If you really want to understand Lewis Hamilton – the blistering pace, the private jet, the popstar parties – just ask him to take his shirt off.
There, tattooed on his sculpted chest, you’ll find a compass (symbolising his guiding faith), a roaring lion (newly added) and the words ‘powerful beyond measure’.
Sport meets the double F1 world champion for an exclusive interview the day after his pole-to-flag victory in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa. We’re speaking to him at Brooklands in Surrey: the world’s first purpose-built motor-racing circuit and now the home of Mercedes-Benz World – a chrome and glass construction that resembles a confusing marriage between tourist attraction and car dealership.
The 30-year-old is understandably relaxed, having strengthened his lead in this year’s drivers’ championship in the first race back after a month-long summer break. He leans back in his chair, taking bites of popcorn in between thoughtful answers. We can make out the middle of the word ‘beyond’, rendered in flowing script between the buttons of his white sponsor-laden shirt.
The tattoo, inked along the curve of Hamilton’s collarbone, comes from a quote by American author Marianne Williamson. A fuller version runs: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves: ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? ... Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”
For Hamilton, it’s a mantra to live by. “I love that quote,” he tells us. “I think it’s quite amazing how we as humans underestimate how powerful we are. I try to live my life with as little fear, if any at all, in anything that I do. There’s not a thing I don’t believe I can do.”
Hamilton continues to polarise opinion, despite his obvious talents – perhaps because he has embraced the celebrity lifestyle more than any other driver on the present grid. He spent his month off on his “best holiday ever” in Colorado, New York and Barbados, where he was pictured at a carnival dancing with the singer Rihanna. His official website includes the headings ‘F1’, ‘Life’, and ‘Music’. He has raised eyebrows by jetting around the globe in his candy red private jet, with bulldogs Roscoe and Coco in tow.
It’s a world away from his humble beginnings on a council estate in Stevenage, but then Hamilton’s journey to the top has been different to most of the other F1 drivers on the grid. Take his teammate and childhood friend from karting, Nico Rosberg, for example.
“When me and Nico met he lived in Monaco and we went on holiday together and I got to experience the life of the rich and wealthy,” Hamilton told us the last time we spoke. “He had all these dune buggies and toys that we got to ride, and as soon as I had some money I created my own version of what we had when we were younger on those holidays.”
Rosberg’s first memory of motorsport was being asleep on a boat in the Monaco harbour, woken by Ayrton Senna’s McLaren roaring through the circuit’s famous tunnel. Hamilton’s first racing memory was in the rather less glamorous setting of a Hertfordshire department store.
“I was in John Lewis with my dad in Welwyn Garden City,” he remembers. “I don’t know what we were looking for, but I was walking down the aisles, and they had this little radio-controlled car, which I still have today. I was three or four, I think I was four. They put some batteries in it and let me drive it up the aisles, and I loved it. I got it for Christmas, and that was my first car – it had the number five.
“And then, where we lived in our onebedroom flat, there was a guy across the way who mainly built model boats and ships like aircraft carriers. He had a big radio-controlled car, and he was driving it up and down the driveway. He let me drive it, and I was amazing with it.”
Hamilton was a natural from the start – a few years later he showcased his talents on Blue Peter (above). By that time he had also started racing karts, an expensive pastime funded by his father taking multiple jobs – until he caught the eye of McLaren, who helped shape Hamilton into the driver he is today.
Let It Shine
McLaren, however, sometimes has a reputation for having a sterile, totalitarian environment. It’s only since moving to Mercedes two and a half years ago that Hamilton has been able to come out of his shell. He is enjoying life – “I’m happy with work, with the car, in the studio, with friends and family, with my dogs” – and isn’t afraid to show it. “Don’t be who everyone else wants you to be,” he says when we ask what the quote on his chest means to him.
“Don’t feel like you need to shrink. I love the part where it’s like: ‘You shouldn’t have to shrink in order to make others around you feel good. If anything, your light should liberate others to shine their light.’ I love that. It’s the best quote in the world and it’s so real about life – and I live by that.”
Hamilton says he has become better at expressing himself as he has aged: “I think probably since I turned 30 I’ve taken the final step of that, and that’s probably another reason why I’m happy. If someone comes to me and says ‘oh, people have not been too positive about this post’, I’m like: ‘And…? What difference does that make?’ I had a great time, I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
If Hamilton could have raced in any era other than his own, he would, perhaps unsurprisingly, pick the time of Niki Lauda and James Hunt – the era of big characters and rock-star excess. “I think they were just allowed to be themselves more,” says Hamilton. “It’s just a million times more corporate than it ever was back then, and therefore you are restricted in everything you do.”
Hamilton is only now realising the extent to which he had to suppress his personality to fit into the world of F1: “More than ever, I feel that I had to be something I was not to be able to fit in. I always describe it like, it’s almost like you have to be a square shape to fit in, to get into Formula 1, and I wasn’t born as a square. I was born a different shape, but it should be open to all shapes and sizes.
“Unfortunately it wasn’t, and it never has been. In order to get there I had to fit into that shape. I definitely feel that since I’ve been in Formula 1, performing and achieving what I have achieved, I’ve been able to come out of my shell and be that shape. A bit like that quote where it says to help liberate others, I hope that I have now opened up doors for other shapes to come through.”
Hamilton remains the only black or mixed-race driver ever to make it into Formula 1, but he’s hopeful.
“I’ve raced 22 years and I’ve never come across another black family or mixed-race family,” he says. “Very rarely have we come across another family from a different ethnic background. But now, I go to events… I particularly remember a charity event I went to in New York, and this African lady came running over to me. She was like: ‘Oh you know, my son’s your biggest fan and he’s now racing go-karts.’ I meet all these kids – whether they’re black, Chinese, Indian – all now wanting to be racing drivers, and I guess now they have someone who they can…
“You know when you watch TV and you’re like: ‘Oh he’s like me! I fit in just like he fits in.’ I’m hoping that is the case. That happened with Tiger [Woods] in golf, it happened with the Williams sisters [Venus and Serena, in tennis]. Those are a little bit less expensive career paths to go down, but I definitely like to think when my time is done here that we have opened doors.”
His lasting legacy on that front remains to be seen, but Hamilton has certainly made his mark on the track. Winning at Spa a fortnight ago brought him level with hero Senna on 80 podium finishes.
“That’s very cool, because as a kid I grew up watching him on TV, and I was wanting to achieve what he did,” he explains. “So when I got to Formula 1, people were like: ‘What do you want to achieve?’ I’ve always wanted to emulate Ayrton because he’s been my favourite driver since I was a kid, so now to think I have raced a similar length to him, have achieved a similar amount to him – I feel very proud and privileged.”
Three more wins will move Hamilton above Senna and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel in the list of all-time race wins, but there are still 50 more after that to move ahead of Michael Schumacher at the top.
“Only 50?” he asks, laughing, when we ask whether he’ll stick around in the sport long enough to get near that barrier. “I mean, it’s taken me a long time to get to where I am. I’m thinking another six or seven years. I always wanted to get to three world titles, but I’ve got six or seven more years, so I plan for six or seven more!”
For now though, his focus is firmly on securing a third. Last year Hamilton was unstoppable in the back half of the season, winning six of the last seven races to put Rosberg’s title challenge to rest. He has a 28-point lead going into this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza, but he’s not taking his foot off the accelerator.
“There is no coasting in F1,” Hamilton says. “One DNF [did not finish], one mistake, can result in losing those points. I want to win every race for the rest of the year. Right now, I’m full attack.”
That’s a typically direct response from the man who could yet become F1’s best ever driver – sponsors on his shirt, ink on his chest, heart on his sleeve.