Formula One driver wants his charity work to highlight the contrast of a rich sport in a country when many are poor
Formula One has left India, though in this vast and noisy nation of 1.2 billion people it is doubtful whether many noticed. The sport however, did leave one of its number behind, not one of the behind-the-scenes staff but one of its most celebrated stars: Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton’s recent press cuttings have often had a bitter, pejorative flavour, not least because – for many – he is the personification of Formula One’s narcissism, a great driver but one who too easily drifts into solipsism and the pursuit of celebrity status.
On this occasion though, the reports will all be positive. He is staying in India to fulfil charity duties – not because they have been thrust upon him by McLaren, whose demands on his time have irked the driver, but because it is something that comes from his heart.
“I’m staying here for a couple of days to do some work with Unicef in India,” Hamilton said. “I’m taking a flight tomorrow to an outskirts area to raise awareness of some of the hospitals out here and the malnutrition of some of the kids.
“I’m a little bit nervous about it because it was such a huge shock when I went to Manila, in the Philippines, so I can imagine here that it is going to be worse.
“In Manila they were all kids on the streets, as they will be here. But over here, perhaps, they’re more malnourished. In this day and age, when you can build a circuit for whatever this cost [£300m is a figure cited] … if you can do that, if there is money like that in the world, and there are billions being made, I don’t understand how it’s possible that people are still starving on the streets.”
There was anger in his words but it was quietly spoken because Hamilton, who has been surrounded by members of his family in India, cut a deeply relaxed figure.
“I love kids,” he added. “I just want to see if I can lift some kids’ spirits. It’s no sweat off my back to go and help some people like that. They are far, far, far less fortunate than I am or anyone of us are. It’s so minuscule, and it should be done more. That’s why I’m doing it. And I want to do more work with many more charities in the future.
“This is just the beginning of my work with XIX Entertainment [his agents]. They had no control of the decision I made this year [to leave McLaren and join Mercedes]. They’ve done nothing wrong. They’ve just supported me in what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to do more charity work, and I want to do more appearances, helping charities, helping young kids. I went to a Samuel L Jackson Foundation event the other day, and then a cancer charity event. It takes nothing out of our lives to help bring attention to these things.”
And as he spoke there was resonance of the old Hamilton, the one who beguiled us with his charm and generosity of spirit as much as his astonishing speed, the man he was before he disappeared under a cloud of sullen introspection for much of 2011. Hamilton also hopes to see more of his family in future races. “It makes a huge, huge difference. I can’t explain how hard I’ve been trying to improve things to the harmony that we had here.
“My career started out by having my family around. I was so much more relaxed. Well, I was relaxed in certain areas and stressed in others. But, you know, your family, your blood, is the one group of people you can trust with your heart and your soul. So it was good to have them here and I’m bringing some of my cousins to Abu Dhabi.”
Sunday’s Indian Grand Prix, which was won by Sebastian Vettel, his fourth in a row as he extended his lead over Fernando Alonso to 13 points (Hamilton was fourth, though he was pleased with his drive), was watched by 65,000, one-third down on last year’s 95,000. Facilities, though, were much improved, as the Buddh International Circuit put last year’s many teething problems behind them.
The fall in attendance figures did not appear to concern the sport’s chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, who had a point when he said: “First races are always high and the second year goes down. If the third year isn’t going up, then it’s something to worry about.”
Formula One is clearly popular with members of India’s young and aggressively acquisitive middle-class. But it is still difficult to discern its meaning to the majority of the population, for although India is a miracle of development and progress there is still widespread and appalling poverty.
Jayati Ghosh, who is professor of economics at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the country’s respected voices, says: “Formula One is a luxury indulgence of the very rich, another means of wealth along with the huge houses, fancy luxury cars, diamonds.
“It is extraordinarily wasteful of resources in a country that still does not provide basic amenities to around half of the population. It is really an insult not just to the poor but to 90% of the population, another example of hubris among the Indian elite.”
Ghosh has no time for the sports excesses, it seems, but would undoubtedly approve of Hamilton’s role in India this week.