Towards the end of the 2020 season, Lewis Hamilton was rewriting Formula One’s record books.
In matching Michael Schumacher’s tally of seven world titles and surpassing his record of 91 race wins, Hamilton entered a statistical stratosphere in which there is very little resistance to a record-breaking eighth title next year and a mind-boggling 100th grand prix victory.
His contemporaries are so far behind that Hamilton is almost guaranteed to retire as the most successful driver of all time, and there’s a high chance the records he sets will never be surpassed.
Yet those statistics, as impressive as they are, tell only a fraction of the story of Hamilton’s year.
His actions away from the track — which have included campaigning for racial equality and setting up a commission to challenge motorsport’s lack of diversity — have elevated Hamilton in a way trophies and titles never could
In less than 12 months he has transcended the sport and revolutionized his position within it. He has found a voice, stood for multiple causes and initiated change.
It’s the stuff of legacies.
With it has come recognition. Time Magazine listed him among its 100 most influential people of 2020; he topped the Powerlist as Britain’s most influential Black person; and, if reports are to be believed, he will be known as Sir Lewis Hamilton from January next year.
But Hamilton didn’t do it for recognition. He did it because it was the right thing to do at the right time.
“I would say that there have been multiple humbling experiences this year, and I do remember having the feeling of not just wanting to be a sportsman,” Hamilton said in a recent interview with select media outlets, including ESPN.
“I was wondering, all this winning, what does it really mean if you can’t have an impact? If you can’t help change things for the positive?
“I do all these other things now and, in some senses, whilst this [F1] is my primary job and primary focus, when I am out doing those things, it’s almost like F1 is my side job!
“I’m like, ‘I also race and drive pretty well!’ But I try to be good at these other things too.
“Ultimately we all have values and most of us, I think, have good intentions and want to do something positive, and want to have some sort of impact — whether it’s for your kids, whether it’s for your family, whether it’s for the people that you work with, whatever it may be.
“I am not yet at my full potential, and there is more to do. I’m trying to learn as much as I can, but there’s a lot more to do.”
In what has been a difficult year for many reasons, Hamilton’s desire to do something positive has been commendable and the story of his 2020 has been remarkable.
A year like no other
Along with the rest of Formula One, Hamilton travelled to Australia in March with the expectation of starting the 2020 season at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne.
However, on the eve of the first practice session, team members from McLaren and Haas entered self-isolation amid concerns they might have contracted COVID-19. The entire event was hanging in the balance.
The sport waited nervously on the test results of the individuals, but in public the majority of drivers and senior staff stuck to the official line fed to them by F1 and its governing body, the FIA.
Not Hamilton. Speaking in front of a packed news conference and sharing a sofa with three rival drivers, Hamilton said it was “shocking” the sport was pushing ahead as normal.
When asked why F1 had not called the race off already, he added: “Cash is king”.
Within the next 24 hours, a member of the McLaren team tested positive for COVID, the race was officially cancelled and the Formula One paddock packed up and returned home to Europe. Within a matter of days, the first half of the F1 schedule was in tatters and it was remarkable to think that anyone could have thought racing in Australia was a good idea.
Amid all the chaos, the quote “cash is king” continued to resonate.
When racing resumed in July, the world was a very different place but Hamilton remained true to what he believed in.
Six weeks earlier, the world had been shocked by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck.
Hamilton, incensed by the racial injustice he had witnessed in the viral video of Floyd’s death, posted a message on his Instagram account saying he was “overcome with rage”. He joined a Black Lives Matter protest in London and spoke about the “painful memories” of racism and discrimination he had faced in his childhood.
Ahead of the opening round of the season in Austria, he continued to speak eloquently on the subject of racial injustice and his own experiences of racism, while questioning the lack of diversity in his sport. In a social media post he criticized those who had remained silent on the issue, adding that there was “not a sign from anybody in my industry, which of course is a white-dominated sport”.
F1 reacted by hastily modifying its #WeRaceAsOne campaign, which had originally been focused on praising key workers in the fight against COVID, to encompass a more central message of diversity and anti-racism. Fellow drivers responded by posting messages on social media on the issue, and a period of time was designated ahead of the opening race for all 20 to show their commitment to ending racism.
Hamilton, wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, was among the 14 drivers who took a knee before the race, while six of his contemporaries refused to join in with the gesture. The pre-race ceremony became a fixture at all 17 races during the season, with Hamilton kneeling front and center each time.
Meanwhile, Hamilton was also taking action by launching a commission to help engage more young people from Black backgrounds in motorsport. The Hamilton Commission was set up with the support of the Royal Academy of Engineering and is currently working on a report to better understand the barriers faced by Black people in motorsport and suggest ways to break them down.
“What I’ve realized, particularly this year, is I think I have a responsibility to the F1 community for what it has helped me create to push for that change,” Hamilton explains.
“If I don’t push forwards and make sure that this Hamilton Commission actually delivers, this sport is not going to be more diverse in the next 5-10 years. So I have got to stay on top of it, I’ve got to be engaged, I’ve got to continue to keep people on their toes.
“And I think this year with me being outspoken, while perhaps some people would perhaps prefer that I didn’t speak out in public and push for certain things, I think that’s my responsibility.
“Getting this sport to be more diverse in the future, I 100 percent believe I can be a part of that change. And keeping these conversations going is really holding people accountable, and I am not afraid of doing that naturally, as you’ve seen.
“If I don’t do it, who will?”
Throughout the season, Hamilton’s anti-racism message remained consistent and undimmed. At the Tuscan Grand Prix in September, he wore a t-shirt that read “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” both ahead of the race and on the podium after winning.
Taylor, a Black woman, was fatally shot on March 13 when police officers burst into her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment using a no-knock warrant during a narcotics investigation.
“It’s still fighting for the same thing,” Hamilton said when asked at the time why he had worn the shirt. “It took me a long time to get that shirt and I’ve been wanting to wear that and bring awareness to the fact that there’s people that have been killed on the street and there’s someone that got killed in her own house … We have to continue to raise awareness with it.”
The FIA reacted to Hamilton’s t-shirt with new rules to ensure drivers wore their race suits done up to the neck — rather than open at the waist — throughout the formal part of future podium proceedings, although Hamilton continued to wear a face mask with the message Black Lives Matter printed on it as he picked up trophies at the remaining races.
“[This year has] definitely brought things more to the surface, and I’ve felt that taking that step and really using my voice is important,” Hamilton says.
“There are so many people out there who have just stayed silent.
“I’m sure there’s moments in your life that maybe you’ve kept your mouth shut just for a moment because you know that there’s a bigger fight to fight further along or something was at risk.
“And I think there’s people out there — particularly kids hopefully moving forwards — that will see so many that have been outspoken on certain issues this year, that this is a time to be more outspoken, this is a time to push for change.
“And I’ve experienced that too and I hope young kids particularly see that I have taken that step, and so we have, and so should they.”
That message was mirrored in the emotional radio transmission from Hamilton’s car after he crossed the line at the Turkish Grand Prix to become a seven-time world champion.
“That’s for all the kids out there who dream the impossible: You can do it too!” he said after whoops of joy. “I believe in you guys.”
Matching Schumacher’s record of seven championships was clearly significant in itself, but there was more to this victory than just a number.
“I think this last one probably feels the most impactful because those previous years have been self-driven, family driven, our journey driven, our struggle driven, and then this year has been a struggle for others,” he explains.
“That’s really helped propel me to a level I really wasn’t … I didn’t know whether I’d get to.
“But that new source of power, fighting for something that is far greater than me and us, has really given this year a meaning that I couldn’t ever have imagined. So even right now, I still try to grasp it all because it’s really huge for me personally.
“And the reception I received this year was just really, really overwhelming. When I speak about overwhelming experiences, this has been the most overwhelming year in so many ways.”
What comes next?
Throughout the 2020 season, Hamilton’s future was a source of constant speculation.
The 35-year-old remains out of contract with his Mercedes team at the end of the year and with his multiple interests and activities outside the sport, the possibility of walking away has always hovered in the background.
While he is expected to sign a new contract in the coming weeks, 2020 appears to have given extra purpose to the latter years of his racing career.
“I want to learn more, and I try to educate myself more and try to understand this platform that I now have,” he said. “I really want to be efficient with it, I really want to be as impactful as I can with it.
“I look at a lot of stars, people who have had major success and then kind of fall off, become a bit irrelevant compared to where they were in their major stage — maybe they look back now maybe they think ‘I wish I did more with that moment’.
“So I am trying… hindsight is always a great thing, and of course we always look back and say we should do more, but I can’t change the past. What I can do is try to prepare for the future the best way I can.
“So yes, part of the drive I think is going to continue to be more and more understanding the impact I can have.
“But what’s next? I think the great thing that Formula One has given me and this platform has given me, is that I can pretty much do anything I want moving forwards.
“But what’s shown this year and what you see is I do really care about pushing for change for people. If I can really utilize my voice and my time here to have a really positive impact.
“How big or small that positive impact is depends how much I work and how hard I go at it.”
In a year that has been so negative for so many, the positive energy Hamilton exudes is palpable and inspiring. It’s genuinely exciting to see what he will do next in 2021.