Motor racing-Hamilton swerves around Sutil's 'coward' claim

WOKING, England Wed Feb 1, 2012 2:44pm GMT

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WOKING, England Feb 1 (Reuters) - McLaren's Lewis Hamilton obeyed team orders and swerved around the wreckage of a once firm Formula One friendship after being accused of cowardice by former grand prix rival Adrian Sutil on Wednesday.

McLaren effectively put a gag on the 2008 world champion after newspapers in Germany and Britain reported Sutil had branded Hamilton a "coward" for failing to back him in a trial that ended on Tuesday.

The German was given a suspended 18-month sentence and fined 200,000 euros ($261,800) for a brawl in a Shanghai nightclub last April. Hamilton, who had won the Chinese Grand Prix, also attended the nightclub.

A Munich court found the former Force India driver guilty of injuring Eric Lux, chief executive of Renault F1 team owners Genii Capital, with a champagne glass in an altercation between the two.

Sutil had told the court that he had repeatedly apologised to Lux and denied it was his intention to hurt him but rather to throw a drink in his face.

The court had also wanted to hear from Hamilton but the McLaren driver was excused due to team commitments ahead of Wednesday's launch of their new car at the Woking factory in southern England.

"Lewis is a coward. I do not want to be friends with someone like that," Sutil, who had previously counted on Hamilton as one of his closest friends in the paddock after being team mates in the junior Formula Three Euroseries, told Bild newspaper.

"For me he is not a man. Even his father sent me a text message to wish me good luck in the trial. He (Lewis) changed his cellphone number. I could not even reach him anymore."

Asked by Reuters about the comments, Hamilton was prevented from replying by a team spokesman who intervened.

"We've been told that Lewis shouldn't really go there (talk about the case) because it might go under appeal. So can we move on to the next question," he said.

"I'll listen to him," smiled Hamilton.

Sutil, 29, has said he is considering some time out of the sport, something he may have little choice about with only clear vacancy remaining at struggling HRT.

The Renault team has since been renamed Lotus while Force India have already announced Germany's Nico Hulkenberg as team mate to Britain's Paul di Resta, who is managed by Hamilton's father Anthony.

The season starts in Australia on March 18.($1 = 0.7639 euros) (Additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann in Berlin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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