Whether by bad timing or bad planning, Lewis Hamilton was the only active driver on the 2017 Formula 1 grid who wasn’t at today’s “F1 Live London” event in Trafalgar Square and Whitehall. And his absence loomed large over an otherwise successful debut event as organized by Liberty Media, F1’s new owners.
The three-time World Champion has had back-to-back tough races since winning the Canadian Grand Prix a month ago. He had his infamous contact with Sebastian Vettel at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku, and then had to overcome a gearbox change triggering a five-spot grid penalty last week at the Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg, recovering to fourth place in the race.
Following the Austrian race, Hamilton announced on social media he was planning to go on a two-day break prior to his home race, the British Grand Prix this weekend (weekend times here).
The announcement came at the same time as the “F1 Live London” event was announced on Tuesday, and although the event got announced last-minute, the optics looked bad because the remaining 19 drivers in the field were all there.
When Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull team bosses Toto Wolff, Maurizio Arrivabene and Christian Horner took the stage for a round of interviews before the car parade, Hamilton’s absence was an unfortunate elephant in the room.
“It’s quite nice for the drivers to be here… or most of them,” Horner deadpanned, clearly noting Hamilton’s absence.
Wolff explained the reason for Hamilton’s absence. “Lewis feels he is in such a tough championship fight he needed the days off after Austria… but you can see him in Silverstone,” he said, with the crowd reacting in Trafalgar Square with a mix of mild applause and a smattering of boos.
It was interesting, then, to note the reaction of those fans interviewed in the crowd later. At least two Vettel fans were interviewed in the audience, one of them saying “Vettel’s my favorite… so much more than Hamilton,” before another fan echoed that assessment.
The 1996 World Champion Damon Hill also addressed Hamilton’s absence as well, but in a more circumspect manner hoping to rally his countrymen to cheer him on at the weekend. Hamilton has won the last three British Grands Prix and four overall, his 2008 win having been one of the finest drives of his career.
“Well there’s one person who’s not here… that hasn’t made an appearance,” Hill said. “I think that person might well be a potential holder of the trophy. If we all say, we believe, we think Lewis Hamilton will win the British Grand Prix.”
Even Nico Rosberg, who joined Hill as only the second son of a World Champion to also win one himself last November, chimed in on the absence, but again played to the crowd.
“Lewis is a fantastic driver… and I’m surprised to see so many Sebastian fans here, but fair play to all of you! May the better one win this weekend,” the 2016 World Champion opined.
After Rosberg spoke, 20 drivers were introduced to the fans. It was the remaining 19 drivers, plus Rene Arnoux deputizing as a third member from the Renault team, in throwback overalls.
For Hamilton, it’s a potentially fascinating scenario he faces in Silverstone.
He needs the win to reassert his championship prospects as Vettel’s beat him three out of the last four races. Silverstone is a place Hamilton usually thrives.
But will the fans be as willing to support him now that he wasn’t at a rare, new and well-executed fan-focused event in his home country? That’s the question mark heading into this weekend.