What you need to know about Lewis Hamilton is that protecting a sensitive inner soul is one tough hombre. That’s not the image generated by the fashion icon Lewis or the sometimes thin-skinned-to-criticism Lewis. But it’s at the heart of who he is. Part nature, part nurture, his father Anthony instilled in him the mental discipline and sacrifice required by racing right from the start – and he was a hard taskmaster. “I took the attitude that if I was going to be doing all this extra work to support the karting, then he’d better bloody well do his best,” said Anthony. But it’s more than just mental discipline; it’s also desire. That has to come from the driver, no matter how hard the father might be pushing.
The part Anthony played in Hamilton’s career cannot be overstated. It would not have happened without him. But the impetus was always down to Lewis. It was something another of his karting mechanics Johnny Restrick noticed: “Once the McLaren backing happened, the pressure was really on, to keep up the momentum of the whole thing. It was no longer about just the next race win. Things got longer-term. There was definitely a pressure, a push to keep getting the results and what was needed to do that. Sometimes it came from Tony. He could be pretty tough on Lewis; we both could. But then Lewis could be pretty tough on us, too. Suddenly he’d fire back at us if the kart wasn’t right – ‘find me more grip, more power’, and you realised who the boss was.”
That desire and resilience has been the driving force of Hamilton’s career, the vast talent simply in the service of those qualities. He’s incredibly mentally strong. But he’s never been some professional automaton. Beneath the well-rehearsed PR sheen, instilled in him first by Anthony and later by McLaren, has always been a risk-taking, impulsive character. His youth was littered with subterfuges to escape his father’s control away from the track – and the scrapes and escapades have continued into adult life, only a few of which ever reach the notice of the public. “I sometimes think, ‘I’ve gone too far this time, I’m going to be in trouble’,” he admitted towards the end of 2015. This was around the time he’d clinched the title. He let himself off the leash well before the season had ended. “You’d be amazed how much I’ve drunk,” he claimed at one point. It was possibly no coincidence that his form fell away in the last few races and Nico Rosberg won several on the bounce.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been skiing, but if you go to the slope you’ll see all these kids fearlessly zooming by. It’s only when we get older that fear creeps in. But for me, it just never has.”
That part of him is surely related to Lewis the Showman, the guy that loves to shock with his fashion sense, or turn up to the track on his MV Agusta and perform burn-outs in the car park for the fans. He loves to play to the crowd; he has that showman thing of compelling you to watch without allowing the real him to be seen. It’s a mask – a fun mask, but a mask all the same.
A lairy, extrovert persona, a showman concealing an inner sensitive, highly emotional soul. But at the root of it all is steel. Yes, there might be sniggers about the ‘Still I Rise’ messages and how trivial his triumphs are alongside those of the slaves the phrase originally referenced. It’s a reflection of an occasionally narcissistic person who is trying to reconcile who he is with projecting to the outside world. A world he knows is watching him intently. But that’s just froth and trimmings. At the core is one of the toughest individuals imaginable. Hard as nails, resilient beyond the perceptions of the everyday, adventurous – and vastly, vastly, freakishly gifted. That, and black, in what has historically been a white man’s sport. It’s about as combustible a combination as has ever sat on an F1 grid. That’s the cauldron into which his circumstances and personality have placed him.
Now imagine all that without the normal teenage adaptation years. Between the ages of 8-13 he was a phenomenon and treated as such, but under the strict control of Anthony. Between 13 and his F1 debut as a 22-year-old, he was on the tight leash of Ron Dennis and entirely dependent upon him. Two control freaks trying to manage your every move and utterance between eight and 22 years old, no normal teenage years of discovery – and then suddenly a globally famous millionaire, with a love of showbusiness and the opportunities to live and breathe in that world, to get to sit and talk with Nelson Mandela. Heady stuff for a Stevenage council estate kid.
It would have been a miracle if he’d come through that with a conventional outlook and persona, would it not? So yes, for much of his 20s you might have described him as a teenager in a man’s body, but away from the spotlight his reflective side was asking himself questions, was involving himself privately in helping ill and disadvantaged kids and exploring his religious faith. He was quite open about how freaked out he was after asking for a sign the night before race day at Hockenheim and then witnessing the biblical storm on the podium after his weather-assisted victory. “I don’t pray for fortune. I always just ask… whether you’re talking to yourself or someone’s hearing you, but I want to be able to live to my potential today. Allow me to live to my potential today. I know I can be great but certain things gets in the way and you’re not always able to be great. Just allow me to run free.”
Then there is the Hamilton free of both Hollywood and F1 – blatting through the forests on a trials bike or doing a track day on a superbike, just letting the speed gene feed him the adrenaline without the pressure, usually in company with his friend Marc Hynes.
As that process has unfolded, it’s sometimes caused him difficulties in the insular F1 world. His occasional gaffes are not forgiven easily by a fanbase who like their F1 heroes to fit into their own traditional preconceptions and who distrust the showman, who scent insincerity in his words when he’s trying on a personality for size. No one from the racing world has been able to guide him. So he’s sometimes stumbled his way through being a public sportsman. People want him to be all these different things – but he can only be what he is. He’s tried to be all these things to everyone… and come across as insincere. He’s remedied that increasingly with time. He’s a more mature Lewis, one that’s finally caught up – and maybe even progressed past – his actual age. But he remains hugely individualistic – more than any other driver with the possible exception of Kimi Räikkönen.
“A shark? No, I like to think I’m more like a panther. A shark attacks from behind without you knowing. With a panther, you know it’s coming, but he still gets you.”
He still demands that he do his own thing in his own way and uses the weight of his success to get that, but his vision has widened at much the same time as his approach to his racing has deepened. It all seems to be part of the same process. Ross Brawn has an interesting take. “I think it’s partly to do with how integrated he’s become at the team. At McLaren there was a certain culture where the drivers were kept at a distance – and that’s the environment Lewis came from. But Mercedes was and is much more intimate, a much more inclusive environment. He wasn’t used to this and I think it took a time to build up the trust. I still know and talk to people on the team and they tell me that he’s evolved both as a person and a driver.”
“I’ve been racing since I was eight,” Hamilton told GQ magazine earlier this year. “All my focus has been on this. In my part-time role outside F1 I’m trying to figure out what else I want to do. Naturally it’s easy for me to come to all the grands prix after I’ve been racing, even be the number two to Toto perhaps – I’ve been racing for years, I know it just as well as anyone else. But I’m more intrigued to learn something new.” Hence immersing himself in fashion and his highly successful clothing line with Tommy Hilfiger.
What we’re seeing now is probably peak Hamilton, when his incredible gift has finally come together with a resolved inner self and who therefore has ultimate control over those fires within. The question is how long he can remain at that peak before the maturing process begins to insist he evolves, before he begins to question whether he really wants to go wheel to wheel with Max Verstappen at 200mph. Another two titles, to take him level with Michael Schumacher? Another three?
The clock’s ticking.
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