There’s more to me than driving
Lewis Hamilton has broken the mould in the F1 world – and he’s not done yet. The world’s fastest driver talks diversity, fashion and creative passions with Adam Hay-Nicholls
He’s the reigning and four-times Formula One champion, and looks favourite to take the 2018 title when the F1 season closes in Abu Dhabi in November. But there’s a lot more to Lewis Hamilton than being the fastest driver in the world. “I’m very much an outsider,” Lewis Hamilton told me as we cruised around London in the back of a pearlescent white Maybach. He’s different from the other drivers in Formula One simply by being an individual. He dresses differently, acts differently, hangs out with his own entourage; he’s certainly the first grand prix driver to have Caribbean heritage, and the only racer who would be considered an A-list celebrity. Other drivers tend to keep a low profile. They race cars and stick to interviews about racing; few have interests away from sport. Hamilton does. “There’s a lot more to me than just driving. Driving, while it’s what I do best, is not a huge part of me. I have a lot more to offer.”
Lewis later revealed to me what he’d had up his sleeve. We’re in Tommy Hilfiger’s studio. Hamilton has designed his own capsule fashion collection and is working on a second. With Hilfiger, he’s undertaking what he calls “an internship” in what will become the next big challenge after he hangs up his helmet.
At 33, he is already the most successful British driver of all time and, with four titles, belongs to a very exclusive club. Only Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher have won more crowns.
“My goal for 2018 is to continue my journey of expression and supporting diversity, and to continue to grow as a driver,” says Lewis. “I think I am at my peak in performance, but how do I take the DNA I have as a driver and do something unexpected and take it further? Title number five is inherently the goal, but having my own fashion line accepted…” He looks across the room to a poster of himself modelling Hilfiger apparel and beams: “Whoa, I hadn’t seen that one yet!”
I’ve watched Lewis’s personality change up close for over a decade, and have been fascinated to see his lust for life bloom. Lewis felt unable to truly express himself in motor racing until he joined Mercedes-AMG in 2013 and began managing his own career. He still feels like an outsider in his own sport, one that is traditionally white and privileged. His dad, Anthony, worked four jobs to finance Lewis’s racing dreams. The feeling that they didn’t belong made the pair all the more determined to win.
Lewis’s 88-year-old paternal grandfather, Davidson, lives in a modest abode in Grenada. Lewis is extremely proud of his Caribbean roots, and visits whenever his jet-setting allows. He was raised on a working-class street in Stevenage, a suburb 25 miles north of London. His mother, Carmen, and his dad split when he was two, and he was raised by Anthony and his new wife, Linda. They re-mortgaged their home to pay for the pre-teen Lewis’s karting, something Anthony initiated in the hope it would help them bond. Anthony spurred Lewis’s ambition, but Carmen supported with care and encouragement. Lewis still speaks to his mum every day.
Two things marked out Lewis when he made his F1 debut with McLaren in 2007. Importantly, he was the first F1 driver of colour. Second, we’d been following his rise for a decade, after he was signed by McLaren aged 12. He was groomed to be a superstar pilot from that moment, with the media taking a strong interest from the off.
It must have been like growing up on The Truman Show.
“It was a bit like that,” says Lewis.
“I was groomed and restricted, and felt that was the only space I was allowed to be in.” He was surrounded by PR handlers and walking a press tightrope in a world where people build you up then knock you down. He had to wear what he was told to wear, keep to the key messages, “look like this and behave like that”. Ultimately, he had to be who McLaren boss Ron Dennis – the man a ten-year-old Lewis first approached at an awards dinner and pledged he’d race for one day – wanted him to be. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but it also restricted his personal development.
“It was all about racing,” says Lewis. “I was generally quite shy as a kid.” So, it took everyone by surprise when, in September 2012, Lewis announced he was leaving McLaren for Mercedes. “It was only then that I started to make my own decisions in life.” This proved to be an inspired move. McLaren sunk into irrelevance. Mercedes, on the other hand, provided the car that would take Lewis to his second, third and fourth world titles.
Taking complete control of his life, Lewis negotiated a £100 million pay packet. He also switched his lonely home in Switzerland for a glitzier lifestyle in Monaco, got himself a customised metallic red Challenger jet, bought an estate in Colorado filled with high-octane toys, and threw himself headlong into a life that befits a young man worth over £160 million. That is to say, he started schmoozing with the Kardashians. He’s been romantically linked to a string of high-profile women, from supermodel Winnie Harlow to Rihanna.
The creative drive
This doesn’t sit well with the conservative and earnest types within F1. They want to see their employees at the Grand Prix Ball, not the Met Ball. Drivers, Lewis feels, are put in a box; attempts to crawl out are frowned upon: “We shouldn’t feel like we need to shrink ourselves in order that other people feel comfortable.” His daring dress sense has garnered criticism, but he sees fashion as key to self-expression. “It’s taken a long time to find my own direction. I’ve made lots of mistakes, but that’s how you find your own style. Fashion is a personal thing. I don’t care what anyone else thinks.”
Normally, professional drivers are taught to be practical rather than imaginative in their outlook. Lewis describes his relationship with Tommy Hilfiger as being not dissimilar to the one he has with Mercedes-AMG, but the approach is rather different. “I love to observe people who burst the bubble and find new ways of doing things. Seeing the engineers at work at the [Mercedes] factory is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. These people went to Harvard and Cambridge. I topped out at John Henry Newman School, Stevenage. So when I came into F1 I had to learn a new language in order to explain what I was experiencing on the track in a technical way. What I bring is practicality to people who specialise in numbers. Which is why indulging in creativity feels like freedom to me.”
Hamilton describes himself as “a late bloomer” creatively, and feels he’s playing catch-up. “I was so focused on racing as a kid that [peripheral] stuff that I wanted to do went by the wayside. As a result, I now meet 16-year-old kids who are so much further along with their creative passions than I was at their age. The interests that I had then have now come back, which is a bit of a surprise, but it’s great, I love it. Some ways you grow up, and others you don’t. I like to find that balance.”
Fast into the future
Lewis’s current contract with Mercedes comes to an end in December and, while the three-pointed-star is gagging to sign him for another three years, there are hold-ups; Lewis’s reported nine-figure demands are doubtless among them, and his wish for flexibility perhaps another. He easily has another three seasons’ worth of world title-fighting ability, but will he still have the motivation and commitment necessary when there are other appealing challenges far away from the cockpit? I sense Lewis has actively started to turn a page. I would be surprised if he’s not on the grid next year, but the chequered flag will fall on his F1 chapter sooner rather than later.
He will leave a bigger legacy than any driver since Ayrton Senna. “Being the first F1 driver of colour feels like an achievement in itself,” he cites. “It’s pretty cool to join the likes of Tiger and Serena and knock down barriers. Now we’re seeing black and Asian drivers coming into the sport and that makes me so proud, knowing I helped break the mould. Promoting diversity is one of the most important jobs I have, and it’s a job for life.”
Having F1 as a platform, with its 300 million global viewers, plus the combined 16 million followers he has across his social media accounts, is a strong place to start. And this year’s Tommy Hilfiger campaign and his future fashion endeavours will take Lewis to a whole new level.
“Fashion is like racing,” he reveals, “it never sleeps. It’s always evolving, reinventing, innovating, moving forward so fast.” That’s the very definition of the man himself.
Motorsport in Barbados
Grenada might be the Caribbean nation with the closest connection to Formula One’s world champion, but Barbados is the region’s motorsport mecca – and Lewis Hamilton often visits to relax, party and meet his fans.
The Barbados Festival of Speed, held at the Bushy Park circuit, draws petrolheads from all over the world to watch F1 cars as well as bangers and everything in between. Hamilton and Jenson Button have both driven here in the past; the event took a sabbatical in 2018 but hopes to be back in 2019.
Hit TV shows Top Gear and The Grand Tour have both filmed on Barbados in recent years. Bushy Park also hosted the 2014 Race of Champions, a battle of famous drivers from various disciplines racing single-seaters, sports and rally cars head-to-head on special stages. The 2014 champions were ex-F1 driver David Coulthard, nine-times Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen and double-WRC champ Petter Solberg.
Rallying is close to Barbadian hearts. Enduring for 30 years, the Rally Barbados attracts the best drivers from across the Caribbean and further afield. Jamaica’s Jeffrey Panton took his fourth consecutive RB win in June in his Ford Focus WRC06.