Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester and Type Media Fellow Gary Younge interviews Lewis Hamilton. “He’s the most successful driver Formula One has ever seen, and its only Black star. Now Lewis Hamilton has a new mission: to change the sport that made him.” For full article, see The Guardian.
Lewis Hamilton rose through the ranks of competitive go-karting, his father, Anthony, told him: “Always do your talking on the track.” Lewis had a lot to talk about. Bullying and racial taunts were a consistent feature of his childhood in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, a new town 30 miles north of London; his dad taught him the best response was to excel at his sport.
The trouble was he didn’t have many people to talk to about what he was going through. Lewis is mixed-race, born to a white mother, Carmen Larbalestier, who raised him until he was 12, when he went to live with his Grenadian-British father, from whom she had separated. “My mum was wonderful,” he tells me. “She was so loving. But she didn’t fully understand the impact of the things I was experiencing at school. The bullying and being picked on. And my dad was quite tough, so I didn’t tell him too much about those experiences. As a kid I remember just staying quiet about it because I didn’t feel anyone really understood. I just kept it to myself.” Sport offered him an outlet. “I did boxing because I needed to channel the pain,” he says. “I did karate because I was being beaten up and I wanted to be able to defend myself.”
I understand where he’s coming from; I too grew up in Stevenage. Hamilton’s mother and I went to the same school – though not at the same time. As close to London as it was, it might as well have been in a different universe. In London the Black experience appeared authentic; in Stevenage it felt synthetic. Race in London was something you read about in the papers; race in Stevenage was something you didn’t even acknowledge. I was 22 before I found my first Black male friend.
Racing was a release for Hamilton, who is now Stevenage’s most famous progeny. “I got in a car and I was the only kid of colour on the track. And I’d be getting pushed around. But then I could always turn their energy against them. I’d out-trick them, outsmart them, outwit them and beat them, and that, for me, was more powerful than any words.” [. . .]
On the track Hamilton talks with the greatest authority. At 36, he is the most accomplished Formula One driver of all time, with 98 grand prix wins, 100 pole positions and 171 podium finishes. The only meaningful record he hasn’t broken is the number of drivers’ championships won, where he is tied with Michael Schumacher at seven. Put bluntly, he’s the best the world has ever seen and is still at the top of his game. [. . .]
“It often felt that maybe I didn’t speak about [race] in the right way, or wasn’t great at explaining it, or maybe educated enough to talk about it,” he says. “Either way, I got a lot of pushback and it seemed like more hassle than it was worth. So I reverted to just doing my talking on the track.”
If he had anything to say, he would do so privately. He remembers returning from the British Cadet Karting Championship in 1995, age 10, singing Queen’s We Are The Champions in the camper van with his dad. “No one saw it. We didn’t do it in people’s faces. We had so much against us.”
Last year, that attitude changed. Before the Austrian Grand Prix, just a month after George Floyd’s murder, Formula One’s only ever Black driver donned a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and took the knee. When some drivers refused to follow his lead, he warned them that “silence is complicit”. In the end, they all wore End Racism T-shirts and 14 drivers joined him in the gesture, while six stood behind.
A week later, after he won the Styrian Grand Prix, also in Austria, he raised his fist in a Black power salute. He also called out his competitors on social media: “I see those of you who are staying silent, some of you the biggest stars yet you stay silent in the midst of injustice,” he wrote. Then he came for Formula One as a whole. “It’s lacking leadership,” he told the New York Times. “It shouldn’t be for me to have to call the teams or call the teams out.” At the same race, Formula One, which controls the cameras broadcasting the event, cut away from the moment some of the drivers took the knee, to instead show Red Bull skydivers dropping from the sky.
It was as though a dam broke. “This wrath of emotions came up and I couldn’t contain myself,” he says, recalling this profoundly emotional moment in a matter-of-fact way. “I was in tears. And this stuff came up that I’d suppressed over all these years. And it was so powerful and sad and also releasing. And I thought, ‘I can’t stay quiet. I need to speak out because there are people experiencing what I’m experiencing, or 10 times worse. Or 100 times worse. And they need me right now.’ And so when I did speak out, that was me letting the Black community know: ‘I hear you and I stand with you.’” [. . .]