- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2011

PARIS (AP) - Administered last rites after his fiery crash in 1976, Niki Lauda will always be more qualified than most to talk about the dangers of motor-racing. His scars are permanent reminders of how close he came to giving his life to the sport.

Still, on the subject of whether Lewis Hamilton represents a menace to himself and to others, the three-time Formula One world champion is wrong.

“You can’t drive like that, someone can die,” Lauda reportedly said after the 2008 champion again played bumper-cars with his sleek McLaren, this time at last weekend’s epic Canadian Grand Prix.

“At some point, it’s not funny anymore,” the German TV broadcaster he now commentates for quoted Lauda as saying.

Well, Mr. Lauda, you’re right that taking silly risks at nearly 125 miles per hour is no laughing matter.

But there is a big difference being daring and being dangerous. It is to the good of Formula One that Hamilton is one of the most daring drivers out there. The Briton at least tries to provide spectacle in a sport that can’t thrive without it.

So at Monaco, a track so boring that a dash of recklessness from drivers can be forgiven, Hamilton thought he saw a gap to pass Ferrari’s Felipe Massa on the turn 6 hairpin and dived in. Turned out he was wrong. The gap vanished, their cars came together.

Hamilton’s crash-bang pass of Pastor Maldonado that nudged the Williams of the Venezuelan into the street circuit’s barriers was similarly overoptimistic.

So, too, was his attempt to squeeze past teammate Jenson Button in Canada that ended Hamilton’s race by damaging his car. Hamilton should have ceded when Button edged him ever closer to a wall, but he didn’t and suffered the consequences.

But, hey, who doesn’t make mistakes?

As long as we are thrilled when sports heroes compete as close to the ragged edge as possible, then such outcomes will be inevitable. That means soccer players like Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard who are admired for their thumping tackles will on occasion get their timing all wrong and clatter too hard into opponents.

Likewise, derring-do drivers like Hamilton who take high-risk decisions at high speed and in split-seconds are sometimes going to crash or cause crashes. The alternative _ athletes who always play it safe _ simply isn’t as entertaining. Fact is, accidents in F1 are part of the job.

“Of course, I could go and drive around and not overtake anyone and just stay in position,” Hamilton said last October in Japan when he was again being questioned about his approach. “That’s easy enough, but that’s not me. So that definitely won’t be happening.”

Good for him. That Hamilton shies from taking his foot off the gas doesn’t make him a menace. He takes risks but isn’t deliberately trying to put other people in danger.

But while his guts are admirable, Hamilton’s mouth and temperament let him down.

To be taken seriously, he shouldn’t have joked to a BBC interviewer in Monaco that “maybe it’s because I’m black” that he is hauled so often before race stewards to explain his on-track behavior.

Nor should he have been so quick to call Massa and Maldonado “ridiculous” and “stupid” for blocking his way. In both collisions, the stewards faulted Hamilton.

Fooling around in a sports car on a street in Australia last year, burning tire-rubber and being pulled over by police, was stupid of Hamilton, too.

Stuff like that makes the 26-year-old look like a hothead. Maybe the impression is false. But even so, it can fuel the doubts about whether Hamilton is mature enough, responsible enough to be treading that finest of lines between being brave and courting unnecessary danger. In other words, would a more levelheaded Hamilton be winning more and crashing less?

Perhaps. But Hamilton’s biggest problem is that his McLaren hasn’t been as fast as he would like, certainly not quick enough compared to the Red Bull of runaway championship leader Sebastian Vettel, whom he’s beaten just once in seven races this season. That, undoubtedly, is pushing Hamilton to take more risks than he otherwise might.

In an interview with Lauda in 2009, Hamilton explained how demoralizing it is to drive a car that can’t compete.

“Lots and lots and lots of sleepless nights,” he said.

So Hamilton shouldn’t be faulted now for pushing as hard as he can, perhaps too hard at times.

Better for the spectacle of F1 that he’s trying, rather than not trying at all.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/johnleicester