The big question in Formula 1 this week has been a strange one: Should the British government recognize Lewis Hamilton’s amazing seven World Championships with a knighthood so Hamilton would become Sir Lewis?
There is a rather starry-eyed, but quite widespread, idea that the Queen of England sits down in Buckingham Palace and chooses who should be picked for such honors, but in reality it is a complex bureaucratic process, but one that begins with a nomination.
There are thousands of such nominations every year and a body called the Honors Committee, which comes under the control of the Cabinet Office, trawls through them. There are no fewer than 11 subcommittees covering different activities, such as sports, arts, education, political service and so on. These decide which candidates will be sent forward to the Honors Committee.
All nominations must come with at least two letters of support from people with a first-hand knowledge of the person. If, after two years, the nominee has not been successful, one can assume that the nomination has failed.
The honors system seems complicated, but it is basically a ladder involving membership of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (outdated though the name may be). There are three levels: Members (MBEs), Officers (OBEs) and Commanders (CBEs). The next step beyond that is the Knight Bachelor role, which means you become Sir. This goes back to medieval times and was originally given by the King (or Queen) for great service in battle. It was conferred with a tap on each shoulder with a sword. That still happens, but the sovereign does what they are told to do.
It is generally agreed that the first person to be recognized for sporting achievement was Francis Lacey, the Secretary of the Marylebone Cricket Club, who was knighted in 1927. It would be more than 20 years before the first sportsmen were recognized with cricketers Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton and the jockey Gordon Richards in the 1950s. It was not until 1965 that the first soccer player, Sir Stanley Matthews, was knighted.
In motorsport, there were Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell, who were knighted in 1929 and 1935, respectively, but this was not for their motor racing achievements but rather because their Land Speed Records which drew attention to Britain’s engineering industry.
The first man to win an honor for simply driving Grand Prix cars was Jim Clark, who was appointed an OBE, in recognition of his first World Championship in 1963.
There have been 10 British Formula 1 World Champions, who have won 20 titles between them. All but three have received some recognition for their achievement.
The first driver not to be recognized was Britain’s first champion, Mike Hawthorn, in 1958. He might have been given an award but he died in a road accident a few months after winning his title. Awards are not made posthumously.
The second omission was John Surtees, who won the World Championship title in 1964. This was probably due to bureaucratic logic that suggested that it was too soon after he was awarded an MBE for winning the motorcycle World Championship. He died without being recognized as the only man to win World Championships on two and four wheels. James Hunt was the third omission, probably because of his “bad boy” image in the stuffy 1970s.
Hamilton was appointed an MBE after he won his first title in 2008, which was odd because previously all World Champions were OBEs. Clark was followed by Graham Hill was given an OBE after his second title and Stewart who got one between his first two titles.
Nigel Mansell was an OBE after his title year and Damon Hill followed suit. But Hamilton was given only an inferior MBE after he and Jenson Button got the same honor in 2009. It seemed that winning the World Championship was not considered as important as it once had been, which was strange.
Perhaps it should also be said that while foreigners cannot win such awards there are occasional honorary appointments, notably an OBE for Frenchman Alain Prost in 1994.
The first team boss to be recognized was Lotus’s Colin Chapman, who was appointed a CBE in recognition for his motorsport and car industry achievements. In the 1970s someone in the corridors of power decided that Raymond Mays, the man who had run F1 teams ERA in the 1930s and then BRM in the 1950s, deserved recognition and he was awarded a CBE. A year later Roger Clark became the first rally driver to be honored.
The first award to a motor racing supplier went to Cosworth’s Keith Duckworth in 1984, although the Ford Motor Company’s Walter Hayes, who was the force behind the Cosworth DFV engine, had been appointed a CBE two years earlier, but “for services to the motor industry.” The awards in 1986 recognized the first non-F1 racing driver with Derek Bell, a multiple winner of Le Mans. He has been followed over the years by IndyCar driver Dario Franchitti was given an MBE for his four IndyCar titles and three Indy 500 wins, three-time World Touring Car Champion Andy Priaulx.
Over the years, there have been a CBE for March Engineering’s Robin Herd as recognition for the company’s impact on the motorsport industry in Britain. He would be followed by Eric Broadley of Lola and John Cooper of Cooper Cars. And then in 1996 BBC commentator Murray Walker became the first member of the motor racing media to receive such an honor. In the same era Bill Boddy of Motorsport magazine was appointed an MBE.
In 2002 there was a much-deserved OBE for Professor Sid Watkins for his extraordinary work in motorsport safety. In recent years Claire Williams and Susie Wolff have been appointed OBE and MBE respectively, presumably to encourage female involvement in the sport.
This means that Claire has received more recognition by the British Royalty than Hamilton. Go figure.
In 1999, Frank Williams became the first team owner to be knighted, and a year later Ron Dennis of McLaren was honored with a CBE. But today there have still been only four British motor racing knights: Sir Frank Williams (1999), Sir Stirling Moss (2000), Sir Jackie Stewart (2001) and Sir Patrick Head (2015).
There are a lot of glaring examples of people who never got the recognition that one can argue they deserved. Dennis should perhaps have been knighted, not only for his success in F1 but also for making McLaren a leading supercar company.
There is also John Barnard who designed McLarens and Ferraris that won a string of World Championships in the 1980s. He has never received any recognition. Another is Peter Wright, a major figure in F1 as a ground-breaking engineer, a team owner, and in recent years an important a safety engineer with the FIA.
Yes, we have seen awards for Adrian Newey, Ross Brawn and Christian Horner, but it is still a most inconsistent system. It might be controversial to recognize Max Mosley’s work at the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone’s activities with the Formula One group, but thus far there has been no hint of such things.
As for Hamilton, we’re still waiting.
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