Echelon: Full speed ahead

For Lewis Hamilton, breaking the mould is just part of the game. As he overtakes Michael Schumacher’s all-time win records, we look at how the world’s most successful race driver is carving out a legacy unlike any other – on and off the track.

By Adam Hay-Nicholls  

This is Lewis Hamilton’s time. The Formula One driver and social media star has matched Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven world championships and broken the record for grand prix wins. The Englishman is the most successful driver in the history of motor racing, and he’s only 35. More titles are in his future and many more victories, if he continues on this trajectory.

It’s almost impossible to compare drivers from different decades. Many who were spectating in the 1950s and ‘60s believe that Juan Manuel Fangio (five titles) was better than anyone both then and now. Others, that Jim Clark (two titles, killed in 1968 aged 32) was the most gifted of them all. Looking back at the 1970s, 1980s and ‘90s, you might give the G.O.A.T prize to Niki Lauda (three), Alain Prost (four) or Ayrton Senna (three, killed in 1994 aged 34). But Schumacher and Hamilton’s statistics have everyone else beaten.

Both are considered among the most ‘complete’ drivers the sport has ever seen, and both have the ability to read races and respond to changing conditions better than their rivals. Schumacher had an aggressive driving style and was utterly ruthless, unafraid to use underhand tactics or barge other drivers out of the way. Hamilton, in contrast, is a smooth, clean and fair driver who makes fewer mistakes than Michael, rarely spinning or wrecking cars. Michael had strong engineering knowledge, while Lewis’s mechanical understanding is more instinctual but no less incisive. Michael was the first driver to really build a team around him in the way that he did with Ferrari yet, perhaps inspired by the German, Lewis has achieved much the same leadership role within Mercedes. Michael was known as the ‘rainmeister’, but Lewis is equally awesome when the heavens open. Michael was at his quickest in clean air, when it was just him and the car and a lap time. But Lewis is, in both my opinion and grand prix winners with whom I’ve spoken this year, the better when it comes to wheel-to-wheel racecraft. He has supernatural spatial awareness and reactions. And he’s incredibly tenacious. He never gives up.

But there is much more to Lewis than sporting success, natural talent, and professional perfection. He is lending his voice to causes of equality, diversity, climate change and democracy. Formula One usually steers clear of politics, while Lewis has turned in straight towards it and floored the throttle. Such is the gravity of his achievements, and a generation of fans and followers are taking a stand – or a knee – behind him.

In this sense, he is a very different proposition to Schumacher, who finally retired from racing in 2012. The German represented a generation of drivers in the 1990s; serious, aloof, and focused 100 percent on motor racing. Having been populated by spirited characters and romantic playboys from the 1950s through to the 1980s, the F1 paddock was suddenly filled with what seemed like humourless robots, their helmets disguising any trace of emotion.

When Lewis Hamilton arrived from the lower formulae in 2007, stepping into a McLaren team that had spent the last decade preparing for him, the then 22-year-old tried his best to fit in by dressing the same way as everyone else and giving the same sponsor-friendly messages to the media. Two things marked this shy young man out: Importantly, he was the first F1 driver of colour. Secondly, he had been groomed by McLaren, led by the mercurial Ron Dennis, since he was 12. I had been aware of who Lewis was since about 1996, and first met him on the junior single-seater scene in 2003. He was the best-prepared F1 rookie in history, but he was also a mixed-race kid from a working class family entering a wholly white and insanely privileged championship. Attention zeroed in on him like he was a landing alien, and so he tried his best to blend in.

“I’m very much an outsider,” Lewis told me some years later, as we cruised around London in the rear of his Maybach. “My personal development was restricted and felt that was the only space I was allowed to be in,” he says of McLaren. Ron Dennis – who a ten-year-old Lewis first approached at an awards dinner and pledged he’d race for one day – bound and clipped him like a bonsai tree. It took everyone by surprise when in September 2012 Lewis announced he was leaving McLaren for Mercedes’ works team, and that was the defining pivot in Lewis’s life.

“That was the moment I started to make my own decisions”. Lewis sacked his management and briefly became estranged from his father, Anthony, who Lewis is first to credit with instilling his work ethic. Hamilton took charge of himself, and foresaw Mercedes’ potential. McLaren sunk into irrelevance. Mercedes, on the other hand, provided the car that would take Lewis to his second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh world titles, an unprecedented run of success. The team’s seven consecutive constructors’ titles is the most dominant era in the sport’s 70 year history. But, for me, the most striking thing about Lewis’s rule at the three-pointed star is how he has blossomed as a character. “I started to take down some of the shields that had been put up around me.”

Lewis has discovered who he is. “I’ve been finding out who I’m comfortable being”. He is embracing his background, his future, and the things that are important to him. He is out there living the life of a multimillionaire celebrity and he’s not afraid to show it. In the process he’s building a brand, he’s reaching an audience that would never normally tune into motor racing, and he’s annoying jaded F1 purists who think racing drivers should stick to the Grand Prix Ball, rather than Manhattan’s Met Ball.

His outside interests are principally music, fashion, his bulldog Roscoe and healthy living. He plays the piano, harmonica and guitar and sings, and has a home recording studio. He says he’s recorded hundreds of tracks, sometimes working with Drake’s producers, and last October he teased a few of them on Instagram for his 20.5 million followers. He also rapped on Christina Aguilera’s track Pipe in 2018, credited as XNDA. “I’ve spent the last ten years or more writing and recording, working with some of the most talented and beautiful people. It’s been the most incredible outlet. I haven’t got a project or album, just a bunch of different songs. They’ve helped me get through some of the most difficult times”. It seems inevitable that he’ll release something at some point. Until then, he’ll keep putting the ‘auto’ in auto-tune.

On the fashion side, he’s moved well beyond the front row of Paris couture shows to launch a series of capsule collections with Tommy Hilfiger, a huge global hit which has seen Lewis’s image and creativity on billboards and in stores everywhere from New York to Shanghai. Again, he’s putting the ‘fast’ into fast-fashion. It adds millions in revenue to his offshore bank balance, which already draws US$52 million a year courtesy of Mercedes-Benz. Like all his recent deals, he negotiated this himself.

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 before going home to his dad, because Anthony didn’t care for clothes that were too ‘street’. 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, but that’s how you find your own style”. In F1 terms, if you don’t have a couple of spins in practice you’re not trying hard enough.

Hamilton describes himself as “a late bloomer” creatively, and feels he’s playing catch-up with his peers on the catwalk and in the studio. “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.”

All of which leads back to the contrast between Lewis and how F1 drivers were before he came along. “Ultimately,” says the Englishman, “we shouldn’t feel like we need to shrink ourselves in order that other people feel comfortable.”

He’s breaking the mould in other ways, too. Having switched to a plant-based diet a few years ago, which he says has increased his energy, he’s invested in a chain of vegan burger restaurants in London. Climate change is influencing his life in other ways, too. He’s sold his carbon-spewing private jet and launched his own Extreme E team, a new series composed of electric off-roaders racing across under-threat landscapes to draw attention to the earth’s environmental crisis. He still owns a garage full of turbocharged hypercars, mind you.

Lewis was first exposed to racism at school, aged eight, and on his way up through the karting categories. In 2020, he hit out at his fellow drivers and his own sport for not doing enough to promote equality and end racism. He ensured that a moment’s silence in support of those prejudiced against because of the colour of their skin be held before the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix in July, with most drivers and team personnel taking a knee, was not a one-off affair and was carried on throughout the year at every race. Mercedes repainted their famous Silver Arrow machines black. This was the fire that burned within him in the race to win his seventh title.

 “Want you to know I won’t stop, I won’t let up, I won’t give up on using this platform to shed light on what I believe is right,” Hamilton wrote on Instagram. “We can help make this a better place for our kids and future generations.”

He still feels like an outsider, but he doesn’t want to be. Which is why Lewis has partnered with the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering to launch The Hamilton Commission, which is working to overcome barriers for his black countrymen and women to train, study and work in the motorsports industry.

Aside from Schumacher, the driver to whom Lewis is most frequently compared is Ayrton Senna, who was killed when Lewis was nine and just starting on his journey in go-karts. Having gone on to surpass the Brazilian’s tally of world titles, he’s got to meet other heroes, such as Prince, Nelson Mandela and Muhammed Ali, whose passings moved Hamilton greatly. “It’s like we’re running out of stars,” he notes, “but maybe in 40 years the people coming up now will shine the brightest of all.”

One wonders, when Lewis reaches the end of the road, where he might rank among the all-time greats, not just in Formula One but beyond, because Lewis is now bigger than the sport.

He will leave behind a greater legacy than any other driver, even Senna. “Being the first F1 driver of colour feels like an achievement in itself,” he cites, on top of the record-breaking tally of grand prix wins and seizing his seventh world title at the Portuguese Grand Prix in October. “There’s a lot that excites me for the F1 afterlife, so time will tell,” he says when asked for the umpteenth time when he might retire and let someone else win. The world is, as they say, his oyster, but “promoting diversity is one of the most important jobs I have, and it’s a job for life.”

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