Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2007, 12:00am

It's always nice to be able to pinpoint that moment when a performer appeared on the scene that had the potential to not only completely alter the sporting landscape, but the social one as well. Maybe, just maybe, we were treated to one of those incredibly rare and seminal moments last week.

The key word here is 'maybe', because the future is promised to no one. But since we are living these days in the express lane of information overload and mega-hype, let's get this out of the way right now: Lewis Hamilton could easily become the most important athlete of the 21st century.

Surely you know young Mr Hamilton. The pride of Hertfordshire, England, this rookie driver has made the most auspicious debut in the history of Formula One. Driving for the McLaren-Mercedes team, the 22-year-old Hamilton is the first driver in F1 history to record top-three finishes in his first three races. His next race he finished second and became the youngest driver to ever lead the drivers' championship.

He followed that by coming second at the Monaco Grand Prix before his breakthrough victory last weekend at the Canadian Grand Prix. That's six trips to the podium in six races, an absolutely stunning debut and one that has eclipsed the season, at least so far, of his more heralded McLaren teammate, two-time defending world champion Fernando Alonso.

And, oh yeah, Hamilton is black. Well, technically, he is half black. His father is of Afro-Caribbean descent while his mother is white. But for better or worse, of all of Hamilton's achievements on the track in his remarkable rookie season, none will get more ink than the fact he is the first black driver in the 61-year history of F1.

Predictably, he has been hailed in many quarters as the next Tiger Woods. There are some striking similarities beyond their multi-ethnic ancestry. Both Woods and Hamilton were prodigies whose future success was apparent at an early age. Both are a marketer's dream: congenial, photogenic, intelligent and articulate. Both were also groomed and nurtured by their fathers and both readily admit the key to their success is strong paternal influence.

But in all fairness to Hamilton, or any other athlete in the history of organised sports, there is only one Tiger Woods and there will only ever be one Tiger Woods.

No one is remotely comparable. Tiger became the most famous sportsman in the world playing golf. Muhammad Ali became the most recognisable face in the world as a boxer, and who doesn't understand the rules to a sport where one guy punches another?

There are billions of people in this world who don't know what end of a golf club to hold. And yet many of them know who Tiger is. He is almost single-handedly responsible for the multibillion-dollar growth in the golf industry over the past 10 years.

At some point you run out of superlatives - spike the hype and sit back to enjoy his peerless athleticism.

The sooner we get to that point with Hamilton the better. The kid has been hailed by virtually everyone around the sport as a uniquely talented driver.

'Who is going to stop him winning the world championship now?' Damon Hill, the last British driver to win that title (1996), asked this week. 'The best make it look easy. That's clearly what Lewis is going to be.'

However, before Lewis can establish himself as the best, there is the not-so-small matter of being the marketing linchpin for the new Formula One. Add in being a role model and inspiration to minority racing fans all over the world, as well as the daily Tiger comparisons, and the precocious Lewis carries far more than the expectations of taking the chequered flag when he gets behind the wheel.

Because of the colour of his skin, Tiger was never allowed to simply play golf. From the first moment he appeared on the radar, Woods was a pioneer. While it was a role he never consciously sought, it was a mandatory posting with no reprieve. Hamilton is equally burdened. Nothing will change the fact he is the first black driver in the 61-year history of Formula One.

But unlike Tiger, who works methodically in his civvies, Hamilton is an indecipherable dot camouflaged by helmet and spacesuit who speeds by your TV screen at over 300km/h. If he can become one of the most recognisable faces in the world by doing something like that, it would be a remarkable achievement.

Already the honchos who run F1 are salivating over the prospect of Hamilton winning this weekend's US Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

Although the roots and history of F1 are clearly in Europe and the future of the sport would seem to be in Asia, particularly now that India could be joining the circuit in 2009, F1 has long lusted after the hugely affluent and influential American market that Nascar dominates.

The sight of Hamilton victorious on the mythical Indianapolis track would easily give F1 its biggest boost ever in the US. Hamilton has casual fans like me more interested in the sport than the peerless, and imperious, Michael Schumacher ever could.

I know it's early, early days, but whatever it is that separates the transcendent from the merely great, this kid seems to have it. In spite of the ensuing mountains of hyperbole, and in spite of actively contributing to it, I hope to enjoy watching him for a long time.