Sir Jackie Stewart has leapt to the defence of under-fire Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton, by pointing to the young Briton's lack of experience in the top flight whilst at the same time questioning the FIA's neutrality in terms of handing out penalties.

Hamilton has come in for a good deal of criticism of late, after the opening eight races of his 2008 campaign have far from lived up to the standards he set during his remarkable rookie season in 2007. This time last year the McLaren-Mercedes ace counted 64 points, eight successive podiums and no retirements; twelve months on and the press are baying for his blood, with a number of costly errors seeing him sitting on just 38 points, courtesy of only four rostrum finishes and a brace of failures to score in the last two outings.

Stewart, though, who also endured the 'difficult second year' syndrome before going on to flourish and claim the drivers' laurels on no fewer than three occasions, insists the 23-year-old must go easy on himself and be given the space and time that he needs, adding that for all his impressive results in 2007, Hamilton has competed in fewer than 30 races at the pinnacle of international motorsport, and is still effectively on a learning curve.

"Lewis Hamilton is already world-famous," Stewart is quoted as having said by Agence France Presse. "He's now experiencing both the privilege and the penalty of celebrity.

"We should remember that Lewis has only been in F1 for 15 months. He's not the finished article yet - and it's wrong to think that he should be.

"He might not like to hear this, but he has a fundamental lack of experience at the top of the sport. If he asked for my advice, I'd say, 'Take your time, and don't expect too much of yourself'.

"I know because I've been there myself. I had a big accident in my second year, which I was lucky to survive. Over the next few years I changed; I gained experience, which gave me knowledge, which in turn enabled me to deliver."

The Scot also cast doubt over the governing body's decision-making, with both Hamilton and team-mate Heikki Kovalainen finding themselves on the receiving end of controversial penalties in recent weeks, and suggested the FIA came down harder on McLaren than on any other team.

Stewart last year came to verbal blows with disgraced FIA President and sworn enemy Max Mosley over the spy scandal that rocked the sport, accusing the organisation of leading a 'witch hunt' against the Woking-based concern that ultimately culminated in a record-breaking $100 million USD fine.

"We've seen a rash of penalties handed out by the FIA recently," the 69-year-old affirmed, in an interview published on the official F1 website, "both in the form of grid penalties and in fines. There rarely seems to be any compassion or any real attempt to see the driver's side.

"You can also ask questions about the consistency with which penalties are applied. A lot of people - and not McLaren personnel - are saying that the FIA are more interested in finding faults at McLaren than at other teams.

"For example, in the French race, Kimi Raikkonen's exhaust system broke and part of it was visibly hanging off the car. Why wasn't he called into the pits to have the loose piece removed?

"Eventually the loose bodywork flew off the car, which could easily have been dangerous to the public or to another driver. Some people will say that if it had happened with a McLaren, the team would have been fined."

Hamilton, McLaren team principal Ron Dennis and the squad's CEO Martin Whitmarsh, however, refused to become embroiled in the contentious debate.

When asked whether he believed McLaren was being singled out by the FIA as a reuslt of its strained relationship with Mosley, Hamilton replied: "I'm not going to answer that."

"I think that there are always going to be differing opinions about things that happen in grand prix racing," Dennis is quoted as adding by international news agency Reuters, having earlier told reporters to 'draw their own conclusions' on the matter. "Sometimes the most constructive thing to do is not voice an opinion."

"We had three penalties this weekend," concurred Whitmarsh. "We have to accept it and move on.

"I think we have to accept that the stewards have got a quieter time than us, they got more information and they have got to make the decision that they think is right. We didn't see it like that, but we didn't have the information that they had."

Stewart also spoke out against the dramatic hike in the cost of acquiring a superlicence to be able to compete in F1, a move that has prompted fears of a drivers' strike over the British Grand Prix weekend at Silverstone in just under a fortnight's time [see separate story - click here]. Under the new rules, Hamilton for example must pay EUR228,000 this season compared to a mere EUR1,725 last year.

"The drivers are complaining at a ten-fold increase in the cost of the superlicences which allow them to race," Stewart explained. "No one can see what they're getting in return for the extra charge, which makes it look like just another way for the FIA to raise money. I don't know of any other sport where the competitors have to pay for a licence to take part."



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