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What Lewis Hamilton’s SPOTY runner up spot says about F1

December 16, 2019

Last night, in a glitzy ceremony in Aberdeen, Lewis Hamilton lost out to Cricket’s Ben Stokes in the BBC’s flagship sports awards ceremony, SPOTY (Sports Personality of the Year) for the second consecutive year and for the fourth time in total, despite edging closer to becoming the greatest driver Formula 1 has ever seen.

It would be wrong to say that this year’s winner Stokes’ heroics for England in the Cricket World Cup, and moreso his innings at Headingley in an Ashes test that most onlookers agree he won single handedly – weren’t enough to make him deserving of the award.

Only the staunchest Lewis Hamilton fan could deny he was a worthy winner – but what does it say about Formula 1’s position in the sporting consciousness of the nation?

In over 20 years, Formula 1 has produced just two SPOTY winners – Damon Hill and Hamilton himself – despite British drivers bringing home seven Formula 1 world titles and winning a boatload of Grand Prix.

Being successful in Formula 1 isn’t the preserve of Lewis Hamilton whose many near SPOTY misses have been (wrongly in my opinion) attributed to his somewhat divisive nature.

Damon Hill, Johnny Herbert, David Coulthard, Jenson Button have too found themselves F1 Grand Prix winners in the last two decades, and yet none of them has managed to wrest the SPOTY trophy from personalities from football, cycling, tennis, cricket, rugby and athletics.

Say what you like about whether Hamilton’s extra-curricular activities being in some way responsible for his lack of recognition by the BBC-watching public, but if universally acknowledged good guy Jenson Button and 2009 F1 World Champion (as an underdog don’t forget, and we all know how much the Great British public love an underdog) can’t muster enough support to be that year’s SPOTY, then what does it say about the sport we follow? (I’m presuming you follow F1 if you’re reading this?!)

Well, firstly motorsport quite simply doesn’t have the popularity in the UK that many other sports enjoy. In a recent MORI poll, it was Britains’ seventh most watched sport, somewhat adrift of the usual suspects – football, rugby, cricket and tennis – and less popular (in TV watching terms) than snooker, only marginally ahead of darts. And since then F1 has moved behind a paywall.

And let’s not forget that SPOTY – being voted for by the public – is a little more than a high profile popularity contest.

Johnny Rea in WSB (who doesn’t have his own Tommy Hilfiger range or speak out about climate change) is similarly affected, despite performing heroics on a world stage year in, year out.

Secondly, Ben Stokes plays for England. David Beckham and Johnny Wilkinson played for England. Mo Farah and Chris Hoy represent/represented Great Britain.

Would the public have been moved to vote for them in such great numbers based on their club achievements alone? I very much doubt it. Can you imagine Michael Owen receiving much support outside Liverpool if he was omitted from England’s 1998 World Cup Squad?

Since Damon Hill became 1996 Sports Personality, only Hamilton, Joe Calzaghe & Tony McCoy have achieved the award without having represented their country.

So rather than it being another damning reflection on Lewis Hamilton’s support in the UK (or lack of it), I think he should be congratulated for gaining as many votes as he did in the face of a sport whose fanbase is marginal and declining, and without being a member of a team that receives the blanket nationwide support of a national team.

So for another year at least, Lewis Hamilton is going to have to live with not being BBC Sports Personality of the Year. And it’s as much a reflection on Formula 1 as it is on the man himself.

Presumably the six Formula 1 World Championship titles Lewis has to his name will give him at least some consolation even if the thought of being one of the greatest ever exponents of the sport he loves doesn’t.


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