Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Idiot Fringe

Even the most cursory glance at the F1 internet message boards and forums confirms that I was far from alone in finding the coverage lavished on Lewis Hamilton last year a little tiresome. That's not to diminish the scale of his achievements. In coming close to winning the World Championship in his debut year, he achieved something very unusual. In doing so whilst paired up with a double world champion who had just beaten the outstanding driver of his era to claim his second title, his performance was truly exceptional. Nonetheless, reading the British press and - in particular - watching the ITV coverage, one could sometimes be forgiven for wondering what had happened to the other 21 drivers.

One cliche, though, which I feared we would hear a lot of but which I was pleased to see the media largely ignored was that of "first black driver to... ". Perhaps it was because Hamilton's accomplishments were such that "first driver to..." applied equally well, but either way, the colour of Lewis Hamilton's skin has approximately nothing to do with how quickly he drives a racing car, and it was refreshing to see it wasn't given undue prominence.

Except, of course, a small group of moronic Spanish 'fans' who went down to Barcelona to watch winter testing thought otherwise. After a season in which Lewis Hamilton's blackness took second place to his speed in terms of media attention, they saw fit to start chanting racist abuse at Hamilton from across in the pit garages. Such behaviour is of course completely unacceptable, but I am not convinced that it is necessarily a sign of a deeper problem of racism among Spanish racing fans, or of infiltration by the Spanish equivalent of the National Front.

Rather, the problem is more likely one of mindless nationalism. To my mind, George Bernard Shaw had it right nearly eighty years ago, when he observed that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It strikes me as more than a mere coincidence that it should be in Spain that we should see race fans direct racist chants towards Lewis Hamilton, rather than any number of countries F1 visits where race relations are more fraught. After a fractious 2007 season, Hamilton and Spaniard Fernando Alonso are seen by many as sworn enemies, and in the minds of simplistic fans, if you are 'for' Alonso, you have to be 'against' Hamilton. Fundamentally, I suspect, what the Spanish fans really don't like about Hamilton is not his skin colour, but the fact that on occasion, he was capable of making their national sporting hero look rather ordinary. And for some, it would seem, this extends to 'blacking up' and holding up banners insulting his family...

This sort of thing is usually the province of football, rather than Formula 1, (where racist chants were commonplace until recently, though tellingly, they were always directed at the opposing team). As someone born in England, I need no reminding of the disgraceful depths of behaviour plumbed by those supposedly motivated by patriotic support for their football team. I remember feeling saddened and even ashamed when I read that two German tourists visiting my home town had been assaulted after the German national side had succeeded in eliminating England from Euro '96. I doubt it cheered the tourists at all, but I was glad when Germany went on to win that tournament.

Sometimes, though, the mindless nationalism that seems so endemic in team sports (at least, quelle surprise, when played at a national level) comes to infect individual sports. Often, it is harmless, or merely hugely embarrassing, as the 'come on Tim' brigade used to demonstrate at Wimbledon every year, with their fervent belief, in the face of all the available evidence, that Tim Henman would actually win a Grand Slam tennis tournament. As someone who has resided in Scotland for most of my adult life, the brief obsession with curling following Winter Olympic success is one of the peculiar moments in the nation's sporting history.

F1 has not been immune. The first time I can recall it coming into play was at the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in 1976, when a partisan crowd looked ready to riot when it appeared that louche national hero James Hunt would not be allowed to take part in the restarted race after he had become involved in a first corner accident at the first start. Fearing what may happen if they refused to let him start, Hunt was allowed to race, and was disqualified after the fact, handing victory to arch-rival Niki Lauda.

It was the next British world champion, Nigel Mansell, who did most to attract the football hooligan contingent to F1 though. Maybe it was just the mood of the times, or maybe it was a certain tabloid-friendly side to Mansell's personality, but he did much to attract the Union-Jack boxer shorts brigade to the British Grand Prix. Humourous banners have long been a feature of Grands Prix, but there was nothing particularly funny or clever about the banners that appeared at the 1992 race and simply read "Fuck Senna". When one beered-up idiot took it upon himself to run across the track while the race was still going on, to celebrate Mansell's victory, we had a chilling reminder that motor racing is not like other sports, and that even the well-meaning drunken antics of so-called fans have the potential to end in tragedy. Thankfully, we got lucky that time, as we did again when defrocked priest Neil Horan decided to take to the track in 2003, wielding religious banners.

It's not only been Britain which has had a problem with it's idiot fringe. Michael Schumacher had always attracted a loud and colourful 'barmy army' (I should know, I once shared a camp site with them) and they were friendly enough. In the run-up to the German Grand Prix in 1994, though, following Michael Schumacher's disqualification for ignoring a 30s penalty at the British Grand Prix a fortnight earlier (the details of the affair have long slipped my mind, I seem to recall that the old reptile Tom Walkinshaw was involved somewhere along the line), some took in upon themselves to issue death threats to his chief rival, Damon Hill.

On that occasion, Michael Schumacher went to great lengths to distance himself from the unacceptable actions of his fans. Thus far, while the FIA have been quick to make clear that the kind of behaviour displayed by so-called fans in Spain will not be tolerated, there has been deafening silence from Fernando Alonso. On-track, Michael Schumacher was no paragon of virtue, but in this instance, I can't help thinking Alonso would do well to follow his example.

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