London:Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton has rejected suggestions from Grand Prix supremo Bernie Ecclestone that the racist abuse he suffered this year could be brushed off as a "joke".
Hamilton, the first black driver to win the world title, suffered a barrage of insults during pre-season testing in February at the Circuit de Catalunya, near Barcelona, from Spanish fans wearing wigs and dark make-up as well as T-shirts branded with the words 'Hamilton's Family'.
It prompted the FIA, motorsport's world governing body, to launch an anti-racism campaign.
Ecclestone, however, insisted what had happened in Spain was nothing more than a case of partisan fans barracking a rival of one their national heroes, in this case Fernando Alonso.
However, Hamilton said yesterday: "I didn't see it as a joke. It's something that happened but it is in the past," he said.
"What's more important to me is that I had a lot of support, especially from UK fans," added the 23-year-old Briton, who last weekend became Formula One's youngest world champion.
"As long as I have my country behind me it makes me very proud. It makes me very proud to see my fellow countrymen holding up the flag," explained Hamilton, whose fifth-place finish at the Brazilian Grand Prix saw him take the title from race-winner and local favourite Felipe Massa by just one point.
"All the other stuff I need to put behind me. I don't generally keep up with what's being said and I haven't read what Bernie said.
"But I know Bernie and have a huge amount of respect for him."
Racist comments also appeared on a website in the build-up to Sunday's race at the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo but Ecclestone said too much had been made of this and the incidents in Spain.
"I think it's all nonsense. In Spain people were supporting (Fernando) Alonso and in Sao Paulo they were supporting Felipe (Massa)," he told BBC Radio Five Live.
"I don't think it was anything to do with racism. There were a few people in Spain and that was probably beginning as a joke rather than anything abusive.
"I think people look and read into things that are not there. All those things are all a bit of a joke and people are entitled to support who they want to support.
"I don't see why people should have been (insulted). These things are people expressing themselves."
Amidst the widespread euphoria that has accompanied Hamilton's success in his homeland, a note of criticism has come from British Grand Prix great Stirling Moss, and some MPs, who regret that the McLaren driver now lives as a tax exile in Switzerland.
Hamilton, who grew up in Stevenage, north of London, said: "I wouldn't say I miss living in the UK. I'm happy where I am. I don't know what the future holds for me or where I plan to live.
"But I grew up in the UK and it will always be home."