Black British trailblazers - Let's talk Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Carl Davidson Hamilton MBE HonFREng is a British racing driver currently competing in Formula One for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team.


Image credit: Wikipedia

Born and raised in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, Hamilton enjoyed a successful ascent up the racing ladder and was signed to the McLaren young driver programme in 1998. This later resulted in a Formula One drive with McLaren in 2007, making Hamilton the first and only black driver to race in the sport, as of 2020. That season, Hamilton set numerous records as he finished runner-up to Kimi Räikkönen by one point. The following season, he won his maiden title in dramatic fashion—making a crucial overtake on the last corner of the last lap in the last race of the season—to become the then-youngest Formula One World Champion in history. After four more years with McLaren without finishing higher than fourth in the drivers' standings, Hamilton signed with Mercedes in 2013, reuniting with his childhood karting teammate, Nico Rosberg.


A six-time Formula One World Champion, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport, and considered by some to be the greatest of all time. He won his first World Drivers' Championship with McLaren in 2008, before moving to Mercedes in 2013, with whom he has won a further five titles. One of the most successful drivers in the history of the sport, Hamilton's six World Championship titles is the second-most of all time, while he holds the records for the most wins (91; tied with Michael Schumacher), career points (3661), pole positions (96), podium finishes (160), grand slams in a season (3) and championship points in a season (413).

Listed in the 2020 issue of Time as one of the 100 most influential people globally, Hamilton has been credited with furthering Formula One's global following by appealing to a broader audience outside the sport, in part due to his high-profile lifestyle, environmental and social activism as well as his exploits in music and fashion. Hamilton has been targeted by racist abuse throughout his career and has been outspoken in his criticism of racial politics in Formula One as well as advocating for greater diversity in the sport. His treatment by British newspapers has also been criticised for carrying racial bias, and some have pointed to Hamilton's race and physical appearance as reasons behind his perceived unpopularity among a portion of motorsport fans.


When his visor goes down and the lights go out, it’s Hammertime!

Image credit: Wikimedia

Considered to be first and only black driver to race in Formula One, Hamilton has been subject to racist abuse throughout his career. In 2008, Hamilton was heckled and otherwise abused during pre-season testing at the Circuit de Catalunya by several Spanish spectators who wore black face paint and black wigs. The FIA warned Spanish authorities about the repetition of such behaviour and launched a "Race Against Racism" campaign.


Hamilton's treatment by the media and critics has, at times, been criticised as being racist. In 2014, The Guardian journalist Joseph Harker highlighted double-standards in Hamilton's treatment compared to other British drivers by British newspapers, suggesting that his skin colour has played a factor in a perceived lack of acceptance amongst the British public.


In 2019, footballer Rio Ferdinand described media scrutiny of Hamilton as having "racist undertones" and contrasted Hamilton's treatment to that of fellow British driver Jenson Button. At the start of his Formula One career, Hamilton said that he "tried to ignore the fact he was the first black guy ever to race in the sport" but later stated that he had since grown to "appreciate the implications", and changed his approach to embrace his position and promote equality within the sport. Hamilton has since questioned racial politics in Formula One on a number of occasions. In 2011, after being summoned to the stewards in five out of the first six races of the season, Hamilton quipped: "Maybe it's because I'm black, that's what Ali G says".


In 2018, Hamilton criticised the lack of diversity in Formula One, describing how nothing had changed in his eleven years in the sport before saying "Kids, people, there are so many jobs in this sport of which anybody, no matter your ethnicity or background, can make it and fit in". In 2019, Toto Wolff, Hamilton's team boss at Mercedes, described how Hamilton was "scarred for life" by racist abuse inflicted during his childhood.


Following the death of George Floyd while being arrested in May 2020, which sparked national and global protests, Hamilton criticised the figures in Formula One for their silence. Following Hamilton's comments, several drivers released statements about George Floyd's death and voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and support was expressed from other figures in the sport such as the Mercedes team boss, Toto Wolff. Ross Brawn, managing director for Formula One, said that the organisation "supports [Hamilton] totally", describing Hamilton as "a great ambassador for the sport". He acknowledged that Hamilton's comments "are very valid" and that the sport "can give greater opportunity for minority and ethnic groups to get involved in motorsport". Brawn stated that Formula One was working to increase diversity within the sport, with efforts targeted at increasing driving opportunities at grassroots level as well as across all roles in Formula One.


‘Still I Rise’ – these are the words emblazoned across the back of Lewis Hamilton’s helmet and tattooed across his shoulders, and ever since annihilating expectations with one of the greatest rookie performances in F1 history in 2007, that’s literally all he’s done: risen to the top of the all-time pole positions list ahead of his hero Ayrton Senna, surged into second place in the wins column behind only the inimitable Michael Schumacher, and surpassed the legendary Sir Jackie Stewart for the most championship titles by a British driver. Could he be the G.O.A.T? Few would deny that he’s in the conversation – and what’s more he’s got there his way, twinning his relentless speed with a refusal to conform to stereotypes for how a racing driver should think, dress or behave.


Image credit: Wikimedia

Changes to regulations for 2014 mandating the use of turbo-hybrid engines contributed to the start of a highly successful period for Hamilton, during which he has won five further World Championship titles. Hamilton won consecutive titles in 2014 and 2015 during an intense rivalry with teammate Nico Rosberg to match his hero Ayrton Senna's three World Championships. Following Rosberg's retirement, Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel became Hamilton's closest rival in two intense championship battles, and Hamilton twice overturned mid-season points deficits to claim consecutive titles for the second time in his career in 2017 and 2018. A third title followed in 2019 to complete a consecutive hat-trick of titles, bringing his tally to six overall, second only to Schumacher.

Respect is hard earned in F1, but Hamilton has it from every one of his peers. Why? Because they know that whatever the track, whatever the conditions, whatever the situation, when his visor goes down and the lights go out, it’s Hammertime!

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