July 7, 2007 12:58 AM
Until very recently I found formula one not so much boring – that wouldn’t be fair – as totally pointless and irritating. This changed dramatically with the arrival of Lewis Hamilton. At first I couldn’t work out why this should be. Why would a man from Lewisham, with no interest in motor sport, suddenly become oddly fascinated by a young, fresh-faced but, let’s face it, still really dull driver called Lewis Hamilton, who . . . Hang on. Right there.
My first reaction to realising that the first three syllables of Lewis Hamilton’s name are “Lewisham” was to be deeply flattered. Not just for myself, but on behalf of the entire borough. It seems the elite technicians at McLaren have at last conquered the final engineering frontier: the dork with the really expensive sunglasses who steers the car. Freed from human error McLaren have been able to produce “Lewis Hamilton”, a robot driver without flaws, designed by committee to propel the sport into the dingiest corners of its potential market.
Dingy corners inhabited, it turns out, by people exactly like me. I am the target market. After sifting their way through vast tracts of data carefully tailored to produce a Photofit of their ideal consumer, McLaren appear to have come up with a man from Lewisham in a blue T-shirt who shops at Morrison’s, likes Quavers and all other maize-based savoury snacks and distrusts people with unusual mobile phone ringtones. Following their instructions to the letter, McLaren’s engineers even decided to name their creation Lewisham. And so over time Lewisham Ilton gradually turned into Lewis Hamilton.
My second reaction was to feel disturbed and hunted. It’s like cracking the formula one Da Vinci code. As soon as you start looking, the signs are everywhere that there’s something just too soft-focus perfect about Hamilton.
He’s young but unthreatening. He’s got the best car but he’s still an underdog. He’s British, but different from those other Brits like Nigel “String-backed Driving Gloves” Mansell, Damon “Jamming With Phil Collins” Hill and Jenson “Horsing Around With Underwear Models on a Yacht” Button. For years it seemed this was simply the natural milieu of formula one, a sport so dominated by the incremental advance of its technology that its drivers must by necessity seem shallow, two-dimensional, almost irrelevant. Or like robots.
This week Hamilton was pictured in London with P Diddy, Pharrell Williams and, weirdly, Natasha Bedingfield. An incongruous mix of musical styles, until you realise his marketers are simply tapping into the broadest possible nexus of public tastes by associating their product with the entire playlist of Now That’s What I Call Music 286. Expect to see him on the front cover of the Sun next week sharing a joke with Jarvis Cocker, 50 Cent and Rod Stewart. We have seen this kind of thing before, of course. Most recently Zimbabwe’s attempts to establish a foothold for Mugabeism in suburban northwest London by fielding the Test bowler Gary Brent were ultimately doomed to fail.
As is standard practice with this type of edgy, investigative journalism, I offered McLaren a chance to deny that their driver is a robot named after a London borough. The response was predictably hostile. “There is absolutely no truth in this,” said a spokesman. “Besides, such a process just couldn’t work in practice. Even Mr Ronay would have to admit that since growing up in Lewisham he has moved to several other London boroughs. In any case, what we should be talking about here is all the other top-drawer rookies out there. For example the exciting Chinese driver Ea-Ling Brod-Wei and the American sensation Walt Hamforest.”