June 30, 2007 Forbes magazine released its annual Celebrity 100 list recently, noting that golfer Tiger Woods banked US$100 million in the last year, becoming the first athlete in history to do so. Woods is the perfect corporate ambassador, being handsome, charming, beautifully spoken, dominant in a major TV sport and black, giving him a commercial edge in that his sponsors are perceived to be inclusive of minorities. SportBusiness International Magazine once forecast that Woods could be the first athlete to earn a billion dollars in a year given he had all the boxes ticked and global TV sport was emerging as a gargantuan money spinner given that it’s the only time-critical news you can pre-sell. Remarkably, a new sports star has rocketed from obscurity who will almost certainly push his way onto next year’s Celebrity 100 and might well elbow his way past Woods as sport’s highest money earner in the next round of sponsorship negotiations. Unknown three months ago, Lewis Hamilton’s sporting career has begun more spectacularly than any other in history … in any sport.
Just seven races into his F1 career, Hamilton’s record is by far the most spectacular start to a sporting career in the modern era and we can’t think of a better one in history.
In his first race in Formula One, the young Brit went into the record books as the first black F1 driver in history.
In the race, he finished third becoming the 21st driver in history to finish on the podium in his first race. In the second round of the world’s most watched sporting series, at the Petronas Malaysian Grand Prix, he finished second, becoming the first driver to place in both of his first GPs since compatriot Peter Arundell in 1964.
By his third race, the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix, there were no parallels – his second place gave him three podiums from three starts and the most successful beginning ever to a career in the highest level of motorsport.
That he finished in second place in the next race, the Gran Premio de España Telefónica, and would have won the following Grand Prix de Monaco on May 25 had his race strategy not been purposefully compromised by the team, put the fairy tale on a whole new level.
As the podiums mounted, so too did his credibility. It did not take long for everyone to realise that only two cars could win the World F1 title in 2007 – Ferrari or McLaren.
For the first few races, bookmakers had bracketed Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen and Felipe Massa with McLaren-Mercedes’ Fernando Alonso at short single figure odds for the title while rookie Hamilton, who drives a McLaren, had been in double figures.
Realistically, Hamilton was a rookie in an identical car to Alonso and could not be expected to beat him over a season – Alonso, it should be remembered, was the same person who had hosed Michael Schumacher and Ferrari to win back to back World Championships in 2005 and 2006.
The bookies weren’t convinced after five consecutive top-three finishes, but Hamilton’s exploits at the Grand Prix du Canada and the United States Grand Prix earlier this month convinced everyone with any knowledge of the sport that this was no longer a promising young driver having a spot of beginners luck.
Though he’d driven faultless races in the first five stops of the world series, and done so despite immense pressure from the best in the world, successive wins in the Americas have elevated him to a new status. In a world where the metronomic consistency and ability to produce something special when needed made Michael Schumacher a household name, Lewis Hamilton looks set to do more, much more.
The last two wins have seen the odds turn – Hamilton is now a raging favourite to win the world title. If he does so, he will be the first person to do so at their first attempt (barring of course, the first F1 season in 1950) and sports sponsorships experts are predicting he’ll be the sport’s first US$100 million a year man. Right now, his record reads third, second, second, second, second, first and first – with his eighth start this weekend in the Grand Prix de France.
Early indications are that Ferrari has found new pace at Magny-Cours. If you can’t catch it on television, you can watch practice, qualifying and the race with live timing here.