It’s an exciting end to the season. Tied on points, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton left the Formula 1 title decision for the last race of the year, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, this Sunday. Hamilton could become the first eight-time world champion in the history of the sport. Would the British like him better for this? I do not think so.
Without a doubt, there is recognition in the UK for everything a pilot does for British sport. But there is a sharp line between admiration and affection. When I saw Hamilton receive a standing ovation at the Interlagos GP as he carried the Brazilian flag, I wonder if the Brazilians had more affection for him.
The pilot has been the target of all kinds of negative headlines over the years and many of them seem to be angry. For some, his clothes are too extravagant. When he openly fights racism, advocates for environmental issues, and vegan food, he risks being judged for taking too many positions. He was criticized for leaving the UK for Monaco (which other pilots did as well) and accused of leaving out his “American” accent. There are even those who say that he wins only because of the car. Even winning a lot became a problem.
In a documentary about the British royal family shown by the BBC, a journalist described the relationship between the subjects and the monarchy in a funny and realistic way. He said Britons would not criticize the royal family as long as its members “have a boring life that includes dogs or horses or Scotland or whatever we are not jealous of”. “They can’t seem to have fun because their job is to stand in the rain and the waves.” There is an analogy with someone expecting Hamilton to win and keeping quiet.
A year ago, I did a report for Folha to try to figure out why it is so unpopular with the British. I went to Stevenage, England, the hometown of Hamilton. This is where Kart started and joined McLaren’s development program at the age of 13. The mention of his name there generates a mixture of pride and mistrust.
Some accuse him of arrogance and skepticism of origins. In 2018, speaking at the annual BBC Sports Personality Awards, he said, “It has been a dream for our family to do something different, to get out of the slums.” The next day, he apologized and said he had made a mistake in choosing the words, but the damage had been done.
In Stevenage, the majority are white – 88% and middle class. Only 3.4% are black. For this report, I interviewed Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. Andrews said if Hamilton weren’t black he would be more popular, and he believes Britons identify with white athletes. The driver, who is the only black in Formula 1, said he has experienced racism in his career.
In 2019, The Sun published an interview in which Hamilton said he had proudly displayed the British flag and that his victories, for some, were not enough. Is he still thinking these days about that love — or lack thereof? I hope, for the pilot, the British are like that school you try to beat, you get a “no” a few times and then you give up, move on to the next one and you’ll be happy. Whatever the result of Sunday’s race, Hamilton doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone.
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