In the last scene of season three of Netflix’s fly-on-wall series Formula 1: The Drive to Survive, we see a news reporter interviewing a young Lewis Hamilton. “As Lewis began to win, the fact that he was the only black face on the grid became an issue,” says the reporter.
Hamilton is not talking about all the success he is having but instead about the racist abuse he has experienced while karting. “In the past years, I’ve had racist names called to me but lately anybody that’s said anything to me I just ignore them,” says a young Lewis.
It cuts to his dad, Anthony. “We don’t get involved with people who have problems about whether we win or what colour we are,” he says. “We go out on our track and do our best.”
The footage is heartbreaking. Here’s a young boy doing what he loves, with a dream to get to Formula 1 and maybe one day be world champion, but while having to face discrimination and be grilled about it. No ‘How are you finding your karting?’ questions, just ‘What’s it like to be abused for the colour of your skin?’
“I was just eight years old,” says a 36-year-old Hamilton reflecting on the report, now talking as a seven-time Formula 1 world champion. “For someone to look down at a young eight-year-old and tell them they’re not going to achieve anything in life, they must be in a really bad place.
In May last year, 46-year-old black American George Floyd was murdered by a white policeman in Minnesota. The shocking footage was seen by the world and ushered in a global anti-racism movement – one of the most vocal leaders of which was Lewis Hamilton.
“What happened with George brought up a lot of emotion,” Hamilton tells the Netflix show. “All of a sudden, these things that had been suppressed for my lifetime bubbled to the surface. I can no longer stay quiet.
“Every black kid in the world will at some stage experience racism. And it’s just a fact. When people call you names and the N-word is thrown around, when you’re told to go back to your own country when you’re in your country… There are literally millions and millions of people who will have experienced much, much worse [than me], and that needs to change.”
Fuelled by his outrage at what had happened to Floyd, a new Lewis Hamilton lined up on the grid for the delayed first round of the 2020 season in Austria in July. The same driven race winner was still there, one that would fire Hamilton to ever-greater success, but with it he became Lewis Hamilton the activist, the anti-racism campaigner and one of the de-facto leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Hamilton led other drivers in taking the knee at the start of races, held his Formula 1 leaders and peers to account with very public statements about racism in the sport and made a stand by, for example, wearing an ‘Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’ T-shirt on the podium in Mugello.
Committing to change
Last year, Lewis Hamilton teamed up with the Royal Academy of Engineering to launch the Hamilton Commission, a “stand-alone piece of research that will aim to improve the representation of black people in UK motorsport”. He was first inspired to do so at the end of 2019 while reflecting on the Mercedes-AMG team photo, in which he saw so few people of colour – something that was mirrored throughout motorsport.
“The Hamilton Commission is something I’m really passionate about and really proud about where we’ve got to,” says Hamilton. “The Royal Academy of Engineering in London has been doing an amazing job, fully hands-on with a really amazing commission of people who are so experienced: people in government, people in black communities.
“We’re nearing the end of the research and I truly believe the recommendations can drive change. The commission has been in an educational phase so far, so it’s not had an impact yet on young people trying to get into the sport. But that’s the goal and I won’t rest until it starts to deliver results. We should have the recommendations in the next couple of months and I’m super-excited about that.”
In 2000, a 15-year-old Lewis Hamilton accepted an invitation to take part in the Autocar Sideways Challenge. Does he remember it? “I do, yes,” Hamilton says without hesitation. “The M3, right? The M3 coupé? I have a really bad memory but I do remember that day. I remember getting in with a rally driver – I can’t remember his name but it was really special to see his control of his car. I’m so competitive and I remember being so frustrated that at the time I couldn’t hold the car sideways around the course. But it was a really amazing experience.”
What does a seven-time Formula 1 champion drive to the shops? “I still have a small collection of cars,” says Hamilton. “To be honest, I haven’t driven any of them for a long time. I was in Los Angeles just recently and have a Mercedes-AMG GT there, but I’m trying to move everything in my life to being sustainable and kinder to the earth. When I’m picked up by car, I try to make sure Mercedes makes it an EQC. At home in Monaco, I use an EQC and a Smart Brabus, even though I have a McLaren and a Pagani Zonda there. They haven’t moved in over a year and they’re just collecting dust.
“I still love older cars like E-Type Jags and have always dreamed of having a [Ferrari] F40, but we’re moving in a direction of the world being more sustainable.”