Lewis Hamilton: ‘I like proving people wrong’
Lewis Hamilton is a controversial figure – we can agree that. There’s no doubt the four-time Formula One World Champion is a talented driver, nor that he possesses one heck of a determined streak. He was F1’s first (and so far only) black driver, and with 65 Grand Prix wins to his name, he’s also the most successful British racer in the sport’s history.
But at times during his 11-year professional racing career, the Mercedes driver has got himself into trouble with poorly judged or mistimed comments.
His most recent controversy came at last weekend’s British Grand Prix when, after a collision with Ferrari driver Kimi Räikkönen that left him at the back of the pack, he commented on the other team’s ‘interesting tactics’ – implying the incident was intentional. He later withdrew his comments (saying they were ‘dumb’ and offered in the heat of the moment).
Then there was that social post last Christmas that saw him tell his nephew that boys don’t wear princess dresses. It landed him in hot water well beyond the confines of the paddock, and led to another mea culpa and the deletion of all his social posts.
Those who love Hamilton really love him. They say he’s impulsive, instinctive and a by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of racer, a free-wheeling throwback to a time before drivers were drilled by PR wonks to utter empty platitudes and brandspeak. Those on the other side are just as quick to say he’s spoilt, or a peacock, or, based on some of his less PC comments, just a bit thick.
So who is Lewis Hamilton? ‘The words I live my life by are: “and still I rise”,’ he says, speaking at an event hosted by Tommy Hilfiger. ‘When I was younger my dad took me to boxing. I was about eight and I was in the ring with a 12-year-old. And he beat the living daylights out of me. I didn’t want to go back in because I was scared. But my dad was like: “do not ever give up.” So I went back in and I beat this kid. Throughout my racing career I’ve had people say I’d never make it, but I use that as my energy. Even today, I like proving people wrong.’
‘Throughout my racing career I’ve had people say I’d never make it. I like proving people wrong’
It doesn’t take long to understand why he thinks this way. In the wealthy, predominantly white world of motorsport, he’s always been the outsider; the black kid from the Stevenage council estate with something to prove.
‘Getting to Formula One was my greatest hour,’ he says. ‘For me and my family it was our greatest achievement. We were the only black family on the scene. When I was 10, I won my first championship. I was racing against a very wealthy kid, who had all the best stuff, and he said we looked like peasants. It was really cool when we finally broke down the barrier. We drove home that day singing We Are The Champions.’
The pressure to come out on top also comes from his father, who Hamilton says often worked four jobs to fund his son’s racing career. ‘He put absolutely everything into me,’ he says. ‘I don’t know how anyone could be so selfless. He was in the garage fixing my go-kart so I could race the next day. If we didn’t have the parts he was working hard to get the money to pay for it. Even though I’ve won these four titles, I still hold that within – that my dad’s watching and saying: “I didn’t work all those hours for you to squander it.”’
The irony perhaps, is that Hamilton has taken his father’s selflessness and become rather more solipsistic in his own approach. ‘I don’t let anything get in my way,’ he says firmly. ‘I focus on my goals and my ambitions.’
‘I don’t let anything get in my way. Even now, I focus on my goals and my ambitions’
Despite the countless podiums, championships and even an MBE, it’s clear that Hamilton still isn’t done proving people wrong. What else has he got left to prove? Perhaps simply that he’s the best. Not just of his generation, but ever. If he can keep his level up for another three or four seasons and Mercedes can continue to give him a competitive car, Michael Schumacher’s 91 Grand Prix victories are in his sights, as are the German’s seven world championships.
With such driven men, one starts to wonder what happens if and when, and certainly after those objectives have been met. He talks about a future in fashion, starting with his upcoming Tommy Hilfiger collection, which launches in September. There’s also a rumoured career in music – last year he debuted on the Christina Aguilera single ‘Pipe’, under the pseudonym XNDA.
Love him or hate him, and no matter how he’ll be remembered when he calls time on his racing career, Hamilton will always be defined by his extraordinary drive (Schumacher had it, too, of course), drive that matches his prodigious talent. He’s already achieved so much more than that kid from the council estate could ever have dreamed of – and yet you get the feeling he’s far from finished yet.