The SIG Column - 15 June

15 Jun 2007

Following his debut Grand Prix win in Montreal, Lewis Hamilton is the new pin-up boy of F1. But Drew Barrand, head of media at Sport Industry Group, questions whether the precocious 22-year old can reinvigorate British interest in the sport in the long-term...

You can see where Fernando Alonso’s coming from. It’s impossible not to look at Lewis Hamilton without a hint of jealousy. Young, handsome and precociously talented, here is a man with the sporting world at his feet.

His debut Grand Prix win at Montreal last weekend in only his sixth start prompted widespread accolades from the sport’s greats and led the UK press to map out his entire career all the way to becoming Britain’s most decorated driver of all time.

But Hamilton brings something much more vital to F1 than his pin-up status – he has the potential to single-handedly revive the sport in the UK. Bernie Ecclestone knows better than anyone that a thriving UK fan base for F1 is a crucial cog in the sport’s global wheel but of late that cog has turned rusty.

Starved of a successful driver for the best part of a decade where Michael Schumacher and Ferrari’s domination proved a major turn-off, UK audiences deserted the glitz and glamour of F1 in droves. With the below-par facilities at Silverstone also threatening its place on the F1 calendar, support for the sport in this country was at an all-time low.

The emergence of Hamilton however has revitalised interest overnight. Proof, if proof were needed, that every sport needs successful national heroes.

Research from TNS, produced exclusively for Sportindustry.biz, showed that during the last 3 F1 races, UK TV audiences have increased by a whopping 43% to just under 6m viewers. The cumulative average audience in the UK from the 6 races of the season thus far has also risen 13.1% on 2006.

Such massive audience spikes are becoming known in industry circles as the ‘Hamilton Effect’ and all after a fledgling career spanning a paltry six races.

We’ve been here before of course. Jenson Button, David Coulthard, Eddie Irvine were all hailed as the saviour of F1 in the UK but were unable to back up their various attributes with long-term success at the top of the grid. You have to look back as far as the early 90s to Damon Hill and Nigel Mansell to actually find British F1 champions, and neither really set the media’s hearts racing in the way Hamilton has managed.

It’s not just the prospect of Britain producing an F1 champion that’s driving the ‘Hamilton Effect’. The way he conducts himself merges the media charm of Button and Irvine with the talent and ability of Hill and Mansell. In essence, he is the sum of all parts, combining all of the attributes of the British drivers that have gone before him but in one complete package.

As a result, sponsors are clamouring to get a piece of him. Gigantic billboards of his face adorn airports and city tower blocks around the world. It’s already difficult to go anywhere without his image staring back at you.

A word of caution however. For all his talent and potential, there are the problems that over-exposure creates.

The Hamilton bandwagon has risen to such a level in such a short space of time that nothing short of him ending his debut season as world champion will placate the demands of the masses. A few bits of bad luck - a blown engine here and the odd piece of youthful exuberance there - could snatch the dream away from his and his army of fans’ grasp.

It’s not easy carrying the nation’s hopes on your shoulders. Just ask Tim Henman. It’s easy to become the guy who flatters to deceive.

He has it all before him but it’s just too early to tell whether the ‘Hamilton Effect’ can truly drag British F1 audiences out of the mire for good.

What we do know however is that, of all the hopes for F1 success the UK has had before, Hamilton is by far and away the most impressive. Given the way he’s handled his success thus far, it would take a brave man to bet against him delivering on his promise.

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