Currently reading: Autocar Awards 2021: Sir Lewis Hamilton wins Editor's Award
A tumultuous 2020 gave one of Britain’s greatest-ever sportsmen fresh motivation to remain at the top of his game, as we discover
Mark Tisshaw
News
15 mins read
8 June 2021

In the last scene of season three of Netflix’s fly-on-wall series Formula 1: The Drive to Survive, we see a news reporter interviewing a young Lewis Hamilton. “As Lewis began to win, the fact that he was the only black face on the grid became an issue,” says the reporter.

Hamilton is not talking about all the success he is having but instead about the racist abuse he has experienced while karting. “In the past years, I’ve had racist names called to me but lately anybody that’s said anything to me I just ignore them,” says a young Lewis.

It cuts to his dad, Anthony. “We don’t get involved with people who have problems about whether we win or what colour we are,” he says. “We go out on our track and do our best.”

The footage is heartbreaking. Here’s a young boy doing what he loves, with a dream to get to Formula 1 and maybe one day be world champion, but while having to face discrimination and be grilled about it. No ‘How are you finding your karting?’ questions, just ‘What’s it like to be abused for the colour of your skin?’

“I was just eight years old,” says a 36-year-old Hamilton reflecting on the report, now talking as a seven-time Formula 1 world champion. “For someone to look down at a young eight-year-old and tell them they’re not going to achieve anything in life, they must be in a really bad place.

In May last year, 46-year-old black American George Floyd was murdered by a white policeman in Minnesota. The shocking footage was seen by the world and ushered in a global anti-racism movement – one of the most vocal leaders of which was Lewis Hamilton.

“What happened with George brought up a lot of emotion,” Hamilton tells the Netflix show. “All of a sudden, these things that had been suppressed for my lifetime bubbled to the surface. I can no longer stay quiet.

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“Every black kid in the world will at some stage experience racism. And it’s just a fact. When people call you names and the N-word is thrown around, when you’re told to go back to your own country when you’re in your country… There are literally millions and millions of people who will have experienced much, much worse [than me], and that needs to change.”

Fuelled by his outrage at what had happened to Floyd, a new Lewis Hamilton lined up on the grid for the delayed first round of the 2020 season in Austria in July. The same driven race winner was still there, one that would fire Hamilton to ever-greater success, but with it he became Lewis Hamilton the activist, the anti-racism campaigner and one of the de-facto leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Hamilton led other drivers in taking the knee at the start of races, held his Formula 1 leaders and peers to account with very public statements about racism in the sport and made a stand by, for example, wearing an ‘Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’ T-shirt on the podium in Mugello.

“The way I’m wired, I don’t really have a filter,” says Hamilton. “I say what’s on my mind. I’m not always too bothered about upsetting someone if it’s going to make a difference. What I think this year [2020] has shown is when you do have that success, what are you going to do with it? I’ll be damned if I’m going to win all these championships and have all this success and not use it to make change."

I watched the Netflix show a couple of weeks before interviewing Hamilton, the recipient of this year’s Editor’s Award, which is given to an individual who has had outstanding success personally or for their company. Hamilton could have won the award for what he did on the track or off it last year. Put these achievements together and it was one of the easiest decisions we had to make for this year’s Autocar Awards.

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Watching that Netflix footage certainly changed the tack of my questions to Hamilton. In those few minutes, he reveals so much more about his drive and motivations than immediately after a grand prix when, with a microphone pressed to his face seconds after getting out of the car, he is asked about his battle with a team-mate or what he thought of his tyres. No, there’s another Lewis Hamilton we should get to know, an interesting, articulate individual who has achieved some incredible things from the most humble of beginnings, all the while fighting those who, frankly for the large part, didn’t want him to be there.

We speak to Hamilton ahead of the Portuguese Grand Prix at Portimão, which he would go on to win. We have just 15 minutes, and your correspondent doesn’t mind admitting to a few professional butterflies while staring at the empty chair on the other end of the Zoom call and waiting for our country’s latest sporting knight to be seated. Memories of the last (and much less successful) Formula 1 driver I interviewed – and who plainly didn’t want to be there – are still fresh in my mind and not helping my nerves. But from the off, Hamilton is warm, friendly and straight into thoughtful answers when asked whether last year was the biggest of his career to date, as much for what happened off the track as what happened on it.

Yeah, I think I would definitely say that last year was the biggest,” he replies. “I spent my whole life dreaming of getting to a certain point. I achieved that and then really came into what I would say my purpose is.

“I always honestly felt that there must be a reason I’m here. I’m the only person of colour racing at the level I am, and I never really understood that and what that means. Last year, that came to light and I was very honoured to have the possibilities, platform and good response from people to be able to spark change.”

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It’s one thing to want to speak out against such issues in society but another thing to do it, particularly with a profile as high as Hamilton’s. Sportsmen and women have images and endorsements to protect, which is why so few speak their mind on matters their words might influence. So how long did it take Hamilton to become comfortable being a role model, and why do so few of his sporting peers have a voice on societal issues?

“Growing up in the public eye isn’t always easy,” he says. “Whether you want to be a role model or not, you are one, and your actions and words will influence others.” Hamilton chooses his words carefully to answer the second part of the question. “There are two sides to this,” he continues. “One, [there is] a sense for some people that they don’t feel knowledgeable enough to be able to speak on things. There are some things I’m not knowledgeable enough to speak on unless you do the homework. That’s really what last year and really this year are about: it’s never too late to learn.

“It’s not our fault we weren’t educated on these things when we were younger. It’s been amazing to see that some people have gone out and done the homework themselves – watching documentaries, reading books. More people need to do it.

“And then there is the other side: people feel it’s risky and don’t speak on it. How will your country see you, how will your fellow countrymen perceive you, and all these things. There’s a long way to go. Last year was about calling out and speaking out about it, but this year must really be about taking action. But there are still people who haven’t spoken about it, so there’s a long way to go.”

That action includes Formula 1’s ‘We Race as One’ initiative, which has been given a greater – and fixed – platform this season to encourage diversity and tackle discrimination. Before each race, the drivers assemble on the grid and those who wish to can take a knee. Ten drivers are doing it this year, down from 14 last year, but this year the movement is more organised and the approach more unified after rather chaotic scenes last year. Hamilton said at the first race this year in Bahrain that he doesn’t think it’s the most important thing for everyone to kneel. “It’s what we do in the background that counts, making a positive change,” he said at the time. “We’ll see how we can work together so the sport takes more of a lead.”

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Hamilton wants to maintain the momentum by speaking out against racism and inequality to such an extent that it has become his main motivation to continue in the sport.

“As I continue to grow, I understand the sheer mass and size of issues surrounding us,” he says. “I would love to be able to do everything and help people. You can’t do absolutely everything, but I do believe that since I have been in this sport, it has not been diverse.

“There are still teams that have not been held accountable, still people who refuse to believe it’s not a problem. You have leaders past and present who come out and say it isn’t an issue, so it’s an ongoing fight that is not going to be won in a really short space of time.

“I’m heavily invested in it because I’m fortunate to be able to do what I love doing, which is racing, but on top of that, in the background, I’m on a lot of Zooms, holding uncomfortable conversations. Questioning. There’s a lot of work Mercedes are now doing to promote diversity in our team, which I’m really proud of. I want to see that happen more in other teams and the sport as well. That’s what’s really keeping me focused, and on top of that I get to go and do what I love doing. It’s given me a real reason for living, and I’m grateful for that.”

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For anyone thinking that the one-year contract Hamilton signed to stay with Mercedes just a few weeks before the season would be his last, think again.

So, to Lewis the racer. I ask if he knows all his Formula 1 records and statistics, many of which are numbers increasingly rolling into three figures. “Honestly, I don’t,” he says. “The only one I’m of course aware of is how many championships I have.” Which is seven, in case you needed reminding, on top of the 100 pole positions, 98 wins, 169 podiums, 55 fastest laps and 3879 career points – and many of those are likely to have crept up following the Azerbaijan GP that took place after this was written.

Statistically, Hamilton is Formula 1’s greatest ever. But its greatest-ever driver? We’re not debating that today (seek out Andrew Benson’s feature from the 13 November 2019 issue for an answer, if not the answer, to that one). What I am interested to know is how Hamilton is able to win cleanly and without controversy and with almost no mistakes, practically every time.

“Well, I don’t! You saw me in the gravel,” is his response, following a rare excursion at Imola, where he went off while hunting down Red Bull title rival Max Verstappen. Were it not for an unrelated safety car incident just seconds later, Hamilton’s recovery drive to second place would have been unlikely.

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“I guess the dream for all of us is to be able to have foresight,” he continues. “None of us has that. So what is the second-best solution? It is being as best prepared as you can. It’s how much I prepare for a weekend, understanding the pros and cons of each decision I’m going to have to make.

“Naturally some of that comes with experience, but being in the right place at the right time is something I’ve been aware of since I went to the Autosport Awards as a kid, when I was 10 years old. I just happened to be there when Ron [Dennis, the then McLaren boss] was there and just happened to catch his eye. That sparked off lots of different things that have happened through my life.” Dennis signed an autograph for a young Hamilton that night, kept an eye on his progress and signed him as a junior driver soon after.

“Even today: where you qualify, where you position yourself in the race, where you place yourself on track can have good or catastrophic effects,” says Hamilton. “It’s just learning how to balance those things, but it’s come with a lot of experience.”

Not knowing stats is quite a common theme among the elite and most successful sportsmen and women, to whom the next triumph is always more important than the one just gone. Yet after 15 seasons in the most intense of sports, winning races in each of them and even with his work off the track to motivate him, how hard is it for Hamilton to remain at the sharp end of the grid especially after going through so much just to get there in the first place?

“For me it’s more about the journey,” says Hamilton. “I have no idea what I’m going to be facing this year. Naturally I expect every year to get harder – I don’t expect it to get easier and I’m looking at an incredibly intense season. We still have 21 races to go. That is long… It feels like we’ve had so much of the year already. But it’s going to get more intense and more and more demanding.

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“For me, just getting to Formula 1 is a huge milestone from where we started. That’s something I’ll always be incredibly proud of, because it was hugely down to the amazing work my family did, my dad did. The commitment from my parents was unimaginable for me. I find it hard to imagine people being so selfless, putting absolutely all their time and energy and money into me instead of being able to… In the world we live in today, people want to buy new cars, new homes, new clothes, to go out shopping and have good things, but my parents gave all of that up in order to look at the long haul and give me a better life than they had, and that’s pretty special.”

It’s clear that inside Hamilton remains the person who came from humble beginnings, who grew up sleeping on his father’s sofa, all while chasing a dream to conquer a sport that had never even had a black driver let alone a black champion.

Hamilton has been through it and emerged as a highly decorated racer, the best of his generation and arguably any other. He has the riches and lifestyle to go with it, too – two things that typically accompany great sporting or personal success, along with the opportunities they bring. Yet for some reason, his fame, fortune, outside interests and lifestyle choices have been held against Hamilton more than any British world champion of the past. I wonder what the difference is. People questioning Hamilton’s off-track interests – the music, the fashion and plenty more besides – is nothing new to the man from Stevenage. He has always viewed it as a way of making him even sharper on the circuit, rather than allowing it to become a distraction.

“I can’t speak for everyone, but having creative outlets [is important],” he says. “We live in a time now where mental health is a problem around the world. We live in a world where people feel cooped up, people feel lonely, people feel helpless, so finding ways of turning negative energy, and whatever you may feel, and putting it into something positive and building, growing something is only positive.

“Learning something new – whether an instrument, learning about fashion, designing your own clothes – it gives you a North Star to focus on and drive towards. I don’t see it as a negative. I started taking a journey on these other things a long time ago. Many years ago, it was often spoken about that it was a distraction, but I’d turn up and win the race. Now it’s accepted. In the past, you’d be put in a box and could only do one genre, but I think now we live in a time when it’s okay to be multifaceted.”

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Multifaceted: Lewis Hamilton is certainly that. He’s humble, grateful, intelligent, interesting, articulate, engaging and now statesmanlike in leading a movement. Oh, and a bloody good racing driver, too – one who deserves every plaudit, honour and success that comes his way. Accomplishments that are all the more impressive given where Hamilton has come from and what he’s been through to reach the summit.

Committing to change

Last year, Lewis Hamilton teamed up with the Royal Academy of Engineering to launch the Hamilton Commission, a “stand-alone piece of research that will aim to improve the representation of black people in UK motorsport”. He was first inspired to do so at the end of 2019 while reflecting on the Mercedes-AMG team photo, in which he saw so few people of colour – something that was mirrored throughout motorsport.

“The Hamilton Commission is something I’m really passionate about and really proud about where we’ve got to,” says Hamilton. “The Royal Academy of Engineering in London has been doing an amazing job, fully hands-on with a really amazing commission of people who are so experienced: people in government, people in black communities.

“We’re nearing the end of the research and I truly believe the recommendations can drive change. The commission has been in an educational phase so far, so it’s not had an impact yet on young people trying to get into the sport. But that’s the goal and I won’t rest until it starts to deliver results. We should have the recommendations in the next couple of months and I’m super-excited about that.”

Challenge accepted

In 2000, a 15-year-old Lewis Hamilton accepted an invitation to take part in the Autocar Sideways Challenge. Does he remember it? “I do, yes,” Hamilton says without hesitation. “The M3, right? The M3 coupé? I have a really bad memory but I do remember that day. I remember getting in with a rally driver – I can’t remember his name but it was really special to see his control of his car. I’m so competitive and I remember being so frustrated that at the time I couldn’t hold the car sideways around the course. But it was a really amazing experience.”

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Dream garage

What does a seven-time Formula 1 champion drive to the shops? “I still have a small collection of cars,” says Hamilton. “To be honest, I haven’t driven any of them for a long time. I was in Los Angeles just recently and have a Mercedes-AMG GT there, but I’m trying to move everything in my life to being sustainable and kinder to the earth. When I’m picked up by car, I try to make sure Mercedes makes it an EQC. At home in Monaco, I use an EQC and a Smart Brabus, even though I have a McLaren and a Pagani Zonda there. They haven’t moved in over a year and they’re just collecting dust.

“I still love older cars like E-Type Jags and have always dreamed of having a [Ferrari] F40, but we’re moving in a direction of the world being more sustainable.”

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Purbert 9 June 2021

Hamilton is an obvious choice for his award given his driving success. But adding to the award for support of BLM shows Autocar's illinformed decision to enter into the world of identity politics....."Hamilton has become an advocate for causes such....the Black Lives Matter movement"...you really need to do your digging into what BLM actually stands for combined with Hamilton's clear hypocrisy over the WW2 Jewish slavery that Mercedes-Benz and Hugo Boss were involved with. What you're saying - maybe not intentionally - is black slavery is wrong but Jewish slavery (that happened far more recently) is OK. That's a racist message. You need to think this through....

xxxx 8 June 2021

@Folsom and there you go, haters are gonna hate.  Hero, always was always will be.

Folsom 8 June 2021

'bit late praising Lewis now just as he's falling apart when Toto can't hand him a win on a silver platter...