Fighting fair and winning

Lewis Hamilton's performances this season are no fluke, and his honesty in the fight marks him apart from the greats in the past, writes Richard William.

If Lewis Hamilton wins the World Championship in his first season in Formula One -- and already the title looks very much like his to toss away -- then the start of the 39th lap of the United States Grand Prix will take its place in the sport's history of dramatic moments.

Seven races into the young man's career in the top flight, it provided the evidence that nothing that has happened to him this season has been a fluke.

Midway through the race at Indianapolis his lead was under threat from Fernando Alonso, his team-mate. Hamilton had lost momentum after being caught behind a back-marker at the end of lap 38, while Alonso's McLaren seemed to be performing better after a pit stop. As they thundered along the main straight at 200 mph, the Spaniard sat in the Englishman's slipstream and looked certain to overtake as they approached the right-handed Turn One. Before the entrance to the corner Hamilton moved to the right, blocking Alonso's route down the inside.

A pass around the outside was still possible but Hamilton cut off that option by easing his car back towards the middle of the track just as they entered the braking zone. Alonso could only back off and follow his team-mate through the curve.

It was a move of infinite subtlety, executed at maximum speed with an almost unbelievable precision, and it said everything about Hamilton's judgment, confidence and coolness under pressure, not to mention his combative nature. Formula One's code of behaviour, often honoured more in the breach than the observance, bars drivers from moving across the track more than once but Hamilton's second move, the one that took him back towards the middle, was small enough to avoid the stewards' displeasure while being just big enough to deter his rival: a very fine line indeed.

Comparisons between Hamilton's arrival and the early impact of Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher are now commonplace but this apparently small incident said something even more interesting. It said that, while he may match their skills, he might have something they did not possess: an ability to fight fair and still prevail.

In a similar situation Senna and Schumacher would have resorted to the sort of bullying tactics that often led to collisions. Senna, in his battles against Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell, turned Formula One into a contact sport, and in that respect Schumacher was his disciple.

Their impregnable self-belief, shading into arrogance, made it impossible for them to comprehend the notion of being beaten, thus legitimising in their minds the use of any conceivable tactic, legal or otherwise, to maintain their superiority. And by physically intimidating their opponents they spread fear.

Let us hope Hamilton keeps his self-belief in proportion and maintains the ability to keep his enemies at bay without barging them into the scenery. Already this season, he has had plenty of opportunities to display aggression and has kept his hands clean. With nine races to go the pressure can only increase, not least from his discomfited team-mate, but the limit of Lewis Hamilton's ability has yet to be discovered.

@ Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007