ewis Hamilton has always been a man apart. The higher he rises in the highest form of auto racing, the lonelier it gets at the top. Before the coronavirus put life as we’d come to know it on pause, right as the Formula One season was revving up for a mid-March kickoff, the ace Mercedes pilot stood on the brink of statistical immortality, merely eight victories and a world championship shy of becoming the greatest to ever do it. That the 35-year-old Briton also happened to be born to a Caucasian mother and a black father makes his singular status in this lily white game at once a breakthrough and a burden. And a brother can only bear a weight that heavy for so long before his legs go all wobbly.
Despite 13 seasons of unrelenting strain, it wasn’t until the recent tsunami of Black Lives Matter demonstrations that Hamilton ultimately reached his buckling point. As protests broke out across the globe in the wake of the bestial killing of George Floyd at the hands of four depraved Minneapolis police officers, Hamilton has not been bashful of endorsing the movement, or castigating his sport for steering clear of this subject altogether. “I see those of you staying silent,” he wrote on Instagram, “some of you the biggest stars yet you stay silent in the midst of injustice.”
Given the wide array of sports figures that have engaged in the broader conversation around racial inequality since Floyd’s brutal murder, from Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods, doubtless some will be seduced into thinking that Hamilton is just hopping on the bandwagon – or worse: doing it for clout. But the unimpeachable truth is, Hamilton has kept this same energy his whole career. Where Woods runs from race, famously describing himself as “Cablinasian”, Hamilton is unequivocal. “I don’t wrestle with race at all; I’m black,” Hamilton told me when I profiled him for Sports Illustrated during the 2015 United States Grand Prix. “When I arrive here, I don’t feel different, but I know I am different.” Where Jordan famously “joked” that “Republicans buy sneakers, too” as explanation for not publicly supporting a black mayor’s historic Senate campaign in his home state of North Carolina, Hamilton never drives his Merc out of the paddock without first slipping on an outsize, over-colored helmet with the phrase “Still I Rise” scrawled on the back. I wondered, Was that a Maya Angelou shoutout? “Nah, bruv,” he quipped, flashing that trademark gapped-tooth smirk. “That’s Tupac.”
Where another black exemplar in a majority white stratum might be content to play the role of the prized token, Hamilton bucks any label that would cast his presence in F1 alone as change enough. He’s too talented and too indispensable to the sport to be shouted down or cast out altogether. For nearly his entire career, Hamilton has been calling on F1 to become more racially, culturally and gender inclusive that it’s a wonder his voice hasn’t totally abandoned him. It’s a theme he touched on again in his extended Instagram post. “Not a sign from anybody in my industry, which of course is a white-dominated sport,” he continued. “I am one of the only people of color there yet I stand alone I would have thought by now you would see why this happens and say something about it but you can’t stand alongside us. Just know I know who you are, and I see you.”
For me, the post brought back memories of a news conference during that ’15 USGP, when another black reporter lobbed Hamilton a question about getting more black Americans into F1. (“Don’t ask me,” Hamilton cracked, gesturing at the white drivers with him on the dais. “Ask these guys first! I’d love to hear what others think!”) For as funny and awkward as that moment was, this time Hamilton made no effort to couch his frustrations. His dramatic shift in tone was enough to turn the nervous tittering that F1 drivers always produce when put on the spot into actually taking a stand this week. “To be completely honest, I felt out of place and uncomfortable sharing my thoughts,” Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc tweeted. “And I was completely wrong.” McLaren’s Lando Norris disseminated a Black Lives Matter engagement link. “This time,” he wrote to his 427,000 Twitter followers, “I ask you to do something and take action.” Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo was even more forceful, unpacking his thoughts underneath an Instagram mural that read: “Enough is enough.”
The online chatter, whatever you make of it, might well be the most intense conversation about race that has ever bubbled up from within F1. Why it took until now to broach the subject isn’t a mystery. It’s history. The idea of a “Grand Prize” race owes its early momentum to young black chain gang workers in Savannah, Georgia, who were beaten and tortured and kept in makeshift slavery while hand carving and paving a 25-mile swath of dense wood and marshland for the inaugural showcase in 1908. Ferrari, the only F1 team that has been in the sport since its official inception in 1950, began as a plane engine builder for the fascist regime and proved so clutch that Benito Mussolini bestowed founder Enzo with the title of “Il Commendatore” – a title that became his nickname.
Hamilton’s own team, Mercedes, which not only reaped massive profits off the backs of 40,000 forced laborers during the Third Reich but also furnished Adolf Hitler’s official coaches, was no better. Max Mosley, the barrister turned racing driver who presided over the governing body that oversaw F1 through boom times in the ’90s and early aughts, is the younger son of 1930s fascist Sir Oswald Mosley and the socialite Diana Mitford; their secret wedding in October 1936 was held at the home of Joseph Goebbels and counted Hitler himself among the honored guests. From Michelin rubber to Shell gasoline, you’d be hard-pressed to name a feature of the modern Formula 1 spectacle that wasn’t built on the complete subjugation and outright plundering of black and brown peoples. That the stars of the sport are now finally acknowledging their white supremacy is nice. But their sharp words alone won’t be enough to cut into a 70-year head start.
If the F1 is indeed serious about righting the scales of justice, the series could mandate that teams set aside a material chunk of their hundred-million dollar R&D budgets to be invested in STEM programs that would provide non-white students onramps into the sport as engineers or aerodynamicists. John Malone and Greg Maffei, F1’s American bosses and two of the biggest contributors to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, would not only reinvest their fortunes in black communities that could extend the sport’s reach, but also reserve extreme prejudice for the law enforcement types they pay handsomely to secure races. They’d scrap plans for Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia and work on putting a Grand Prix in Ghana or Nigeria instead. Sure, most if not all of these broad proposals are likely to be met with some kind of resistance. But it pales in comparison to the kind of resistance that a black man could encounter if he’s unfortunate enough to be pulled over while piloting their own Ferrari or a Mercedes SUV similar to the one George Floyd drove on the day of his unlawful demise.
Whatever direction the sport takes on this new course, we can rest assured knowing that Hamilton is there to lead the way. What’s more, he should draw a large measure of encouragement from having carried the global justice movement to a major turning point. Now when Hamilton decries what Martin Luther King would call “the silence of our friends”, when Hamilton says, “I see you”, it isn’t just F1’s leading lights who hear him and shudder. We all do, and thus share responsibility with Hamilton, a true world champion, to hold these new allies and any more who come after them to their words.