Hamilton Mania 10/04/07

It is a difficult thing to write about Formula 1 and not state the obvious, but it's almost unavoidable. The direct relationship between success, television coverage and public perception is one of those obvious facts of F1. If a team or driver is experiencing a consistent run at the front of the pack, they will receive more television coverage and column inches than those who aren't. A very good example of this is the relative disappearance of Renault F1's Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds from ITV's F1 coverage over the first two grands prix of the 2007 season. You would be forgiven for thinking that they were no longer a part of the F1 circus if ITV's coverage is anything to go by. They have of course not gone anywhere, they just aren't winning races or achieving podiums, but they are still scoring points. A massive drop-off in performance compared to Ferrari, McLaren and BMW Sauber has made them midfield point-scorers as opposed to race winners as they were over the past two seasons. As a result, we are no longer graced with Flav's sweat patches and flamboyant and emotional reactions during the races or Symonds's sensible post-race analyses.

One rather downplayed reason for Renault's lack of front-running form is World Champion Fernando Alonso's move to McLaren. It is doubtful that Alonso would be challenging for race wins in the current R27 Renault, but you just know he would be eclipsing Fisichella's current best effort of 5th, and may well have scored a podium at either Melbourne or Sepang. As it is however, he has scored a second place and win at those tracks respectively. His performance at Sepang last Sunday was nothing short of imperious, a lesson in how to lead and control a race, not to mention deliver a victory in only your second race for a new team, a team who didn't win a single race the previous year. Kimi Raikkonen's achievement of delivering Ferrari a race win on his debut is an equally impressive feat, although Ferrari are not coming off an unsuccessful winless season as McLaren are.

However, living in the UK and watching ITV's coverage, how can anyone follow any aspect of F1 and not hear about rookie Lewis Hamilton? Whether you follow him with a bursting sense of much-deprived British national pride or are sick to the teeth of the amount of times you've heard his name to the point where you'd be forgiven for thinking he was the only driver in the race on Sunday, it cannot be denied that his debut performances have been superb. Withstanding pressure from two faster Ferraris, two extremely talented and more experienced drivers, two podiums in two appearances, two completed races and two accomplished team performances. The boy has most certainly done good, but I fear the public perception is being annoyingly influenced by the television coverage. Let's not forget that he was 0.7 seconds off Alonso in qualifying and finished almost 20 seconds behind him in the race. Fernando Alonso could not have done anything better in the two races he has driven for McLaren so far. Having been blocked off by Heidfeld, Hamilton was ahead of Alonso for most of the Australian GP, so Alonso knowing there was no pace to match the Ferrari, planned how to usurp second from Hamilton. From that point on he didn't stress his engine, conserved fuel and tyres over 2 stints and when the time came, he had more fuel than expected, managed a whole extra lap on low fuel, rattled off a couple of searing laps and came out comfortably ahead of Hamilton for the last stint, and then proceeded to pull away. What else was to be expected of him? Was he supposed to hassle his team mate, risk an accident, stress an engine that was required for the furnace of Malaysia and waste fuel? No.

But how did it look to the public and how was it portrayed? It looked as though Fernando didn't have the speed to match Hamilton and couldn't catch or pass him. But he did. I think to expect Hamilton to have gotten the better of Alonso on his debut was asking way too much. What Hamilton had achieved was stellar enough! In Sepang, Hamilton holding up the Ferraris also helped Alonso scamper away at the front without the threat of Massa or Raikkonen breathing down his neck. However, if neither of the Ferraris could actually pass Hamilton (the slower McLaren) successfully, how did anyone expect them to pass Alonso when he was faster than Hamilton? Alonso would probably have won the race had Massa and Raikkonen passed Hamilton, but by no means as easily as he did. Hamilton did however set the fastest lap of the race, but it should be remembered that he did this on the most optimal combination of low fuel/fresh soft tyres of the 2 McLarens over the whole race distance.

After the race, when Alonso, Hamilton and Raikkonen were waiting to mount the podium, James Allen commented that of all the drivers Hamilton appeared the freshest and least exhausted. Yet, in the press conference Hamilton was struggling for breath and looked absolutely shattered. This is all perfectly understandable, his first Malaysian GP spent mostly defending under pressure, and Lewis is without a doubt the brightest new talent in F1. He will be world champion one day. My problem is with the shameless bias shown towards him by the ITV crew. It's almost an insult to the intelligence of the viewers to have the commentators harp on about Hamilton incessantly and to the point where they are actually making inaccurate comments about his performance, fitness and ability relative to the other competitors...yes there were other people racing in the last 2 GPs. Honest.

The absolutely stunning performances of Williams Toyota's Nico Rosberg in both Australia and Malaysia should remind everyone of the talent he possesses as another of the new generation, and he is actually younger than Hamilton. His vehicle is also vastly inferior to the race winning McLaren, as it was last year. Fisichella has also put in two faultless performances for Renault to drag them into the points from lowly qualifying positions. There is such a danger of the excellent performances of such drivers being completely neglected by the television presenters because they are not at the very front, and because they are not Lewis Hamilton. Lewis once again was awarded Martin Brundle's driver of the day despite Alonso's absolutely perfect performance with a faulty radio. Lewis even admitted he made the mistake of thinking the gap to Alonso on his pit board was the gap to Raikkonen and ended up relaxing more than he should have.

One thing I should make clear, Hamilton has been spellbinding in his first two races and has made only rookie errors, neither of which have been costly. He has done everything expected of him and more, completely justifying his selection ahead of Pedro De La Rosa and Gary Paffett. He is however in a front-running team and I believe Rosberg could perform to the same level given a McLaren Mercedes MP4-22 with the preparation Hamilton has had, and for those saying that we should be expecting a win from him in Bahrain...take it easy guys.

So, if you've happened to miss the first two grands prix of the year and want to know the TV version of what transpired, let me sum it up for you: Lewis Hamilton is the biggest star of the season with two podiums so far, Renault, Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds are no longer in F1, and the two races were won by some other unfit blokes…can't remember who.

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