercedes F1 W06 Hybrid car is one of the sport's finest mechanical creations.

Force India driver Sergio Perez argues that F1 today is "80 per cent car, 20 per cent driver".

BROAD-BASED INSPIRATION

Now, there are Asian kids, black kids, even white kids coming nup and saying, 'I want to do what you guys have done'.''

LEWIS HAMILTON, whose family's ethnicity drew glares and whispers at karting races

Yet, it must be noted that Hamilton's team-mate Nico Rosberg (with three wins and one pole) has not been as imperious in his own Mercedes beast.

Dominance breeds debate, as fans and pundits seek to establish Hamilton's standing among one-time F1 kings like Senna, Schumacher and Prost.

Veteran F1 columnist David Tremayne believes the former McLaren speedster ranks right up there with the greats, pointing to his first two seasons (2007, 2008) as a mark of his excellence.

Then team-mate Fernando Alonso was a defending double world champion but it was the rookie who stole the show with podiums in his first nine races.

Tremayne said: "Look at the way Lewis dominated Monaco in 2008 when he won his first world championship. The way he won the British Grand Prix at Silverstone that same year when everyone else made mistakes in the rain was so majestic."

Added former driver and fellow Briton David Coulthard, now a commentator for BBC and a UBS ambassador: "He's undoubtedly one of the greats. It's difficult right now to sort of do a final chapter; we need to wait until the end of his career.

"But in terms of the ultimate group of very fast drivers, he's one of those guys. Mika Hakkinen, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, (Michael) Schumacher, (Juan Manuel) Fangio if you go way back - there's always been headline guys who have been able to multi-year achieve and he's in that category.

"The only thing we don't know is if he's (going to be) a four-time or a five-time world champion."

Critics argue that Vettel should be ahead in the unofficial hall of fame queue. Others reminisce over 1970s icons such as Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda.

Williams veteran Felipe Massa, however, believes the "old is gold" adage should be discarded. Using a football analogy, the Brazilian said: "We always thought Pele was the greatest. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are proving otherwise now. We should not wait for someone to retire to say he's great."

At half-time in Hamilton's career, few would bet against him becoming the greatest F1 driver of all time.

On the streets of Marina Bay tomorrow, Singapore could well witness a major step in one man's journey to the top of motor racing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2015, with the headline 'Briton brings his own touch of black magic'. Print Edition | Subscribe