Cruisin' in the Caribbean
Ever the showman, Lewis Hamilton couldn't resist an opportunity to drive a Formula 1 car at a motorsport festival in Barbados. F1 Racing hitched a ride
Brandishing a cleaver in his right hand and a young green coconut in the palm of his left, a stallholder begins nonchalantly hacking away. At the same moment, he's distracted by the unmistakable high-pitched staccato howl of a revving 2.4-litre V8 F1 engine. He pays more attention to the 2013-spec Mercedes than he does to the tips of his fingers, slamming the huge blade into the coconut once more.
As the V8 shrills a familiar soundtrack, the surroundings - hot, dusty and exotic - couldn't be more unusual. His whittling done with, he offers up the fresh coconut water, served in its open shell, and asks for three Barbadian dollars (that's a pound to you and me). There's no greasy hot-dog and a plastic pint of fizzy lager here. Silverstone this is not.
Lewis Hamilton mashes the throttle of his F1 W04 as he waves to the enthusiastic crowd on the banks of Barbados's Bushy Park circuit. Over 8,000 spectators have crammed into this FIA Grade III track to see and hear an F1 car at full pelt, and to show their appreciation for someone they consider a son of the Caribbean. But they're not just here for Lewis. This is the inaugural Barbados Festival of Speed, a two-day event on the first weekend of May, with a range of track activities taking place on the 1.25-mile track.
Also on the bill are Radical Sportscars, monster trucks, superbikes, a classic car parade, stunt bikes, karting and a full-on Demolition Derby banger race. For this, 15 Nissan Micras have been shipped from the UK, including one decorated in homage to Lewis, with a silver #44 British bulldog livery.
But this weekend is no eccentric one-off. The festival, held on a track that opened in 1971 and which was renovated in 2013, is the culmination of a long-established tradition of motorsport on the island, and the crowd has an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything on two wheels and four.
Lewis Hamilton is the main draw, of course, and we've joined him, crossing the Atlantic to spend a weekend in the Caribbean between the Russian and Spanish Grands Prix. His route, however, was more circuitous than ours. Having left Russia on the Sunday night, he was in New York for the exclusive Met Gala fashion show on the Monday, before returning to Europe for a meeting with sponsors at the Coca-Cola and Monster Energy bottling plant in Athens on Tuesday. He was then back in the US, enjoying the Miami nightlife before making the hop down to Barbados for the weekend.
If you're travelling direct from London (there are two flights daily) it takes around eight-and-a-half hours to reach Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. The island sits to the east of the Windward Islands and 300 miles north of the coast of Venezuela. At just 14 miles across and 21 miles in length, it's roughly the size of the Isle of Wight, with double the population (285,000). Its sandy white beaches, deep azure oceans, all-day sunshine and laid-back atmosphere make it a popular holiday destination. And Lewis is back here to soak up island life. The reasons are twofold. First, to escape the disappointment he suffered with another engine failure in Sochi; second to help promote motorsport in the region.
His first visit to the Bushy Park circuit was two years ago, when, following a £14 million redevelopment, the circuit was re-opened with a Top Gear event, and Lewis demonstrated his F1 machine alongside fellow Monster-endorsed rally driver Ken Block. He returned last August for the island's holiday season - the Crop Over harvest festival, with its calypso competition and carnival. And not a car in sight.
Hamilton's first official function at the Barbados Festival of Speed involves sampling local cuisine on Saturday evening, accompanied by 400 guests, including local politicians and business leaders. As the star attraction, he doesn't hesitate to pose for photos and sign autographs. The venue is the second floor of the circuit's VIP suite, which is gently licked by a warm breeze coming straight off the Atlantic coast.
Master of the night's ceremonies is Andrew Mallalieu, an F1 steward and president of the FIA-affiliated Barbados Motoring Federation. Mallalieu's ambition is to have a Barbadian national competing in an FIA world championship series by the year 2020. Over the course of the evening, he unveils a government programme that will support a wave of fresh, young karting talent. What better inspiration than guidance from a karter turned three-time F1 world champion, who is descended from the nearby spice isle of Grenada.
"I'm so happy to be here and any excuse to come to Barbados is welcomed," says a grinning Hamilton to the assembled guests. "It's really great to see the government getting involved to help this sport. To be honest, when I was growing up, we just stumbled across it. My dad was from Grenada and had no idea about getting into racing."