Lewis Hamilton has broken the Formula One mould – and he’s not done yet. The world’s fastest driver talks diversity, education, fashion and creative passions with Adam Hay-Nicholls.
This season, Lewis Hamilton is staring down a fifth Formula One world title. If he succeeds, the only man in history to have won more titles will be Michael Schumacher. Hamilton, 33, could quite possibly go on to surpass the German’s record of seven championships and 91 grand prix wins. The taciturn Schumacher created the modern template for a racing driver: Ruthlessly single-minded and of one focus – to drive cars as fast as possible. Though every bit as quick, the Englishman is different. There’s much more to him than just racing.
A couple of years ago, I was chatting with Lewis in the rear of his Maybach as we cruised around East London en route to a photoshoot. “I’m very much an outsider,” he admitted. I put it to him that he stands out from every other F1 driver simply by being an individual. He dresses differently, acts differently, hangs out with his own entourage. Importantly, he’s the first F1 driver of colour, he’s also the only racing star who could be considered a global A-list celebrity. The others tend to keep a low profile. They race cars and stick to interviews about racing, nothing more. Perhaps they’re boring, maybe just more guarded. Certainly, few have interests away from sport, and this is where Hamilton differs. “There’s a lot more to me than just driving. I have a lot more to offer.”
This summer he finally revealed to me what he’d been hinting at.
I find Lewis quietly thumbing through a sheaf of technical sketches. But he’s not in a pit garage or race car factory, perusing the work of aerodynamicists – he’s in Tommy Hilfiger’s London studio studying sneakers. Just as he gives his Mercedes crew feedback, demanding different damper settings or more wing, he’s requesting changes from Team Hilfiger. Make these stripes pink. Move the logo to the left. He’s creating a capsule collection and undertaking what he calls “an internship” in what will become the next big challenge after he hangs up his helmet: Switching from the race track to the runway as a fashion designer.
I’ve watched Lewis’s personality grow up close for over a decade, serving as a newspaper correspondent on the F1 circuit, and been fascinated to see his lust for life bloom. Lewis felt unable to truly express himself in motor racing until he joined Mercedes-AMG in 2013 and began managing his own career. He still feels like an outsider in his own sport, one that is traditionally white and privileged. His dad, Anthony, re-mortgaged their flat and worked four jobs to pay for pre-teen Lewis’s karting. With their third-hand go-kart and scruffy clothes, Lewis loves to describe it like a scene from the movie Cool Runnings. The feeling that they didn’t belong made the pair all the more determined to win.
No one underestimates Lewis now.
“I think I am at my peak in performance, but how do I take the DNA I have as a driver and do something unexpected and take it further?” asks Lewis. “Title number five is inherently the goal, but having my own fashion line accepted…” He looks across the Knightsbridge atelier to a moody poster of himself modelling Hilfiger apparel and beams. “Whoa, I hadn’t seen that one yet!”
His daring dress sense has garnered lots of attention and a fair share of criticism, but Hamilton wasn’t always such a bold clotheshorse. He was a shy child who used to change in the alley behind his working-class road in suburban Stevenage before going home to his father, because Anthony didn’t care for clothes that were too ‘street’. Lewis raced for McLaren until he was 27 and describes how the team made him dress in a very straight-laced way. His boss and mentor, Ron Dennis, disapproved of tattoos, hip-hop-inspired chains and trendy haircuts. It made Lewis very self-conscious and unsure of who he really was.
Now he views fashion as key to self-expression. “As a kid, I wanted to blend in. It’s taken a long time to find my own direction, which you can see in what I wear. I’ve made lots of mistakes – so many mistakes! – but that’s how you find your own style. I like to go to the shows because you see the craziest, wackiest stuff. It’s how it makes you feel that’s important. Fashion is a very personal thing. I don’t care what anyone else thinks”. In F1 terms, if you don’t have a couple of spins in practice you’re not trying hard enough. Now he’s found his own personal style, Lewis is a more content character.
Hamilton unveiled his first Tommy x Lewis collaboration in September at a show on Shanghai’s Bund, followed by a more A-list affair at New York Fashion Week, and has already signed off a second collection. Obsession with detail is a familiar trait with F1 drivers, who are constantly looking for faults, opportunities and improvements. Growing up, Lewis’s friends called him “Eagle-Eye” because he never missed a thing. He says he loves to learn and wants to soak up as much information as possible, which is why his meetings with Hilfiger’s designers are exhausting affairs. He is hands-on because he’s passionate about the creative process, and also because of his driving force; the perception that people want to see him fail.
“Before a race I always sleep fine, because I know what I do. When it comes time for people to see this [collection] I’m not going to sleep at all. This is an extension of who I am and an expression of my character. I’ve put so much effort into it, so I’m super tied to it and conscious of how people are going to react. It means a lot to me because this is potentially the beginning of a new future beyond F1. I couldn’t sleep before my first F1 test, and then I got the call and got the job and my career began. I’m in that same period of time right now, clothes-wise. If it works, my goal is to continue.
“In this,” he adds, “I have found something that could equal my passion for racing.”
Normally, professional drivers are taught to be practical in their outlook rather than imaginative. Lewis describes his relationship with Tommy Hilfiger as being not dissimilar to that which he has with Mercedes-AMG, but the approach is rather different. “I love to observe people who burst the bubble and find new ways of doing things. Seeing the engineers at work at the [Mercedes] factory is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. These people went to Harvard and Cambridge. I topped out at John Henry Newman School, Stevenage. So, when I came into F1 I had to learn a new language in order to explain what I was experiencing on the track in a technical way. What I bring is practicality to people who specialise in numbers. Which is why indulging in creativity feels like freedom to me.”
Hamilton describes himself as “a late bloomer” creatively, and feels he’s playing catch-up with his peers on the catwalk and in music, another of his extra-curricular escapes. “I was so focused on racing as a kid that [peripheral] stuff that I wanted to do went by the wayside. As a result, I now meet 15, 16-year-old kids who are so much further along with their art and their creative passions than I was at their age. The interests that I had at their age have now come back, which is a bit of a surprise but it’s great, I love it. Some ways you grow up, and others you don’t. I like to find that balance.”
He has a home recording studio and has laid down hundreds of tracks, sometimes working with Drake’s producers. In July, he made his singing debut on a Christina Aguilera release. He plays the guitar, the piano and has taken up the harmonica because it’s easy to travel with.
Lewis has vented about how stifling it feels in F1, where most drivers are put in a box and not allowed to do anything but drive and rep sponsors. Fashion and music are, to Hamilton, about crossing boundaries. “You should never feel restricted that you have to stay in one medium; that’s why I have so much respect for Kanye and Pharrell and how they’ve blurred the lines between music, fashion and art. At the moment, with the work I’m doing with producers and designers, I feel like an intern. They’re able to pull out of me skills and ideas I never knew I had.”
Kanye West is a friend and inspiration. Of one of their first encounters, he recalls: “I went to see Kanye at his house, and he goes ‘You know, you’re just like me, me and you are very much the same,’” which coming from Ye must be the greatest compliment of all. “He said ‘I’m big in the music world but I’m trying to do what I love in fashion and people don’t like it. You’re big in your racing world but you love your music, and people will probably struggle to accept that, but you need to do what you love and not give a fuck about what anyone thinks.’
“Ultimately,” says Lewis, “we shouldn’t feel like we need to shrink ourselves in order that other people feel comfortable.”
Sometimes he’ll be up till 3am before a race recording music. Other times, his jet-setting will ramp up his air miles to twice that of his rivals in pursuit of fun times as well as business. It’s drawn criticism from commentators who worry about his focus. Lewis couldn’t give a damn. “It doesn’t matter what the pundits say – ‘Oh he’s off travelling and partying’ – I turn up and I win. Don’t talk to me about what I can and can’t do. I define who I am and I’m not defined by what people say. I might be in ten different countries in a week, but I’ll turn up at the track and kill it.”
There is a sense that Lewis is making up for lost time and filling in the holes of an upbringing that was dominated by racing and the ambition he shared with his dad. “My teenage years weren’t normal. I was surrounded by adults and racing all over Europe. I wasn’t at school much, I had a private tutor. I missed out on normal things like hanging out with friends, doing normal teenage stuff. These are the years that usually define your interests. I had to stop my music lessons and everything to concentrate on racing. Ultimately it was worth it, though there were times I wished I could just kick a ball around like the kids on my street, not be doing school work at home because I had to fly to a race in Italy at the crack of dawn.
“I had a dream to pursue, though once I achieved that dream I was in a position to loosen up and let life come to me a little bit.”
Lewis’s approach to life has changed greatly since then, and not only because of the fame and wealth he’s accrued – the palatial homes, a massive private jet, garages full of hypercars on both sides of the Atlantic, and dozens of rumoured supermodel and pop star companions. Having prioritised racing over schooling, he’s now a fairly voracious reader and constantly trying to learn new skills and gain fresh insight. “Nelson Mandela told me, at the age of 90, he was still learning. That really stuck with me. We don’t just stop learning when we leave school, life is about learning from start to finish.”
Earlier this year, Lewis attended the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai; it’s been called the ‘Education Davos’, but it’s actually about making growth and prosperity about something other than GDP. There, Lewis presented the Global Teacher Prize to Andria Zafirakou, an arts and textiles teacher from the UK. “She learned 30 different languages so she could communicate with her diverse classroom, can you believe that?” Hamilton asks. “She is a truly amazing person and it was such an honour to spend time with her. I was utterly inspired by her drive and dedication.
“I wish Andria had been my teacher, I’d be even further along now than I am. There were some teachers I liked at school, but I didn’t get a lot of support from most. They thought I was crazy when I said I wanted to be an F1 driver. I always like to prove people wrong. I don’t know where that comes from, maybe my dad. My dad taught me more than anyone. The key is to never give up and never stop being curious. Embracing life means embracing knowledge.”
Losing is a lesson he’s begun to learn from, having previously tried to filter out any suggestion of it. Now it’s something he accepts and failure makes winning even sweeter. “I used to beat myself up an insane amount if I had a bad race, it was unhealthy. I’d get the worst headache, like I was under a dark cloud. I’d hardly eat, [just] sit in silence trying to find my way out of the negative space. You dwell on things and I used to be so stubborn I couldn’t get past it. One time, I didn’t leave my hotel room for four days, I was so stuck in my head. But now, with age, I’ve realized that winning isn’t everything and losing is part of the journey. Positivity is absolutely essential to moving forward and achieving your goals. You learn to manage disappointment so that you are stronger next time and even more powerful. It just drives me to push harder.”
If the fashion and music stuff doesn’t bear fruit, there’s always the motivational speaking circuit. Another area of Lewis’s inspirational lifestyle is, he imparts, his all-new diet. “A few years ago, I stopped eating meat. I’m now a full-on vegan and I can’t imagine going back. I feel incredibly clean and healthy. Most people I know say they could never be on a plant-based diet, and that’s fine. I’m not out to convince other people to change their ways, but this is what works for me. And it’s not easy, it takes real dedication. But I’ve studied nutrition and I understand the science, and I can’t go back to eating crap. In fact, the thought of eating meat makes me feel sick.”
This Summer, Lewis extended his £40 million-a-year contract with Mercedes through to the end of 2020, when he’ll be 35. He could continue racing for several seasons beyond that, but I suspect he shan’t. He’ll have beaten Juan-Manuel Fangio’s record of five titles, he may even have matched Schumacher’s score of seven. He’ll have nothing left to prove, and he’ll want to go out on top. In 2021, rule changes may come into effect that could threaten Mercedes’ supremacy by restricting their vast budgets as well as changing the design of the cars. Hamilton may not want to risk sticking around to see his team slink down the order.
Then there’s the motivation and commitment necessary to fight for the title year-in year-out. He doesn’t really need more money. He has goals beyond racing trophies and other lives he wants to explore. He may also want to have a family.
He will leave a bigger legacy than any driver since his hero Ayrton Senna, the gifted and adored Brazilian who was killed leading 1994’s San Marino Grand Prix. “Being the first driver of colour feels like an achievement in itself,” Lewis cites. “It’s pretty cool to join the likes of Tiger and Serena and knock down barriers. Now we’re seeing black and Asian drivers coming into the sport and that makes me so proud, knowing I helped break the mould. Promoting diversity is one of the most important jobs I have, and it’s a job for life.”
Having F1 as a platform, with its 350 million global viewers plus his 7.5 million Instagram followers, is a strong place to start, but this Autumn’s Tommy Hilfiger campaign and his future fashion endeavours will take Lewis to a whole other level of global fame.
“Fashion is like racing,” he reveals, “it never sleeps. It’s always evolving, reinventing, innovating, moving forward so fast”. Just like Hamilton himself, in fact.