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2016

Why it's wrong to hate this man

"I come on to spend time with my Team, not my haters... Real #Team LH know I love them!"
Lewis Hamilton, via Twitter

Few drivers have polarised opinion so much as Lewis Hamilton. But does he really deserve the hatred that's directed at him?

Once upon a time it was easy to categorise a British racing hero. Bow-tied Hawthorn; canny Jackie, dashing James with an eye for the ladies. Marauding Mansell. Damon, the valiant underdog.

We understood who they were. We knew what to think.

Through shifting eras they wrote their own chapters in the book of British Sporting Greats, crystallising our opinions through their deeds on- and off-track. Be it silk-sheets Jim Clark - all classical elegance at the wheel of yet another brilliant Chapman Lotus - or Boy-Next-Door-Button, they've formed a golden thread of winners whose presence at the sharp end of Formula 1 has helped cement Britain's wider involvement in the sport. Indeed, for the British motor racing establishment, the sight of Moss, Brooks, or 'Wattie' winning for Cooper, Vanwall or McLaren could only mean that all was right with the world. God in his heaven. The sceptr'd isle green and pleasant for another day. Phew!

And now we have Lewis Hamilton: a ground-shaking, bass-quaking, shape-shifting megastar whose very presence forced a reappraisal of what it meant to be a top-line British racing driver, on account of his mixed-race genes and blue-collar upbringing. And that was before he started winning everything.

These days, three world titles and 3.3 million devoted Twitter followers later, Lewis has gone way beyond merely blowing like a hurricane through the sometimes stultifyingly conservative F1 paddock. He is arguably bigger than the sport that made his name, and occupies a position among the globe-trotting glitterati - seemingly as comfortable stepping down from his cherry-red Challenger jet as he is stepping out in LA, London, Colorado, Barbados, or wherever in the world happens to take his fancy on any particular day.

Follow Lewis through Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook and you're granted regular glimpses into a lifestyle previously the realm only of those similarly young and wealthy, or blessed with the most fantastical imaginations. He might be thwacking golf balls into the clouds from the slopes of a New Zealand mountain; taking selfies on a motorbike as he cruises down the blacktop; maybe there's the bump 'n' grind of a Miami sweatbox; or he's off to the Caribbean for a circuit demo in a 2013 Merc F1 showcar - all the while finding time to shadow-box on a clifftop overlooking the Atlantic at sunset, or to pump a set of inverted press-ups on the steps leading down to the plunge pool of this week's luxury hotel.

It renders the otherwise enviable existences of his gifted, wealthy and famous peers almost humdrum by comparison. Post-Sochi, Hamilton's team-mate, Nico Rosberg, shared a few shots of a pristine first-light cycle blast along the Cote d'Azur and some family time on the Monaco waterfront spent with his baby daughter, Alaia. Very nice, too, if strikingly unexceptional by the standards of a thoroughly modern F1 driver. Fernando Alonso, meantime, busied himself promoting the Baku Grand Prix circuit, for which he is an ambassador. Nice work if you can get it. But 'nothing to see here'.

Hamilton, though, streaks on, like some Millennial-Generation comet, existing on what seems to be a different plane from the rest of the Formula 1 set - itself already rarefied and distant from any normal walk of life. Not for him the cosy cadre of Monte Carlo, where he owns a property. Observers say he's rarely seen in town.

Such has been his emergence into the public consciousness he was last month listed as an 'Icon' among Time magazine's '100 Most Influential People', alongside Usain Bolt, Nicki Minaj, Jordan Spieth, Adele and Leonardo DiCaprio. And this from a magazine based in a country where Formula 1 still struggles to gain widespread recognition.

But celebrity has its price and for Lewis Hamilton that has become manifest in the extremes of opinion - both positive and negative - directed his way. For all the warmth reflected back to Lewis via #TeamLH, social media provides the perfect, zero-jeopardy platform from which 'haters' can spew forth bile, in a manner far more brazen than any would likely dare, face to face. A recent Twitter trawl unearthed anti-Lewis hostility such as "tit" and "if one of the most influential ppl in the world drives cars in circles for money we're all fucked". Hamilton's wearing of traditional Arab dress during the Bahrain GP weekend attracted further pot-shots from several who questioned the state's human rights record.

While these comments might be dismissed as the predictable reaction of a self-selecting minority to the activities of a high-profile public figure, Lewis is aware of the hostility and from time to time feels moved to comment. "I'm used to it. I'm not surprised by it," he said at the Russian GP. "I've been doing social media for a long, long time... So, to be honest I just see the positives from it, not the negative side."

Surely more interesting though is why Lewis should be hated at all, for in many ways he epitomises everything that Brits love about their sporting heroes. For starters, he has succeeded largely thanks to his own talent. The evangelical guidance of his father, Anthony, was a massively powerful influence on Lewis' destiny, as Lewis himself regularly acknowledges, but those sublime wheel skills are Lewis's alone. Yes, they were nurtured within a McLaren-funded environment throughout Hamilton's teens, but he took advantage of what was offered at every opportunity: he fell just one point short of winning the world title in his rookie F1 season, 2007. No one has ever got closer to achieving that singular feat.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE IN THE JUNE 2016 ISSUE