By Karen Anne Overton
When he was ten years old, Lewis Hamilton – by then Britain’s youngest-ever Cadet Class Karting Champion — famously walked up to McLaren chief Ron Dennis to ask for an autograph and told him, “I want to race for you one day.” Dennis replied, “Phone me in nine years” and recalls that even at ten, Hamilton was confident but there was no trace of arrogance. Only three years later, Dennis made Hamilton the youngest driver ever to land a Formula One contract, signing him to apprentice in McLaren’s young driver development programme and the rest, as they say, is history.
It would be easy to credit his phenomenal success to luck, but undeniably, for the most part, it is pure hard graft. Hamilton, though, is not the kind of man to brag about his achievements or even play the hard-done-by card, and when he won the Drivers’ Championship for the second time, he declared: “I can’t really explain how much this means. It means even more than the first one. It feels like it’s the first time. I feel so blessed. Adding that it was the best day of his life, Hamilton said: “It’s the greatest feeling ever. I’m grateful to God; I’m grateful for my car finishing and really, to everyone, thank you so much, everyone. Thank you.”
For Hamilton, his faith is as instinctive and ingrained as his ability to drive; intrinsically connected, his devotion to both have led him to an extraordinary life. To some his candour is surprising, and it does seem unusual to meet a Formula One driver who is so open about his faith; many, after all, are keen to extol their virtues, but Hamilton has thrived on defying expectations. The mixed-race kid from Stevenage with a fifth-hand go-kart who went on to become a racing superstar… A man who stands by his faith yet is immersed in sport’s most scientific, leave-nothing-to-chance environment.
Much of this is certainly a product of his background, which has none of the privilege often associated with the sport. Born to a white mother and black father in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, Hamilton’s parents split when he was two years old. Though he lived with his mother, and two half-sisters, Nicola and Samantha, until he was 12, it was his father who noticed his young son’s potential when he gave him a remote-controlled car, and sought to nurture it. For Anthony Hamilton, whose parents moved to the UK from Grenada in the 1950s, this was a chance to give his son the life he never had, and over the years would make great sacrifices, even at one point holding down three jobs, to further his son’s development.
By 1991, Hamilton was already taking part in remote-controlled car races and winning against adults. When he was six, his father gave him his first go-kart, the caveat being that he would work hard at school. He later attended the John Henry Newman secondary school, a voluntarily aided Roman Catholic school. To maintain this delicate balance required discipline, and both Hamilton and his father learned the sacrifices that come with making a champion. For Hamilton, this meant foregoing all the usual fun of teenage life, as any spare time was spent on the racing track, and for his dad this meant quitting his job in IT and finding any means possible to fund what was by now a shared dream of driver son and would-be manager father.
One of the more surprising aspects of being a professional racing driver is the level of fitness required. The 2013 film Rush about the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt may have painted the sport as a debauched champagne and cocaine-fuelled party circuit, but that was the 70s, and these days, F1 drivers are highly conditioned athletes. Their bodies must be at their peak as they manoeuvre 691kg cars at top speeds of 300kph, endure forces of 5g, burn 1,400 calories and lose up to 3kg of body weight in sweat during a race. What’s more, they do it 19 times over an eight-month period.
Maintaining weight and fitness is vital, and Hamilton admits that though his favourite foods are pizza and a good burger, he hasn’t had either for a while, instead sticking to a strict diet that’s high in protein and fresh fruits and vegetables. If deprivation is a means to holiness, then Hamilton has long suffered for his profession. He is also well-known to say grace before every meal and has been noted for his impeccable table manners! Call him old-school.
In spite of his many admirable talents and virtues, Hamilton is far from perfect, and over the years he has come under fire for different aspects of his lifestyle. Particularly his style, his relationships and his many tattoos. Unlike most of his peers, who are not known for their antics off the track, Hamilton has embraced the celebrity aspect of his work and is known for hanging out with rock stars, supermodels and actresses. He famously dated Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger for seven years, and was rumoured to have had a fling with Rihanna last year. There had been many times when it looked like Hamilton may go off the rails, as in 2010 when he relieved his father of management duties, instead signing a contract with Simon Fuller’s more celebrity orientated XIX Management (he has since ceased working with XIX). More recently, former F1 driver turned TV analyst David Coulthard speculated about the effect Hamilton’s taste for the good life might have on his performance this season. Hamilton has acknowledged that he stands apart from today’s crop of calmer, more robotic drivers:
“I try to find a balance in my life … the lifestyle that I live is different to the other drivers. But who says that it has to be the way they are doing things? My style works perfectly for me. It is all about enjoying every moment. Maybe before you know it my Formula One career will be over and I want to make sure that I look back and can say that I lived it to the maximum, maximum, maximum! That is what I try to do. I enjoy my life. I move as much as I can – get to places and experience as many things as I can – and do my job in the best way I can.”
His work and celebrity status have certainly led him to some interesting places. Hamilton is often seen at the most exclusive celebrity parties, sporting his trademark diamond earrings and tailored suits. When it comes to style, Hamilton rarely errs on the side of subtle and frequently displays his love of fashion on the most high-profile front rows at shows like Balmain and Louis Vuitton. Though certainly interesting, his fashion choices have sometimes landed him in hot water; for example, when he was turned away from centre court at Wimbledon last year for failing to adhere to the strict dress code. Foregoing the requisite jacket and tie for a floral shirt and trilby, Hamilton’s seat in the royal box at the showdown between Djokovic and Nadal was left empty.
It is his huge array of body art which draws the most reactions, both positive and negative. For Hamilton, his tattoos are an integral part of who he is, and also act as a reminder of his faith. “I love my ink,” Hamilton told Men’s Health. “They all have a meaning. I’m very strong in my faith, so I wanted to have some religious images. I’ve got Pietà, a Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding Jesus after he came off the cross, on my shoulder. A sacred heart on my arm. Musical notes, because I love music. The compass on my chest is there because the church is my compass.”
He continued: “Family is everything for me, so I have ‘family’ written on the top, across my shoulders. ‘Faith’, obviously. And I have ‘powerful beyond measure’ written on my chest – it’s a short bit I took out of a quote, from the writer Marianne Williamson. On my back I have the cross and angel wings: rise above it, no matter what life throws at you. And also, you know, Jesus rose from the grave.”
Tattoos depicting religious icons are not uncommon these days, especially among famous sportsmen (mostly thanks to David Beckham), but the difference with Hamilton is his general openness about God and Christianity. “The way I look at it,” he says of his faith, “Formula One is dangerous. People have died in this sport. So I stay strong with my faith. I’ve come from nowhere. I feel blessed to be here. I think there’s a reason I’m here.”
Though Formula One is by and large a much safer sport than it used to be, serious accidents do still happen. In 2009, Felipe Massa suffered a skull fracture that needed urgent surgery when a spring, which had become detached from the rear suspension of Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn, struck Massa on the head as he reached 175mph on one of the fastest sections of the Hungarian Grand Prix. The most recent, and tragic, though, occurred at the Japanese Grand Prix in October 2014. Under intermittent heavy rainfall caused by the approaching typhoon Phanfone and in fading daylight, the drivers began the race as usual; on the 45th lap, though, as the cars chicaned around the seventh corner, Marussia driver Jules Bianchi swerved off course and hit a recovery vehicle. Despite being rushed to hospital and receiving emergency surgery to reduce swelling in his brain, Bianchi remained comatose until his death in July 2015. The race was immediately stopped and Hamilton, who was leading, declared the winner, but the Frenchman’s death resonated deeply. After all, there was little difference between Hamilton and Bianchi, who was only 25; two ambitious and determined young men, one tragically killed and one crowned champion.
With the 2016 season of Formula One underway, hopes are high that Hamilton will once again conquer the odds to win his third consecutive title (fourth overall). Looking stronger than ever in the cockpit, he is arguably the fastest of the so-called 10/10ths drivers, the term that F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone uses to describe racing’s elite cadre. This year, he is also nominated for the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award, the prestigious international event that recognises achievement in the world of sports. Laureus is a foundation who believe in ‘Using the power of sport as a tool for social change’ through their various projects and sports academies around the world, and given his own background, it’s no wonder Laureus is close to Hamilton’s heart.
With all this success, though, is there any real fear than Hamilton will lose his way and give in to the glamour and excesses that surround him? And does he even consider himself a celebrity? “I am pretty sure – and I know a lot of celebrities – that none of them would ever say that they are a celebrity. You don’t wake up in the morning, brush your teeth, look in the mirror and say: ‘Good morning, you celebrity!” jokes Hamilton.
“In the end, I am just a normal person who is doing something that happens to be in the spotlight. My life revolves around .. .my dogs, good food, great company, great friends, family, music, kids, seeing life, feeling life. Mostly we go through life without stopping for a second to look at what surrounds us. I made it a habit to do it every single day – even if it literally is one second – and absorb. There are such beautiful things to watch: when I am flying it’s the earth below me, or a beautiful beach, or a colourful bird. I take pictures in my mind.”
Quite simply, Hamilton is not concerned. He is aware of the work that must be put in every season and he is aware of how far he has come. He also understands the dangers of his chosen profession and how quickly and easily it could be taken away. So with the tarmac beneath him and the Lord above him, Hamilton just sits back and enjoys the ride.