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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.

Alexander Rossi remains the story in IndyCar in 2019

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly timed move to race side by side with Herta going into Turn 1.

By Turn 2 of the first lap, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes, including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing kept Rossi’s race from being deemed complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pit stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by a full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished second three times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the front straight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution.

Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816 seconds behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he never was challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBCSports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats, and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season, and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties lie with Honda. Both he and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBCSports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there,” Andretti said. “I think we’re getting there. We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that? After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history, including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500?

In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races in a decade, and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, which is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist.

Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”