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MOTOR RACING

Home is where 'huh?' is

A young Briton's Formula One title barely causes a ripple back in sleepy Stevenage.

November 03, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Culpepper is a special correspondent.

Stevenage, England — Formula One drivers might epitomize suaveness with their worldly jet-setting and their residences in Monaco or Switzerland, but they have to come from somewhere, even from bedroom towns 29 miles north of London and profoundly unassuming.

So as the global supernova Lewis Hamilton on Sunday became the youngest champion in Formula One history some 5,887 miles away in Sao Paulo in a finish so suspenseful it menaced respiration, in his hometown it proved hard to find a rowdy pub.

Turns out Stevenage (population 79,000) gained town status only in 1946, and only in 1959 did the queen open its downtown pedestrian shopping area, so it's that newfangled brand of city where the town center on a Sunday evening features mostly skateboarders, the audible echo of your footsteps and some over-50 citizens edging toward a bingo hall.

That's even on a Sunday when a Stevenage-raised kid won the 2008 Formula One championship at 23 years 9 months 26 days, the same kid who got a go-kart at 6, approached McLaren honcho Ron Dennis at 10 asking to drive someday, and signed with McLaren at 13.

Not only that, but the grandson of Grenadian immigrants won the title by nudging startlingly from sixth place to fifth in gathering rain on the last turn of the last lap of the last of the 18 races. And not only that, but this eyelash finish averted a second straight season-closing thud for "the Tiger Woods of Formula One."

In October 2007, he went to Sao Paulo's Interlagos track as a 22-year-old rookie with, preposterously, a seven-point lead over Finland's Kimi Raikkonen, with Hamilton's fractious gearbox among the reasons Raikkonen took the title.

In November 2008, he arrived with a seven-point lead over Brazilian Felipe Massa, 94 points to 87, needing to finish fifth or better to render any Massa finish insufficient.

Well, Massa finished first, and after Hamilton had been cruising safely in fourth, fresh rain forced his stop for wet-weather tires on the 66th lap out of 71. When he resumed, the kid named for the American Olympian Carl Lewis held fifth, but Germany's Sebastian Vettel soon passed him, and you could sense English living rooms inhaling.

You couldn't sense it so much in the middle of Stevenage, where the first sports bar recommended -- in the mall near the bustling bowling alley and the busy Cineplex with the new James Bond on four screens -- wound up closed. You couldn't even sense it much after finally finding the spiffy sports bar the Old Post Office, cavernously populated even as the race reached palpitation stage.

One guy carried a Union Jack flag and shouted occasionally. Two guys played pool obliviously. Two people canoodled at the bar even more obliviously. Video games flashed lights. About 15 people, mostly around the bar, paid attention to the race. Easily audible were the ITV commentators, once crediting Hamilton with "a very mature race indeed" but eventually warning that only an onslaught of rain might help.

Suddenly, on the many screens, Massa's Ferrari team exulted in a championship apparently nigh.

Yet in the kind of teensy twist that can decide these things after seven months on five continents, Timo Glock's Toyota team had opted not to stop for wet tires, and so he spent the last lap foundering on his dry-weather ones so that Hamilton slipped past breathlessly just before they sped uphill to the finish line.

Massa wept a bit. Hamilton rushed to hug his populous coterie, including the 16-year-old brother who has cerebral palsy and inspires him, and his father/manager, Anthony, who once held down three jobs to sustain the dream. When a microphone found him, Hamilton gasped that he needed to "get my breath back."

Dave Ryan of McLaren said, "The kid is magic." Rain poured in Sao Paulo.

And in the heavy dark of 7:30 p.m. here at 51 North latitude, where Hamilton's parents divorced when he was 2, where he lived with his mother, later his father, where he attended the Peartree School and John Henry Newman Catholic school, a little cheer went up in the huge downtown bar.

Then, just outside the woodsy town around the well-tended government-supported housing of Hamilton's childhood, the whole world seemed indoors. Nobody walked the sidewalks except a few teenagers here and there. A promising little neighborhood pub sat almost empty. And a rotund guy at a bus stop didn't give his name but said of watching the race from his house, "My haht [heart] was pounding."

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