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Gary Younge
Lewis Hamilton: ‘Everything I’d suppressed came up – I had to speak out’

He’s the most successful driver Formula One has ever seen, and its only Black star. Now Lewis Hamilton has a new mission: to change the sport that made him.

As Lewis Hamilton rose through the ranks of competitive go-karting, his father, Anthony, told him: “Always do your talking on the track.” Lewis had a lot to talk about. Bullying and racial taunts were a consistent feature of his childhood in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, a new town 30 miles north of London; his dad taught him the best response was to excel at his sport.

The trouble was he didn’t have many people to talk to about what he was going through. Lewis is mixed-race, born to a white mother, Carmen Larbalestier, who raised him until he was 12, when he went to live with his Grenadian-British father, from whom she had separated. “My mum was wonderful,” he tells me. “She was so loving. But she didn’t fully understand the impact of the things I was experiencing at school. The bullying and being picked on. And my dad was quite tough, so I didn’t tell him too much about those experiences. As a kid I remember just staying quiet about it because I didn’t feel anyone really understood. I just kept it to myself.” Sport offered him an outlet. “I did boxing because I needed to channel the pain,” he says. “I did karate because I was being beaten up and I wanted to be able to defend myself.”

I understand where he’s coming from; I too grew up in Stevenage. Hamilton’s mother and I went to the same school – though not at the same time. As close to London as it was, it might as well have been in a different universe. In London the Black experience appeared authentic; in Stevenage it felt synthetic. Race in London was something you read about in the papers; race in Stevenage was something you didn’t even acknowledge. I was 22 before I found my first Black male friend.

Racing was a release for Hamilton, who is now Stevenage’s most famous progeny. “I got in a car and I was the only kid of colour on the track. And I’d be getting pushed around. But then I could always turn their energy against them. I’d out-trick them, outsmart them, outwit them and beat them, and that, for me, was more powerful than any words.”

We meet on Zoom, with Hamilton sitting in front of a huge TV, on a massive sofa, in the otherwise featureless motorhome he uses for European races. Today it is parked on site at Circuit Paul Ricard in Le Castellet ahead of the French Grand Prix. His oval, caramel-complexioned face is framed by well-groomed facial hair, and a hint of his plaits poke out from the back of his head. He chats in an unguarded, reflective manner without guile or jargon, gesturing with his hands, but only occasionally cracking a smile.

On the track Hamilton talks with the greatest authority. At 36, he is the most accomplished Formula One driver of all time, with 98 grand prix wins, 100 pole positions and 171 podium finishes. The only meaningful record he hasn’t broken is the number of drivers’ championships won, where he is tied with Michael Schumacher at seven. Put bluntly, he’s the best the world has ever seen and is still at the top of his game.

But in the past year, off the track Hamilton has started to find a voice about his racial identity. He has been taking a knee; raising a clenched fist. Long dormant concerns about racism and discrimination have been rudely awakened following the Black Lives Matter uprisings. In the process, Hamilton has transformed the way he sees himself: from a compliant go-with-the-flow character to a change agent who is determined to make waves. He has shaped the way others see him too, going from an inoffensive, if gaffe-prone, socialite focused only on his sport, to a politically aware role model conscious of his wider cultural significance. Now, he is about to take on the sport that brought him fortune and fame, with a commission demanding racial diversity and meaningful outreach to underrepresented groups – as well as more racial equality in general.

It’s been a long journey for Hamilton, and there have been bumps along the road. “I’d be in Newcastle and people would shout, ‘Go back to your country,’” he says. “Or in Spain, in 2008, when people painted themselves black and put on wigs, and were really mocking my family. And I remember the sport not saying anything about it.”

Even playful attempts to refer to his race felt perilous. After stewards (the officials who police races) penalised him for two collisions in Monaco in 2011, he was asked: “Why are you such a magnet for stewards? You obviously feel you are being targeted.” Lewis replied, laughing: “Maybe it’s because I’m Black. That’s what Ali G says, I don’t know.” The Telegraph ran a headline: “Lewis risks disciplinary action after astonishing outburst”.

“It often felt that maybe I didn’t speak about [race] in the right way, or wasn’t great at explaining it, or maybe educated enough to talk about it,” he says. “Either way, I got a lot of pushback and it seemed like more hassle than it was worth. So I reverted to just doing my talking on the track.”

If he had anything to say, he would do so privately. He remembers returning from the British Cadet Karting Championship in 1995, age 10, singing Queen’s We Are The Champions in the camper van with his dad. “No one saw it. We didn’t do it in people’s faces. We had so much against us.”

Last year, that attitude changed. Before the Austrian Grand Prix, just a month after George Floyd’s murder, Formula One’s only ever Black driver donned a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and took the knee. When some drivers refused to follow his lead, he warned them that “silence is complicit”. In the end, they all wore End Racism T-shirts and 14 drivers joined him in the gesture, while six stood behind.

A week later, after he won the Styrian Grand Prix, also in Austria, he raised his fist in a Black power salute. He also called out his competitors on social media: “I see those of you who are staying silent, some of you the biggest stars yet you stay silent in the midst of injustice,” he wrote. Then he came for Formula One as a whole. “It’s lacking leadership,” he told the New York Times. “It shouldn’t be for me to have to call the teams or call the teams out.” At the same race, Formula One, which controls the cameras broadcasting the event, cut away from the moment some of the drivers took the knee, to instead show Red Bull skydivers dropping from the sky.

It was as though a dam broke. “This wrath of emotions came up and I couldn’t contain myself,” he says, recalling this profoundly emotional moment in a matter-of-fact way. “I was in tears. And this stuff came up that I’d suppressed over all these years. And it was so powerful and sad and also releasing. And I thought, ‘I can’t stay quiet. I need to speak out because there are people experiencing what I’m experiencing, or 10 times worse. Or 100 times worse. And they need me right now.’ And so when I did speak out, that was me letting the Black community know: ‘I hear you and I stand with you.’”

I get the impression that however much he may have thought about this, he still hasn’t spoken about it much. He is not reciting well-rehearsed lines; his words carry the air of a confession.

That sounds like a lot to take on, I suggest, particularly from a standing start. “I don’t see it as a burden,” he replies. “It was definitely liberating to be able to be open and speak about things. For people to know that there’s much more to me than perhaps they realised from watching me on TV. I feel like I was built for this. There’s a reason it was suppressed over all that time. And if it happened any sooner I wouldn’t be ready, wouldn’t be strong enough to handle it. I wouldn’t be able to do my job as well and do both things at the same time. But now I’m equipped with the tools to do so. I look at my niece and nephew. I look at my little cousins. And I think, ‘How can I make things better for you guys and your friends?’”

While the outrage and activism that followed Floyd’s murder gave Hamilton the confidence to speak up, Black Lives Matter did not create his racial consciousness: it emboldened it. He had in the past cited Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and his own father as his role models, and Bob Marley, Nas and Marvin Gaye among his favourite musicians. (One doubts that Niki Lauda or James Hunt would ever have come up with a similar list.) He was aware his racial difference had meaning. “Being Black is not a negative,” he said in 2007. “It’s a positive, if anything, because I’m different. In the future that can open doors to different cultures… It will show that not only white people can do it… It will be good to mean something.” He just hadn’t figured out what that meaning was, what to make of it or what to do about it.

Hamilton had already found himself asking why there were so few people of colour on his team (Mercedes revealed last summer that just 3% of its Formula One staff were from ethnic minorities), and receiving unsatisfactory answers. So, in 2019, he worked with the Royal Academy of Engineering to produce some research, with a view to improving the representation of Black people in motor sport. “We had no idea the whole George Floyd situation would kick in,” he says. The Black Lives Matter uprisings gave the initiative a sense of urgency and broader relevance.

The resulting Hamilton Commission will be published on 13 July. It embraces a broad agenda ranging from school exclusions (Lewis himself was excluded after a fellow pupil was attacked and needed hospital treatment, only to be reinstated when it was determined that he was wrongly identified and not involved) and anti-racist curriculums; to actively promoting Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to students of colour. It will also look at targeted programmes for graduates and those in post-16 education from diverse backgrounds, and expanded motor sport apprenticeships. Its board also draws from a broad pool of expertise and disciplines, including a Labour and a Tory MP, a Formula One grandee, a trade unionist, professors, engineers and equality campaigners.

But for Hamilton, who has been actively involved in the commission’s process, the mission is deeply personal. The quest sounds almost religious. “Over time, I’ve been trying to figure out my purpose. There’s got to be a reason that I’m not only the only Black driver but the one at the front. And it’s not just about winning. I won the world championship last year and in that year everything became visible – and I felt that my purpose was shown to me and now I’m on that journey.”

Last year, as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations were escalating, Ben Carrington, an associate professor of sociology and journalism at USC Annenberg, was allowed to sit in on an informal online gathering of one of the main F1 teams. He tells me that he asked one of the team’s most senior figures what he thought of Hamilton’s stance and was stunned by the response. “Well, if Lewis is really so committed to that cause, perhaps he should donate all of his salary to it,” the senior figure said, before going on to claim his team was so non-racial he didn’t know how many Black or Asian employees there were because he doesn’t “see race”.

“He seemed to be insinuating that Hamilton’s beliefs were not sincere and his personal wealth somehow undermined his stance,” says Carrington, author of Race, Sport And Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora. “It was such a tone-deaf and arrogant response, that would almost certainly have got that person fired if they were in the NBA or NFL. But it made me realise, Wow, this is what Hamilton is up against within F1.”

In a sport that is so exclusive, racial discrimination is invariably linked to class. Hamilton’s father had to remortgage his house and spend all his and his second wife’s savings to get Lewis through just one year of go-karting. He was the lucky one among his peers. “We had dear friends who threw everything and the sink at it, and today don’t have any money,” Hamilton says.

Young Lewis found an advocate in Ron Dennis, then the owner of the McLaren team. It is said that when he was 10, Hamilton, wearing a borrowed silk suit, approached Dennis and told him he wanted to drive for him. Dennis replied, in Lewis’s autograph book: “Try me in nine years.” By 13, Hamilton had joined McLaren’s young driver programme, and by 22 he made his Formula One debut as a McLaren driver. He went on to win the world championship in his second season in 2008. Dennis has reportedly referred to Hamilton as his “My Fair Lady project” and told Sky News last year: “Our relationship was very much positioned as surrogate father and son – and I don’t think Anthony would have ever been uncomfortable with that.”

Hamilton has called Formula One a “billionaire boys’ club”. “There’s no way that we would make it now if we started from where we started,” he says. He thinks that’s one of the things that has driven his success. “I know how hard it was for my dad just to have fresh tyres at the weekend. It’s impacted me heavily. I can’t just think, ‘I deserve to be here.’ I can’t squander this opportunity. I have to grab it with both hands and really dig deep every single time I’m in the car.”

Others have it far easier. A few days after I speak to Hamilton, he comes second in the French Grand Prix. First is Max Verstappen, whose father is F1 driver Jos; third is Sergio Pérez, whose dad was a driver and agent, and who was sponsored at an early age by the son of billionaire Carlos Slim, formerly the world’s richest man. And fifth is Lando Norris, whose dad has a reported fortune of £200m. The only other driver in the top five with a regular background is Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, whose dad owns a small cleaning company and mum is an undertaker.

But Hamilton is not primarily interested in opportunities for racing drivers. “There’s only 20 seats in the drivers’ space. That’s not so important to me. But there are over 40,000 jobs across motor sports in the UK, and less than 1% are filled by people from Black backgrounds. So there’s a lot of opportunity in so many different categories, not just engineering.”

The Hamilton Commission’s recommendations are ambitious and logical. They also include asking F1 teams to implement a diversity charter; increasing the number of Black teachers in Stem subjects; a fund to expose excluded students to Stem and motor-sport-related activities; and a scholarship programme to encourage Black Stem graduates into specialist motor sport roles. But the world is not short of commissions providing proposals on how to pursue equality in a range of areas. The challenge is making institutions adopt these plans as their own, prioritising and then enforcing them.

“I want this to be about action. I know there’s a lot of commissions that perhaps don’t get the backing or manage to continue,” Hamilton says. “But this one has me. And I don’t fail at a lot of things.”

Formula One is not for everyone. Some people are compelled by strategic tyre changes, fast straights and tight corners; others are left indifferent by the sight of cars whizzing around endlessly. But Hamilton’s dominance speaks for itself. And British sporting figures rarely, if ever, attain this level of international supremacy. So it is curious, I put to him, that he has never enjoyed the full-throated national acclaim that others, who have achieved far less in their fields, have done. A YouGov poll in October last year – the year he equalled Schumacher’s championship-winning record – found that only 21% of Britons thought he deserved a knighthood compared with 46% who believed he didn’t (he got one in the 2021 new year honours). In another YouGov poll of the most popular all-time sports personalities, he came 37th, behind Schumacher (ninth) and the late Stirling Moss, who never won a single championship (15th). Why don’t people like him more? “I’m not living my life to make everyone happy,” he says. “You can’t make everyone happy. People are always going to have their own opinions.”

He concedes some of this may be down to his numerous, if mostly minor, gaffes: taking a selfie while riding a Harley-Davidson in New Zealand; any number of reckless driving incidents off the track; and the time he directly sprayed a woman on the podium with champagne. Others have shown a tin ear, referring to Stevenage as “the slums”, which he retracted immediately, or making jokes about his nephew’s princess dress on social media telling him: “Boys don’t wear princess dresses.”

In 2010, Hamilton fired his dad as his manager. Compared with other celebrity parent/manager splits, this appeared to be relatively civilised and cordial: the inevitable, if painful, disentanglement of work and family that comes with maturity. But it was framed at the time as a callous act of betrayal. The two have since reconciled and his father is back on the team.

And then there is the challenge of aligning his lifestyle with his pronouncements. Anti-racist messages are easier to dismiss when they come from a tax haven in Monaco, where he lives; statements about climate change from the world leader of a sport that produces so many carbon emissions can also rankle. Lewis has apologised for most of these missteps, adopted veganism, sold his private jet and insisted that his Tommy Hilfiger clothing line is sustainable. He has become a strident voice for improving environmental standards in Formula One.

But criticisms seem to stick to him in a way that they don’t to others. “I haven’t done things in a perfect way,” he accepts. “I was never media trained. I was just thrown into a room with people. And at the same time I’m probably a later bloomer, growing into my adulthood, because I’d been this kid protected by my dad for a long time. And suddenly I’m really in a man’s world and I’m being asked all these questions. Everything I say is taken literally, all the mistakes are in plain sight.”

This in part explains his recent support for tennis champion Naomi Osaka after she pulled out of the French Open following a dispute with organisers about her refusal to speak to journalists. He lauded her bravery. “It’s not that I have an opinion about everything,” he says. “But I know what it’s like to be young in sport. I didn’t have strong enough shoulders to do what she has done at her age. So I’m proud of her. I wish my young self had me to say, ‘You’re going to be good.’ I had my dad. But even for him it was all new.”

But there’s more to Hamilton’s less favoured status than that. Beyond Formula One fans, he lacks a solid constituency. He is difficult to place. The political voice of anti-racist protest he is nurturing has a long lineage from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick. But the influences on his literal voice are difficult to fathom – his accent is a kind of intercontinental, media-enunciated, home counties hybrid that defies categorisation. He’s a very wealthy biracial man from a working-class background in an elite sport, from a town with which few Britons have any cultural association. He has character, but he’s not a character. We have never seen or heard his like before.

He is what TV superproducer Shonda Rhimes, responsible for Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and Bridgerton, refers to in her autobiography, The Year Of Yes, as an FOD – first, only and different. “When you are an FOD,” she writes, “you are saddled with that burden of extra responsibility – whether you want it or not. This wasn’t just my shot. It was ours.”

Watching him in 2007, when he was in serious contention for the championship during his first season, my sports enthusiast friend Kieron Rablah, who was also raised in Stevenage, told me: “When I see him on TV I just can’t help cheering. I’ve not watched a Formula One race for 10 years. But all I keep thinking when I see him racing is: he’s a Black kid from Stevenage. It’s not just that he’s made it to that level, which would be pretty amazing in any sport; it’s that he’s made it in Formula One. If you come from Stevenage, Formula One might as well be polo.”

Feeling comfortable in your own skin, under those conditions, is easier said than done. “I remember not being able to be myself,” Hamilton says. “Of not being able to speak the way I want to speak. That’s the point of all this inclusivity: including people and not asking them to change in order to fit. I remember feeling that I had to be a different shape. The entry point to my sport was a square and I was like a hexagon, and I thought, ‘I’m never going to fit through that bloody thing.’ So I had to morph my way in in order to fit into that world, and then try to get back into the shape I was before.”

Even as Hamilton competes for a record eighth world championship, his sights are set both on the horizon and in the rearview mirror at his legacy. “My dream when I was younger was to get to Formula One. Then I thought I would love to emulate Ayrton [Senna]. And then I reached three world championships [Senna’s record before he died]. And then I’m like, shoot, now what?

“My dream now is to be a father like my dad one day, but better. Just as he wanted to be like his dad one day, but a better version of his dad. I want to carry on the Hamilton name and make him proud.”

Is there something you want to tell me, Lewis? I joke.

“No, no, no, no,” he laughs, bearing a big, gap-toothed smile. “I’m not there yet.” Currently single, he has been linked to many models and singers over the years, from Rita Ora to Nicole Scherzinger.

But this moment is as much about how he feels about himself as his relationship with others. The athlete John Carlos once told me that when he raised his fist on the podium at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, the first thing he thought was: “The shackles have been broken. And they won’t ever be able to put shackles on John Carlos again. Because what had been done couldn’t be taken back… The greatest problem is we are afraid to offend our oppressors.”

There is no going back for Hamilton now. The shackles have been broken. But there is more to freedom than just the breaking of chains. Isolated in his sport, nurturing his voice in public even as he continues his talking on the track, the path forward promises to be as personally fulfilling as it is politically perilous.

“We’ll see where we can go,” he says breezily. “As the years pass, you realise that success is a wonderful thing. But it feels relatively short-lived. And I don’t just want to be remembered as a driver, because I care about so many more different things.”

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