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Champ Hamilton concerned about economy, F1, not his status in America

12/18/2008

WASHINGTON -- When Lewis Hamilton arrived here Monday evening, his first request was simple -- take me to the White House.

The newly crowned Formula One world champion was in town paying a visit to the Fairfax, Va., headquarters of ExxonMobil, exchanging congratulatory pats on the back with one of his team's biggest sponsors and technical partners. It was the final leg of a crazy, six-week transatlantic zigzag that began as soon as the bizarre Brazilian season finale ended Nov. 2.

"Last night was my actual first visit to the Washington city," the 23-year-old said in his politely quiet English lilt. "I came here [to Fairfax] the last few years, but never had time. I was in the hotel and I was here."

During a childhood spent mostly en route to racetracks from Silverstone to Nurburgring, Hamilton ingested many a movie based in the U.S. capital. Seeing it in person was more than a little like being inside one of those DVDs. "It was very special last night when we went past the White House. It was unbelievable. For anyone who has read about it or seen it in books, and then you finally walk right past it … it's a very special city here. "

When the youngest-ever F1 champ rode by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (note: he didn't drive himself) his mind drifted to the similarities of his historic year and the one constructed by the man who will be moving into that residence in little more than a month.

Like Barack Obama, Hamilton likes to deflect questions about the racial barriers broken by his '08 accomplishments, preferring others to frame that history for him.

As Hamilton and his boss, McLaren Mercedes CEO Ron Dennis, watched the White House glide through their window, they both thought of the ever-worsening global economic crisis. The racer and old mechanic feel -- along with most of the world -- that the far-reaching recession will either continue to escalate or drastically improve based solely on the decisions made within that big white mansion in the coming year.

And both readily admit that even their seemingly bulletproof sport isn't immune to the downward spiral.

Coming to America
"Ever since I was a kid, I have loved coming to the States," Hamilton admitted during a break between his Tuesday gauntlet of meetings and media obligations, dressed in a too-cool Vodafone McLaren jacket that looked like it was stolen from the set of the new "Star Trek" movie. "I can come here and no one notices me, and it's great."

That is certainly not the case back home in Great Britain, where his face is plastered onto covers of magazines and tabloids like he was the fourth Jonas Brother. Earmarked for racing greatness as a preteen, F1-mad England has long burdened the kids with the titles of "next Graham Hill" or "next Michael Schumacher" or, of course, "racing's Tiger Woods".

Just last week the headlines in London papers claimed that "Lewis is furious" over losing the BBC Sports Personality of Year to Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy ("I'm not," Hamilton says with a roll of the eyes). And Britain has long obsessed over whomever their hero is romantically linked with. The latest for Hamilton is Pussycat Dolls lead singer Nicole Scherzinger.

It's why he now resides in Switzerland instead of his home country, and why he loves to visit the only international powerhouse that doesn't seem like it will ever join the worldwide Formula One craze.

"In L.A., once or twice I've been recognized. We were in a restaurant recently and someone recognized me, but he was from Liverpool … When I was training one time and I was running, some people in a car pulled up alongside of me, but they were from Australia. That's about it."

It is, however, a luxury he'd rather not have. Both Hamilton and Dennis would trade the anonymity for a better foothold in the United States. But in 2009, their series will not visit North America for the first time since 1961, as both the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis and the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal have dropped off the calendar.

"Losing Montreal really hurts," Hamilton said. "I love the historic courses, and that was one of them. I hope that can we return as soon as possible, but I know they have some things to work out."

"They didn't pay their bills," Dennis added, visibly disappointed. "Their economic model didn't work for them, so now perhaps they will find one that does and we can go back soon."

And just like that, as it seems to be with all conversations these days, the topic turned back to the economy.

Cash or Crash
"Like everyone, I have been aware of the problems with the economy," Hamilton said during a break Tuesday. "But only recently has the situation really hit home and made me realize just how bad the situation is. Fortunately, the team that I'm a part of is certainly affected, but it's not going to affect the way we move forward as a team."

As his driver said the words, Dennis shifted his jaw as if to say: Well, Lewis, maybe a little.

In the past month alone, Dennis and his fellow team owners have embraced FIA-mandated spending caps, particularly when it comes to engine development and radical in-season aerodynamics changes. The longtime team boss estimates that the new regulations will slash his operating budget by 30 percent in 2009 and another 20 percent the following season.

That's no small kick in the purse for McLaren, which has long been one of F1's biggest spenders. Though official numbers aren't released by the privately run teams, it is widely known that Toyota forked out upwards of $700 million to go racing last season, followed by Ferrari and McLaren in the $500 million ballpark.

By comparison, Forbes estimates that the total worth of NASCAR's Hendrick Motorsports is around $335 million, followed by Roush Fenway Racing at $313 million. No other NASCAR team cracks the $200 million mark.

In other words, Toyota spent more last year than Hendrick and Roush are worth combined.

If it sounds ridiculous, that's because it is, and it's the reason that Dennis, a very even-keeled businessman, has rallied behind the FIA's calls for cost cuts.

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother
Like NASCAR, the casualties of the F1 arms race haven't been Hamilton, Dennis or the other top-shelf teams. The organizations that are teetering or have already fallen by the wayside are the organizations that don't fight for wins, but rather for the pride of scoring a point here or there with the odd sixth- or seventh-place finish.

Popular English team owner Eddie Jordan was forced to fold his tent as costs continued to escalate, as did former champ-turned-owner Jackie Stewart and former world champion Jacques Villeneuve.

The deterioration of the back half of the grid has been slow and painful, not unlike the recent near-shuttering of NASCAR's Wood Brothers Racing and Petty Enterprises.

The biggest slap in F1's face came just one week ago when Honda unceremoniously announced that it was packing up its Formula One team after three years, one win and billions of dollars spent. Within minutes of Honda's announcement, rumors began to race through Europe that Toyota was also considering a withdrawal. To stop the bleeding, Dennis and his fellow haves are now circling the wagons to protect the have-nots.

"Formula One is almost like a huge circus," says the 61-year-old, who has an admitted soft spot for smaller teams, having built the foundation for his current empire with a mechanic friend and a bunch of secondhand cars in the early 1970s. "[Other teams] are your competitors but they are also your friends. Like the circus, we have to be concerned about the lesser performers. You can't all be the star, but the other acts are the core to the economy of our circus. When we make cost-saving measures, it is really for those smaller teams. It will have a much larger positive effect on them than negative on us."

A Spoonful of Silver Helps The Medicine Go Down
Between bad economic times, the fall of the Canadian Grand Prix and the collapse of Honda F1, the Tuesday afternoon conversation seemed to take on a bit of a downer tone, and the pair hadn't even broached the subjects of F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone's increasingly crazy rants, FIA president Max Mosley's dominatrix escapade or Hamilton's father's claims of overt racism from the crowds in Spain.

Lewis Hamilton


It's amazing all the things that can happen in a year. When you end the season on the high of winning the championship, you kind of forget about all the other things and you move on.

-- Lewis Hamilton

Funny what winning a world title can do …

"It's amazing all the things that can happen in a year," Hamilton said, politely diffusing a question that tried to shoehorn in all of the above. "When you end the season on the high of winning the championship, you kind of forget about all the other things and you move on."

His boss was a little more direct.

"Winning solves a lot of problems, doesn't it?"

And with that, the F1 world champion shook hands with everyone in the room and then was whisked down the hall by his security detail of five very large, wired-for-sound men ("Seems a bit much, doesn't it?") for an ESPN TV interview with Marty Smith.

In the lobby of the ExxonMobil building sat his McLaren MP4-23 with a newly painted black "1" on the nose, a digit earned by winning the world title. Two lobby employees stood over the ride, wondering who'd parked it in their office.

"Why is this car here?" one asked the other.

"Lewis Hamilton is visiting today."

"The race car guy? Really? I just got here. I guess I won't get to see him."

"You saw him. He just walked by."

"He did? That was him? I didn't recognize him."

Don't feel bad, my fellow American. That's just the way the champ likes it.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.