26 MAY 2007, Page 79

The boy wonder


Fasten your ear-muffs for a deafening weekend — din and dissonance, vrooms and fumes. Around Silverstone, lock up your dogs and daughters while the leaning, leather-clad boy racers sort out the British leg of the world motorcycling championship. Down on the Riviera, the straw-bales and (what we used to call) the starlets are in place for Monaco’s round-the-houses Grand Prix on Sunday, while across the pond in Indiana the world’s largest annual sporting throng has gathered for the always hairy-scary Indianapolis 500. Brits ignore most allAmerican sports; at home, as well, motorcycling coverage is pretty well blanked by the mainstream backpages, though it strikes me as a more genuine sport than fat-cat supremo Bernie Ecclestone’s narrow-eyed fourwheeled Formula One unmerry-go-round which the multinational sponsors continue to swamp in greenbacks by the zillion.

Assuredly no petrol-head, I did, as a kid, follow the racing drivers enthusiastically. Then they were not only heroic, but recognisably human — the likes of Parnell and Walker, Moss and Brooks, Hawthorn and Hill, carefree dandies who, between wizard prangs and tyre-squealing shunts, would dice together down the straight in short-sleeved cricket shirts, flimsy leather Rockfist Rogan helmets, goggles from Timothy White’s and a wink, as they passed, for an adoring dolly-bird on the kerb. If not at all one of those dashing deathwish innocents, suddenly at least the Brits seem to have found a cool, calm heir to that primeval line (followed by such as Surtees and Stewart, Clark and Courage, Pryce and Hunt). With the retirement of the unmatchable, uncatchable German, Schumaker, an unlicked, hitherto unheard-of young cub, Lewis Hamilton — inspired, they say, by his paternal grandfather who owns the fastest taxi in Grenada — is leading the 2007 drivers’ championship after four races, the only four he has ever entered: unprecedented.

Just 22, the Hertfordshire boy was still at primary school when he began local go-kart racing. By 14, he had been spotted and sponsored by the swish, successful Woking outfit, McLaren, named after Bruce McLaren, New Zealand motor-racing’s legendary saint (and martyr), who died testing one of his prototypes at Goodwood in 1970 and who, with apt poignancy, was hitherto (in 1959) the youngest man ever to head the drivers’ standings. Hamilton’s natural grace and soft, good manners — as well as, doubtless, his talent and icy determination — puts old hands in mind of the appealing McLaren. Above the Med tomorrow, Hamilton will find daunting new ground and gradient. A tightly compressed maze of curves, hairpins and slow corners makes Monaco the classic one-off, a track for rigid, unerring concentration. To be near the front of the grid is imperative, but if the boy can then hold his nerve to parry every challenge, well, any remaining cynic will be converted. For once, a Grand Prix race could be engrossing to watch from start to finish.

In the 1960s, ITV used to send me to Monaco to ‘observe and fly the flag’ in one of my dud and occasional roles as ‘Eurovision liaison officer’. It was a week, I admit, for relishably getting as sponsored as a newt. Forty years ago this week, during a dramatic dice with another Kiwi, Denny Hulme, the Ferrari of popular Italian ace Lorenzo Bandini nicked a bollard, piggy-backed a straw-bale on the quay, speared into the sea-wall and burst into flames. He died next day. That sobered me up.