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Since 1st March, 1999
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F1 fan Mandela leaves Hamilton speechless

Nelson Mandela is the ultimate arm candy for the upwardly mobile. Greatness by association. On the odd occasion, Mandela is the one dipping his bread, indulging his own personal whims. Lewis Hamilton was a benefactor of Mandela’s reverse swing during the great man’s elongated 90th birthday fiesta in London.

The highlight of Sunday afternoons on Robben Island was often communion with Murray Walker and Formula One. Television was a hard-earned privilege for the incarcerated under the apartheid regime, a number of whom would opt for Grand Prix coverage when it was their turn to hold the remote. Believe it or not, Mandela was in that number.

Hamilton would not have known this when he was presented to the former South African president last week. An audience with Mandela should be a must for headline-makers in any sport. Two minutes in his company forces an abrupt re-ordering of the celebrity pecking order. Even the finest feel humble at Mandela’s feet.

Sporting achievement is not without importance or substance. It is not easy to do what these boys do. Mandela recognised this and the political power of sport by associating himself with some of the world’s great performers. When England’s cricketers toured South Africa after his release, pictures of Mandela arm in arm with fast bowler Devon Malcolm went global. Malcolm’s ethnicity was not coincidental.

Francois Pienaar, South Africa’s World Cup-winning captain, became a significant tool in the forging of the new Rainbow Nation. Mandela’s manipulation of the sporting arena evolved out of personal interest. He is at heart a fan. So when Hamilton wandered into view during the birthday celebrations, Mandela would have become instantly deaf to the entreaties of Oprah and the Clintons, and all ears to our Lewis. For Hamilton the experience was akin to an epiphany.

“At school you learn a lot about British history but I thought it was important for my life to learn about my background, about black history. I started to read about it — Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela. These are the figures I started to look up to and be inspired by. When I got older I began to really appreciate just what an incredible nine decades he (Mandela) has had. He wasn’t afraid to suffer to achieve his dream. He’s meant the world to me. I just couldn’t believe it when I was invited to his celebrations. I was just so honoured.”

“When I met him it was like walking in to see the king. To be in front of God. He’s such a genuine guy. I’m sure he’s met millions of people in his life but he had so much patience with me. I was left speechless. I’ve never been speechless before.”'

The next day Hamilton shredded the timesheets at Silverstone with the week’s quickest lap in testing.

He said: “At the dinner I was next to Chelsea Clinton. Mr Mandela was two seats away. Bill Clinton was opposite. Sir Elton John and Oprah Winfrey were by me. I couldn’t believe that I was there with all these people. It was one of the best nights of my life. I was supposed to leave early because I was testing at Silverstone the next day, but I couldn’t.”'

The next time Hamilton runs into Mandela, an Ayrton Senna love-in must be on the agenda. The Brazilian fed Hamilton’s early dreams, and kept Mandela going through the latter years of his internment. After his release, Senna was high on the Mandela autograph list.

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