F1 Driver Lewis Hamilton’s Plan to Revolutionize the Sport

“My dad and I would watch people like Tiger [Woods] who kind of broke the mold, and we watched in admiration,” Hamilton says. “The Williams sisters also did the same. We’re like, ‘Oh, if we could do something like that, that’s going to help change the industry moving forward.” Private Policy shirt, $325, and pants, $330, privatepolicyshop.com, Off-White boots, $1,676, off—white.com, Tiffany & Co. link bracelet, $975, tiffany.com, Miansai bracelet, $155, miansai.com, David Yurman signet ring, $525, davidyurman.com, Cartier ring, $3,450, Cartier boutiques and Hamilton’s own earrings and necklaces (worn throughout). Tarform electric motorcycle (prototype).

On his way to becoming the most dominant Formula 1 champion ever, Lewis Hamilton overcame more obstacles—and took curves harder—than any other driver on the circuit. Now he wants to make the sport more diverse than ever.

Lewis Hamilton spent the days before the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix waiting for a T-shirt in the mail. For the most successful driver in the history of Formula 1, a man about to pilot a miracle of engineering at 200 miles per hour, this would not normally have been a priority. Race weekends are about torque maps and tire compounds and schedules honed down to the minute.

But Mugello last summer was different. This was the season of Black Lives Matter protests. The shirt he’d ordered came emblazoned with a message...

Lewis Hamilton spent the days before the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix waiting for a T-shirt in the mail. For the most successful driver in the history of Formula 1, a man about to pilot a miracle of engineering at 200 miles per hour, this would not normally have been a priority. Race weekends are about torque maps and tire compounds and schedules honed down to the minute.

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But Mugello last summer was different. This was the season of Black Lives Matter protests. The shirt he’d ordered came emblazoned with a message he’d seen across social media, but not once inside the traveling bubble of F1. It read “Arrest the Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor” in all caps, a tribute to the 26-year-old Black medical worker who was shot and killed by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers during a raid on her apartment. Hamilton, the only Black driver in his sport, planned to wear it on the podium.

First, though, he had to win. For the statement to land, nothing else would do. “I can’t be second,” he told himself. “I’m wearing that shirt; I’ve got to get to first to bring light to her name.”

That became significantly tougher when the race turned to chaos. A four-car pileup inside the first 10 laps caused a 25-minute stoppage. Then a crash somewhere behind Hamilton forced a second break on lap 45, which Hamilton spent mulling over how to hold on to the lead. Unflustered, he took the checkered flag for the 90th time in his F1 career. Then, he says, “I get these nerves like, Shoot, I’m about to break the rules and people aren’t going to be happy with it.”

Hamilton was right. Paying sponsors’ logos were covered by the shirt. Formula 1, already torn about drivers’ taking a knee before races, had now entered a conversation that was distinctly not about motor racing—and that it wasn’t prepared for. The reaction from on high came quickly: The sport’s authorities announced shortly after Mugello that drivers must go through the entire post-race protocol wearing their driving suits closed to the neck.

“Well,” Hamilton says with a shrug when I remind him, “they’ve changed a lot of rules after a lot of things that I’ve done.”

What troubles Lewis Hamilton these days are the things about Formula 1 that haven’t changed.

Since he first crammed himself into a McLaren cockpit as a baby-faced 22-year-old in 2007, before moving to the Mercedes F1 team in 2013, he has won more races and taken more pole positions than any driver in history. His seventh world title last season tied the all-time great Michael Schumacher. At 36, in one of the highest-performing cars the sport has ever seen, Hamilton has at least a few more seasons to break that record before retirement.

Yet during that time, as Hamilton went from prodigy to elder statesman, some 56 other drivers have made their F1 debuts—not one of them Black. Hamilton was the first. And the wait continues for a second. “My dad and I would watch people like Tiger [Woods] who kind of broke the mold, and we watched in admiration. The Williams sisters also did the same,” he says. “We’re like, ‘Oh, if we could do something like that, that’s going to help change the industry moving forward.’ ”

Hamilton, who has won more races and taken more pole positions than any driver in history, started racing Formula 1 in 2007 at the age of 22. Since then,the sport has yet to significantly diversify. “I’ve been here 15 years, 14 years-how has it not changed?” he says. “I was really sad about it.” Gucci jacket, $8,400, pants, $3,700, and shirt, $1,100, gucci.com, David Yurman ring, $525, davidyurman.com, Cartier ring, $3,450, Cartier boutiques.

When it didn’t, Hamilton couldn’t quite believe it. All those seasons spent blazing a trail through a sport more elitist than a caviar convention at a polo club and everything was the same. A jarring realization hit him at the end of the 2019 season as he looked at photos of his team celebrating its sixth straight title. “I zoomed in on them, from the F1 Instagram,” he says. “I’ve been here 15 years, 14 years—how has it not changed? I was really sad about it. I was frustrated and sad.”

The turmoil of 2020 only made the feelings more urgent. He’d seldom tackled the issue of race in his own sport before—it was hard enough shutting out the loneliness he felt in Formula 1—but as he watched athletes from other sports speak out following a string of killings of Black Americans by law enforcement, he was overwhelmed by emotion. The time for stoic silence was over.

So Hamilton decided to address the crisis he knew best, the one he’d been so sure would have evolved by now. Where were the other Black people in F1? Or in engineering? Or science classes? In the summer of 2021, Hamilton founded Mission 44, a foundation to back children from underrepresented groups, with a personal donation of £20 million (around $27 million). The goal is not merely to build new pipelines for Black kids into Formula 1 jobs, but to guide them into careers in science, technology, engineering and math, while also targeting a broader societal impact.

Hamilton, whose father is Black and mother is white, had also partnered with the U.K.’s Royal Academy of Engineering and created a research group called the Hamilton Commission to find out precisely where the roadblocks were. It wasn’t enough to point out the problems; he wanted a comprehensive study of the entire landscape. He needed numbers. Though Hamilton himself has no formal training as an engineer, few professional athletes deal in more data on a daily basis than F1 drivers.

“He is, I would say, an intuitive engineer,” explains Hayaatun Sillem, the academy’s chief executive.

The final report, published in July, confirmed what Hamilton had felt in his bones: Less than 1 percent of people working in Formula 1 are Black. The reasons, laid out across 184 pages, ranged from teams’ hiring practices (which tap the same universities year after year) to major fault lines within British education, as Black students are funneled into the lowest-achieving tracks and expelled at much higher rates.

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“The questions I have been asking all these years,” he says, “there was a reason for it, and it’s not just in my head.”

Motor racing is not a sport kids learn at the playground. There’s no such thing as pickup Formula 1.

The highest barrier to entry, as Hamilton and his family discovered soon after he showed a strong affinity for go-karting while on a family vacation at age 3, is the sheer cost of buying into the sport. A single weekend of go-kart competition, the natural entry point for future racers, can run several thousand dollars. The more serious you get, the more zeroes you add. In real terms, the price of keeping Lewis in go-karts, of shuttling him around England to race, of owning a camper van, of “mechanicking” everything that needed to be “mechanicked” was three jobs and a life savings. Hamilton remembers other families plunging into debt, with no guarantee of ever seeing that money again. “It takes prisoners, this sport,” he says.

Lewis’s father, Anthony, was the person juggling three gigs. His stepmother, Linda, committed a substantial part of her savings to Lewis’s dream. On race weekends, they trundled around the country from the drab London commuter town of Stevenage with the camper, the go-kart and his baby brother in tow.

The way many others made it work was a combination of growing up rich and securing sponsorship early. Anthony couldn’t help Lewis on the first front. On the second, his best shot was asking people, “How would you like to support the first Black Formula 1 driver?”He got nowhere. The whole endeavor was so slapdash and improbable that it now reminds Hamilton of Cool Runnings, the movie about the Jamaican team that qualified for the 1988 Winter Games in a sport nearly as white as F1, Olympic bobsledding. Hamilton’s story would have been even less likely, except he had one thing the Jamaican bobsled team lacked: pure speed.

Anthony saw this early on. What he had no idea how to do was nurture that kind of talent. He found little help from competitive rivals at Lewis’s early go-kart races, so he picked it up on the fly, standing on the racecourse’s inside corners and observing. No other dads were out there. Soon after Lewis started karting at age 8, Anthony would watch the quickest boy on the track—Hamilton remembers his name, some kid called Nicky—and make notes on where he was braking ahead of a corner. Then he’d take Lewis back to the corner, walk a few yards past Nicky’s braking point and turn to Lewis: “This is where you brake.”

From left: Hamilton with team-mates after his historic 100th Grand Prix win, September 26, 2021; karting as an 8-year-old; taking a knee at a race near Barcelona, August 2020; on the circuit at an F1 Grand Prix race in the Netherlands, September 2021. Photo: From left: Peter Fox/Getty Images; Chris Dixon/LAT Photographic; BRYN LENNON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images; Formula 1 via Getty Images

It drove Lewis crazy. But those endless, frustrating sessions redefined the sport’s entire geometry for him. Whereas most drivers tried to carry as much speed as possible while taking a curved line around a corner, Hamilton developed a more aggressive approach. He hit the brakes later and harder than anyone else, carving an angle that allowed him to gun the engine sooner on the way out. After a while, with Anthony standing on the inside, Lewis simply stopped skidding out.

“The feeling when I did hit the corner, it was magical,” he says. “That’s what I’m looking for, that’s the zone. The fine line that, if I can get there, no one is going to be able to beat me through that corner.”

Hamilton and his dad were easy to spot as the only Black people at the circuit. Lewis also stood out for another reason: He was the fastest kid out there by miles. For the people charged with discovering the next motor-racing superstars, like the former McLaren team principal Ron Dennis, he was impossible to miss. Dennis had won F1 world titles with the likes of Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Hamilton’s hero, the Brazilian champion Ayrton Senna, who died in a crash in 1994. He knew fast when he saw it. Hamilton was just 13 years old when Dennis presented him with a contract for the team’s development program, which recruits budding stars before they even have a driver’s license.

When the offer came, one afternoon after school, Hamilton had no idea what it entailed. So he did what he often did when he had a moment to himself. He left it to Anthony, went upstairs and pushed in a VHS tape of Senna called Racing Is in My Blood.

Joining McLaren set Hamilton on a path through the junior racing categories set to last nearly a decade. For the first time, a future in motorsport seemed to open up before him—which became even more significant when other doors slammed shut. Some 20 years later, Hamilton would be aghast but hardly surprised at the number of Black students who are expelled from British schools, mainly because he was expelled too.

At 16, Hamilton was booted from school following a fight in the boys’ bathroom that he was later found to have nothing to do with. He was convinced then that his career was over, that some misunderstanding had sent him spinning off track forever. Dennis assured him it wasn’t—there was too much talent there to squander. Once Hamilton was back in the car, the world made sense again.

“I realized that when I grip that steering wheel I was connected to this thing, and I could do things with it that those around me seemed to not be able to do,” he says. “It was like that was my superpower.”

All of Formula 1 boils down to a fundamental challenge for drivers and engineers: finding the limits of grip. How hard can you push the car around a circuit and keep it on the road? At what point will the collection of forces acting and pushing against every inch of the machine cause it to fail? When does fast cross into too fast?

Extracting maximum performance from the car at Mercedes, under rules that change every season and with a major engineering overhaul every few years, takes some 2,000 people between the staff at the factories and the 100 or so who travel to more than 20 races each year, from Austin to Monaco to São Paulo. All of their work is guided by sensors producing reams of data with every lap—none more sensitive than the person with the stomach to drive it.

Hamilton revs up a prototype of a Tarform electric motorcycle. Private Policy shirt and pants.

For the early part of Hamilton’s career at Mercedes, the team considered drivers to be contractors. They were a vital part of the car, but a part nonetheless, the expensive component that makes everything else work and isn’t necessarily embedded with the other aspects of the team. Even Hamilton used to view his role in more stripped-down terms—the guy who gets behind the wheel, takes in a flood of stimuli and trusts his gift and his nerve to turn it all into a blistering pace around the circuit.

“Me, I drive,” Hamilton told me when we first met in 2015 on his way to a third title. “I drive the seat of the car.”

That approach is how Hamilton took the sport by storm after his debut in 2007. He finished in the top three in his first nine races in Formula 1. By the time the streak ended, in Germany that year, he’d never parked the car anywhere but the area reserved for the top three finishers. Former McLaren and Mercedes engineer Paddy Lowe once told me, “He called on the radio and said, ‘Guys, what do I do? I don’t know where to go.’ ”

But with experience, Hamilton found his way to a position where he was no longer an interchangeable component. He leaned on notebooks he’d kept since he raced in minor series that described what he was feeling around every corner of every circuit he’d ever raced. He learned how to translate those sensations into mechanical terms. At Mercedes, he now meets regularly with the heads of each engineering department to involve himself in the design of the car and offer vital feedback.

The meetings are a reminder of how far he’s come in the sport. They also underline what he wants to focus on next: F1 recruitment, which for years has meant almost no one in the sport who looks like him. “There is this focus on ‘we hire the best, we want the best, that’s all that matters to us,’ ” says Sillem, who led the Hamilton Commission report. “You don’t have to see it in such a binary way. That’s a false choice. You can be a meritocracy, but you can recognize that people’s ability to access and thrive in that meritocracy is influenced by all sorts of personal characteristics.”

Those members of underrepresented groups who do make it inevitably find they’ve landed in an inhospitable environment. Every Black engineer the commission spoke to brought up the central role of banter and camaraderie in their working lives, Sillem says. “And almost all of them had examples of racialized banter that really made us blush. That was just considered to be normal.”

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Hamilton had heard it from childhood all the way up to the pinnacle of his sport. The slurs, the whispered insults, the not-so-whispered insults. At one event in Spain in 2008, people showed up in blackface, wearing shirts that read “Hamilton’s Family,” before trying to explain that blackface and offensive T-shirts somehow weren’t racist. “I remember the pain that I felt that day, but I didn’t say anything about it; I didn’t have anyone,” he says. “No onesaid anything.”

Because F1 has always been a marginal sport in America—at least until everyone spent the pandemic on their couches watching the Drive to Survive documentary series on Netflix—stateside fans don’t always grasp the extent of Hamilton’s global reach today. This is the paradox of Formula 1. Hamilton is the brightest star in a sport broadcast in 200 countries that drew 87 million viewers per race last season, according to organizers. His latest contract with Mercedes reportedly pays him as much or more than the NBA’s top salary. Yet, in the U.S., the people who best understand how famous he is happen to be other celebrities.

On any given Sunday, the list of people parading through the Mercedes garage to snap photos with him reads like guests at an Oscar party. David Beckham, Will Smith and Justin Bieber have all dropped by in recent seasons. Hamilton’s close friend Serena Williams made a detour through the Monaco Grand Prix to visit him this spring before playing at the French Open. At the Monza circuit near Milan, in September, he posed for pictures with the actor he called his “gym buddy,” Vin Diesel.

“It’s glamour, it’s fashion, it’s energy, it’s multicultural,” Formula 1’s president and CEO Stefano Domenicali told me.

Few are better at selling that image than Hamilton, especially the multicultural part, and F1 now understands just how badly it needs him for that. His interests span far beyond the circuit, into music and clothes, which take him around the world whenever he isn’t at the wheel of a turbo-charged racing machine. It requires boundless energy from Hamilton, and an uncanny ability to sleep on airplanes.

Mercedes team principal and CEO Toto Wolff understood it best during a two-week gap between races in 2018. The way Wolff tells it, Hamilton first FaceTimed him in England from a catwalk in Shanghai where he was launching a new collection for Tommy Hilfiger. From there, Hamilton flew to New York for another launch event, then hopped back across the Atlantic to a party thrown by a friend in the U.K. By the time he had joined the team for the Singapore Grand Prix, he’d covered more than 17,000 miles in the air. Wolff didn’t say anything. But Wolff’s business partner and nonexecutive chairman of the Mercedes F1 team, the late Niki Lauda, was outraged.

“How can you allow this?” Wolff recalls Lauda telling him. “He’s racing for the championship and he’s traveling around the world in the week of the Grand Prix?”

A young Lewis Hamilton, holding a karting trophy in 1996; Hamilton with his mother, Carmen Larbalestier, in an Instagram post on her birthday: “I want to take a moment to celebrate my mum today. Since the day you brought me into this world you showered me with love, showed me the importance of empathy, compassion and caring for others.” Lewis Hamilton with his father, Anthony Hamilton, after a 2007 Formula 1 Grand Prix race. His dad did not get much help from others as Hamilton was first starting to learn the sport, so he observed and developed training tips of his own.

Wolff kept quiet. That weekend, Hamilton blew away the competition, setting a track record in qualifying on Saturday and winning the race on Sunday. Lauda backed off.

“We must stop putting people into boxes. Everybody functions differently,” Wolff tells me. “If you’re as successful, who can hold it against you? Seven-time world champion, you hold the records in the most wins and the pole positions, you can show up with a pink suede tracksuit…. If you’re not winning, people will see you as a fool.”

Hamilton knows that he has the sport’s attention. As long as he’s racking up championships, he makes it hard to disagree with him. “They can’t say we’re distracted,” he tells me between races from his base in the South of France.

Bouncing around the biosecure bubbles that Formula 1 created during the 2020 season, he watched as the U.S. reckoned with its history of police violence against Black people. Early on, he wore a T-shirt with the words “Black Lives Matter.” Then he broke out the Breonna Taylor shirt. He took a knee before races. Unlike in the English Premier League or the NBA, where white and Black players voiced their support in huge numbers, Hamilton felt alone. The sport populated by billionaire team owners—and at least a couple of sons of billionaires in the cockpits—took a long time to figure out how to respond. Too long for Hamilton’s liking.

“I saw people continuing in my industry and staying quiet,” he says. It reminded Hamilton of the abuse he heard when he first came up in Formula 1.

That began to change inside his own garage. Mercedes committed to making sure that 25 percent of new hires come from underrepresented backgrounds. The team, which has raced cars under the nickname Silver Arrows since the 1930s, also made a radical statement in paint. For the first time in its F1 history, the team changed its livery from silver to black last summer. The cars haven’t returned to the old colors.

Still, when the 2021 season kicked off in Bahrain in March, 10 drivers took a knee and 10 drivers didn’t. A few explained that they preferred to stay away from what they viewed as a political aspect of Black Lives Matter. Hamilton doesn’t take it personally. He’s found allies in younger drivers like Mick Schumacher, Michael’s son, and accepted that the older generation might be tougher to crack. Where he won’t make concessions is within Mercedes.

Not only did Hamilton’s latest contract, signed during the 2021 season, include stipulations for increasing diversity within the team—Hamilton also spoke directly with the team’s sponsors asking them to do the same. “Where are you guys at?” he remembers asking the CEO of the Monster energy drink company, which has backed him since 2013. “How are you guys holding yourself accountable? How can we work together?”

“I saw people continuing in my industry and staying quiet,” Hamilton says of Formula 1’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020. His latest contract with Mercedes, signed during the current season, includes provisions for increasing the team’s diversity. Gucci shirt, $1,100, and pants, $3,700, gucci.com. Hair, Lisa Torres; grooming, Jillian Halouska; set design, Peter Klein.

“If one says, ‘No, we’re totally fine; we don’t need to do it,’ ” Hamilton adds, “I won’t be working with them.”

At the heart of it all, though, remains the thing he does by risking his life on Sundays. Everything starts with racing, even if it means occasionally flirting with the end.

Hamilton was competing in Monza, Italy, on a sunny Sunday in September when Max Verstappen’s 1,650-pound Red Bull Racing Honda bounced up onto his Mercedes and the right rear tire caught Hamilton squarely on the helmet. Hamilton did his best to crouch down, though what really saved him is known as a “halo,” a ring of titanium and carbon-fiber around F1 cockpits that guards the driver’s exposed head. Halos became standard after French driver Jules Bianchi died following a blow to the helmet sustained in 2014.

Seven years later, Hamilton walked away from his wreck in Monza with a headache and a stiff neck. “Today someone must have been looking down, watching over me,” he wrote on Instagram after the crash. By Monday evening, Hamilton was on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, walking into the Met Gala alongside American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson. Hamilton had bought an entire table to surround himself with emerging Black fashion designers.

His motivation in New York was in the same spirit as what he laid out in the Hamilton Commission report. By celebrating Black excellence, he hopes to improve visibility for the sorts of role models he didn’t grow up with in motor racing. That’s only the first step. He is funding programs directly through Mission 44. And Hamilton’s recommendations for Formula 1—and for science education in Britain more broadly—are pushing teams to expand apprenticeship programs while dragging official statistics out into the open. Until people see the numbers, he believes, they can’t understand how deeply rooted the problem is.

I asked Wolff whether he thought Formula 1 would have handled this moment the same way had it remained the whitewashed sport it was for the first six decades of its history. “Maybe initiatives would have taken place, but certainly not in the dimension that Lewis triggered,” he says.

Then I asked Hamilton.

“I’m pretty sure that nothing would’ve changed,” he says. “I’m 36 years old; I’ve been wondering, Why me? Why am I the only Black driver that’s got through to Formula 1, and not only that—I’m at the front? There’s got to be a bigger reason for me being here.”