How Hamilton's latest storm hints at a bigger problem

Every person who has criticised Lewis Hamilton for fleetingly referring to his hometown of Stevenage as a “slum” is perfect. Or they are hypocrites. It must be one or the other, given the speed and power with which Hamilton was slammed for a slip of the tongue that he almost immediately, in the moment, acknowledged was the wrong word.

One word. “Slums”. That’s all some people, who deserve medals if they have never made a verbal blunder in their life, needed to round on a five-time world champion.

“It’s been a really, really long journey and it really was a dream for us all as a family to do something different,” said Hamilton at last Sunday’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony. “To, kind of, for us, to get out of the slums – well, not the slums, but to get out of somewhere and do something…”

Note the immediate correction. It’s not forced, or even a delayed response – it’s an instantaneous ‘Ah, that’s not right’. Hamilton’s had qualifying advantages this season bigger than the time it took for him to realise he’d used the wrong word and correct himself.

Sadly, though, in the current climate, particularly where Hamilton is concerned, the damage was already done. It was headline news on the websites of five major British newspapers and the BBC, countless other websites in the UK and around the world, and featured in at least two of the British broadcaster’s main radio shows as well.

All because Hamilton had briefly used a word that he swiftly attempted to address, and is also not particularly uncommon to hear used in that mildly sarcastic context. Does anyone seriously think Hamilton considers Stevenage to be a favela?

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1

Photo by: Steven Tee / LAT Images

No, but it did afford a chance to drag down a sporting icon, and so naturally it was seized, from offended locals, to the grandstanding Stevenage council leader seeing a moment to play to the gallery and taking it, and to the factions of the media that benefit from putting Hamilton on a pedestal just to tear him down.

“I chose the wrong words, but I didn’t mean anything by it,” said Hamilton when, in a video since deleted from his Instagram account, he felt compelled to address the ongoing criticism two days afterwards. That’s easy to believe. Unfortunately, so is the idea that those who picked up a bat to beat him with definitely did mean something by their words.

This entire incident has been blown immeasurably out of proportion and it is not the first time Hamilton’s found himself at the centre of a storm. Sometimes it’s justified – it was almost a year ago he made his ‘princess dress’ blunder – but often it is not. From private plane usage, to where he lives and pays his taxes, even to the FIA prize-giving ceremonies. Last year Hamilton was a disrespectful guest for turning up not in black tie, and this year the same for wearing green trousers – but, look, there’s Kimi Raikkonen, on stage and very drunk. What a guy!

Imagine if those positions were reversed? And it’s far from the only example of a concentrated bias of negativity towards Hamilton. If the answer to why that is happening so regularly is ‘Maybe Hamilton’s just unlikeable?’ then something doesn’t quite add up. Despite his accomplishments, status as an F1 great and Britain’s most successful F1 driver and several redeeming qualities as a person (which is also important), he remains either very unpopular or prone to unique levels of judgement.

Now’s the time for some soul-searching. At its worst, it’s part of the Raheem Sterling issue’s insidious rhetoric that exploded into the public consciousness last week. Manchester City and England footballer Sterling contests that parts of the media “fuel racism” because of how they are portraying different ethnicities in the game.

In the examples he gave, comparing coverage of two City players – white 18-year-old Phil Foden and black 21-year-old Tosin Adarabioyo – buying houses, Sterling said that “just by the way it has been worded, this young black kid is looked at in a bad light”.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG F1, Toto Wolff, Executive Director (Business), Mercedes AMG

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG F1, Toto Wolff, Executive Director (Business), Mercedes AMG

Photo by: FIA

It’s very dangerous ground to point to racial undertones without proof but it is important to try to establish what subconscious motivations there might be. Not every ignorance is obvious. Questioning why problems like this, challenging our reasons for thinking in a certain way and acknowledging that we are all culpable for certain societal ills is important. As is questioning the media’s role in it all because society and the media influence and reflect one another.

Regardless of whether it is deliberate, considered, concealed or misunderstood, the feeling that the criticism regularly thrown Hamilton’s way is tinged with racism will not fade. It’s not the same as Sterling being screamed at, or hearing racist chants in football grounds, because that’s a far more aggressive, obvious and in-your-face form of abuse. However, the subtle stuff is still significant.

Some of Hamilton’s criticism will be caused by simple annoyance at one driver dominating F1, taking issue with a particular thing he said in the media or an incident on-track. However, some will also be because he is not a ‘traditional’ F1 driver or champion, and this is where the lines get blurry.

What exactly about him is different? Chiefly it’s the colour of his skin, his background, his lifestyle and his growing status as a cultural icon. Are those factors, and what they represent, prompting the angry responses from people? Not all of them, no. Of course not. But some of them, at least, will be motivated in this way, partly because Hamilton – like Sterling – is a representative of a group thought of as ‘lesser’ in some circles.

The way Hamilton and Sterling get dragged down for pitiful reasons suggests that their rise does not sit well with people of a certain mentality. As Ian Wright put it during the Sterling debate: “It’s almost like they don’t want him to continue to be a success.”

Similarly, there inevitably people who want to dislike Hamilton, and moments like Sunday are an opportunity to verbalise that, and for others to pander to that process. Jump on the bandwagon as a media outlet and you bank an easy win.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1

Photo by: Zak Mauger / LAT Images

That attitude continued after the video Hamilton posted to address the issue, too. The Sun called it a “grovelling apology” while Sky News referred to it as “lukewarm”. It simply cannot be both, it’s just being interpreted to suit their chosen narratives. The only unity is both angles are negative. All this does is alienate Hamilton, block out his good attributes and focus on bad elements. And that just fosters an ongoing feeling of negativity and anger, doubly so if there is an ethnic divide between the aggressor and the victim.

Former England footballer John Barnes, weighing in on the Sterling debate, drew parallels between the issue of the portrayal of “Muslim terrorists, Nigerian conmen, Yardie drug gangs or Muslim paedophile/grooming gangs”. His point was that the negative coverage and association of a particular group’s involvement in certain actions has no bearing on how badly we view the action itself, but it does slowly lower the opinion of the group involved. Barnes described it as a “very subliminal, subtle way of indoctrination”.

The same applies to the onslaught of over-the-top criticism of Hamilton, especially as he is not just a black F1 driver who came from a modest background – he’s the black F1 driver who came from a modest background.

Maybe Hamilton has not thought about this in such a way. Maybe he has and thinks it’s nonsense. Or maybe, whether he has thought about it, or would be willing to think about it, he would be as open and forthright as Sterling was.

Hamilton’s request was that “if you have feelings about a mistake I made on stage, don’t bother with it, throw it to the side, it’s negative energy you don’t need to hold”. Perhaps that applies to this argument as well.

We do not, and cannot, share Hamilton’s experience. Please trust that this is being written fully in the knowledge that the position of a privileged white male is a considerable distance away from Hamilton’s. And it is important to note that Sterling spoke as a representative for a massive collective of black players in a sport where exposure to racism is still worryingly common, hence the huge response it triggered.

A final thought is that, while Hamilton’s words in his Instagram video were clearly heartfelt, one cannot help but wish to hear what would he would have to say if he could address the wider context his criticism exists within.

Hamilton’s input to the debate would be dearly valuable. Well beyond that of addressing something that should never have been an issue to start with.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 in the press conference

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 in the press conference

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Sutton Images