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by John Cadogan

The Victorian Government took delivery of its latest high-performance car last week when police officers nabbed F1 driver Lewis Hamilton doing a burnout outside the Albert Park F1 circuit in the lead-up to the big race. Chalk another big PR result up to the anti-hoon laws.

Twenty-five-year-old Hamilton’s borrowed $165,000 C 63 AMG Mercedes-Benz, on loan as part of Benz’s contractual agreement with McLaren, which principally involves the supply of race engines but also extends to team transportation when the circus comes to town, went on holiday – impounded – for 48 hours. He was also handed a summons for improper use of a motor vehicle, an offence that attracts a $580 fine.

Hamilton also – probably, I didn’t check – enters the rule books as Victoria’s richest, most high-profile hoon, thanks to the 25-year-old’s reported $33 million annual salary. He is probably also Victoria’s most capable hoon driver, and certainly the only hoon ever to have held the F1 championship title aged 25 – seeing as only one person on earth has ever achieved that.

He joins a cavalcade of notable hoons in Victoria, such as Victoria’s youngest hoon, Laney Frankland, 5, whose 49cc minibike was impounded when Victorian police swooped as the girl rode the bike in parkland under parental supervision. The title of oldest Victorian hoon is also hotly contested – on February 28 this year a 90-year-old man stormed past the previous 80-year-old 150km/h record holder to become the state’s oldest hoon after driving drunk at more than 20km/h over the speed limit.

Deputy Police Commissioner Ken Lay – a nice bloke – told reporters Hamilton deserved to be “feeling a level of discomfort” over the offence. Major Events Minister Tim Holding (also the minister in charge of the TAC) said:

“It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from. If you break our hoon driving laws in Victoria, you will have your car impounded and you will face the full force of the law,” he said. “Lewis Hamilton has learned that.”

You have to ask: Are these people even vaguely in touch with reality?

When Laney Frankland’s minibike was impounded, the $550 fine was more than the minibike cost. In comparison, Hamilton makes about $3800 per hour for every hour of every day of the year, 24/7. He makes $580 in about nine minutes, so he basically earned twice what they fined him while he was stopped at the roadside.

Nor was impounding the car an imposition. A functionary at Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific will undoubtedly complete the requisite paperwork and jump in a cab to collect the car at 9am Monday, when the car is eligible for parole – while Hamilton is up the pointy end of a jet, winging his way back home to Geneva, where he recently moved to minimize his tax bill. You can bet the “level of discomfort” he’s feeling at this point is fairly low.

And even though he’s been summonsed to appear in court, it’s unlikely he’ll make a personal appearance. Someone else will shoulder the burden of that discomfort, too. So sorry, Ken, no discomfort there. None at all.

As for public embarrassment – I reckon he’ll get over it. He certainly did in France in 2007, where he was busted at 123mph on a French motorway and had ‘his’ car impounded.

Of course, any embarrassment Hamilton actually feels over this incident will pale in comparison to last year’s ‘Liegate’ embarrassment following the Australian GP, which forced Hamilton to issue a public apology after misleading race stewards. Even at 25, Hamilton is match fit for playing the PR/embarrassment game. He’s likely to be much, much more embarrassed at qualifying in 11th place.

When you add it all up, the Victorian hoon laws are ridiculous. Tim Holding’s claims that nobody is above the law are a joke. By any reasonable analysis, Lewis Hamilton is. Victoria’s hoon laws are what you get when you make laws up on the fly simply as a PR exercise – they’re an opportunity to convene a press conference, to issue a press release and to make soundbite statements that sound good if you don’t really think about them, but which really don’t stand up to more than cursory scrutiny.

That’s exactly what’s happened here. Victoria (like the rest of the states) already had a wealth of laws on the books with which to penalize dangerous drivers. What the state lacks is the political will to get on with it.

Road safety – like other areas of government focus – is now entirely PR driven. For Ken Lay and Tim Holding, the Lewis Hamilton/hoon fiasco is an opportunity to talk big talk in front of the press – and that means, ultimately, in front of the electorate. It’s a smokescreen, because public safety would be better served if these two blokes just shut up and got on the front foot with real road safety issues such as 1) the epidemic of unlicensed drivers and unregistered cars on the roads, and 2) second-rate road engineering, which kills more Australians every year than all the burnouts in the southern hemisphere ever have.

Nobody above the law? Get real – the effect on Lewis Hamilton will be negligible. But they got Tim Holding and Ken Lay in the newspaper. And that’s the main thing.






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