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Lewis in the USA: Why winning the title in Austin would mean so much to Hamilton

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For many, one of the biggest gripes about modern-day Formula 1 is the lack of superstars and characters that gave the sport such personality back in the 1970s and 1980s.

The likes of James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna all had a spark both on and off-track that captivated audiences all over the world, helping to take F1 to the masses.

Nowadays, things are very different. Drivers are less able to speak their minds due to thick layers of PR, sponsors that must be kept happy and a fear of treading on the wrong toes. It has depersonalised F1 to some extent, particularly with so few of the drivers seeking the limelight.

Such a statement does not apply to Lewis Hamilton, though. At the age of 30, not only is the Briton standing on the brink of a third world championship, but he has also achieved a celebrity status unmatched by other F1 drivers in recent decades.

As an F1 photographer put it earlier this year, if there’s one person in the paddock you could see making a guest appearance on “Keeping Up With The Kardashians”, it’s Lewis.

MORE THAN A RACING DRIVER

If you were to take a random group of Americans – not necessarily those who follow F1 – and ask them to name a driver who will be racing at the Circuit of The Americas this weekend, Hamilton would most probably be the first name out of their mouths.

And quite possibly, it wouldn’t be because of his on-track exploits. “Wasn’t he in Monaco with Cara Delevingne and Gigi Hadid?” or “Didn’t he date Nicole Scherzinger?” may be the immediate answers, having gleaned such understandings from looking at glossy magazines or showbiz TV shows. Frequenting red carpets all over the world, Hamilton has made himself so much more than just a racing driver.

“We all do have personalities,” Hamilton told NBC Sports Radio earlier this week, “But it’s very corporate. We’re always in front of a camera, so it’s hard to show personality, but I enjoy every minute of what I’m doing inside and out.

“The more I connect with, the more fun I have. Connecting is important. I spend a lot of time in the States.”

This is the effect that Hamilton is having. He is connecting with an audience that may not otherwise be exposed to Formula 1 by going beyond his on-track duties.

Earlier this year, Bernie Ecclestone did a joint interview with Nico Rosberg in which he said that he was pleased Hamilton had won last year’s title. Rosberg was understandably a little perplexed by this answer, given that it was he who had lost the championship to his teammate at the final race of the season, but Ecclestone’s reasoned that a Hamilton victory had a wider impact than a Rosberg one would have.

It may have been a little cold on Rosberg, but, as is often the case, there is a great deal of thought behind Ecclestone’s answer. Had Rosberg won the title, he would have celebrated in Abu Dhabi, returned to Germany, and had a relaxing winter with his family. There would not have been much difference to what did happen after he lost the title.

Hamilton, on the other hand, was thrown into a whirlwind of media duties that he embraced. He appeared at events all over the world, and continues to do so. “We’ve got Lewis Hamilton, the world champion, here today,” organizers can say; he loves and lives up to the limelight.

MAKING NEW FANS

Ahead of last year’s race, Hamilton appeared on the TODAY Show alongside his Mercedes car – again, offering an exposure of the sport to non-racing fans. They may have viewed him on there or seen him on a red carpet, then maybe watched a grand prix out of curiosity or even simply googled “F1” to see what came up. Simple steps such as these are how fans are converted.

Having the world championship decided in Austin would be big for F1, given that the USA has traditionally been its problem market. It gives more of a spotlight to the US GP, and offers an increased exposure for the sport all over the country. This is only exaggerated by the fact that it is Hamilton, the celebrity, who is enjoying the success.

But don’t go thinking that Lewis is unaware of the impact that he is having on the sport’s profile in the USA. “Whenever I introduce someone, they’re hooked,” he said. “What’s pole position? What’s fastest lap here? It really is different.

“As I said before, it’s pinnacle of motorsport. It’s above NASCAR… not just driver quality, there are great ones there too. But our physique, we push the limit, and make it so exciting.”

F1 may lead NASCAR in some respects, but in terms of national understanding and exposure in the USA, it lags behind – of that there can be no doubt.

But Hamilton’s wide reach can certainly help the sport to make inroads in the USA. He is more personable and relatable than many of the other drivers on the grid. He is helping to make non-F1 fans aware of what the sport is, and potentially converting them.

BIG FOR AMERICA, BIG FOR LEWIS

Beyond the effect that a Hamilton title victory will have on the sport in the USA, it’s important to consider what the impact will be on Hamilton himself. He loves spending time in America, so much so that many jest this is his ‘second home race’ following the British Grand Prix in July, where he delighted the partisan crowd with a third Silverstone victory.

There is a good element of truth to this, though. Of the remaining races – USA, Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi – Hamilton will feel most at home in Austin.

He has been able to spend more time in the US in recent weeks, and he is a great lover of American culture, so much so that one can even pick up simple influences such as his diction.

Listen to the way he speaks next time he does an interview, and see what similarities you can pick up with the way Americans speak. As an example, the word “car” is typically pronounced in Britain more like “cah”; Hamilton uses a more elongated and American-esque R sound (“carr”).

Americans may have a home driver to support this time around thanks to Alexander Rossi’s arrival in the sport, but Hamilton will still garner a great deal of the support in Austin this weekend. He is the big name; the world champion; the celebrity.

Hamilton’s lifestyle has prompted questions from many in the paddock over the past year or so, but so long as he continues to excel on-track, proving that his adventures away from the paddock do not had a negative effect on his ability, all credit should be given to Lewis.

As he has said himself, he is preparing for life after F1. And to him, that isn’t a life as a team owner or a TV pundit still talking about F1. He doesn’t want to be Lewis Hamilton, the ex-racing driver. He can be Lewis Hamilton, the musician; the TV personality; the fashion designer.

But whatever Lewis wants to do after F1, one would imagine his future lies firmly in the USA.

With an advantage of 73 points, Hamilton will be crowned champion in Austin if he outscores Rosberg by six points and Sebastian Vettel by nine, which is certainly possible.

Failing that, he will undoubtedly then clinch it next weekend in Mexico, but for both Hamilton and the sport, a title victory on Sunday in Austin would be very poignant.

IndyCar’s revised schedule gives Tony Kanaan an extra race in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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Tony Kanaan got a bit of good news when the latest revised NTT IndyCar Series schedule was released Monday.

Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.

“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.

He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.

Scott Dixon was Kanaan’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2013-17. At one time, they were foes but eventually became friends.

“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.

“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.

“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.

“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”

Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.

“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.

“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”

Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.

“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.

“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”

This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500