That yellow helmet

2007-04-04 08:45

There's a new yellow helmet in the F1 pit lane. And it ain't Brazilian.

Is it just co-incidence then, that Lewis Hamilton has painted his headgear yellow, with markings of dark blue and green (and a dash of red)?

Well, when he grew up Senna was Hamilton's hero.

"I just loved to watch him race," Lewis recalls.

Being a formidable karting ace himself, Hamilton famously introduced himself to Ron Dennis at the Autosport Awards Ceremony of 1994, telling the McLaren F1 boss that he had his eye on an F1 drive for Woking, one day.

The Hammer was all of nine years old. That's young enough to still go round with an autograph book in hand, which is what Lewis did.

"But I was a year too late for Ayrton," he recalls. "The previous year, he was still there."

Those days are gone. The Hammer is not hunting for autographs any more. He is being nailed himself.

At age 22, and on debut, he led his double world champion teammate for the best part of a race that rocked F1. The way in which the rookie handled Melbourne was impressive, and not only on track.

Lewis was pretty much the finished article, all round. Niki Lauda called it the best debut drive he has ever witnessed.

Big statements

Niki is prone to hyperbole. He likes big statements.

But has he forgotten that, barely a year ago, Nico Rosberg rendered an equally stupendous feat in his very first F1 race, bagging fastest lap on a day that Alonso and Schumacher went for it, hammer and thongs?

This now, bearing in mind that Rosberg drove a Williams, and Alonso and Schumacher a Renault and Ferrari respectively.

That's even more unbelievable than what Hamilton has accomplished. Yet Nico's curve spiraled downwards as the year went on.

Will the same happen to Lewis? The two are big buddies, after all.

Nope. Not too likely, and for various reasons.

The first, and lesser, reason is that McLaren look after their drivers a little bit better than Williams. In Grove, under team boss Frank Williams and right-hand honcho Patrick Head, a driver is just another cog in the machine.

It is expected of him to turn up, drive the wheels off a car and go home.

It is also expected of him to go home with the winner's laurel wreath.

Tough guys

That's how Williams and Head figure and think, in classic, uncomplicated terms. They're throwbacks. They love the hard-assed approach. They love winners.

And they love tough guys, like Aussie Alan Jones.

That's one reason why they employed Mark Webber after Montoya had had enough of them. Williams loved Montoya as well, by the way, his machismo and crazy maverick passing manoeuvres.

He was a terrier, Juan, much like Jones. And both were straight talkers, much like Webber. Williams understand that.

But Williams also have a way of peeing people off.

That's why Mansell and Adrian Newey left, both at the height of the team's all-conquering power in the 90's. Prost left because he couldn't face Senna's speed in the other car (uh-hum, shades of...?), Hill was unceremoniously dumped in favour of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, and Montoya and Webber left because of frustration.

In fact, so did BMW.

So, think of the losses in Frank's life: the use of his legs, firstly, and just in the last 15 years Mansell, Prost, Senna, Hill, Villeneuve, Renault, Newey, Montoya and BMW.

That's eight world champions wiped off his books, in next to no time. Out of the whole lot, only Montoya failed to clinch a F1 title of some sorts.

No wonder Frank can be mean. No wonder the team sometimes treats drivers like dirt.

Ron and McLaren

McLaren is different. Kimi signed for Ferrari because he got frustrated, true enough. And Mansell quit in 1995 because he was overweight and not really comfortable in F1 any more.

Okay, Montoya also became frustrated. But that was induced by his teammate's incredible pace and unflustered approach, rather than from driving a cockroach. In the end, Kimi's speed drove Juan nuts enough to have contact with three cars in the last two F1 laps of his life.

When one of those was Raikkonen's McLaren, the long-predicted clash with Don Ron became inevitable.

Now, Ron could have been a chip off the original IBM computer. He uses words that only a computer could come up with, and he constructs sentences and thoughts like a computer would.

Problem is, he also uses the logic of a computer.

Mix this cold, calculating 'one or zero/right or wrong' approach into the gap between Montoya's nothing-bothers-me nonchalance when he's relaxed and demonstrative Latin machismo when he's charged up, and the end result sounds like an explosion straight away.

Which is how it eventually turned out, of course. This is how Montoya/McLaren ended, with a bang, not a whimper.

Youngest with F1 contract

Fact remains, that Ron looks after his drivers. He treats them with respect and dignity. And he's even better, if he can simultaneously play the father figure.

Enter Lewis Hamilton. Ron has looked after him for just about his whole life, ever since the kid approached the Don at the Autosport Ceremony and Ron wrote in his autograph book: 'Try me in nine years.'

Four years later, instead, Lewis - aged 13 - became the youngest driver ever to have signed a contract with a F1 team. Since that day, McLaren has sponsored the Hammer's racing career, in which he was victorious in most of what he ever entered.

And in convincing style, too. Whilst winning the GP2 championship last year, he pulled out a bigger margin over teammate Alexandre Prémat than Nico Rosberg managed a year earlier, when Nico became GP2 champ.

In the mean time, Hamilton has been subjected to the most intensive preparatory programme any driver has ever undergone for any formula. He is in peak physical condition, knows the F1 rulebook off by heart, understands his car to perfection and has been drilled in the art press and promotional conferences.

So, was his performance in Oz a fluke? Is he in any danger of going Rosberg's way?

Strange track

We already mentioned one difference between Williams and McLaren.

Here is the other: their current cars. Nico didn't have much of a chance last year. As the Cosworth V8 lost steam over the course of 2006 and Williams fell to pieces, the youngster became desperate and it showed.

This won't happen to Lewis; the 2007 McLaren is way too good for that.

Another thing that won't happen to Hamilton either - or none too soon again - is a repeat of his Oz spectacular.

Melbourne is a strange track, a leveler of sorts. Being close to your teammate over there doesn't mean that you will be close everywhere. It's not like a sandwich being carried around the world in a McLaren briefcase, with just this paper-thin spread of Marmite between you and a double world champion. You can't just haul it out whenever you feel hungry enough.

Fernando, besides, was unlucky to have been boxed in by Heidfeld into Turn One. If not for that, he would have been quite a bit quicker than Lewis over a race distance.

No use either, quoting fastest lap differences of 0.037 secs and 0.001 secs in Alonso's favour in each of the first two stints, as proof of how fast Lewis is. Of course those times were bound to be almost identical, as Alonso just let Hamilton set the pace and followed at a steady distance until he could pass in the pits.

To use this statistic now to prove that Hamilton is as fast as Alonso, is to miss the point entirely.

He's not. Or not yet.

Huge talent

But he is a huge talent. Of that, there is no doubt.

It's not for nothing that Lewis Hamilton wears a yellow helmet now, is it? And no, it wasn't in honour of Senna, but just so that dad Anthony could pick him out from a bunch of karters. Or so he says.

Mmmm, maybe. But here's how Hamilton remembered the day Ayrton died, in an interview with The Guardian's Donald McRae:

"I was nine when Ayrton Senna died, and he was my hero. I remember racing that weekend in Hoddesdon. My dad had a small Vauxhall Cavalier and a trailer at the back. We'd sit in the Cavalier and wait for my turn to race. And that day my step-mum came over to tell us Senna had just died. It hit me hard - but I never liked to show emotion in front of my dad. So I went behind the trailer and cried. That was the turning point of my life - because when you're so young, you believe people like Senna are invincible. And then you realise that they're also mortal. It made me understand I need to make the most of my talent."

Further on in the same piece, he spoke of his F3 triumph at Monaco, in 2005:

"With my engineers I watched an old Senna lap at Monaco. It was far harder to be an F1 driver then, and he basically drove the lap one-handed and had to correct the car four or five times. But he was still a second quicker than anyone. That's how he drove - on the very limit or just over it. That's what makes me want to be like Senna. Like him, I'm trying to be the perfect driver."

Speed is a necessary prerequisite, to be that perfect driver. On the one hand, Lewis has a little brother with cerebral palsy. On the other, he also has the speed.

Reverse the order of his first and second names, and you get Carl Lewis, for heaven's sake!

Perhaps the Hammer was just born for speed, then - yellow helmet or not.

Which, by the way, is the only photo on Frank Williams's desk: of a guy in a yellow helmet.

And his name is not Lewis Carl Hamilton.


  • Justin - 2007-04-05 06:44

    I think you mean hammer and TONGS, bru - can't see that MS and Fernando were having a swimsuit battle-of-the-g-strings out there...

  • Roystone - 2007-04-05 15:37

    A fluke or not,,,, the boy got skilles!!

  • Rupert Farenheit - 2007-04-06 08:50

    Sippel,why can't you ever write an article without hitting on Schumacher? That's who you were refering to,were'nt you? With Kimi going to Ferrari,you recken thats why Michael left. I dont think so. GET REAL!

  • Spook - 2007-04-07 10:36

    Foei tog, o' Simpel is looking for a new Senna. Can't the man write anything without reference to Senna? He would just love to hear that his Kimster went for a dip against Massa in qualifynig in Malasia! He just loves to give his favourites nicknames. How simpel can one man get?

  • ice - 2007-04-11 22:23

    NO, not me - I'm a Schumi fan and EGsip cannot stand him. To ad to SPOOK - I totally agree, I don't know why this simple man has to write F1 - let Hendrik Verwoerd or somone else try, for I cannot stand this EGsip's writing. He is really a wannabee . . .

  • Rajesh Harrikaran - 2007-04-12 12:14

    Whats all the fuss about Alonso and Schumi? In any sport you cannot compare a 25yr old to a 37yr old. I'd like to see Alonso's pace at 37! The mere fact the MS was still racing up to 37 is a testament to his fitness levels. Kimi will prove his worth this season and win plenty. Lewis H - a great talent-well groomed-but too young to have the centre stage - will play a big part in the constructors title with Massa-redict Ferrari to just pip Mclaren for both titles..F1 forever-no EGGmont please.

  • Jaco - 2007-04-16 15:48

    I told you your article on Kimi vs Massa was bullshit, which it proved to be at Bahrain. I'm also a Kimi fan, but Massa is a very underrated driver - Michael had much faith in his capabilities and it seems he was right. I think your desire to see Kimi and Michael in the same Ferrari would have been disasterous for your anti-Michael campaign. For the first time ever I agree with you on one issue - Lewis is a brilliant newcomer to F1 and I think Alonso is a worried man.

  • Jaco - 2007-04-16 15:52

    Here is another theory that you can use for Michael's retirement - he left because he knew that he won't be able to match Lewis in the Mclaren this year.

  • Rupert Farenheit - 2007-04-16 19:50

    Jaco,do you remember the fuss everybody made when Montoya was a rookie? I agree,Hamilton has talent,but come on now,Schumie is 38 now and I Say he still has the speed.This current F1 field won't exist in F1 when they are in their mid 30's! Schumie is a living legend,love him or hate him.

  • Jaco - 2007-04-17 08:19

    I was only sarcastic towards Sippel wrt new theory. Montoya was very quick but a stupid driver and he never matured. Hamilton seems to be very mature for his age - I just hope that all the attention and praise (they are already comparing him to Tiger Woods) does not go to his head.

  • Jaco - 2007-04-17 08:19

    I was only sarcastic towards Sippel wrt new theory. Montoya was very quick but a stupid driver and he never matured. Hamilton seems to be very mature for his age - I just hope that all the attention and praise (they are already comparing him to Tiger Woods) does not go to his head.

  • Jaco - 2007-04-17 08:43

    I was only sarcastic towards Sippel wrt new theory - for me MS will always be the best driver of all times. Montoya was very quick but a stupid driver and he never matured. Hamilton seems to be very mature for his age - I just hope that all the attention and praise (they are already comparing him to Tiger Woods) does not go to his head.

  • Jaco - 2007-04-17 08:44

    I was only sarcastic towards Sippel wrt new theory - for me MS will always be the best driver of all times. Montoya was very quick but a stupid driver and he never matured. Hamilton seems to be very mature for his age - I just hope that all the attention and praise (they are already comparing him to Tiger Woods) does not go to his head.

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