The spirit of Fangio

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It’s not only Lewis Hamilton’s exceptional skills which impress. Sir Stirling Moss sees in him a similar blend of maturity, confidence and modesty to his own great mentor 

For someone of my vintage it’s a tremendous breath of fresh air to see someone like Lewis Hamilton doing so well. The statistics are amazing enough already, but they only really count in retrospect. For the present, he’s pretty much unique…

I’ve been observing this sport, in one way or the other, for well over 60 years now and I can safely say in all truth that he is the most interesting and talented figure I can identify in all of that time. I know that he has been carefully managed, but I think it’s about rather more than that, and I also think that if he fulfils his obvious potential then it is going to be difficult, however understandably so, for McLaren to let him be his own man. He has had a fantastic racing career already, let alone what he’ll have over the next 10 to 15 years, but they did a fine job in taking him up.

I’ve been a big fan of Lewis since I first saw him race in GP2, and when I learned about his background and story, I felt a curious empathy with him, a common cause, because  I can well recall feeling a bit of an outsider myself when I started out, and while motor racing then was very much more an establishment sport (which it isn’t really now), I can very well imagine that it must have been tough for him even without the huge costs of those vital early days, because one thing has not changed about motor racing – it isn’t cheap. But however hard it’s been for him he certainly doesn’t let it show, which rather reminds me of someone else I knew…

His family, particularly his father, have obviously been totally committed to him, as mine was, and from where I’m sitting, it really shows; there are plenty of examples of people who tried to make it in motor racing without that family effort – Chris Bristow springs to mind, among others – because quite simply without it, it becomes incredibly difficult, complicated and dangerously distracting. Without that faith in you, life can be very hard, so I think Lewis’ family has been hugely important to him – probably the single biggest factor, aside from his own talent, which is obviously extraordinary.

I see that the papers have made much of ‘the black issue’ but it’s fairly obvious to me (because motor racing is not the only sport that I’ve followed for all these years) that it was only a matter of time before the arrival of someone as talented as Lewis obviously is would turn the sport on its head, which is what he has managed to do. It’s only a matter of regret that it hasn’t happened before; we saw it with Jack Johnson in boxing, with Jesse Owens in athletics, a host of cricketers and footballers and of course there is the obvious parallel with Tiger Woods. This can only be great for the sport, in that it widens its appeal to a whole new fan base who may have felt that they had no hero of their own and may even have felt excluded because of that. Certainly, there was something of the Notting Hill Carnival at Monaco this year. 

But there is a hint in all this of what could have happened in 1986, when the black American driver Willy T Ribbs tested an F1 Brabham at the time that Bernie Ecclestone owned the team. While Lewis’s talent may well be in a league of its own (and I believe it is), that event does go some way to show that motor racing is not exclusive in that way, unlike golf was in America before Tiger Woods reinvented it – there were still some golf clubs which wouldn’t admit black people (or Jews) even after Woods was starting to win everything. Motor racing isn’t like that, thank God; it’s very meritocratic, and has to be if it’s to survive.

But there’s something else about Lewis which I find interesting, and which really rings some loud bells for me, and this is his combination of personal humility, professional skill and modest self-confidence. It is very unusual to see all these characteristics in the same place at the same time, and there is really only one man I can think of who I knew who displayed the same blend of outlook, and that was Fangio.

I know that Juan Manuel Fangio was more than 20 years older than Lewis Hamilton is now when I drove for Mercedes with him in the 1950s, but perhaps that is exactly the point. Lewis seems to me to have that same maturity which combines a grown-up world view without being middle-aged, and after his win in Montreal it was even more striking – obviously he was very happy, but that aside, he was almost ticking the boxes – five starts, five podium positions and now a win to top it off, as if it was somehow inevitable and now he can really get on with it. It obviously isn’t going to end there, because whatever happens from now on, mechanical breakdowns, punctures, oil on the track or whatever else, Lewis Hamilton is now clearly the man to beat. No one else will do. He’s even managed (in the popular imagination at least) to eclipse the car he drives, which is quite a trick these days, and that’s without him even actually saying very much!

It has been all too easy for the press (or at least the non-specialist press) to over-hype the latest British star, particularly when you remember that the last British world champion was Damon Hill, but it’s also true that they are the first to take that same person apart in print on any pretext when they don’t deliver the goods. But I just don’t have the impression that Lewis’ philosophy as we see it in public is governed by that. 

On the other hand I can understand why McLaren might be; it’s logical to keep him out of the clutches of Fleet St, because for the tabloids it only ever seems to be about the driver, not the designers, engineers, mechanics and so forth. They’re running a racing team, after all, and a team seldom revolves around one person. But they will have to ease off on the PR before long and let him speak for himself, certainly when he’s world champion. But let’s hope a proper racing writer gets first go at him.

Who has Lewis Hamilton as a driver got to worry about at Silverstone? Well, obviously his team-mate has a big point to make, despite his own surprisingly moderate performance in Canada, but who else is there? Perhaps Felipe Massa, who has clearly come on a long way; it wasn’t that long ago that you wouldn’t want him near a car of yours, but he’s steadied now. On the other hand there are one or two other drivers who seem to have woken up a bit (or their cars have), but it is so very rare to see the best driver being so far ahead of the next-best that I’m not sure this will sink in quite yet, certainly outside the sport. All else being equal, there’s no reason to think that we won’t see a repeat performance of his Canada race in both the USA and France before we see him on home territory.

Lewis Hamilton’s arrival on the scene is going to have a radical effect on motorsport, in terms of its fan base, its accessibility, the possibilities for young drivers, whom the sponsors will support, all those things which are so important now. When I raced with Fangio, it seemed to us that the rest of the field was competing to be the first non-Mercedes home, and from the showing so far there’s going to be more than a hint of that in the months to come. It is all most welcome.

Sir Stirling Moss was speaking to Robert Edwards