Belfast Telegraph

Lewis Hamilton rules world but still far from a Grand Prix great

By Sammy Hamill

The diamond earrings, the stunning pop star girlfriend, the £200m in the bank, the cherry-red private jet, thousands of adoring fans and now two Formula One World titles; Lewis Hamilton has it all.

And in the light of his crushing victory in Abu Dhabi at the weekend he is being talked up as a serious rival to Rory McIlroy as Britain's Sports Personality of the Year.

But, unlike McIlroy who is golf's undisputed World No.1, Hamilton has yet to convince the serious side of motor racing that he warrants a place in the pantheon of grand prix greats.

He is the archetypal "marmite man" - loved and admired by so many of his flag-waving fellow Englishmen but leaving others unconvinced that he deserves to be ranked alongside the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Sir Jackie Stewart or, indeed, Fernando Alonso of the modern era.

No one denies that Hamilton is a born racer, perhaps the most naturally gifted driver on the current F1 grid, more so even than four-times champion Sebastien Vettel who he has just deposed, but he is fragile, too. Psychologically vulnerable, some say, when under pressure.

There were no signs of that vulnerability at the Yas Marina circuit on Sunday when he outgunned his only rival for the title, Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, off the startline and controlled the race from the front.

True, Rosberg struggled for most of the race with an ailing car but this was a day when the battle was over the moment it started.

With a reaction time of 0.2 seconds when the lights went out, Hamilton flew off the grid as Rosberg spun his wheels and it was effectively game over. While the car stayed strong, no one was ever going to catch Hamilton and that is the issue which clouds assessments of Hamilton's 'greatness'.

He has had only one opponent this year, Rosberg. The introduction of new V6 engines this season allied to a raft of other regulation changes saw champions like Vettel and Alonso struggle in uncompetitive cars.

The Renault engines of Red Bull and the once-vaunted power units of Ferrari couldn't match those produced by Mercedes.

Indeed, the closest rivals to Hamilton and Rosberg were, more often than not, the veteran Felipe Massa and a heralded Finn, Valtteri Bottas, in a Williams team rejuvenated by the introduction of Mercedes engines.

Set against this are his 11 wins this season, equalling the records of Vettel and Michael Schumacher, and his strength of character to overcome the more cerebral Rosberg who, many thought, would out-psyche and outlast him over the course of the 19-race championship.

It didn't happen and only the contentious new rule of double points for the final race kept the series in doubt to the end - or at least until the starting lights went out in Abu Dhabi.

Still, the doubts remain. Maybe it is the 'bling' lifestyle of Hamilton; maybe the way he was fast-tracked from a council house in Stevenage to F1 by McLaren; maybe the way he refused to play the apprentice to hugely-respected Alonso in his first season, costing McLaren the World title; maybe the way he sees every setback as a conspiracy; maybe the way he takes his pet bulldog with him around the world.

For now he doesn't fit the perceived image of an F1 'great' - which may be why he has an admirer in that other grand prix maverick, Eddie Irvine.

"I'm a Lewis fan but I think he lost the plot for a time and went too showbiz," said the former Ferrari driver.

"His entry into F1 was fantastic and his talent was amazing. Then he wanted to be a movie star or a rapper or something else. People want their sports stars to be 100 per cent committed to being sports stars. But he's got his focus back now and is doing the business."

Irvine's fellow grand prix winner from Northern Ireland, John Watson, is an admirer, too, but Hamilton a legend? Not yet.

"Lewis is the most naturally gifted driver out there - he isn't the best driver, Fernando Alonso is - but he is a real racer and when the environment is right he is virtually unbeatable. But to talk about him being a legend, one of the greats, is too soon," says Watson.

"I think he has come of age this year and has learned how to win championships, not just races.

"He won the title in 2008, more by luck than good judgment, but with more maturity he might have been champion in 2007 or 2012 as well. This year it came down to a no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle fight to the finish and he drove the perfect race.

"He also ranks highly with me because he has now become champion with two different teams, just like Graham Hill did, and that to me is important. Yes, he was with the best team, Mercedes, but you can only beat the people who line up on the grid beside you and Lewis had earned his place in that team."

Watson admits Hamilton can divide opinions and says he is prone to "hissy fits" but he "has the potential to grow into a truly great champion."

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