THE first time I met Lewis Hamilton he asked me for MY autograph!
Lewis was a kart driver then and in my dealings with him since, I’ve always found him to be an extremely pleasant, helpful and cheerful person.
A lot of this is down to his father Anthony. Without him, I doubt Lewis would be where he is today.
At the start of his career, Lewis appeared petulant but has matured considerably. In those early years in the spotlight, it appeared to me that he was, understandably, temperamentally affected by his break-up with Nicole Scherzinger, the Pussycat Doll singer.
Nowadays, he is the complete package. He is an extremely dignified talker, a first-class ambassador for F1. He thinks sensibly, talks sensibly. He is a very-rounded individual – unlike a lot of F1 drivers.
Unusually, he negotiates his own contracts, which is an enormous undertaking as they are normally about 90 pages long! He also does his own training and diet. He is very much his own man.
Over the past 60 years, I have been extremely fortunate to witness all the F1 greats in action.
From the first superstar Juan Manuel Fangio all the way to reigning champion Hamilton.
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Of course, compiling any list of the greatest drivers of all time is purely subjective. Whatever I say, somebody will crucify me for it.
This, therefore, is an emotional as well as historical reaction – from a man of a certain age who has followed a sport he loved all his life.
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In my opinion, Lewis, is the best of his generation.
What he has done is absolutely brilliant as only two people in Formula One, which began in 1950, have won more world titles – Michael Schumacher with seven and Fangio on five.
But I don’t feel Lewis is Britain’s best ever. That accolade belongs to Sir Jackie Stewart.
The Scot won three world crowns, ran his own F1 team, was a simply brilliant businessman as well as a superb sports and touring car driver.
If I was compiling my list of best Brits, I would put Stewart top, followed by Lewis, then Stirling Moss, Jim Clark and Graham Hill.
On the world stage, Lewis would be fourth. Fangio is top, followed by Stewart, then Frenchman Alain Prost, a four-time world champion.
Ayrton Senna would be fifth, with Michael Schumacher sixth.
Both the Brazilian and the German had some undesirable characteristics. Neither were the cleanest of drivers. They would both go to any length to win.
And they often rode that dividing line between determination and ruthlessness.
Lewis is, without doubt, supremely gifted. Blindingly quick on a single qualifying lap. My feeling is that the British public are much more in love with him now than they were in the past.
But I don’t feel he will ever get the same public adulation that Nigel Mansell and to a lesser extent Jenson Button received.
Mansell was, is and always has been a man of the people. Button is your cheerful Charlie.
But there is a bit of remoteness to Lewis and a lot of people – totally unjustifiably in my opinion – do not respect him for floating off to America and hobnobbing with his musical friends.
Some argue he is not as deeply enthusiastic about F1 as Mansell or Button were. I feel that is wrong.
Lewis is 32. He could potentially win four more titles over the next five or six years. Of course, there might be a time when his musical interest or whatever it may be takes precedent.
But whatever happens, Lewis has the talent to become the greatest of all time. We should celebrate him for being one of the best.
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