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.