Why Formula One star Lewis Hamilton matters

November 17, 2020

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Lewis Hamilton equalled Michael Schumacher’s record of seven titles in Formula One to enter the pantheon of greats on Sunday. Hamilton matches up, and in some cases, even exceeds Schumacher in terms of achievements on the track. But if there is one arena where Hamilton has no competition, it is the work he has done in terms of political engagement in a sport that has rarely engaged with life outside of its bubble of races, engineers, mechanics, machines and brand building.

Diversity in Formula One
Formula One is a sport that has historically favoured teams and drivers with the deepest pockets. The economics of the sport allow for only a select few to enter it. Before he began his dominance in the sport, Lewis Hamilton’s identity among a larger public audience was that of being the first ever black race car driver in Formula One. Hamilton, who came from a poor British family and whose parents had to truly struggle for his career in racing to become a reality, is the biggest anomaly in the way Formula One has always been run. It is therefore no surprise that the man who has practically no business being around the sport, has been its biggest campaigner for bringing about diversity in the sport.

Hamilton’s call for diversity over the years hasn’t just been about there being more race car drivers of different ethnicity. In an interview once, Hamilton said, “There really is the most minimal diversity within this sport and I really want to be a part of shifting that, working in cooperation with Formula One and the FIA. I don’t know why there’s not enough university students, engineers, mechanics and even media coming through from more diverse backgrounds.”
The response to his call for action was perfunctory at best. Formula One boss Corey Chase promised to open up newer avenues for drivers of colour to enter the sport. But the overall message of hiring people of colour was lost among the noise. That was until Hamilton this year ramped up his efforts to bring about changes in F1 as the Black Lives Matters movement grew.

Mercedes changes colours
One of the most recognisable sports stars in the world and the greatest driver in the sport (in terms of number of wins) not only wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt and took a knee – he also got other drivers to join – but also got his German team, Mercedes, to join the campaign. The success that both Mercedes and Hamilton provided each other helped the Black Lives Matter movement gain visibility in Formula One. And with Mercedes not wanting to let go of their prize driver to other teams, made them more ready to go with the changes that the Brit was wanting the team to implement. It led to Mercedes racing in 2020 with an all-black livery instead of their customary silver, in a bid to align themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement. For a team with cars painted silver and black for decades and known as the ‘Silver Arrows’, going all-Black, including racing suits and uniforms for the mechanics and engineers, was a significant step.

Lewis HamiltonLewis Hamilton, the sport’s only Black competitor, has previously worn a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt in similar pre-race gestures against racism. (Reuters)
“We will not shy away from our weaknesses in this area, nor from the progress we must still make; our livery is our public pledge to take positive action. We intend to find and attract the very best talents from the broadest possible range of backgrounds, and to create credible pathways for them to reach our sport, in order to build a stronger and more diverse team in the future,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff earlier in the year, reiterating the team’s backing of Hamilton’s political stand. As he continued to wear BLM t-shirts, helmets and took a knee as a sign of protest, Mercedes continued to back him.

F1’s lukewarm response
Despite his team backing his stance on being vocal about the Black Lives Matters movement, the response from F1’s stakeholders was not as enthusiastic. Hamilton criticised F1’s response to BLM by saying that it was too rushed and that the organisation was not looking to make any actual, structural change. “We’ve said things and there’s been statements released and we’ve made gestures such as kneeling but we’ve not changed anything,” Hamilton said according to a BBC report. “Except for perhaps some of our awareness.” This made clear when Hamilton continued to wear BLM t-shirts and talk about the movement even after the season opener in Austria, though F1 gave the impression that it was to be a one-time perfunctory show of support. Formula One had allocated time before the season opener for drivers to show support for the anti-racism movement but did not do the same for the second and third rounds.

Convincing his peers
The biggest fight for Hamilton in bringing about a change in Formula One continues to be his own peers, that is, the drivers. Last July, Hamilton criticised French driver Romain Grosjean’s (who is a director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association) response to the BLM movement and that he believed the Frenchman didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. Six drivers didn’t take a knee at the season opener in Austria. But no one went as far as former Russian rival Vitaly Petrov, who accused Hamilton of being ‘overzealous’ and that the 35-year old’s political stance in the arena of F1 was ‘too much’. He then went on to compare the Hamilton’s BLM stance akin to ‘a gay individual flying a rainbow flag asking everyone else to become gay’. Despite these comments, Petrov was invited by Formula One to be a racing steward at the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Motorsport great Mario Andretti went as far as calling him ‘militant’. In response, Hamilton said the comments were ‘disappointing’.

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