Hamilton rejects Ecclestone's comment that racism in F1 started as joke

LONDON -- Lewis Hamilton rejected F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone's assertion on Thursday that racist abuse directed at the driver probably started as a joke.

F1's first black champion was the target of racist abuse on a Spanish Web site and endured other insults in the buildup to last Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix. Hamilton's father Anthony said he had often considered withdrawing the 23-year-old driver from the sport because of the abuse.

"[It was] probably beginning as a joke rather than anything abusive," Ecclestone said Thursday in a radio interview, pointing to poor sportsmanship rather than racism by Spanish and Brazilian fans. "I don't see why people should have been [insulted by it]. These things are people expressing themselves."

Hamilton disagreed and said he "didn't see it as a joke."

"It's something that happened, but it is in the past, you've got to look forward," said the McLaren driver, who clinched the F1 title by a single point over Ferrari's Brazilian driver Felipe Massa at the Interlagos circuit.

In the week leading up to the Brazilian race, Hamilton was the target of racist abuse on a Spanish Web site, was insulted by two Brazilian comedians and was handed a black cat -- a symbol of bad luck in Brazil -- at a sponsor's function.

Last February, a group of people at testing near Barcelona wore dark face paint with T-shirts displaying the slogan "Hamilton's Family." Hamilton has become a target for many Spaniards who believe the British driver derailed Fernando Alonso's championship hopes at McLaren last year.

"I don't think we should even be talking about racism," Ecclestone told The Associated Press at the time. "I really think that they are against Hamilton for his ability, not because he is black. I always thought it was a bit of a prank -- they're probably not racist at all."