There’s a terrible compliment we reserve for our greatest sporting stars. It goes like this: if you’re so good, how come you’re not better? When the question is asked, you know that you have achieved something genuinely great… and you also know that it still isn’t enough.
When Ian Botham was the greatest cricketer on the planet, we asked why he couldn’t score a century and take ten wickets every match. When David Beckham dominated football, we asked why he couldn’t win the World Cup for England. When Andy Murray became one of the world’s top four tennis players, we asked why he couldn’t win a grand slam; now he’s won three, we ask why he hasn’t won more.
In its unfair way, it’s a fair question. And it’s a question increasingly asked of Lewis Hamilton as the Formula One season gets ready to go, go, go all over again. He has won 53 grands prix – only Michael Schumacher, with 91, has won more.
He’s won three world drivers’ championships, the same number as Ayrton Senna – and yet we still wonder if that’s good enough. Because in a sense, it isn’t. Hamilton really should have won the title last season. After all, he won ten races, he was the fastest driver in the fastest car and he had finished the previous season with complete psychological dominance over his teammate, Nico Rosberg. But he still contrived a number of poor results, often from poor starts, and Rosberg won it instead.
There comes a point in the life of serial champions when their audience is more conscious of the minute flaws that cause their occasional errors than of the colossal gifts that brought so many victories. And because it’s more fun, we look not for flaws of technique or equipment, but of personality.
So it’s reckoned that Hamilton lost because he was distracted by spending too much time showing off and being glamorous. He’s always made it easy for people to look for his flaws. It’s all in the way you present yourself – and he chooses diamond earrings, enormous hats and how-will-you-recognise-me-without-my-disguise sunglasses.
He looks like a rap star, not a traditional boy racer. He presents himself as unapologetically black, rather than honorary white: his choice and good on him, but it’s a policy that has alienated plenty.
So some people criticise him – until it rains on race day. What counts then is the skill and courage of the driver, and Hamilton can hold those two things in dismayingly perfect balance, like Schumacher and Senna, all three emperors of the deluge.
In these circumstances you can see what makes Hamilton remarkable: he really is fast. See him make a pass round the outside with a pheasant-tail of spray behind him, and you forget the immaturities – if you reach 32 without growing up, the chances of you ever doing so are growing slim – and you understand what Hamilton is about.
Last year, he started the season with three drivers’ championship wins – and perhaps for a moment that seemed enough. Now it’s a new season and three no longer looks like a magic number. Is it about hunger? He began last season a mite peckish; I suspect he begins this one newly ravenous. Fasten your seat belts…
F1: Australian Grand Prix is on Sun 4.30am Sky Sports 1, R5 Live