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.
“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.