Bernie Ecclestone has said Lewis Hamilton's growing - if controversial - 'playboy' image is doling wonders for the popularity of Formula 1, and has called on his McLaren-Mercedes team to let the young Briton 'off the leash' more often.

Hamilton has been making major headlines on and off the track in recent weeks, both for his rollercoaster ride in F1 - from slamming into the back of chief title rival Kimi Raikkonen in the Montreal pit-lane to his mesmerising triumph in front of his adoring home fans in the British Grand Prix at the weekend - and for his equally colourful personal life.

The 23-year-old has been providing plenty of fodder for tabloid reporters of late, with red carpet appearances at film premi?res and concerts, and high-profile celebrity dalliances with both a Miss World contest runner-up and his new girlfriend, Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger.

Ecclestone is pleased that the seven-time grand prix winner - now the media's Golden Boy once more following his superb Silverstone showing, propelling him back to the top of the drivers' standings - is becoming that most rare of things in the top flight these days - a true character.

"As a promoter, Lewis is a dream," F1's ringmaster said in an interview with People Sport. "I don't mind the playboy image and I wish there could be more of it.

"There were always great characters in the old days and Lewis is becoming one, which is great.

"There are so many people who would love a driver like Lewis to be promoting the sport in the way he does. Drivers can be too robotic and not show what they are really about. It would be good if more were like Lewis."

Commercial rights-holder Ecclestone has previously been similarly forthright in his views about the alleged wild partying habits of Ferrari's reigning world champion Kimi Raikkonen - "Every time I've been out to dinner with him he has been as good as gold, and he's even better when he's pissed. There's nothing wrong with that. He doesn't embarrass people to the extent they say 'My God, he shouldn't be doing that'" [see separate story - click here] - and he praised McLaren for similarly allowing Hamilton to display his true personality to the watching world.

Such an approach was helping in no small way, he argued, to rebuild the battered reputation of F1 in the wake of a string of scandals recently, from the espionage row last year to the salacious revelations about FIA President Max Mosley's private life back in March.

"Most of the guys in the '70s and '80s were good guys who could sell the sport," the 77-year-old underlined. "There were always characters like James Hunt and Ayrton Senna. They helped promote everything.

"I think they (McLaren) seem to be letting Lewis off the leash a little more and that is the right thing to do. He seems to be benefiting from it, and so is Formula 1."