On Sunday August 2, 2020, Lewis Hamilton was piloting his black Mercedes Formula 1 car around the final laps of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone when his front-left tyre exploded.
It was a scorching summer day in the heart of England. Beyond the titanium ring of the car’s protective halo device, Hamilton could see picture-book clouds scudding across a brilliant blue sky, broken only by the angular shapes of grandstands kept empty by the pandemic.
But the conditions – the heat, and a risky strategy brought on by an early crash – were wreaking havoc with the 20 vehicles that had started the fourth race of the truncated 2020 season. F1 cars are temperamental beasts and, in the current era of the sport, drivers must carefully manage the conditions and temperature of their tyres. Too cold, and the rubber remains stiff – it fails to provide the grip they need, sliding over the road surface like a puck on ice. Too hot, and it starts to degrade – wearing away too quickly, bubbling and blistering like burnt skin. Already, two of Hamilton’s rivals – including his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas – had suffered front-left punctures and been forced to limp back to the pit lane.
A few minutes earlier, Hamilton’s race engineer Peter Bonnington – a bespectacled man nicknamed “Bono” – had radioed him from the pits: “OK Lewis, so another car has a puncture, so just look after your tyres as best you can.” There was a 30-second gap between Hamilton, leading the race, and Max Verstappen, a young Dutch driver for Red Bull known for his aggressive style, in second place. Hamilton could afford to nurse his car, #44, to the finish line.
But, on the last lap, as he approached a twisting left-hand corner called Brooklands – slowing down from around 290kph to 150kph with a firm press of the brake pedal – a strange sensation reached him via the carbon fibre seat, which is custom-moulded to his body at the start of each season. His tyre had gone, too. “My heart just dropped,” he says. “In that moment, you have to concede that the fact is you might lose the race.”
Hamilton inspecting the blown-out tyre that almost cost him first place in the British Grand Prix on August 2, 2020
As Hamilton struggled to finish – an experience he compares to limping the last stretch of a 100m sprint with a pulled calf muscle – the on-board camera captured the tyre’s rapid disintegration. The gap to Verstappen was down to 25 seconds, and the car was shaking – the rubber threatening to hula off the rim of the wheel. Twenty seconds, through the sweeping curves of Maggots and Becketts where, 14 years earlier, Hamilton’s speed had wowed onlookers during his first ever stint in an F1 car. He still remembers the smell of the borrowed race suit.
Seventeen seconds, and as Hamilton accelerated down the Hangar Straight, the exposed metal of the wheel rim scraped on the asphalt, creating a shower of sparks. Nine seconds, and when he hit the brakes to turn right into Stowe corner, his mirrors were shaking so badly that he could barely see the red-and-blue shape of the Red Bull closing in.
When he crossed the line – going 160kph on three wheels – Verstappen was still six seconds behind, and Hamilton was fighting so hard to keep the car on track that he missed the chequered flag altogether. “Is that the last lap?” he asked Bonnington.
It was his seventh Grand Prix win at Silverstone, his 87th overall. By the end of 2020, Hamilton had overtaken Michael Schumacher’s record for total race wins, claiming 95 Grand Prix victories, and equaled his haul of world championships by winning his seventh title. He’d won the public vote for BBC Sports Personality of the Year for the second time (he’s also been nominated on four other occasions), and been named in the New Year’s Honours List. In a short ceremony at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II will tap him on both shoulders with a ceremonial sword, and he will arise Sir Lewis Hamilton.
He is, unarguably now, the greatest F1 driver of all time. But Hamilton says he will remember 2020 more for what happened off the track than what happened on it. It was the year he finally found his voice.
On a cold, clear Thursday morning in January, a few days after his 36th birthday, Hamilton is sitting in the music studio that he’s had built in his home in Colorado, trying to explain the secrets behind his success.
His braided hair is tied back in a loose ponytail, and he’s swapped his logo-laden race suit for a red-and-black checked jacket. His bulldog Roscoe is lying by his feet – at one point he breaks off mid-sentence to apologise for the dog farting.
F1 demands a unique combination of precision engineering and athletic ability, and Hamilton acts as the rudder of the Mercedes team, a conduit for the efforts of hundreds of experts – on aerodynamics, composites, energy storage, fuel economy, data science, physiology, sleep and a dozen other disciplines – each shaving fractions of a second off the overall performance.
“There’s a really, really wide range of things,” he says. “To be able to get the car and the team to the position that I’m able to get them to takes a huge amount of work. There’s a lot of sacrifice and a lot of compromise that you make together.”
When we speak, he’s already been out training – cross-country skiing at high altitude to build his physical and mental endurance for the season ahead – and has a gym session planned for the afternoon. Recovery has been particularly key this winter: Hamilton contracted Covid-19 amid his world title celebrations in 2020 and lost 4kg in weight, missing a Grand Prix for the first time in his career.
During the course of a two-hour race, drivers burn as much energy as the average person would running a half marathon, says Pete McKnight, coaching and sports science director at Hintsa Performance, the company that helped prepare Hamilton for the physical demands of the sport before he made the step up to F1. “The heart rate trace matches the profile of the track,” he says. “Longer corners are the most taxing as they are taken at higher speeds and therefore the driver experiences higher g-forces.”
But physical strength is only part of the story. At the elite level, sporting success comes down to three factors: anticipation, high-speed decision-making, and the ability to perform under pressure. The best athletes in the world seem to have more time than everyone else not because they’re quicker or stronger (although it helps) but because they’ve honed their sensory systems through thousands of hours of practice – they pick up on advance cues like the shape of an opponent’s body, or the sound of the ball leaving a tennis racket to predict where it’s going to end up. They’re skilled in mental shortcuts – they see the world differently, and break it down to extract the information that’s relevant to them.
“When you’re driving a car it’s very chaotic,” Hamilton says. “It’s erratic, so much is happening. All the senses that we have, they’re all firing on maximum.” But when he approaches a corner, everything slows down. His visual field seems to widen. For a few seconds, he feels like he can see “much more” than he would on a normal day: every blade of grass, bump in the road and track marker.
Hamilton with an engineer in the Mercedes area at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December 2020
The differences between Hamilton and other drivers are almost imperceptible to the naked eye, but they show up in the telemetry that’s beamed back from the hundreds of sensors on his car and, of course, in his lap times. He brakes harder and later than his rivals, taking a squarer route through the corner, which means he can get on the throttle more quickly at the other end. “If you can brake 0.2 seconds later at 200mph you’ve gone a lot further,” says former F1 driver David Coulthard.
Hamilton credits this ability to his father Anthony, who would watch where the best drivers hit the brakes on their outings to Rye House karting track, near their home in Stevenage. He would stand on the inside of the hairpin bend, indicating a point a few metres further down the track where he wanted his young son to brake. “I was so frustrated at my dad,” Hamilton remembers. He crashed a lot, spun out a lot. But eventually, he could brake later than anyone else.
Crucially, he’s able to do it without putting too much strain on the tyres – he has an ability to tiptoe on the edge of grip without ever going over it, to know how far he can push without crossing the line. “It’s almost like a living organism that you’re working with, and it has a short life expectancy,” he says. “How you treat it and how you set the car up defines how far it’ll go, and understanding how much it can take in each corner is a science within itself.” This actually shows up in the data – Hamilton’s tyres might be five degrees cooler than his teammates even if they’re going at the same speed, says Andrew Shovlin, Mercedes’ trackside engineering director.
While sharp vision is an important part of this ability – as a kid Hamilton earned the nickname “Eagle” from one of his friends because of his visual acuity – there’s another well-honed sense that’s perhaps been equally key to his success. “It’s the gyroscope in him,” says veteran F1 journalist Maurice Hamilton, who remembers how Hamilton’s hero Ayrton Senna could also “dance on the edge of adhesion”.
Coulthard likens it to walking on wet tiles with leather shoes, and the way you automatically adjust your gait to compensate for the change in friction. Former teammate Heikki Kovalainen is more blunt. “He’s got sensors in his ass,” he said in a recent interview. He is strapped into the car so tight that it becomes like an extension of his body.
“You do become one with the car,” Hamilton says, although he also likens the experience to riding a bull, or piloting a fighter jet with wheels. “Not that I’ve ridden a bull,” he stresses. “But I imagine it’s a little bit like that. The car doesn’t want to do some of the things you want it to do.”
Hamilton is able to tell – via the vibrations of the car and the seat and the steering wheel – how far he can push without locking the wheels or spinning off the track. More recently, he’s coupled that ability with improved decision-making: after some painful mechanical failures early in his career, he never pushes the car harder than he has to, which means that when he does need to go quickly, the tyres are in better shape. He very rarely makes mistakes.
“I think the thing that stands out most is his ability to adapt, to adjust and to find the edge of performance in whatever challenges he has,” says Phil Prew, who was Hamilton’s race engineer in his first three seasons in F1 with McLaren. “It’s no surprise that when the conditions are unpredictable, that’s when he really shines.” When his tyre burst at Silverstone last August, he took a few moments to adjust, and then finished the lap only 23 seconds slower than the previous one.
“The amount of bandwidth he still has available when he’s driving a car at the limit is very impressive,” says Shovlin. “Lewis can still have a lot of his brain thinking about what he’s doing with the tyres, the strategy, while he’s pushing flat out.” Over years of experience in karts, in simulators and in Grand Prix, his brain has become finely attuned to the forces going through the four patches of rubber – no bigger than the sole of a shoe – that are his only connection to the track. “I understand that it takes, they say, 10,000 hours to master a craft,” Hamilton says. “I started when I was eight. Every single weekend: practice, practice, practice.”
Hamilton stands atop his Mercedes and celebrates after taking first place in the Turkish Grand Prix
Every minute of that practice was hard fought. Unlike many of the other drivers on the current grid, Hamilton didn’t have wealthy parents, or a family with a background in motorsport (the 2021 grid features four sons of former professional racing drivers, and three sons of billionaires – Adam Norris, father of McLaren driver Lando Norris, is the 610th richest man in Britain, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, yet doesn’t even make it onto the podium of wealthy F1 dads).
He grew up in a council house in Stevenage, a commuter town about 40km outside London. Everything was second-hand, borrowed, scrimped, gifted.
At the age of three, on a rare overseas holiday to Ibiza, he sat in a go-kart for the first time. Later, a neighbour let the young boy play with his remote control cars and for his fifth birthday, Hamilton got one of his own – within a few years, he was beating men decades his senior in competitive races. As a seven-year-old, he appeared on the children’s television show Blue Peter, annihilating the competition.
By then, his parents had split up. On Christmas Day 1992, Anthony presented his son with his first go-kart – he’d bought it “tenth-hand”, and spent weeks sourcing new parts, polishing and painting it until it gleamed. Hamilton was a shy kid – he struggled at school, with bullies and undiagnosed dyslexia. But when he got in a kart, everything changed. “I had this strength that I didn’t even know that I had, and the growth that I would experience through these races of being able to put my elbows out, stand up, not be pushed over and bullied, was really empowering,” he says.
Anthony worked three jobs to fund the early stages of his son’s karting career – for a while, he had a side-gig hammering in “For Sale” signs outside people’s houses.
“I think what makes me the driver I am today, yes it’s the ability, but I would say it’s the hunger,” Hamilton says. “I’m so grateful for it, man. If we didn’t have that struggle I couldn’t drive the way I do today.”
He has immense mental strength – even though, unlike many elite athletes, he does not employ the services of a sports psychologist. “I don’t like the idea of someone trying to mess with my mind, because I’m strong, and I know I’m strong enough and capable enough,” he says. “I’ve done it my whole life.” He works on being balanced, and practices meditation. He concentrates on his breathing so that he can control his emotions better when he’s in the car. He tries to talk to athletes from other sports to get a sense of how they prepare, how they handle the pressure and the weight of expectation.
There were lessons passed down from Anthony, too. When Hamilton was eight or nine, his dad took him to a boxing class – he wanted his son to be able to defend himself against school bullies. Inside the ring, Hamilton was badly beaten by a taller, tougher boy. He ran out in tears, nose streaming with blood.
What happened next shaped Hamilton’s life in more ways than he could have known. “I remember my dad kneeling down in front of me and saying, ‘You’re going to get back in there and give it everything you’ve got,’” he says. “You’ve got to face your fears headfirst.” He went back into the ring. “I went in, and I didn’t let this kid get a single punch in, and I overcame this fear. I use that same experience with all my racing.”
At the Mercedes F1 headquarters in Brackley, near Oxford, they talk about Hamilton’s ability in awed tones. “He might as well be a wizard,” says Gabriel Elias, a former Mercedes engineer who now runs a motorsport consultancy business. The team employs more than 900 people – although the demands on Hamilton’s time means that he mainly interacts with the 50 or 60 on the travelling race team. “Lewis is quite a private person, but over the years the team has kind of become his team,” Shovlin says. “We’ve developed and improved together, and Lewis is always looking for areas where he can help the team move on – in a normal year he would spend a lot more time at the factory wandering around.” Since March 2020, however, even engineering meetings and post-race debriefs have been taking place on Zoom.
Critics of Hamilton’s recent success argue that he’s only won so many titles because he’s got the best car – which is true, but ignores the fact that he doesn’t simply get handed the keys at the first race of the season. “It went on to become the best car partly because of the contribution that Lewis has made to developing the car,” says Ross Brawn, a managing director at Formula 1 who founded the team that became Mercedes in 2009, four years before Hamilton joined.
Building a winning car is a collaborative, iterative process where driver feedback is hugely important. Together, engineers and their drivers are on a constant search for balance: between grip and degradation, between understeer and oversteer, between directing the flow of air to cool the engine or generating downforce, which “sticks” the car to the track. “In a way, they’re the most sophisticated sensor on the whole car,” says Shovlin.
Hamilton is ridiculously competitive, whether he’s playing a friendly game of tennis with Anthony, or throwing javelins on a pre-season training camp in Finland. He has to win. “It’s in my DNA,” he says. Within F1, that manifests itself as a level of work that, one suspects, many other drivers don’t match. “I see it in some of the more fortunate drivers,” says Coulthard. “They can turn left and right and they’re fit and they can do all of the basic requirements of a Grand Prix driver, but you just wonder how deep-rooted their fight is.”
Hamilton and Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin, after winning the Turkish Grand Prix in November 2020.
Right from the start, those who have worked with Hamilton have been impressed by his attention to detail. “He was a sponge,” says Prew. “He just wanted to learn, to take on all the information that he could.” He spent the recent winter break wading through a huge technical manual detailing every aspect of the new car for the 2021 season, from the aerodynamic tweaks that will help glue it to the track, to the new software system that controls its settings. On a race weekend, he pays attention to things like the wind direction and how it varies at different corners – if there’s a headwind, he might be able to brake a bit later than normal and gain fractions of a second. “Lewis works very hard, and he’s struggled a bit with the fact that it’s convenient for the world to think he’s this distracted driver who is jet-setting around the planet, interested in music and fashion and campaigning,” says Shovlin.
Those close to him say he throws himself into all his pursuits with the same zeal: from making music (which he says is the “biggest part” of his life) to designing clothes for Tommy Hilfiger, to signing off on menu items for Neat Burger, the chain of vegan fast food restaurants he’s an investor in.
Environmentalism is a cause he cares deeply about (although you’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the sign inside the Soho branch of Neat Burger that says “Thank you for saving the planet” when Hamilton was flying around in a private jet until recently).
Apart from switching to a plant-based diet and ditching the jet – which generated more column inches than air miles – he has also invested in X44, a team taking part in a new electric off-road racing series called Extreme E. Rather than flying, the equipment and cars will travel around the world on the RMS St Helena, a former Royal Mail ship. The idea behind the series, Hamilton explains, is to raise awareness of environmental issues at each of the stops: the Amazon rainforest, a melting glacier in Patagonia, the desert of Saudi Arabia. (He doesn’t, however, have any desire to race in anything but F1.)
He admits that it’s difficult to reconcile a desire to protect the planet with F1, perhaps the least carbon-friendly sport there is. It was, Hamilton says, one of the points of negotiation in his new contract with Mercedes – a one-year deal which he finally signed in early February, and which also includes a commitment from Mercedes to support greater diversity and inclusion in motorsport through a joint charitable foundation.
“What are my options?” he asks – and it sounds like an argument he’s played over in his head more than once. “I could quit. The positives of that are that I won’t be driving a car around 20 different tracks, we’ll be flying less. But the fact is if I stop, the thing will keep going. They’re not going to stop for me.”
Instead, he’s trying to force change from within – on new fuels, on electric vehicles, on cutting the sport’s carbon footprint. “I’m having conversations, trying to hold people in the sport more accountable,” he says. “I’m constantly sending emails, I’m constantly on Zoom calls with Formula 1 and challenging them.”
In June 2020, a few weeks before the delayed start of the F1 season, Hamilton attended a Black Lives Matter march in central London. Like millions of others, he was shaken by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and he felt a strong desire to use the platform that he’s built through his racing success to do something about it. “Watching George and what was happening with him just brought up all my emotions and the experiences that I had as a kid,” he says. “I was like, ‘Finally, it’s time. I can’t take it anymore.’”
Being Black in motorsport is like driving with three wheels. Every mistake gets amplified, each turn is harder to negotiate. No one looks like you: not in the stands, not in the garage, not in the factory, and definitely not on the grid. But they look at you: when you and your dad arrive at a karting track, heads turn. People say things. Sometimes they throw things. When you sign your first deal with McLaren at 13 – a financial lifeline that takes the pressure off your father and gives you a genuine shot at making it – people shake their heads. They don’t say anything but you can tell what they’re thinking.
After a remarkable debut season as the first Black driver ever to enter the sport, where you come within a whisker of winning the world championship, you turn up for testing in Barcelona for your second year and a group of spectators in the stands have “blacked up”: they’re wearing curly wigs and T-shirts that say “Hamilton’s family”.
Your dad tells you to keep your head down, to just keep driving. “Your time will come,” he says. “Don’t complain, don’t say anything – be there early, work longer hours than anybody, put more work in and show the world that you’re the best and then at some stage your time will come.”
That time, it seems, is now. At the start of his career, Hamilton squashed down the essential parts of himself to fit more neatly into a marketable box. McLaren, which gave him his start in Formula 1, is a notoriously stifling environment – and the sport benefited from the marketing potential of a driver who looked different to everyone else on the grid, but who wasn’t too different. He kept his interests outside racing to himself, for the most part, and he kept his mouth shut. In 2017, he was advised against showing support for Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player who popularised the gesture of taking a knee in protest against police brutality and racism.
Hamilton’s arrival was meant to usher in a new era for what has always been a white-dominated sport. But it’s been 14 years since his debut season: the young Black kids inspired by seeing someone like them on the podium should be rising up through the lower Formulas, knocking on the door. They’re not.
After winning his sixth title in 2019, Hamilton was struck by how few people from diverse backgrounds appeared in the Mercedes team photo. In June 2020, he set up the Hamilton Commission – a research project being conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering to investigate why there are so few ethnic minorities in motorsport: not just in the cars themselves, but in the engineering departments, the marketing and PR teams and beyond. It will publish its first report this summer, and according to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s CEO Hayaatun Sillem, Hamilton has invested a “really significant amount of personal effort” in ensuring its success. “He’s probably kicking himself that he hasn’t done this before now,” says Lindsay Orridge, one of the founders of Driven by Diversity, an organisation dedicated to tackling inequality in motorsport.
At the start of the 2020 season, Hamilton took a knee before the first race, wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt: 13 of the other 19 drivers joined him. He repeated the gesture at each of the 17 stops on the calendar. On the podium after winning the Tuscan Grand Prix in September, he unzipped his black race overalls to the waist to reveal a T-shirt that read “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor”, in reference to a 26-year-old medical technician who was shot by police in Kentucky during a botched raid on her apartment. The FIA, which governs global motorsport, responded by banning non-official clothing being worn on the podium for future races.
“Normally my focus is just on winning and perfection,” Hamilton says – over the years his motivation has shifted from impressing his dad, to proving the doubters wrong, to emulating and beating his heroes. “But in this race, I was thinking” – he taps the desk in front of him for emphasis – “I’ve got to win this race for Breonna. I’ve got to get on the podium to be able to wear this shirt.”
“That was my drive, and that really became my drive through the whole year – encouraging people out there to use their voice to speak out. That became a new motivation for me – all of a sudden I had this different energy. I was racing for something and somebody else.”
Hamilton wore a T-shirt highlighting the death of Breonna Taylor and took a knee to protest against racism while at the F1 Grand Prix of Tuscany in September 2020
The 2021 Formula 1 season, which began in Bahrain on March 28 with another tense victory over Red Bull’s Verstappen, is Hamilton’s fifteenth in the sport. Only a handful of drivers have had longer careers at the highest level – beyond a certain age, biology becomes inescapable. Myelin, the insulating material that coats the nerve cells that carry electrical signals around the body, begins to break down – the wiring gets worse, reaction times get slower. And even if you still have the speed, you lose the need, as Coulthard puts it.
There are still targets for Hamilton to hit on track – one more world title will take him above Schumacher and set a record that is unlikely to be beaten for decades; a raft of rule changes coming in 2022 offer a new intellectual and physical challenge, an opportunity to prove his dominance in a new era of the sport. But more and more, Hamilton is thinking about what comes next – about his legacy, and what he’ll leave behind once he leaves F1.
“I think I want to be one of those change-makers,” he says. “A catalyst for change. I really hope that ten years from now I can look back and say that I maximised my time and I made the right choices and I really had a positive impact.”
Making a stand for Black Lives Matter was the culmination of a process that began when Hamilton joined Mercedes in 2013, and accelerated when he turned 30 – a conscious decision not to worry about what other people think anymore. There was a period before that – during the six-year gap between his first and second world championships – where he seemed lost.
“I would say when I was younger maybe I didn’t have the confidence of knowing what you can and can’t say,” he says. “I was just thrown into the pit completely unprepared, completely unguided, and made lots of mistakes.” There are still moments when he says and does things that make you want to cover your eyes – but they are authentic mistakes now. He owns them.
For Hamilton, the last 30 years have been about honing his driving skills: learning how late he can brake, and how far he can stretch the tyres. In the next 30, he’ll have to negotiate the twists and turns of a new world, and figure out how hard he needs to push to get the change he wants. He’ll need to strike a balance between marketable superstar and positive force for good – two identities which may not be compatible. “That’s something I had already started to experience last year,” he says. “At the beginning of the year I was very outspoken and calling out the sport. At the time that was the right thing for me, but I discovered that there’s times where you have to be very diplomatic, where there’s more you can do by discussions in the background, rather than embarrassing people.”
As he transitions into the next phase of his career – activist, entrepreneur, changemaker – Hamilton finds himself in a strange but familiar situation. He’s back on a karting track in the rain, figuring out how hard he can push without spinning out of control.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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