Flirting with danger

McLaren were right to rein in their prodigy

The only "black" driver in Formula One had virtually zero chance of winning the Monaco Grand Prix, no matter what anybody says.

But Lewis Hamilton is having a stupendous first season and is saving my soul - and yours, too, if you are a closet admirer of the world's most reactionary sport. Where else do you get so much environmental waste and unreconstructed macho?

Where else did you get a sport with no black, or, to use the equally spurious and fashionable term, "mixed-race" champions? The most astute comment on Hamilton's arrival appears on the chatline of www.blackprof.com. "The historical context should not be 'the first black' but 'the first white to stop acting like a @#$#@ racist'."

The McLaren team chief, Ron Dennis, has been shrewd enough to foster Hamilton's talent ever since Lewis, aged ten, and having just won his first karting championship, walked up to him and announced that one day he would drive for the McLaren team.

Now many are saying that at Monaco on 27 May, Dennis betrayed the young man he has so famously backed for a decade. Hamilton, now 22 and the new number-two driver on the team, came second behind his teammate - the reigning world champion, Fernando Alonso.

What they are saying is that, if not for team orders, which are against the rules but rife in the sport, Hamilton could have won. I say he couldn't have won in anything other than dire circumstances.

Straight afterwards, the usually well-behaved Hamilton was so upset, he poured champagne down Alonso's neck. Then, at the press conference, he gritted his teeth and said: "It is something I have to live with. I've number two on my car and I am the number-two driver."

Within 24 hours of the race, the sport's ruling body announced an inquiry into the Monaco events and will rule whether McLaren were in breach of the rules.

The truth is that Hamilton had lost the grand prix before it even started because of two errors he made in the days before the race. The first came in practice when he crashed his car into a metal guard-rail. He drives faster laps than Alonso because he takes chances Alonso no longer has to take. It is generally agreed that Hamilton came second in the previous race because he dived into an opening that a more experienced driver would have left alone. He was lucky to get away with it.

The more decisive error happened on the day before the race. In the dying moments of timed practice, Hamilton just failed to take pole position, ending up in second, behind Alonso. You didn't have to be an aficionado to know that, on a circuit which it is notoriously difficult to pass on, Alonso would win unless something extraordinary happened.

Hamilton was upset, but it was good tactics and standard Formula One operating procedure for Dennis to slow both McLaren drivers down when it became apparent the race would be Alonso's. Later, Hamilton admitted: "I brushed the guard-rail many times." That is flirting too hard with danger.

Years ago at Monza, at the first grand prix I ever attended, I saw the number-two Lotus driver Ronnie Peterson die trying to win the championship from his teammate and number one, Mario Andretti.

But, with Dennis keeping tabs on the team, it looks likely that Hamilton will live to be the 2007 Sports Personality of the Year.

Hunter Davies returns in the autumn