Champions a world apart

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Mike Hawthorn was crowned World Champion 50 years ago. As a successor, Lewis Hamilton couldn’t be more different. But have they anything in common?

Exactly 50 years after Mike Hawthorn became Britain’s first Formula 1 World Champion 23-year-old Lewis Hamilton followed in his wheel tracks. The McLaren ace is the ninth British champion, gaining membership to a select club that also includes Graham Hill, Jim Clark, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart, James Hunt, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill. His next target is to join Graham Hill, Clark and Stewart as a British driver to win more than one title. It’s a challenge he is likely to succeed in meeting.

As the new champion takes his bow, it is natural to contemplate what happens next for Lewis, and given the neatness of ‘50 years from Hawthorn to Hamilton’, also to reflect upon the vast gulf between racing in the 1950s and what we see today. On the face of it, Hawthorn and Hamilton might as well be from different worlds.

And yet despite their differences they do share something beyond their status as British World Champions: they are both truly representative of their times, archetypes of their generations.

Hawthorn’s rise took place against a paradoxical backdrop of post-war ‘you’ve never had it so good’ optimism and Cold War fear of obliteration. In motor sport his was an era where ‘the right crowd and no crowding’ still applied, and cheery Mike fitted the image of the British have-a-go racer. But it wasn’t all beer and skittles, even for him. He earned his place at the top through hard graft, starting out on bikes before moving on to a Riley 9 bought by his motor trader dad. He had his hurdles, too: the death of his father almost brought an early end to his racing career, he faced public criticism for avoiding the draft and nephritis would likely have prematurely ended his life even if he had avoided that fateful road crash in early 1959.

In the 50th anniversary year of his championship, the revaluation of Hawthorn’s reputation has been in focus. The consensus is he was better than he has been given credit for. And yet even if that is so, he will always represent the end of an era rather than the start of a new one. He claimed his title wearing a bow-tie, driving a Ferrari with the engine up front. A new generation – of rear-engined cars and a different breed of professional drivers – would take up from where he left off.

Where Hawthorn ends an era, Hamilton marks the beginning of a new one. He is a World Champion after just 35 races and two years in the top flight. Like Hawthorn, an influential father is behind Hamilton’s rise. Unlike Hawthorn, Hamilton’s journey to his title began at the tender age of eight. By the time he was in double figures Lewis was reaching levels of dedication and professionalism beyond what Hawthorn ever achieved – or, more significantly, wanted.

This is where the generation gap really shows. This is why we have witnessed the two youngest World Champions, Alonso and Hamilton, in the past four years, and the youngest Grand Prix winner, Sebastian Vettel, this season. Different worlds.

We’ve noted at Motor Sport that enthusiasm for Hamilton is well under control for many of our readers. There is a degree of barely disguised arrogance and self-belief about him that has more in common with Senna and Schumacher than the very British modesty of the much-loved Clark, Hunt and Damon Hill. But even for his doubters Hamilton has surely lit a spark in our sport that has been desperately needed.

The red-wash years of Schumacher decimated interest in Grand Prix racing, but that is fast becoming ancient history. Off-track, the sport is in a mess thanks largely to greed and mismanagement. But on-track there is new hope that a batch of young stars in cars that can actually race each other – we’ll find out next season when the new aero rules come into play – will capitalise on the excitement generated by that last-gasp showdown in Brazil.

But in contrast to Hawthorn, Hamilton is a champion in the worst of times. The threat of the Cold War has gone, but it’s been replaced by the fear of religious fundamentalism that runs beyond the control of any government. Economically, we are facing a crippling recession the like of which we’ve never seen, and in stark contrast to the boom of the post-war years motor sport will feel the pinch, just as we all will. But as Formula 1 finally begins to understand it must curb its costs, there is still hope.

This new era is going to be exciting. Hamilton could race for another 15 years and has the potential to match Schumacher’s stultifying career statistics. But can he really achieve that? Are we heading into the ‘Hamilton era’? It’s unlikely. There’s just too much competition from Vettel, Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg, Felipe Massa, the great Alonso (in a Ferrari some day soon?) and perhaps once again Kimi Räikkönen.

The trend towards standardisation that is threatening to strangle Formula 1 as we know it, as Nigel Roebuck writes this month, is alarming for purists.

But at least it should guard against one-team domination and allow more to play leading roles in the global ‘show’ our sport must be in the 21st century. Even this year there were seven different race winners, driving for four different teams. Yes, it’s not all doom and gloom right now.

As for Hamilton’s place among the British champions, he has the time and ability to be the ‘greatest’ of all – in terms of hard stats, anyway. Comparisons of driver talent from different eras is pointless: Hamilton is racing in a sport almost unrecognisable from the one Hawthorn knew.

All we can say is that Lewis is unlikely to be revered in the way Mike’s ’58 title rival was, whatever he achieves. That’s because Stirling Moss raced in everything and (almost) anything – and usually won, too. For sheer greatness in its purest form, The Boy can never be beaten.

No matter. That’s of no concern to Hamilton. He’s living for the weekends, never looking back, hungry for the next Grand Prix. Racing is still just racing, despite all the distractions around it. At least that’s something that’s never changed. Damien Smith

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