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At 3:30 p.m. last
Friday, in the paddock at the Canadian Grand Prix, a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
press attach� set up a standard interview backdrop of three panels festooned
with logos. Within minutes two dozen TV cameramen had assembled in front of it.
Never mind that the man they hoped to film, Lewis Hamilton, wasn't due for
another hour. They stood vigil because, at this moment in the world of auto
racing, there would be no greater horror than for the 22-year-old British
driver to materialize with no minicam present to record the moment.
As he takes his first pass of the circuits, Hamilton is also making a series of figurative left-hand turns into traffic. Being F/1's first black driver is the least of it. ( Willy T. Ribbs test-drove a car for Brabham in 1986, but never actually raced.) Hamilton is a babe in a sport that rarely treats youth kindly. Moreover he's a Brit driving for McLaren, a whiskered name in British motor sports that last won an F/1 team title in 1998. Thus Hamilton is playing out multiple roles as the Great (fill in the blank: Black, Young, British) Hope.
Of those three mantles, race may be the easiest to bear. Hamilton has been able to draft in the slipstream of inevitable comparisons with Tiger Woods, another outriding prodigy who brought new fans to a largely monochromatic sport. Anthony Hamilton has played the role of Earl Woods, the doting father who, recognizing a knack and a passion in his son, sacrificed for the sake of the boy's development. (The son of Grenadian immigrants, Anthony at one point held down three jobs so young Lewis Carl, named after the American track star Carl Lewis, could afford to race go-karts.)
Hamilton shares Woods's self-possession and steady temper, even if he earns a living amidst earsplitting noise and hot asphalt, not hushed galleries and lush fairways. Like Woods, he also has a piebald racial background (his mother, Carmen, who split from Anthony when Lewis was two, is white). And Tiger was hardly more precocious than Lewis, who at age six had already appeared on a BBC children's show, Blue Peter, to showcase his ability to race remote-controlled cars that his father had assembled for him. (He still races those cars with his 16-year-old half-brother, Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy.) Lewis graduated from the remote a couple of years later, after discovering karts during a family vacation in Spain. At an awards banquet in December 1995, wearing borrowed black tie, 10-year-old Lewis--by then Britain's youngest-ever Cadet Class Karting Champion--famously walked up to McLaren chief Ron Dennis to ask for an autograph and told him, "I want to race for you one day."
"Phone me in nine years," Hamilton remembers Dennis replying.
Not three years later, Dennis made Hamilton the youngest driver ever to land a Formula One contract, signing him to apprentice in McLaren's young driver development program. Anthony Hamilton no longer had to moonlight to support his son's career. Lewis progressed smartly through the ranks after that: world No. 1 ranking in Formula A Karting in 2000 (again, the youngest ever); the British Formula Renault title in '03; and championships in F/1's Double A and Triple A circuits, Euro F/3 and GP2, in '05 and '06. The pressure wouldn't get to him on the F/1 circuit, Hamilton told an interviewer back in March, because "I control it and filter it," as if he had long ago been fitted with something from an auto parts store.
By signing Alonso and giving Hamilton its number 2 car for this season, McLaren is facing challenges of its own making, albeit problems that any racing team would love to have. In the preseason McLaren executive Martin Whitmarsh sketched out what he called an ideal scenario, in which Alonso, 25, bagged another world championship and Hamilton was groomed as the driver to take the team into the future. Fine in theory, but reality set in two weeks ago in Monaco. With Alonso and Hamilton running one-two late in the race, McLaren radioed Hamilton to make a pit stop. Several British journalists inferred from the rookie's postrace comments that Hamilton, who finished second, was upset that he hadn't been let loose to go after the win. The tabloids became so indignant that they briefly suspended their excavation of Hamilton's love life ( LEWIS GAVE ME GRAND PRIX ON THE BACK SEAT OF HIS MINI blared News of the World in late May) to howl over the injustice of it all.
Wiser heads in the motoring press challenged Fleet Street's presumption. On a perilous circuit like Monte Carlo's, with a No. 1, world champion driver having earned the pole and holding a lead, it would be imprudent to risk a crash that could wipe out both winner and runner-up. But the outcry, along with Dennis's comment that his drivers had been instructed to "hold station" over the final laps ("You virtually have to decide in advance which one of the team's two drivers will claim the victory," he said), raised enough suspicion that the F�d�ration Internationale d'Automobile jumped in. After rabbinically parsing the difference between midst-of-race "team orders" (forbidden) and overarching "team strategy" (O.K.), the FIA pronounced that McLaren had permissibly practiced the latter. (That's one place where Hamilton parts company with Woods: No third party ever stymied a back-nine charge against Duval, Els and Mickelson.)
Were he not a rookie, and not so preternaturally competitive, Hamilton would have better concealed his disappointment in front of the press in Monte Carlo. By the time he had reached Montreal last week, he was more carefully on message. "The team's going to give me an equal opportunity [to win the championship]," he said last Thursday. "I need to remember I'm extremely privileged to be part of such a fantastic team. They want to see me win as much as I want to win. I'm only five races into my Formula One career. As team boss, [ Dennis] has choices to make."