Lewis Hamilton is more famous than any racing driver has ever been. Yet the world barely knows him. He’s an apparently lumpy bag full of unresolved contradictions.
So who is he? There’s his centre of gravity, which is Lewis the racing driver. For years that’s been his balancing point – and it plays out in his actual racing persona, too. He’s Lewis Hamilton, the fastest racing driver there is. There has never been anything other than 100 per cent certainty of that in his mind – and that’s the point around which he keeps rebalancing during a race weekend, whenever things don’t go right.
But he has also constantly had to refocus in his search for who he is. And it has taken a long time properly to decouple the racing driver from the person. Because he’s had an extraordinary life ever since the age of eight; by the time of F1 he’d quickly reached a debilitating level of fame that totally eclipsed that of any other driver. He’s famous far, far beyond the world of F1 fans. So while we would consider Hamilton in much the same recognition bracket as Fernando Alonso or maybe Max Verstappen – the wider world hasn’t even heard of those guys. But they certainly know Lewis Hamilton. “I’ve been with him when he can’t walk down the street anywhere in Europe or Japan without being mobbed within 15 seconds and having to get back in the car,” says Paddy Lowe. “No other driver in this paddock is hampered at that level.”
This lack of normalcy, straight from childhood to stardom leaves its mark. How can you become a fully formed adult? In the case of Hamilton, perhaps the closest parallels are to be found in the world of showbusiness rather than sport.
“What people tend to forget is the journey that I had getting to Formula 1. There were plenty of years where I had to learn about losing and having bad races.”
The late Andy Fraser was a musician in the 1960s/70s rock band Free. He wrote the song All Right Now when he was 16, went almost straight from a council estate to playing at Madison Square Garden, endured fans trying to pull the hair from his head as he struggled to get through them. Here’s how he later reflected on things. “I missed out on an adolescence, the phase where our personalities are usually largely formed, where you experiment a bit and find out who you really are.” It took Andy until his 30s to begin to get a good handle on that. Maybe it’s taken Hamilton just as long?
On the one hand, he is someone who feels the need for the level of his talent to be recognised, who craves approval. But on the other, has chosen to compete in a sport with a fanbase as far removed as it’s possible to be from his interests outside racing – fashion, rap, black culture. He isn’t going to bend, isn’t going to be something he’s not for the sake of the sport’s approval. But at the same time he can find the resultant belittling of his level of ability and achievements – and the widespread misunderstanding of his nature (to which he has himself contributed) – difficult to shrug off. That is magnified by the factor of his level of fame (6.4 million Twitter followers) and having to grow up as a teenager in a man’s body.
The music and showbusiness worlds will have an intoxicating pull to anyone enthused by them, to get to know as friends these people whom you’ve only admired from afar, to be treated as their equal. A world far more tolerant of his mild eccentricities than motor sport is, of his love of loud, outrageous fashion, of the more out-there social mores than those of the straight world.
He’s from these two very different places that cannot be bridged. Maybe he was trying to bridge them, maybe he’s realised that he cannot and so can just content himself with being in one at a time? Then he gets criticism because he’s not focused or committed – but then he turns up and annihilates the competition, and this only enrages, rather than becalms, some of his critics.
That’s a lot of processing and resolving to do – all while getting to the competitive pitch required for 20-odd weekends a year and the associated work around that. A process that could take years – and has.
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