EXCLUSIVE: Lewis Hamilton is having a moment
The time is 3:59pm. It’s a warm September day in central London and Lewis Hamilton is due to arrive at the studio at 4pm. Our shoot has already been pushed back two hours. Mercedes AMG requested more time with him at their factory in Brackley, Oxfordshire, 100km from central London, in the morning. It’s been a busy couple of days for the reigning Formula One champion: there are pictures of Hamilton all over the press today as he was snapped at an awards ceremony last night, where he picked up the gong for Sportsman of the Year, and — if the tabloids are anything to go by — left in the early hours of the morning with a beautiful woman. More on that later.
Probably due to not knowing if he is even in London yet, there are nervous laughs around the room as people check their watches, wondering if one of the speediest men on the road, in a profession where timing is everything, is going to live up to his name. And then, as the clock hits 4pm, just as if someone had flicked on a green light signalling Go!, Hamilton bounces through the front door, solo — his publicist having arrived ahead of him. He politely and cheerily introduces himself to everyone in the room and plonks himself down in front of the make-up artist. It’s 4.01pm and we’ve already begun.
Time is of the essence over the course of the next four hours, and nobody is more conscious of that fact, or as efficient with the process, than Hamilton. He jokingly ribs his publicist for distracting the photographer, and as soon as one shot is done he’s half-undressed, ready to step into the next outfit, precise and well-ordered with no cut corners. It’s not that he’s in a rush, rather he maintains a steady, determined pace; but there is certainly no time-wasting or faffing in Hamilton’s world. In fact, it’s only when we sit down to chat at the end of the day that he seems to ease off and take his time a bit more, as if he’s mentally easing into the final straight.
There are a few men who are bigger than their sport; men who the wider public know and recognise even if they know virtually nothing about their day job. Tiger Woods, David Beckham, Lewis Hamilton — you don’t need to know what a slice is, the offside rule, or even know the first thing about cars, you know who these men are. Most people could pick them out of a line-up and probably name their wives or girlfriends. Sometimes both.
Debuting in Formula One in 2007, Hamilton became the youngest winner of the championship a year later, aged just 22, which accelerated his name to the top of the A-list. For a while afterwards it seemed like the fame was taking precedence, as his performance dipped towards the end of his tenure with McLaren. His response was controversial: he sacked his father as manager in 2010, replacing him with Simon Fuller’s XIX Entertainment, and left the team that had nurtured him since boyhood for Mercedes. To observers who didn’t know him well enough, it seemed like he was cutting the ties that had made him a success and was instead embracing being a star. Only that didn’t happen. He won the 2014 driver’s championship in dramatic fashion at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and has already sewed up the 2015 title before heading back to our shores this month’s on November 29. His third title, matching the record of his boyhood hero, Ayrton Senna.
Hamilton, it seems, has achieved the rare feat of having the best of both worlds, as his recent activities demonstrate. In between winning ten of the 16 races this season to date, he was seen front row at London Collections Men in July (eclipsing other British style icons David Gandy and Tinie Tempah) and backstage with Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney in Paris at the womenswear collections in October. He is spotted regularly with various Kardashians/Jenners/Wests when in the US and, oh, he’s the highest paid British sportsman in Formula One history. The three-year deal he just signed with Mercedes-Benz will see the 30-year-old collect around $135million. Forbes reckons that only Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Sebastian Vettel and Floyd Mayweather bank more on an annual basis. Brand Lewis is in full throttle and reaching dizzying speed, both on the track and off it.
“When I got into the sport I thought: ‘I’ve got to do everything I’m told’… Now, I don’t do a lot of what I’m told.”
That kind of wealth brings with it the usual trappings of the elite: he has a house in Monaco and a ranch in Colorado, flying between continents and commitments on his own private jet so that his two bulldogs, Roscoe and Coco, can accompany him. This is all a long way from his childhood in a one-bed flat in Stevenage, a small town 50km north of central London. Hamilton grew up as the son of a black father, Anthony from Grenada, and his white mother, Carmen. The couple split when he was three years old and, having first lived with his mother, Hamilton then moved in with Anthony, his step-mum and half-brother Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy, into a small council house. Hamilton slept on the couch and was one of only three black faces at his Catholic school of 1,000 students.
It was his father — a keen F1 fan — who encouraged Hamilton to pursue the sport after noticing his son’s remarkable talent when it came to racing remote-control cars. Hamilton progressed to go-karting in junior school, and when the victories started to come, which didn’t take long, Anthony quit his job working for British Rail. He sank Dhs112,000 of his life savings into his son’s career and re-mortgaged the house, enabling them to become the only black faces in the wealthy, white world of competitive karting. McLaren and Mercedes-Benz signed Hamilton to their Young Driver Support Programme when he was just 13 years old. This was three years on from when he’d bumped into team boss Ron Dennis and told him, with the precociousness that only youth bestows, that he wanted to race for him one day. In 2007, at the age of 22, he fulfilled that wish, driving for McLaren on his Formula One debut. He was also the sport’s first ever black driver.
Here in the studio with the shoot successfully wrapped, he is reflecting on that journey. “I don’t feel like an outsider any more, I feel like it’s a strength,” he says, looking back on his early racing days. But it wasn’t always this way. “When we first started arriving at the track, a lot of the other families had more money than we did; they’d have a nicer RV or truck. We had a crappy car and our go-kart was just stuffed in the boot.” He tells a story from a favourite movie of his, Cool Runnings, to illustrate his point. It’s the scene where the Jamaican bobsleigh team arrive for the competition, dragging their makeshift sled. “The whole paddock goes quiet because they’re the only black people there,” says Hamilton, smiling at the memory. “It makes me laugh because it’s almost exactly what happened to me and my dad. We’d pull up in this crap car and everyone’s like, What?” Hamilton drops his jaw and feigns mock surprise. “It’s why I connect with that movie so much. They succeeded with so much pride and passion and that’s what me and my dad did. That’s how we’ve worked our way through the categories and earned people’s respect.”
Hamilton mentions his father a lot throughout the day, repeatedly crediting him for his hardworking ethos, and frequently using ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ when referring to his successes. According to press reports, which may or may not be reliable, the management split wasn’t as initially amicable as the pair have always insisted. The truth is probably a lot more complicated and deserves to remain a private family matter, though what does seem clear is that the relationship now appears to be as strong as it ever was. Anthony still supports and travels with him — even jumping out of a plane with Hamilton last year at Skydive Dubai — and was said to be a big factor in last year’s championship. But, unlike the old days, where he took responsibility for all aspects of his son’s career, Anthony wasn’t involved in the new deal his son signed in May. Hamilton negotiated his contract with Mercedes-Benz himself, having split from XIX Entertainment, though he has signed with London-based Purple PR for his off-track activities. As part of the new contract, Hamilton is now free to negotiate other deals, which should send his overall worth higher still, as well as maintaining control of his image rights — an essential step on the way to building himself as a brand that transcends his day job.
“When I first got into the sport I was like, ‘I’ve got to do everything I’m told’, and now I don’t do a lot of what I’m told,” he laughs. “It wasn’t really until the last three years when I joined Mercedes that I became free to do and wear what I want. And it was one of the many reasons I took the opportunity, so I could be myself. In this sport you’re kind of frowned upon for being different and it’s got to a point where I don’t really care. I am different and I’m proud of it. I stand out from all the different drivers.”
Hamilton references tennis’ Williams sisters, and Tiger Woods — other black sports people at the top of their game in predominantly white sports — as sources of inspiration. “I don’t feel a responsibility as such,” he says slowly, thinking, when asked about being a black role model. But then his next comment shows that it is something he at the very least considers. “When I was racing as a kid, and throughout my entire career, I never ever came across another black family. And F1 in particular is a white-related sport and to kind of break the mould and do something new…” He trails off, thinking of a way to illustrate his point. Then he remembers a recent incident in New York. An African woman stopped him in the streets, showing him a picture of her nine-year-old son. She said he was an avid go-kart racer who wanted to be like Hamilton. Hamilton thanked her for telling the story and followed the kid on Instagram as a token of support. “I think it’s a really empowering story,” he says with a mixture of pride and awe. “My dad set a really good example and I think it’s our responsibility to set an example to young kids and inspire them to not to give up and to work together as a family as we did.”
Revelling in his status as an outsider can also be about something more flippant than race or wealth or the need to be a role model, as one anecdote he tells us reveals. After bring invited to the Royal Box to watch the Wimbledon Championship tennis final this summer, the tabloids had a field day after Hamilton was turned away for not wearing a tie and blazer. He bursts out laughing when asked about the incident. “I’d been travelling so much it literally didn’t cross my mind that there was a dress code,” he says shaking his head at the thought. “They took a tie off a waiter and tried to get me to wear a tweed blazer with elbow patches – it looked like something Ron Dennis would have worn. I was like, ‘Nah.’” It’s further proof that Hamilton is carefully constructing an image that won’t be ruined by one afternoon, and certainly not by a hunting jacket that would have clashed with his Etro floral shirt and Panama hat. It should be added that he wrote a letter of apology to the Tennis Club shortly after and received a reply saying he was more than welcome to come back next year. “I’m going to come with the craziest suit, it will probably be multiple colours but with a tie and they won’t be able to say anything about it. It’ll definitely stand out,” He says, laughing again.
But for all his successes and status, along with his endearing habit of not taking himself too seriously, Lewis Hamilton has also endured his fair share of criticism. He’s been lambasted for his arrogant approach to driving, forcing errors, being too moody when he’s lost a race, seemingly too unfocussed on the sport.
Even Formula One legend Niki Lauda, who currently serves as a non-executive chairman at Mercedes AMG, has expressed disapproval in the past. Some of those criticisms are probably valid, but are perhaps also understandable — Hamilton has in effect been forced to grow up in public.
“I’d been preparing my whole life for Formula One but nothing can prepare you for the surroundings that accompany a title like that,” he says of that initial triumph, shaking his head. “The media, the exposure… I wasn’t prepared and I had no guidance, so I made a lot of mistakes in those first years. I was young and immature.
I feel like I wasn’t massively confident in myself, I was too stressed,I took it way too seriously.” He says when he won the champion-ship last year he felt “more confident in who I was and who I am, and felt free to be myself and in my sport.”
“As I learn more about myself and continue to love myself and become more comfortable, I’m driving better than ever, as well as doing all these different things. Even Niki [Lauda], who I know has criticised me in the past for being unfocused, said to me, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. It’s working.’ It’s funny how things turn and people’s opinions change.”
Hamilton is smaller, slighter than expected, in person. He’s 5 foot 8 and though muscular, thanks to the rigorous F1 physical training programme, is also compact, with big brown doe eyes that contrast sharply with the tattoos that cover most of us upper body. He turns up to the shoot in Yeezy Boosts (the originals), Balmain jeans, a black bomber and Graff diamond ear piercings. He laughs a lot, and is obviously image conscious, in the way that, say, David Beckham is. But it’s not because he cares what people think about him — which he says on several occasions — he just likes to look good and is very firm in knowing what he likes and what he doesn’t, without being bullish about it. Basically, he walks the fine line between confidence and arrogance with seeming ease, staying on the right side the whole time we are together. “I wish we had this Givenchy shirt in black,” he says to no-one in particular, buttoning up the white version. “It would go better with the blond hair.” He also doesn’t take himself too seriously, even when his make-up artist discovers The Daily Mail has made up a story based on two photos they’ve spliced together to look like he left last night’s event with Mario Balotelli’s ex-fiancée, Fanny Neguesha. “Are they serious?”, he laughs, staring wide-eyed at the story. “I literally said two words to her. I mean, she’s beautiful, so I don’t mind,” he grins.
Hamilton’s women are a constant source of tabloid fodder. Since his on-off-on-off five-year relationship with former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger ended in February, he’s been linked to Rihanna, Kendall Jenner and model-of-the-moment Gigi Hadid, but there’s been nothing concrete beyond rumour, and certainly not with Neguesha. Still, there are tantalising glimpses into the company he keeps. His iPhone 6 wallpaper is a picture of a majestic, roaring lion, similar to the tattoo etched recently across his chest by Rihanna’s tattoo artist. He has been quoted as admitting they are “good friends” and have been photographed together on multiple occasions. Of the tattoo, he says it symbolises “mastering your emotions”, a fitting tribute to his resurgence in recent years.
Music is Hamilton’s other love, and it’s something else he picked up from his father. “I grew up listening to reggae with my dad. He played the drums too, and he had the best sound system,” he reminisces. At the age of eight he was into hip-hop, soaking up anything by NWA, Tupac, Biggie Smalls and then a little later, Rough Riders, adopting the style that went along with it. “I used to wear the baggiest clothes ever, up until the age of 18,” he laughs. When he was a teenager, Hamilton and his friends would go to parties and take over the DJ booth, playing their own music. It’s a habit he hasn’t entirely dropped: within minutes of arriving to our shoot Hamilton politely asks if we can change the music, before putting rapper Travis Scott’s debut album, Rodeo, on repeat. The album was only released the previous day, but Hamilton quietly sings the words all afternoon. And from what we could hear, he’s got a pretty good voice.
“Music really is my favourite passion,” he admits later. “I mean, I love cars but I grew up around music, it runs through my veins. The great thing about music is that it’s like a cure for all the kind of emotions we have. Whether it’s country, soul, blues, you can listen to anything and relate to it in one way or another.”
Hamilton’s played the guitar since he was 13 and has a studio in his Monaco home, where he regularly works for hours on end whenever he gets the chance. He has written lots of tracks too, and is currently working with Travis Scott’s producer — a connection Hamilton wasn’t aware of until he saw Rodeo’s sleeve notes. “I was like, ‘Dude, I didn’t even know you did these 10 tracks! If I’d have known, I’d have taken them off you,” he laughs. “I’ve written a fair amount of songs now and they’re doing nothing at the moment, but if one day if I’m in a situation when I play it to someone and they like it, that would be kind of neat, to be known as a good writer.”
Seeing as Hamilton is friends with Pharrell, Jay Z, Kanye and most of the stateside music mafia, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he launched his own post-racing music career. But if he does have a plan he’s not yet ready to talk about it. “I’m really working on me, learning about myself, trying to work out what I like and who I am at the moment,” he says candidly. “I think I’ll probably go another seven years at F1 or so, but I’m conscious of what happens after that. I want to go beyond Formula One, which is why I’m focusing on building my brand and some kind of business. I look at people like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and David Beckham and people that have done something beyond their sport and been even more successful after they’ve retired. That’s what I’m working towards.”
It’s 8pm and everything has gone like clockwork. We’re wrapping up the shoot and interview and Hamilton is heading for the door. He’ll go straight to the airport to jump on his bright-red private jet and head to New York for Fashion Week, where he’ll be photographed on the front row, and spend a few days schmoozing with the likes of Kanye West, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. There will be more rumours of who he’s dating, as well as video footage of him singing one of his own RnB tracks in the early hours at an exclusive nightclub after-party.
Two weeks later, he’ll be all over the press once again — this time after dominating the Russian Grand Prix, claiming his ninth victory of the season and 42nd career win. The result puts him on level third place in the all-time win list and is further validation of his place in the history of motorsports, a fact that his peers now readily acknowledge. “Lewis has a natural gift of speed and feel behind the wheel along with a fierce competitive spirit,” former British racer and F1 Sky Sports commentator Martin Brundle says via email when asked for his thoughts on the young driver. “When he’s on his best form he’s unbeatable. Since his second world championship he’s found a new balance in his life between fun and racing, to the advantage of both it seems. A third F1 world championship, along with his impressive career statistics, will imminently elevate him to legend status in the sport.”
Think about the amount of skill it takes to get to that level and then stay there. Then ask yourself how he does that in-between the jet-setting, singing in nightclubs, hanging out with Rihanna, building momentum for the next phase of his life, be it in fashion or music or whatever else it is that he wants to do.
But that’s the thing about Lewis Hamilton: he’s managing to live simultaneously in these different worlds, not letting either get in the way of the other and somehow doing it better than everyone else. How does he do it? Perhaps the answer is that he’s spent his whole life having to prove himself time and time again. And after a while you just get good at doing it, to the point where it seems effortless, even when it really isn’t. So it’s not some fluke or a party trick. It’s the age-old combination of hard graft and talent… with a few fancy outfits thrown in for good measure.
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To watch the behind the scenes video of Lewis Hamilton’s shoot with Esquire click here.