The greats don’t leave their sport the way they found it. Lewis Hamilton’s time on the Formula 1 throne has raised the bar for all who challenged him and all who will follow, and F1 will forever remember Hamilton as one of the greatest in its history.
But his influence will stretch beyond the world that made him the superstar he is.
Near the very end of an intense and unusual year, Hamilton sits down for a lengthy video call with four media outlets including The Race.
It is the Thursday before the Bahrain Grand Prix and nobody knows the record-breaking, change-making narrative of his season is days away from an unexpected twist. On Monday, he will test positive for COVID-19, miss the following weekend’s race, and just about return for the season finale with a viral hangover in tow.
But until then, Hamilton is in top form on-track and off it. He’s preparing for what will become his final victory of the year.
And for almost 40 minutes The Race is part of a limited audience with the world champion at his engaging best, speaking openly, sincerely, and passionately – but at no point is the conversation about his driving.
In a year that has transformed people’s lives for the wrong reasons, a global health crisis has been accompanied by a revival of prominent civil rights campaigning.
For activists who relentlessly push anti-racism or anti-discrimination causes, the campaigning never ceased. But in early 2020 it was reawakened in the public consciousness and Hamilton threw himself into the cause, dragging F1 with him.
He has not relented since. And with a Michael Schumacher-equalling seventh world championship secured, Hamilton says: “This last one probably feels the most impactful.”
Each of Hamilton’s successes has been unique in some way, defined by the emotions, the challenges, the context that came with them. His first world title came 12 months after the “trauma of losing on a global scale was a big, big shock” at the end of the controversial 2007 season. His first Mercedes championship in 2014 ended a period in the wilderness including “all the mistakes” he’d eventually make at McLaren. And he says it was “insane” one year later to join his hero Ayrton Senna in being a three-time world champion.
“There have been multiple humbling experiences this year and I do remember the feeling of not just wanting to be a sportsman” :: Lewis Hamilton
As the wins and titles have mounted, the value has never lessened. But in 2020 it was elevated.
“Those previous years have been self-driven, family-driven, ‘our journey’-driven, ‘our struggle’-driven,” says Hamilton. “And then this year has been a struggle for others.
“That’s really helped propel me to a level I didn’t know I’d get to. That new source of power, fighting for something that is far greater than me and us, has really given this year a meaning that I couldn’t ever have imagined.
“I still try to grasp it all because it’s really huge for me personally. And the reception I received this year was just really, really overwhelming. When I speak about overwhelming experiences, this has been the most overwhelming year in so many ways.”
Many believe Hamilton’s journey from wonderkid to F1’s greatest is now complete. Others argue he can never hold that unofficial title. Hamilton is grateful for the support of those who fall into the first category but it has become increasingly clear in recent years that being considered the greatest of all time, much like a win record or a title record, is not something that motivates him.
The further Hamilton has got into his career the more his focus has turned to matters beyond simply driving. This year that exploded onto a new level.
It has been of such greater substance than simply firing off a few mouthy tweets, or sharing links on Instagram. Yes, his enormous social media reach is a powerful weapon, and amplifying messages of anti-discrimination, of greater equality and diversity, is itself a very important role to play.
But Hamilton has supported this with action, too. In addition to his conversations with Mercedes, with F1, with the FIA, to try to encourage the white male-domination world of motor racing to pursue greater diversity, he has founded the Hamilton Commission in a bid to unearth the root causes of the barriers preventing more people from black families, and other ethnicities, from getting involved.
Not for nothing was Hamilton named in November as GQ magazine’s ‘Game Changer of the Year’. It was a fitting honour for someone who has become F1’s benchmark on-track and off it, and a description that represents his shift from being more than just a sportsman.
“I don’t know how to describe myself,” he says. “There have been multiple humbling experiences this year and I do remember the feeling of not just wanting to be a sportsman.
“The way sportsmen and women are perceived as just doing that one thing… I was wondering, all this winning, what does it really mean if you can’t have an impact? If you can’t help change things for the positive?
“I do all these other things now and it’s almost like in some senses while this [racing] is my primary job and primary focus, when I am out doing those things it’s almost like this is my side job – ‘I also race and drive pretty well!’
“Instead of GQ saying ‘Sportsman of the Year’, which is no change from before, to be ‘Game Changer’, to be received and recognised in another genre and another space, that for me is really, really special.
“We all have values and most of us I think have good intentions and want to do something positive, and want to have some sort of impact. Whether it’s for your kids, whether it’s for your family, whether it’s for the people that you work with, whatever it may be.
“To have been received and welcomed on a global scale from people like GQ, I’m really, really grateful.
“I don’t have a title for myself, and I am not going to give myself a title. But what I can say is that I am not yet at my full potential and there is more to do. I’m trying to learn as much as I can, and there’s a lot more to do.”
Hamilton’s harshest critics have ridiculed him, claiming he joined the anti-racism bandwagon because of its global profile this year – virtue signalling, they claim – but he has been moving towards this kind of social media activism more and more, for quite some time.
His conversion to veganism was significant in his off-track evolution as it reflected a personal shift in becoming “more conscious about my surroundings”. And with that Hamilton has also grown empowered to share what he represents, and then to amplify that message as much as possible.
“This is a time to be more outspoken, this is a time to push for change” :: Lewis Hamilton
From his plant-based diet to raising awareness of animal cruelty and environmental challenges around the world, Hamilton’s social media voice became one increasingly pushing for change, for education, for a better world. He has made a conscious effort to be more aware of the realities outside the F1 bubble and anti-racism and anti-discrimination campaigns have formed part of that.
So, it was only natural that when it became a bigger talking point – almost exactly as Hamilton’s full-time focus was suspended when the F1 season went on a three-month hiatus – Hamilton’s participation in the debate rapidly escalated. He readily admits that 2020 “definitely brought things more to the surface”. But it would be unfair to say he did not care about any of this before.
“This has probably been one of the biggest years of growth for me, because I have had more time,” he says. “In the past you’ve gone from one thing to the next, you are always trying to keep up but you are always behind – on emails, on conversations, documentaries, whatever it may be. So the learning process is just a lot different.
“This year I have had time to really spend time on learning, on trying to educate myself the best I can. Who would have thought that at 35 years old that I would learn a lot more than perhaps I have in the past 10 years?
“We’ve gone to places and traveled around the world, and I definitely recognise that as a youngster I was less conscious of what’s happening in the world. I wasn’t watching the news as much, I wasn’t up-to-date with things that are happening.
“It’s been such a difficult year for so many people, and there’s so many negatives that have happened to people – losing jobs, businesses shutting down and people becoming homeless, and there’s so much struggle that’s happened. But then I like to try to look at things always as glass half-full, and there’s been so many positives that I hope we will be able to take into 2021. And part of that has been this learning process.
“I’ve felt that taking that step and really using my voice…There are so many people out there that have just stayed silent. I’m sure there’s moments in you guys’ lives that maybe you’ve kept your mouth shut just for a moment because you know that there’s a bigger fight to fight further along, or something was at risk.
“And I think there’s people out there, particularly kids, who will see so many who have been outspoken on certain issues this year, that this is a time to be more outspoken, this is a time to push for change.”
In such a templated world as F1 it can be jarring or confusing to see Hamilton do anything but ‘stay in his lane’, let alone talking of tapping into a new well of energy or prioritising off-track goals. There’s little doubt some will believe this is a façade, a manifestation of his ego or arrogance. But he leaves an unmistakably sincere impression when he speaks about it in such detail.
Hamilton says he has never been driven to be a “star” and he doesn’t see himself as a “celebrity”. But he knows how lucky he is to have “had everything I’ve ever wanted”. And using that to make a difference to those without privilege will be a cornerstone of his final chapter in F1.
“There was a moment that I thought that when I leave, I want to leave on top and that will be it,” he says.
“But what I’ve realised, particularly this year, is I have a responsibility to the F1 community for what it has helped me create, to push for that change.
“If I don’t push forwards and make sure that this Hamilton Commission actually delivers, this sport is not going to be more diverse in the next five to 10 years. So I have got to stay on top of it, I’ve got to be engaged, I‘ve got to continue to keep people on their toes.
“While perhaps some people would perhaps prefer that I didn’t speak out in public and push for certain things, I think that’s my responsibility. And getting this sport to be more diverse in the future, I 100% believe I could be a part of that change.
“Keeping these conversations going is holding people accountable, and I am not afraid of doing that, as you’ve seen. But if I don’t do it, who is? Of course, it’s not solely my responsibility. It’s working with people and that’s why I am super grateful to see a lot of these drivers taking the knee next to me and standing alongside me.”
The likes of Sebastian Vettel – “our relationship’s come a long way” – or Daniel Ricciardo becoming enthusiastic, proactive participants in the conversation Hamilton started in F1 circles is testimony to the value of Hamilton’s constant encouragement. He believes there has been an “awakening this year, to understand what the issues are around us and the need to do more”, and is humbled that some of the championship’s biggest names have thrown their weight behind him.
The Sakhir Grand Prix is a good example. Only in Hamilton’s COVID-19-enforced absence did an F1 weekend pass without the image of a raised black fist or a special T-shirt being gazed on by millions worldwide.
But even then, F1’s ‘End Racism’ demonstration took place, a dozen drivers ‘took the knee’, and Mercedes’ black livery – introduced as a powerful anti-racism symbol before the start of the season in July – remained on the car. Hamilton was not on-site, but his influence was clear to see. None of that would have happened at this race, or at any point in 2020, without him.
Critics have accused him of bullying other drivers, his team, his championship into that kind of action. Hamilton has challenged the status quo, he’s challenged others not to remain silent. But he has always tried to toe the line, to avoid becoming outright adversarial, and only wanted to encourage them to take up the cause.
“I can’t change everything and I’m only one person,” he says. “It’s gonna take all of us uniting to make things happen.
“It’s trying to find the best way. It’s creating allies, it’s not creating enemies. I think this year I’ve learned a lot in terms of how to apply my voice, whether at the beginning it was maybe a little bit publicly, and then understanding more efficient ways of working in the background to really get further along.
“But it can’t all be just me. It’s going to take even yourselves [F1’s media], making sure that it’s not all just sport that you’re commenting on. It’s other things that are also really important.
“When I stop this, I’m not fazed by retiring” :: Lewis Hamilton
“That has been done this year and I think that’s why also some of the things have been received the way they have. I see that as a positive.”
Of course, what matters most to many in F1, either in the paddock or watching as fans, is what Hamilton does as a driver. But for as long as Hamilton remains in F1, he will not be ‘just a driver’ anymore. And when he retires he will not simply be ‘just an ex-driver’ either.
Hamilton has pondered his shelf life as F1’s on-track benchmark. His primary responsibility as a driver is to continue to lead Mercedes in the best way he can. However, this will now go hand-in-hand with his wider objectives. The better he does on-track the bigger a platform he gives himself to discuss off-track matters.
So there seems as much chance of Hamilton the unexpected statesman relenting in his ambition as there is Hamilton the driver suddenly dropping the ball.
“I won’t allow my performance level to drop,” he pledges. “I’ve got to figure out how I can continue to incrementally improve and that’s not easy at all.
“I think the great thing that Formula 1 has given me, and this platform has given me, is I pretty much can do anything I want moving forwards. But what’s been shown this year and what you see is I do really care about pushing for change for people.
“If I can really utilise my voice and my time here to have a really positive impact, how big or small that positive impact is depends how much I work and how hard I go at it, whilst being able to do what I do racing.
“When I stop this, I’m not fazed by retiring. I speak to a lot of people and they say ‘You’re a long time retired’ and I’m aware of that. I don’t want to do it too early and I don’t want to do it too late that you’re on a bad curve and you’re going downhill. I don’t want that to happen.
“I just want to be challenged [after F1]. I’m always going to be challenging myself. There’s going to be some sort of business that I’m involved in, utilising the voice that I have.
“Whether it’s speaking out publicly or working in the background with organisations to really move the needle in a big way and not just a little step, I have the opportunity to do some really positive things for people.”
In doing so, Hamilton is determined to ensure he leaves F1 in a fundamentally different way to how he found it. That, after all, is what the greats do.