Lewis Hamilton: The F1 Superstar on Controversies, Racism, and His Future

When Lewis Hamilton became a Formula 1 driver, success came quickly, but an easy sense of belonging did not.
“I didn’t feel like I was welcome,” he tells me. “I didn’t feel like I was accepted. God knows how many of these drivers say: ‘This is not what a Formula 1 driver is. That’s not how you behave. This is not how you do it. Tattoos? No! A Formula 1 driver doesn’t have tattoos! A Formula 1 driver doesn’t have a personality—and piercings!’

Hamilton carried on regardless, doing things his own way, and it can’t be said to have worked out too badly. He is now one of most famous athletes on earth, even more so since Netflix’s documentary series Formula 1: Drive to Survive brought his sport to a new audience, particularly in the U.S. He has won a record-equaling seven world championships, and when it comes to driving cars like these around 200 miles an hour, some would argue he’s the best there’s ever been.

That’s not to say that, even now, everything is always smooth or straightforward. There is a tattoo arcing across the top of Hamilton’s chest that reads Powerful Beyond Measure. The words are taken from a longer quote by the writer Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.” “I read it, and I thought it was one of the greatest sayings ever,” Hamilton says. “We limit ourselves the majority of the time. And where it really hit me hard is: We should never have to dim our light in order to make others feel….” He pauses, gathers himself. “If anything, we should shine as bright as we can to liberate others to do the same. I live my life by that quote. For so long in my life, I felt like I was dimming my light because I felt uncomfortable.”

Given all that he has achieved, it might be reasonable to imagine that any lingering tensions between his need for individual self-expression and his sport’s diktats and conventions would have been ironed out or dissipated long ago. Reasonable, but quite wrong. This season, for instance, a conflict has blown up with Hamilton over his jewelry. There has been a rule on the books, it turns out, since 2005—a couple of years before Hamilton’s first race in Formula 1—forbidding drivers from wearing jewelry in the cars, for safety reasons. But until now, there appears to have been no attempt to enforce it. Hamilton, who habitually races with two earrings and a nose piercing, was recently told that he must remove them going forward. “People love to have power,” he says. “And to enforce power.”

I ask him whether this feels as though it is particularly directed toward him.
“I mean, yeah,” he replies. “Because I’m the only one that has jewelry on, really.”
Aware that the issue was coming to a head, Hamilton attended a press conference before the Miami Grand Prix in May wearing—in an act of playful mockery and protest—rings on every finger, multiple chains, and three watches. “I just put on as much as I could,” he says. He announced that, if need be, he would refuse to race rather than remove his race-day jewelry, and also upped the ante—and sent the internet bubbling—with this comment: “As I said, I can’t remove at least two of them. One, I can’t really explain where it is.”

This, Hamilton now insists, was flippant provocation. “I was just fucking with it,” he says, laughing. “I don’t have any other piercings anywhere. But I love that there’s this thinking: Shit, has he got his balls pierced?”
In subsequent races, he removed his earrings, but his nose stud was fused in place and could not be removed, then reinserted, at will. When I first speak to him, he has been granted a temporary exemption. If that expires, a decision will have to be made, and he would clearly prefer to stand firm.

“Since I was a kid—rules,” he says, shaking his head. “I’ve never loved being told what to do.”
The first time we meet, it is for lunch at a Moroccan restaurant, Cafe Mogador, in Manhattan’s East Village, across town from an apartment he owns here. Hamilton orders the hummus and falafel. “I used to look at hummus and I was like, ‘No way would I ever eat hummus!’ ” he says. “And I love it now. It’s my go-to thing every day.” Just one totem, it will become clear, of his relentless search for a better way.

Hamilton, who’s 37, tells me that veganism wasn’t even on his radar when he was growing up just north of London. He’s now been plant-based for about five years, a change triggered by a vegan friend he met in New York who opened his eyes to the realities of food production. The physical demands of elite racing are extreme, and doctors advised him that he would struggle to get enough protein. Instead he found his energy levels smoothing out and his skin clearing up. “I mean, I’ve won five world titles since then,” he points out. “I’ve been more consistent than I ever was in the past. So it just takes proving people wrong. And that’s what I did.”

Proving people wrong has been a persistent theme in Hamilton’s life. “Look, when I was at school, I was dyslexic and struggling like hell,” he says, “and one of the only few Black kids in my school, being put in the lowest classes and never given a chance to progress or even helped to progress. Teachers were telling me, ‘You’re never going to be nothing.’ I remember being behind the shed, in tears, like, ‘I’m not going to be anything.’ And believing it for a split second.” Even today, he can still list the specific teachers who reinforced this message. It was, he says, “the most demotivating thing to hear—especially when you witness them doing the complete opposite with your white counterparts.” Still, he talks about it now as though their cruelty and indifference became a kind of gift: “I don’t actually hold any grudge against those people, because they fueled me up.”

Hamilton’s improbable ascendancy began even as he floundered at school. From six, he proved himself a wunderkind at guiding remote-controlled cars—beating adults and appearing on British TV. At eight, he demonstrated a similar aptitude for karting before graduating to progressively more powerful cars. By 12, his parents, who had split when he was two (his mother is white, his father Black), agreed that he should live with his father, who could best nurture his evident talent. His father worked three or four jobs, and all of the family’s money went into supporting the prodigy.

Hamilton says that from the first time he drove a go-kart, he couldn’t wait to do it again. “Firstly, it’s like having a superpower,” he says. “I couldn’t be Superman, but that was like your cloak. When I got in the car, I put a helmet on, and I wasn’t seen any different. You can’t see my skin color. You just see me as a driver. And I was able to do things that others weren’t able to do. And it didn’t matter how big the other kids were, I could still beat them.”

There had never been a Black Formula 1 driver, and the sport’s participants generally came from far more privileged backgrounds than his. But when he was 13, he was offered a contract, a place in the driver development program for a Formula 1 team, McLaren, which offered a potential path to his goal. Then, just after his 16th birthday, something happened that seemed likely to derail it all.

One day, an ugly incident took place at lunchtime in a school bathroom. A classmate of Hamilton’s was severely beaten by six boys. Hamilton was one of many drawn by the commotion but took no part. In the days that followed, as those responsible were identified and punished, Hamilton was called into the headmaster’s office. As Hamilton remembers it, the headmaster told him: “I don’t have the evidence just yet to get rid of you.” “What do you mean?” Hamilton says he retorted. “I didn’t do anything.” A couple of weeks later Hamilton was called back in. “Finally,” the headmaster declared, “I have enough to get rid of you.” Hamilton was said to have kicked the injured boy. He was expelled, with immediate effect.

Walking home, Hamilton felt as though everything might be over: the racing contract, his future, all of it. “The one thing I had to do was just finish school, and I couldn’t even do that,” he says. He momentarily considered whether it was even worth facing his father. How, he wondered, did one flee the country? “I remember shaking like a leaf, telling my dad,” Hamilton says. “And him asking me: Did I do it? I remember telling him, ‘I didn’t do it, Dad. I wouldn’t do that. It’s just not part of who I am.’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ ”

His father contacted other families, whose kids verified Hamilton’s account, then doggedly fought for his son’s exoneration. Months later, the decision would be overturned, the record corrected. Hamilton’s racing contract was unaffected. But he never went back to the school.

In 2020, on the final lap of the race that would confirm Hamilton’s pivotal seventh title, he says that much of this history flashed before his eyes: “Just all these past experiences, all the doubts that I had to overcome. It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. That’s why I said, ‘This is to all those kids out there…’ ” Over the headset, as he slowed down after the finish line, viewers could hear his voice breaking up with emotion. His exact words: That’s for all the kids out there who dream the impossible.

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