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Britain should be the one stop on the Formula One calendar where Lewis Hamilton is guaranteed a warm welcome.
Not this year. The British Grand Prix race weekend opened Thursday with an irritated and fidgety Hamilton having to field repeated questions at Silverstone about snubbing his loyal home fans.
In an effort to swell the F1 audience, the new owners of the series took over Trafalgar Square in London to showcase the cars and the stars of the track on Wednesday night. Of the sport’s 20 drivers, only one didn’t turn up. Hamilton instead opted for a two-day holiday in Greece after finishing fourth in Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t go down well in central London. Hamilton’s name was jeered when his Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff tried to explain the absence of the three-time world champion.
On Thursday, when he faced reporters at Silverstone, Hamilton said he hadn’t heard about the booing.
Hamilton justified his decision to skip the London event by saying he needed a break, has his own vast social media following to connect with fans and conducts hospital visits that he complained don’t generate as much coverage as this controversy.
“Everyone has the right to make the decision for themselves,” Hamilton said. “I felt it’s been a pretty intense season so far and I felt it’s the best way to prepare for this weekend. The season is the most important thing for me. That’s it. I told the organizers last week that I wouldn’t be going.”
Other drivers felt more of a duty to promote the sport in front of 100,000 fans who watched a pop concert and saw F1 cars take to Whitehall, the road leading to the prime minister’s home at Downing Street and parliament.
Since Hamilton rejected the invitation, Valtteri Bottas was the only Mercedes driver to attend.
“They asked all the drivers to attend and I immediately said `yeah’,” said Bottas, who is third in the drivers’ championship. “We had a bit of time on track to try to give the fans what they wanted to see. I doubt they left disappointed.”
The importance of engaging with fans was also recognized by championship leader Sebastian Vettel, who is 20 points ahead of second-place Hamilton after nine of 20 races.
“There are not many times in your life you have this kind of opportunity,” the Ferrari driver said. “It turned out a great event, a fun event for us as well as for the people.”
Hamilton, though, wasn’t wavering as listened to fellow drivers extolling the virtues of the extravaganza.
Asked if he would attend a similar promotional event in future, Hamilton responded: “I guess I’ll decide when the time comes.”
How often Hamilton will race at Silverstone in future is unclear. The race he has won four times could be wiped from the F1 calendar after 2019 unless the circuit’s owners secure a cheaper deal to host the best-attended grand prix.
“(It’s) the home of motorsport,” Hamilton said, “such an incredible, intense weekend.”