In the final race of the most dramatic Formula One season ever, Lewis Hamilton failed in his bid to become a record eight-time world champion. Cruising to victory with just five laps left, a crash, and an outrageous decision by the race stewards, led to his chief rival, Max Verstappen – on fresh tyres – overtaking him on the final lap.
Yet in “losing”, Hamilton has proven himself a true champion. This year he became the first Formula One driver to win 100 races. He was a key protagonist of the greatest season the sport has ever known. And, though he remains on seven world titles, no other driver has won more.
But almost more important than all of that is the fact that, in the past 18 months, he has grown into someone who is not just a fantastically successful racing driver, but who has transcended sport and become a major global cultural figure.
The change in Hamilton has been profound. Until May last year he was known beyond racing mainly as someone who promoted his own fashion wear and who hung around with other celebrities. But the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and the global anti-racism movement it sparked, awakened his sense of social justice. As Hamilton told the Guardian: “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’… And so when I did speak out, that was me letting the Black community know, ‘I hear you and I stand with you.’”
He’d once, 10 years ago, made a semi-joking reference to the often harsh way Formula One stewards treated him, saying: “Maybe it’s because I’m Black” – after which he quickly apologised and remained largely silent on race issues. This wasn’t surprising because, as the only Black driver in the history of the sport, and with only a handful of Black faces among the thousands who work for the teams and the Formula One management, he’d have known few people would back him up.
But when the Covid-delayed 2020 season began in Austria just over a month after Floyd’s death, Hamilton took the knee before the race, donning a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, and persuaded the other drivers to wear End Racism T-shirts alongside him – 13 taking the knee, six standing. This pre-race protest has continued into the current season. At one race last year, Hamilton – referring to another Black death at the hands of US police – wore a T-shirt reading: “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.”
After this, the sport’s organisers introduced new rules banning “political or religious” messaging on clothing worn post-race.
Hamilton didn’t only take a symbolic stance: he funded an investigation into the lack of diversity within motorsport, bringing together senior Formula One figures, engineering institutions, MPs and equality campaigners. The subsequent report was published in July and called for change, and action, in all aspects of the sport and in the fields of science and engineering.
Beyond that, Hamilton has spoken out against human rights abuses in the nations that have hosted grands prix. Before the race in Hungary he posted on Instagram: “I want to share my support for those affected by the government’s anti-LGBTQ+ law.” He raced in a rainbow-coloured helmet at the last three grands prix – in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Abu Dhabi – in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.
Though Hamilton faced a media storm this month when it emerged that his Formula One team, Mercedes, had accepted sponsorship from a company that had manufactured some of the combustible insulation used on Grenfell Tower, this was a decision of his team owners in which he played no part. Within days, the deal was terminated.
Beyond his political words and actions, in this season in particular Hamilton has connected at a personal level with many who have watched the unfolding drama. Quite simply, it has been a story in black and white. This year, in cars of equal quality, Hamilton faced a young opponent who has been continuously willing to bend the rules to breaking point in order to win.
If there’s one theme that runs through the season it’s of Verstappen seemingly being prepared to risk a crash to stop Hamilton overtaking him. In San Marino, Spain, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton had to take avoiding action to prevent a collision – though it was only in Saudi Arabia that Verstappen was penalised. How, many ask, would a Black person be treated if they drove the same way as Verstappen?
It’s a situation many Black people can identify with in their own working lives: where the bad behaviour of a white colleague is excused or, worse, seen as a sign of their genius.
Verstappen, who went way off track in Brazil to prevent a Hamilton overtake, received no punishment, to the astonishment of many fellow drivers. And even when he has been penalised, the bad behaviour has continued. On the podium after the Saudi race a week ago, where his driving was penalised and criticised by many for being aggressive, Verstappen stormed off before the traditional celebrations began.
Contrast that with Hamilton’s grace and dignity on Sunday, where he praised Verstappen for his championship win despite the huge controversy. Few could imagine Verstappen doing the same if the title had been wrenched from him in similar circumstances.
It’s behaviour Hamilton has witnessed before. Two years ago his then main rival, Sebastian Vettel, smarting after a penalty denied him victory, swapped round the “first” and “second” placards in front of the drivers’ cars in the paddock. Could Hamilton have ever behaved like this without sparking a huge outcry and incurring the wrath of the authorities?
That’s why Hamilton’s experiences, despite being at such an elite level, connect so much with Black people. We can’t lose our temper; we can’t raise our voices; we can’t walk out in a strop. All we can do is make our talent do the talking, and hope it’s enough.
For Hamilton, in a sport where ability is clearly measurable, that has worked. And after a weekend of barely believable bad fortune, followed by a hugely contentious decision, he’s proved himself to be a true champion.