Formula One legend Lewis Hamilton has evolved from understated to outspoken
Hamilton denounced Florida’s ban on teaching sexual education and gender identity
Sir Lewis Hamilton goes as full throttle on the accelerator in life as he does whenever he races on the track. The greatest Formula One driver of all time provided the latest example of that during the opening news conference for this weekend’s Miami Grand Prix when he was asked about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ quest to expand a law which bars public schools from teaching about sexual education and gender identity.
Hamilton didn’t hold back on the Sunshine State’s attack on the LGBTQIA+ community’s rights.
“It’s not good at all,” he said during the media availability session to the BBC to begin the race weekend. “I stand by those within the community here. I hope they continue to stand firm and push back. I’ll have the rainbow on my helmet. It’s no different to when we were in Saudi [Arabia].”
It is this unwavering candor that represents the outspoken athlete and prominent global force that Hamilton has become. The transformation of Hamilton — from an understated, generational racing prodigy to outspoken global superstar — is one of the most incredible evolutions in world sports.
It seemed Hamilton was destined to be F1’s equivalent of golfer Tiger Woods. Like Earl Woods did for his son, Anthony Hamilton coached, nurtured and supported his through a wave of anti-Black racism in a racing world filled with whiteness during Lewis’ childhood. And in the beginning of his F1 career, when in 2007 he became the first (and still only) Black driver in the elite series of auto racing, it seemed Hamilton would only mention race if he was asked about it like the legendary golfer. It wouldn’t have been surprising, especially in Britain, if Hamilton had his own version of Woods’ interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey in downplaying his Blackness.
With the niche fan nature of a motorsports world devoid of any notable non-white figures historically, the Tewin, England, native had no opportunities or outlets to address or discuss the systematic racism of the racing industry and the blatant racism he encountered when he began his storied career.
The contention Hamilton had with his then-world champion McLaren teammate, the cantankerous Fernando Alonso of Spain, as he produced the greatest rookie season 16 years ago had all the inklings in racism that should have elicited global headlines. At that time F1’s was not well known in the United States, social media was the still in its early days and the sport had no semblance of diverse fan or media culture, so it ended up as a lightly discussed footnote.
In Hamilton’s historic rookie season, Alonso was furious that he was somehow upstaged by a special first-year driver. It translated later in the season to racist Spanish fans heckling Hamilton at the Chinese Grand Prix, hoping the Black Brit wouldn’t become the first driver in history to win the F1 crown in a debut season. Hamilton would go on to finish ahead of his teammate in the standings, but agonizingly missed out on the title by just one point to Finland’s Kimi Raikkonen.
The racism Hamilton was subjected to in his rookie campaign would only continue. More anti-Black Spanish supporters wore black face paint and black wigs to taunt him during preseason testing in Barcelona the following year in 2008. It was accompanied by another disgraceful moment when the Spanish branch of the New York ad agency TBWA created a website dedicated to “burst Hamilton’s tires” to prevent him from becoming champion at the season finale race in Brazil. Those hateful actions failed miserably, as Hamilton became the youngest driver to win the F1 trophy.
Hamilton was gradually forced to address the different treatment he received compared with his white counterparts from the F1 community. He lashed out at the racing stewards repeatedly calling him to explain himself more times than anyone else in 2011. He’s experienced the double standards that white F1 journalists held him to compared with white counterparts. Hamilton was met with negative reception a decade ago when he decided to leave the storied McLaren team for an upstart, struggling Mercedes squad before the 2013 season. In what has turned out to be the biggest move of any driver in F1 history, Hamilton showed how to defy unfair consternation directed at him.
That awful outside energy still didn’t make Hamilton become what he is today, as there remained a reluctance inside of him to fully rock the F1 establishment beyond finishing atop podiums as his dominance with Mercedes began. In a 2016 interview with Complex, he notably said that it was too risky to speak out on issues as the only Black face around. All of the nasty internet comments and double standards didn’t transform Hamilton into a Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell or Muhammad Ali of F1. Hamilton stacked title after title without wanting to be a revolutionary force.
But that all changed dramatically in 2020.
The police killing of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matters protests that followed provoked a fury and conviction out of Hamilton to defend Blackness like he had never before.
At risk of being reprimanded by F1, Hamilton began kneeling before every race during the first season restricted by the coronavirus pandemic while being the only driver wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt that also read “End Racism.” He vocally advocated for justice for Breonna Taylor’s murder, wearing an “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” shirt, also against F1’s guidelines for clothing post-race and on the podium. His words angered racing icons Mario Andretti and Sir Jackie Stewart, who disgraced their iconic status in racing by revealing they couldn’t handle Hamilton’s truth.
An awakening truly descended on Hamilton in the last three years. He has openly defied F1’s ridiculous rule of barring their drivers from wearing jewelry. He created The Hamilton Commission with the Royal Academy of Engineering during that fateful June 2020 with the goal of involving more Black people in motorsports. He vowed to never be quiet about the racism in the United Kingdom. He proudly brought Black designers with him to the Met Gala in 2021. Hamilton’s evolution of personality is as stark as any I have witnessed in sports or pop culture.
Winning races and titles is how the seven-time champion still believes he can create the biggest impact. Hamilton holds the record for most Grand Prix wins (103) and is the only driver in the sport’s 73-year history with more than 100 victories. Hamilton is desperate to break his tie with Michael Schumacher for most F1 world championships, still scarred the controversial finish at the 2021 finale in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, that saw Max Verstappen take the crown from him in the last laps.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team is far removed from the reign it once had. The 25-year-old Verstappen’s Red Bull Racing PBPT team has gone from strength to strength, building on his 2021 title by blowing away the field in 2022. He stands as the biggest challenge to Hamilton’s records like the Englishman was to Schumacher’s status as greatest of all time.
The combination of Verstappen and his teammate Perez has given Red Bull an ominous one-two punch well ahead of the rest of the paddock. Red Bull has won all four races this season, with Hamilton’s best finish only a runner-up spot to Verstappen in Australia. Add a revitalized Ferrari team and an energized Aston Martin group, and Hamilton’s Mercedes have started 2023 as the fourth-best car on the grid.
After his first winless season in F1 last year, Hamilton has been frustrated by his team’s inability to give him a car that can consistently compete with Verstappen. His kind, non-boisterous personality should never be mistaken as belonging to someone who isn’t as intense a competitor as the sport has ever seen. With him in his final year of his current contract with Mercedes and uber-talented young teammate George Russell challenging him as the group’s No. 1 driver, who knows if this is the last year in the sport for Sir Lewis.
But regardless of whether Hamilton wins another world championship or race, no one in F1 history can rival his legacy and impact. He has ushered in a new audience of fans and galvanized so many by insisting improvement for Black people, women and other minority drivers in the sport. The greatest driver in F1 history has become greater outside of it, and whether it is F1’s elite or DeSantis drawing his ire, he will win for not only himself, but the betterment of everyone else.