Lewis Hamilton glances straight down the barrel of the camera. Then he returns his gaze to the interviewer. “In the past years, I’ve had racist names being called to me,” he says. “The first time it happened, I felt really upset. I felt like I needed to get revenge. But lately, I’ve just ignored them. I get them back on the track.”
The year is 1997. Hamilton is being featured in a BBC Two documentary called Black Britain. He is 12 years old. And you realise now, watching the footage back almost a quarter of a century later, that from the very first moment he stepped on to a racetrack he was aware of the scorching glares and fierce whispers that he still receives today. That stigma of difference, of aloneness, of unbelonging. For Hamilton, racing was never just racing, but its own quiet act of defiance. By the same token, winning could never merely be winning. It would be his vengeance on a sport, and a system, that always expected him to know his place.
And so he kept winning. On 25 October Hamilton finally passed Michael Schumacher’s mark of 91 Formula One wins, a record many assumed would stand for decades. He is a near-certainty to draw level with Schumacher by winning his seventh world championship in the coming weeks.
Yet for a serial winner, record-breaker and trailblazer – still the only black driver ever to have raced in the 70-year history of the sport – Hamilton remains a polarising figure in this country. Some despise him; some are merely apathetic. Some grumble that he merely drives the fastest car, or that his enduring excellence somehow embodies the joylessness of F1, a sport that feels more technocratic and less human with every passing year. Others complain about his many extracurricular interests, from fashion design to his budding music career. Others quibble with his environmental stances, his veganism, his vocal support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Others that he lives in the tax haven of Monaco and takes more than 100 flights a year. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to think of a sportsperson as successful as Hamilton who inspires so little affection and so much ridicule.
The hatred of Hamilton is a curiously cross-cultural phenomenon. It crosses political and demographic boundaries, lives both in the mainstream media and the darker recesses of the internet, and unites car-haters and car-lovers alike. The new series of Spitting Image lampoons him as a “Formula One driver, crusader against injustice and VAT-dodger”. Meanwhile, a Facebook group called Anti Lewis Hamilton has almost 9,000 followers. Even within F1 – a sport that he has single-handedly rescued from total irrelevance – there is a broad reluctance to give him his due. “It doesn’t mean anything to me, really,” the young British driver Lando Norris said of Hamilton’s record (a comment for which he later apologised). “He’s in a car which should win every race.”
In a sense, trying to explain the antipathy towards Hamilton is a little like trying to rationalise the irrational. Reasons, logic, justification: this is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of dislike, which is visceral, emotional and often grounded in the most primal of instincts. “He was one of the racing crowd before, and now he’s whatever you call those superstars,” the late Stirling Moss said of Hamilton in 2014. “And that’s not really the way we English go. We’re more reserved.”
This idea of transgressing norms, be they cultural or political, has always pursued Hamilton. Often it will be coded in the same language used to belittle many prominent black achievers: “bling”, “attitude”, “lifestyle”, “woke”. Jenson Button, Hamilton’s team-mate at McLaren from 2010 to 2012, famously described him as “a bit weird”.
Clearly, not all criticism of Hamilton is motivated by racist intent. But very often it springs from the same basic impulse, and employs many of the same tropes: the other, the non-normative, the heterodox. Britain’s other F1 world champions – Button, Nigel Mansell, Jim Clark, Damon Hill, Jackie Stewart, James Hunt – were almost uniformly loved (and many of them also lived in tax exile). Hamilton, meanwhile, is uniformly loathed. What might explain the difference?
Happily, the older he gets, the more indifferent Hamilton seems to all this; perhaps unafraid is a better word. Early in his career, he cultivated a wholesome, inoffensive persona for himself, a pre-emptive defence mechanism against the scrutiny and abuse he would attract. Over time, however, he has increasingly embraced his complexities, voiced his opinions, used his platform regardless of the consequences. He writes Instagram posts about his mental health struggles. He rages at fellow drivers for their political apathy. And he supports his causes with actions. In July he established the Hamilton Commission, a collaboration with the Royal Academy of Engineering to increase the level of black participation in an overwhelmingly white sport.
Somewhere along the line, Hamilton realised he didn’t need us to like him. As a society, perhaps we’ve never really forgiven him for that. Hamilton upends so many of the expectations we place on our sporting heroes: that they remain essentially uncomplicated, diffident, bound by our approval. After winning his 93rd Grand Prix in Italy on 1 November, Hamilton said that he was considering stepping away from F1. You wonder if it is because the sport holds few remaining frontiers for him. But you wonder, too, if it is because he grasps that winning motor races was only ever going to get him so far. It’s a big world out there, after all, and his next act of vengeance may just require him to step out of the car.
This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos