WBefore Lewis Hamilton’s task on the track wasn’t difficult enough, Formula One has long featured a much more formidable fight. Ahead of this weekend’s British Grand Prix, he was given yet another stark reminder of the ugly reality that racing remains a serious problem for the only black driver in the sport. Hamilton has met him with grace and stoicism.
The depths of intolerance have only served to further elevate an ambassador the sport can be proud of.
F1 roundly condemned Nelson Piquet’s use of a racist slur in speaking about Hamilton, which was made public this week, and which was exacerbated as more examples of his bigotry emerged. Piquet has form in this department, few were surprised or convinced by his apology in which he claimed that his words had been mistranslated. There was a lot of upset in the sport, but it was a healthy lesson in the racism Hamilton has faced throughout his career.
When the 37-year-old came to address him this week at Silverstone, he did so with a thoughtful and considered air that was a world away from the base and ignoble nature of Piquet’s comments. Not only was Hamilton able to draw inspiration from adversity, but in his actions he has proven himself to be by far the greatest man, whose influence will be felt for decades to come.
“These undertones of discrimination and microaggressions are not helpful in today’s world and create more division,” he said. “I love how Michelle Obama says when they go down, we go up. So I try to keep doing that. I’m still here. It will not deter me from doing what I think is right and doing what I love, which is working in the sport.”
Hamilton’s reaction to Piquet’s comments was to demand action. He was in a strong position to do it, and he was already moving up as Obama advised. On Thursday he announced the first grants made by his Ignite Partnership, a joint commitment with his Mercedes team to improve diversity in the sport for which he and the team have created a $6.2 million fund.
One of the beneficiaries is Motorsport UK, the governing body for British motorsport. It will focus on increasing female participation in grassroots motorsports and developing new partnerships to reach more communities with a high representation of low-income and minority ethnic groups.
Hamilton has been outspoken about the need for diversity in racing and has emphatically put his money where his mouth is. Along with the Ignite initiative, he has donated £20m to his Mission44 project to promote diversity.
David Richards is a former F1 team principal who has been involved in the sport all his life and is the chairman of Motorsport UK. He has known and followed Hamilton since he first made his mark in karting. Richards is astute, thoughtful, and above all an enthusiast for improving the sport. Unsurprisingly, he only admires Hamilton’s determination to make a difference.
“He’s not just talking about it, he’s actually doing something about it,” he said. “Would this have happened without the initiative of Lewis, without the investment of him and Mercedes Benz? He probably wouldn’t. It takes people to stand up and be counted for these things to happen. It’s all very well to have great ideas, but you have to follow them with substance and he has done just that. We will see more female and black participation as a result of this.”
Hamilton has risen up to be counted, especially as the Black Lives Matter movement spurred him into action. His vocal demand that F1 take a stand on racism and equality was crucial in the sport embracing his We Race As One anti-racism and pro-diversity initiative.
His action propelled other drivers and the sport itself. Yet, as he pointed out, for all the racist rhetoric it had endured, the politics-doesn’t-belong-in-sports brigade felt it was stepping beyond its limits, a ridiculous notion that a man should not express an opinion on issues that affect him on a personal level.
Richards dismisses those objections, noting that the sport has in fact been enriched by Hamilton’s contribution. “I bet the same people who criticize him for what he’s doing would also criticize him for not standing up for these issues if he didn’t say anything,” he said. “He has a platform and he uses it appropriately, he uses it for the discussion of inclusion and the issues of racism and the environment. I applaud you for it. Young people listen to him for what he has achieved and I am sure he is using that platform very effectively and appropriately.”
Hamilton’s success has brought the sport to a whole new audience and Silverstone has long been his fiefdom. Of his record 103 F1 wins, eight have been taken here, ensuring he is the most successful driver at the old airfield. Fans have developed a special relationship with him as he has given them the opportunity to rejoice in victory time and time again.
This weekend will be a much more difficult task. Mercedes remains off the pace of Red Bull and Ferrari, its car design has proven unwieldy and its problems with rebound have been a setback to developing and improving its driving. Hamilton trails championship leader Max Verstappen of Red Bull by 98 points and has conceded that a shot at an eighth title is beyond him this season.
However, the effort of the British driver and his team will not be lacking this weekend. Mercedes has brought a host of upgrades to Silverstone and is hopeful its car will be well suited to the circuit’s smooth track and fast, flowing corners. If they are going to change the season, this is their best opportunity to resurface.
Certainly, the seven-time champion doesn’t seem to be lacking in motivation even though this is his 16th season in the sport. Richards believes he’s as hungry as ever, even when it comes to one of the most die-hard cars of his career, but he’s convinced his legacy will extend beyond the track.
“I think we will see Lewis Hamilton influence F1 and motorsport in general for many years to come,” he said. “I hope we can embrace him in a life after F1 to continue doing the good things he has already started.” For Hamilton, then, the fight continues, but the man stands tall. “I’m still here, I’m still standing my ground,” he pointed pointedly at Silverstone.