Equalling Michael Schumacher’s seven titles will underline that the British driver is perhaps his sport’s last great champion – but his world is a bigger place than the paddock
A report by Richard Williams for London’s Guardian.
Colour has always mattered in Formula One. Bugattis were blue, Ferraris are red, Mercedes are silver – that kind of thing. But in 2020 Lewis Hamilton brought a different awareness of what colour can mean to a sport whose emphasis on technological progress has always been accompanied by a deep cultural conservatism.
In a year when he was aiming to make history by surpassing Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 91 grand prix wins and matching the same driver’s total of seven world championships, Hamilton could have been forgiven for keeping his head down and concentrating wholly on his work in the cockpit. And indeed this season has shown us all the dimensions of his greatness – overcoming a disintegrating tyre to win at Silverstone, untouchably imperious at Spa, using all his racecraft to prevail at Portimão – as well as exhibiting the occasional flaw that makes him human.
But his world is a bigger place than the Formula One paddock, his preoccupations larger than its imperatives. When Hamilton asked his 19 fellow drivers to emulate the American footballer Colin Kaepernick by taking a knee for the first time at the Austrian Grand Prix in June, he was challenging the ingrained behaviour of a sport that has spent more than a century resolutely steering clear of any hint of political engagement. Until 2020, Formula One had no equivalents of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, sporting figures willing to risk taking a stand against injustice. Instead, grands prix were often held in countries where human rights were not high on the governmental priorities. The sport went where the money was, washing its hands of moral considerations.
Now in his 14th season in Formula One, the one-time boy wonder is firmly established as the greatest driver of his era
Exceptions were rare. When Stirling Moss competed in South Africa in 1959, at the height of the apartheid era, he suggested to his fellow drivers that they should wave at the end of the race only to spectators in the enclosures to which non-whites had been restricted. But that, until 2020, was about the extent of motor racing’s active involvement in political protest. The jailing of activists in Bahrain or the repression of ethno-religious minorities in China were none of its concern.
Hamilton burst that bubble. The most successful driver in the sport, the most visible and well known around the world (and the earner of its highest salary, up to £40m including bonuses), he raised his head above the parapet. Not only did he wear a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, he persuaded his team to support his stand in the most explicit and distinctive of ways – and, to some traditionalists, the most shocking – by changing the colour of their cars.
The Mercedes-Benz team has been in the sport for more than a century, as a dominant force before both world wars and again in the 1950s. For almost 90 of those years, the nickname of their cars – the Silver Arrows – played a vital part in the company’s promotional efforts. Yet here was this proud German team responding to the suggestion of their English driver that they should overturn a symbol of their heritage and, for an entire season, repaint their machines black to acknowledge the importance of anti-racism campaigns around the world.
Neither was this just a question of respraying the bodywork. The uniforms of the drivers, the mechanics and the engineers were remade to match. The statement could hardly have been more public. A team that had once been heavily subsidised by the Germany’s pre-war National Socialist regime, and whose successes had been used as propaganda for Adolf Hitler’s doctrine of genetic purity, were putting their weight behind the beliefs of a mixed-race man from Stevenage who wanted to make a stand against racial injustice.
The courage this required was at least the equal of whatever it takes to risk a life in a 200mph racing car, inviting scorn from those always quick to claim that sport and “politics” should be kept firmly separate. But Hamilton was determined to broaden his protest: in answer to his request, 13 of his 19 fellow drivers knelt alongside him before the start in Austria. Some of them were quick to volunteer their voices, too, in support of the gesture.
Of the six who declined to kneel, a couple made remarks suggesting that they simply didn’t like being told what to do – an immature response whether from a man barely out of his teens or one with more than a decade in the sport, particularly when compared with the footballers of the Premier League, whose unanimity continues to make such a powerful statement. But such was the power of Hamilton’s persuasion that even the dissenters wore the anti-racism T-shirt.
His position is a strong one. At 35, and now in his 14th season in Formula One, the one-time boy wonder is firmly established as the greatest driver of his era. As much as his statistics, the way his victories have been achieved earns him consideration alongside the greatest of all time. His name must now be ranked with those of the acknowledged pre-war giants such as Tazio Nuvolari and Rudolf Caracciola as well as the handful of the pre-eminent heroes of the 70-year-old F1 championship, men whose rarified skills raised them above the level of their fellow title winners: Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Ayrton Senna and, of course, Schumacher.
On the October weekend that Hamilton drew level with the German’s record number of wins, Sir Jackie Stewart – himself a triple champion – remarked that the dominance of the Englishman’s Mercedes made it impossible to place him among that exalted company. “Frankly,” he said, “the car and the engine are now so superior that it’s almost unfair on the rest of the field.”
Stewart was forgetting that Fangio, whom he named as his all-time No 1, won three of his five titles in Alfa Romeo and Mercedes cars with an even more exaggerated performance advantage over the rest of the field. Securing the best available machinery has always been a vital part of the art of being a world champion – and Hamilton has also elevated himself to the select company of men who succeeded in winning the title with more than one team, proving that the machine is not the only factor.
Direct comparisons between eras are virtually impossible. Fangio and his rivals raced along roads bordered by trees, ditches, houses and lamp posts, not on circuits whose limits are delineated by painted lines, with vast asphalt run-off areas. Their cars were built without a thought for safety. They had no engineers talking to them through earpieces, advising them on how to conduct the race, no technical gizmos to help them overtake, no simulators to help them learn the tracks.
And yet, despite it all, the job of being a racing driver remains essentially the same. Sheer speed is a prerequisite, but other qualities are required for ultimate greatness, and to some degree or other Hamilton shares characteristics particular to each member of the select group of F1 superheroes: Fangio’s instinct for being in the right team at the right time, Clark’s ability to dominate an entire race weekend, Senna’s mastery of difficult conditions, Schumacher’s gift for producing maximum effort on demand. He resembles the first two in his disdain for the dangerous, intimidatory or otherwise underhand tactics that clouded the reputation of others.
Given that the annual calendar now consists of almost three times as many races as in the immediate post-war decades, and that improved safety precautions allow the top drivers to enjoy much longer careers, the only meaningful comparison between drivers comes in the percentage of wins from grand prix starts. Fangio is the leader on that count, with 24 wins from 52 races, or 46%. Alberto Ascari is next, with 13 from 33 (39%) before his early death in 1955. Hamilton now lies third, with 35%, ahead of Clark’s 34%, Schumacher’s 29%, Stewart’s 27% and Senna’s 25%. Uniquely, he has won races in every season in which he has competed.
A key to Hamilton’s achievement is the strong personal rapport with his team principal, Toto Wolff, a man of comparably wide horizons and modern outlook. It was Wolff, a businesman and former driver, who sanctioned the change of livery and complete support for Hamilton’s public stand.
The 48-year-old Austrian is at the apex of the group of dedicated people supporting Hamilton on his drive into history. Others include James Allison, the team’s technical director; James Vowles, the chief strategist; Andrew Shovlin, the track engineering director; Peter Bonnington, his race engineer; and Angela Cullen, the New Zealander who is his physiotherapist, performance coach and constant companion at race meetings: “one of the greatest things that’s happened to me in my life”, he said this week, praising her ability not just to soothe his aching limbs but to keep him mentally positive.
Like Schumacher during his Ferrari years, Hamilton is at the centre of a web of relationships based on mutual ambition, respect and trust. And it is easy to forget that when he joined the team in 2013, Mercedes had endured two years of disappointing results since making their comeback as a fully fledged team for the first time since 1955. Persuaded by Niki Lauda and Ross Brawn – Wolff’s predecessor – to take what some saw as the rash decision to leave McLaren, he and the team have evolved together. And unlike Schumacher or Senna, Hamilton does not demand that the team’s other car is driven by a designated No 2 driver. He is secure enough to confront the challenges from Nico Rosberg, to whom he lost the 2016 title, and Valtteri Bottas.
Hamilton discovered early in his life that the colour of his skin affected how people saw him. Few can doubt that a kind of racism – even if unconscious – fuels the degree of abuse he attracts on social media, even though it might be camouflaged as criticism of his diamond earstuds, his braided hair, his tattoos and love of hip-hop, his supposed hypocrisy in announcing his ambition to become personally carbon-neutral while competing in a gas-guzzling sport, his decision to live in Monaco for tax reasons – the sort of choice that went unremarked when made by the likes of Clark, Stewart, Nigel Mansell and Jenson Button – or his acceptance of the requirement to race in Saudi Arabia next year.
Unusually for an F1 driver, his emotional life is often visible through the screen of his public personality and has sometimes affected his driving. In 2011, when the rupture of his close relationship with his father coincided with the end of his relationship with the singer Nicole Scherzinger, his performances were erratic and often disappointing. But maturity has taught him how to cope with those feelings – repairing, for instance, the bond with his father – without appearing to change the person he is.
Fit and fast enough to stay at the top until he turns 40, he continues to love the sport. Racing drivers usually leave nostalgia and sentiment to the fans, but Hamilton showed his romantic instincts at the Nürburgring this summer, when he remarked that he would rather have been racing on the epic 14-mile Nordschleife circuit, whose 170-odd corners provided a stage for the great deeds of Fangio and Moss, than on the bland modern facility that replaced it 40 years ago. There is every reason to imagine that he would have been equally competitive in the era of cork helmets and string-backed gloves.
Other interests may divert him once he has won an eighth title – a strong probability next year, since a freeze in the technical regulations is likely to maintain the status quo on the track. Given the uncertainty over Formula One’s future in a world increasingly turning to other forms of propulsion, he may turn out to be the sport’s last great champion. If so, his career will be as memorable for the resolve with which he followed his moral compass as for the way he steered his car.