From F1 star to one of sport’s greatest role models: the rise and rise of Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton celebrates one of his 95 Grand Prix wins in Barcelona 2018.

Lewis Hamilton’s sparkling career reached new heights in 2020 both on and off the track. However, the 36 year-old from Stevenage cannot be reduced to Laureus World Sportsman of the Year, BBC Sports Personality of the Year, GQ Game Changer of the Year, knight of the realm, or 7-time world champion. Hamilton has become a global icon, and a powerful force for good.

With his seventh F1 world championship in 2020, Hamilton has established himself as one of the most dominant sporting figures. He has surpassed Michael Schumacher’s record of wins and pole positions, and is the odds-on favourite to gain an eighth world title in 2021 to fully eclipse Schumacher’s records. The debate around who the greatest-ever F1 driver is can never be settled by such statistics, however, no such debate can afford to ignore Hamilton’s talent as he has become the quickest, most consistent, and most ruthless driver in his era of F1.

Despite this, his records – as phenomenal as they are – are only a part of the figure that Hamilton has become: one who has stood up for what he believes in, sought change, and spread positivity.

The 2020 BBC Sports Personality of the Year winner was thoroughly deserving of the award, and was notable not just for his success but also for how he conducted himself. Lewis seemed genuinely humbled to have been nominated, and was the only nominee to express his sincere admiration for his fellow nominees. He radiated positivity and proved himself worthy of such an award.

Hamilton’s heart-warming positivity could also be felt at the Turkish Grand Prix in 2020. As he crossed the line to equal Schumacher’s supposedly unattainable record, Hamilton said: “That’s for all the kids out there who dream the impossible, you can do it too!” He is acutely aware of of his prominence, and to use such a moment to inspire others speaks volumes about his character.

Although both these examples might lead some to believe that Hamilton has only recently made himself into such a positive figure, his true character has never been in doubt.

Hamilton has never been prone to fiery and unbroadcastable radio messages in the way that many other drivers have, and throughout his career he has demonstrated unsurpassed sportsmanship. Accusations of underhand tactics, dirty driving or unsporting behaviour that have been levelled at the likes of Schumacher or Nico Rosberg have never be thrown at Hamilton. This is surprising given that such flaws are often accepted as being part and parcel of the single-mindedness that the best F1 drivers must have.

Hamilton demonstrated his character and integrity at the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix. After being let past his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to pursue the leading Ferraris, who he was eventually unable to overtake, he followed through on his promise to give third position back to Bottas if he could not challenge the Ferraris. This was a stunning act of sportsmanship, and one that cost him three world championship points.

Lewis Hamilton (right) embraces Valtteri Bottas (left) after the 2019 Italian Grand Prix

Given that he was trailing Vettel in the standings, and given that out of seventy-one F1 seasons, eighteen have been decided by three points or less, including Hamilton’s first, which was decided by one point in 2008, he knew that this could be a title-sabotaging act. This was a powerful example of doing the right thing regardless of the situation, as the points he lost that day paled into insignificance when compared to the admiration he rightly gained.

Hamilton has often been criticised for his lifestyle choices, particularly his frequent travelling between races, attending events and working with the fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger. Suggestions that this lifestyle would disrupt his performances were quickly dispelled by Hamilton’s success. He has remained adamant that he performs best when he is happy and when his life is organised as he would like, even if that goes against what works for his peers. The same can be said for all of us, and such a prominent example of this approach’s success demonstrates the value in staying true to yourself.

Lewis Hamilton’s career has been groundbreaking every step of the way. As a white man I can never fully appreciate how challenging Hamilton’s experience has been. At every stage of his career, he has been the only Black driver in a very white sport, without a role model in the sport that looked like him, and to whom he could aspire.

His prominence in the sport and the way that he carries himself ensures that the next generation have an outstanding Black role model to aspire to. As important as this is, Hamilton has stressed that the position he is in does not represent the sort of progress that the sport requires, and has warned against becoming complacent, emphasising that much more needs to be done.

In 2020, Hamilton used his platform to full effect as a prominent supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement after the tragic death of George Floyd sparked global uproar. Hamilton’s voice reverberated throughout motorsport and beyond as he advocated change to make his sport more equal. He has lamented the lack of diversity in motorsport and even in his own team, Mercedes, who have acknowledged their shortcomings and have pledged to increase the numbers of women and people of minority ethnic backgrounds in the team.

Lewis Hamilton attends a pre-season press conference in Barcelona 2020, ahead of what would be a defining year for the Mercedes driver.

Not satisfied with this, Lewis Hamilton set up the Hamilton Commission to ‘identify the key barriers to recruitment and progression of Black people in UK motorsport, and provide actionable recommendations to overcome them.’ This yields genuine hope that there can be lasting change within UK motorsport, change that would be owed in no small part to the efforts of Lewis Hamilton.

The message against racism was visible across the 2020 F1 season, with pre-race demonstrations from the drivers taking the knee and wearing t-shirts with the slogan “end racism.” Anti-racism messages could also be seen on car liveries, and a black livery adorned Mercedes’s W11, in place of the silver arrows’ usual livery. F1 did its part in promoting the anti-racism message, so that the tens of millions of viewers at home might be prompted to reflect on racial inequality, and to change for the better. Such an effect would be difficult to imagine without the pressure that Hamilton’s outspokenness placed on the sport.

Hamilton has long been an impeccable role model and a legend on the track. In 2020, his values were unignorable, as he pushed for good within his sport and used his platform to try to change a world still suffering the ills of racial injustice. He tried to get on the top step of the podium in every race so that his voice might carry as far and wide as possible. This unique motivation was clear to see as Lewis ascended to new levels on the track as a result.

Not only has he tried to make the world a better place, but he has also demonstrated that as human beings we have the capacity to do the right things, to stand up for what we believe in, and to make the world a better place. He has become much more than a racing driver.

On the 26th February 2021, Hamilton posted across his social media, re-emphasising the need for further change:

We have to keep striving for equality for all, in order to continue to see true and lasting change in our world. As long as I have air in my lungs, I will continue to fight for change in everything I do.”

Lewis Hamilton goes into the new season seeking to better himself once again, with his commitment on track matched only by his commitment for change off track. What Hamilton has achieved already is incredible, however, do not be surprised to see him reach new heights in 2021.

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