There’s something different about Lewis Hamilton. It’s hard to put your finger on it. Yes, he absolutely screams around the track, pushing himself and his Mercedes Formula One car to the upper limits of possibility much like Brazil’s Aryton Senna did during the 90s, one of Hamilton’s personal racing heroes. Yes, he enjoys life off the track with a playboy-esque joie de vivre that is reminiscent of James Hunt, another British racing driver who was notorious for his fondness for cigarettes, booze and women. And yes, he seems to rack up impressive race wins, constant pole positions and countless broken records in the same vain as Germany’s Michael Schumacher. But despite all the ways that he is like other Formula One drivers, past or present, Lewis Hamilton is very different kind of champion. There’s just something different about him.
Maybe it has something to do with his history. At the risk of sounding cliché, Hamilton truly does seem born to race cars. His taste for speed was first showcased in 1992, when a seven-year-old Hamilton took part in (and won) a remote controlled car race on BBC’s popular children’s programme, Blue Peter. The following year, with the enthusiastic support of his father, Hamilton began karting at the Rye House Kart Circuit in Hertfordshire where he quickly started winning races and collecting Cadet class championships. At the age of 10, while attending an AutoSports award ceremony, Hamilton approached McLaren Formula One team boss Ron Dennis for an autograph, and said to him, “I’m Lewis Hamilton. I won the British Championship and one day I want to be racing your cars.” Dennis wrote in his autograph book, “Phone me in nine years, we’ll sort something out then.”
Hamilton never had to make the call. Ron Dennis beat him to it in 1998 after the young racer won yet another Super One series and his second British championship. Dennis delivered on his promise and signed Hamilton to the McLaren driver development program. The contract included an option of a future Formula One seat, which would eventually make Hamilton the youngest ever driver to secure a contract which later resulted in a Formula One drive. He continued his spectacular progress in the Intercontinental A 1999, Formula A 2000 and Formula Super A 2001 ranks, and became European Champion in 2000, at the age of 15, with maximum points. No matter how far back you look, or how deep you dig into Hamilton’s history, race cars are always there.
He continued his spectacular progress in the Intercontinental A 1999, Formula A 2000 and Formula Super A2001 ranks, and became European Champion in 2000, at the age of fifteen, with maximum points.
Last year, Hamilton was once again deemed the richest sportsman in Britain, with an amassed fortune in the area of £88 million (up £20 million from 2014). Because of his wealth, he now lives in Monaco in order to shelter his fortune from taxes, a decision that has been met with its fair share of criticism back in England and has contributed to Hamilton’s detachment from the upper echelons of English sportsmen. But he’s a bit of an outsider within the sport, as well. Hamilton has repeatedly declined to join the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association and has been criticized for failing to attend pre-season meetings to discuss proposed rule changes. In many ways, he’s a lone wolf, a man on his own journey refusing to fit stereotypes of any kind.
But maybe it has something to do with his pedigree, or lack thereof. Hamilton is a member of the British sporting elite, amongst the likes of Andy Murray, Nick Faldo, George Best and David Beckham. In 2015, he became the first British driver in history to win consecutive Formula One titles, the second Brit to win three titles after Jackie Sir Stewart, and he has more race victories than any other British driver in the history of Formula One. He is, without a doubt, one of the best athletes the country has ever produced. But, at the same time, he’s a bit of an outsider. He didn’t attend the same ruling class schools nor was he born into the ranks of British aristocracy like other famous UK sportsman—his paternal grandparents were Grenadian immigrants.
NORMALLY, RACING DRIVERS COME FROM A LONG LINE OF PREVIOUS SUCCESSFUL SPORTS PEOPLE, BUT HERE WE WERE JUST A NORMAL FAMILY AND ALL OF A SUDDEN WE’VE GOT THIS YOUNG PRECOCIOUS TALENT AND NOT ONLY THAT, WE WERE THE ONLY BLACK FAMILY ON THE GRID.
“It’s quite a unique story,” Anthony Hamilton, Lewis’ father and former manager told Charlie Rose during a 60 Minutes interview last year. Hamilton is still the only black Formula One driver on the grid and he has had to put up with plenty of discrimination to get there. It’s not just about the colour of his skin, Hamilton’s party-boy antics off the track, and his renegade style of racing on the track, both fly in the face of what it means to be a traditional member of the pantheon of reserved, proper British athleticism. But, then again, there’s not much about Lewis Hamilton that is traditional.
Maybe what separates Lewis Hamilton from previous Formula One champions is the fact that he is part of the social networking generation. His Instagram feed has over 2.6 million followers. Even his two much-loved British bulldogs, Roscoe and Coco, have their own Instagram profile (and yes, the dogs have way more followers than you do with 85,000+). When vacationing with his friends, they will edit together quirky highlight reels of the trip and upload them to Hamilton’s Youtube channel (24,000+ subscribers). And he’s most certainly the only three-time Formula One world champion to use Snapchat. Days before beginning his title defense in Melbourne this year, Hamilton posted selfie videos to his Snapchat profile while riding a Harley Davidson—an upload that resulted in Hamilton being investigated by New Zealand police for careless driving. Just recently, Formula One CEO Bernie Ecclestone even banned Hamilton from filming Snapchat footage while inside the drivers paddock because it undermines exclusive multi-million dollar broadcast agreements.
His utilization of social networking brings him closer to his fans, much closer. They get to see behind the helmet, so to speak. And what becomes clear is that Hamilton is more than just a Formula One racer. He’s a style icon and attends Paris Fashion Week, sitting front row with Sir Paul McCartney, Janelle Monáe and Louis Vuitton’s executive vice president, Delphine Arnault. He sings, plays guitar and piano and intends to launch a music career. He goes to Coachella. He spreads awareness about the Syrian refugee crisis. He’s a philanthropist. He loves animals and rides a unicycle. Hamilton’s ability to distill his work-hard-play-hard lifestyle into a handful of carefully executed social profiles makes him a sort of prototype of tomorrow’s champion. But most of all, it makes him relatable, a trait that not too many Formula One superstars share.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s his almost superhuman ability to hurtle a 700 kilogram piece of carbon fibre around a street-track at speeds of up to 350 kilometers-an-hour while experiencing the full, mind-bending effects of gravitational force and somehow not only survive the race but overtake other highly-trained, professional drivers in the process. “It’s like you’re strapped to a rocket,” he says. “It’s wild, it’s sexy, it’s fast—it’s like a fighter jet on wheels.” Hamilton has established himself as one of the most complete drivers on the grid: a terrific qualifier, a tenacious racer and a fierce wheel-to-wheel combatant with a deadly eye for an overtake. Put simply, when it comes to driving a Formula One car, there are very few areas in which Hamilton does not excel.
With three championship wins, 43 race wins, 88 podium finishes, 50 pole positions, 28 fastest laps and 1,885 career points, Hamilton is, without a doubt, one of the greatest Formula One drivers to ever participate in the sport. In his debut season in 2007, the 22-year-old racer crushed a handful of records in his McLaren MP4-22: most pole positions 6, most points 109, most wins 4, most consecutive podium finishes 9 as well as being the youngest driver to lead the World Championship. Since then, the records and finishes have been many. He is the only driver in the history of the sport to have won at least one race in each season he has competed to date and is currently third on the all-time wins list.
He’s a proud Englishman, a remarkable race car driver, a humanitarian, a playboy, a musician, a dog lover, a renegade, a bon vivant, a technician, a family man and a millionaire many times over. In 2015, he was also the Lycamobile Sportsman of the Year, the Autosports International Racing Driver of the Year and British Competition Driver of the Year and the GQ International Sportsman of the Year. What exactly makes Lewis Hamilton different from the long line of Formula One champions who came before him? It’s hard to say. Maybe it isn’t one thing in particular but instead, a combination of things. Maybe it’s Hamilton’s uncanny ability to balance it all perfectly that makes him not only a great champion, but a great man as well.