The naysayers would have it that character has been all but driven out of Formula One. On Sunday, when the 2020 season finally fires up at the Austrian Grand Prix, all eyes will be on the man who has proved them wrong: Lewis Hamilton.
An extraordinary talent, a global star and a role model for the sport, the reigning champion is not only the best driver of his generation but under the lockdown stood tall as a leader and focal point for instigating change and bringing F1 together. He has demonstrated will, determination and – yes – character, in abundance. Now, as F1 goes racing again, history too beckons.
Hamilton goes into the shortened season as strong favourite to take his seventh title and match Michael Schumacher’s record. He and his Mercedes team are in every position to do so. With five titles from the past six seasons Hamilton, now 35 and in his 14th year in F1, is a finely honed blade.
There is almost a musicality, a rhythmic cadence to his driving his peers are unable to match in its relentless consistency and fine judgment. He has been calling the tunes, orchestrating seemingly at will. During the coronavirus crisis, he has also emerged as conductor of the sport’s conscience.
While America raged at the injustice of the killing of George Floyd, Hamilton, F1’s only black driver, was the sole voice in the sport to step up in support of Black Lives Matter. He condemned racism and called out F1 for it and the drivers’ silence. As a victim of racism and one long concerned at the lack of diversity in F1, this was entirely in character but he led the way with a vehemence. “Injustice prevails when you remain neutral,” he said.
Other drivers, many who said they felt emboldened by his words, joined the waves of condemnation. Hamilton attended a BLM march in London and continued to post messages of rage and frustration on Instagram, but also backed it with action. He set up his own commission in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering to investigate engaging young black people in the Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and encourage them into motor racing and engineering.
F1 was forced to follow, creating the We Race As One initiative, and opened with a $1m donation from the CEO, Chase Carey, to help underrepresented groups enter the sport as well as creating a task force to address diversity.
It was Hamilton’s idea for Mercedes to drop their classic silver livery in favour of this season’s black one, featuring “end racism”. Both drivers will wear black overalls.
His team have also launched a diversity programme, acknowledging the uncomfortable statistic that of their 1,000-strong workforce only 3% belong to minority ethnic groups and only 12% are women.
Hamilton’s stand was clearly personal, but bore the hallmarks of a statesman. “We want to build a legacy that goes beyond sport,” he said. “If we can be the leaders and can start building more diversity within our own business, it will send such a strong message.”
The “politics don’t belong in sport” brigade were left flailing and impotent at the difference one man had made. If, as is expected, the entire grid takes the knee before the race on Sunday afternoon, they do so led by Hamilton.
A standard bearer for awareness, he is looking to prove once more to be the differentiator on track as well. His rivals know the title will have to be wrested from him.
Damon Hill is in no doubt as to the Britons pedigree. “Over F1 history some drivers had talent but bad luck, made bad decisions, or were too volatile,” the 1996 world champion says. “They had some flaw. Lewis has so few flaws as a driver.”
With the season truncated into perhaps as few as 15 races run in bursts of three consecutively, reliability and consistency will be key. Mercedes have been masters of the former and Hamilton of the latter.
“He has said nobody’s perfect and very occasionally at some circuits it seems there is a lack of love and it doesn’t happen, but he manages always to get the best he can out of those days,” Hill says. “To maintain a level of performance and the concentration throughout a season is hard enough, but through the 13 seasons he has had it is almost impossible to do without burning out. But when things aren’t there the smart guys recognises that it’s not their day and get the best they can out of it. Lewis does that.”
The pace is there, the verve and the racing touch, but time and again Hamilton has proved able to make the split-second percentage decisions to maximise his position when under pressure.
Hamilton’s contract has yet to be renewed for 2021 but it will surely now be a formality that he will stay with Mercedes for at least another year. Johnny Herbert has no doubts the drive in Hamilton to win is stronger than ever and that Hamilton is a worthy ambassador for F1.
“He is motivated, he is motivated to beat Michael,” the former F1 driver turned pundit says. “People who criticise him for what he does and says outside racing are very unfair and narrow-minded. He is great for the sport and speaks out on what is relevant to what is happening in this day and age.”
Ferrari acknowledge the aerodynamic design they took to testing was the wrong approach and will bring a new version to the season’s third race, in Hungary, so Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel look to be playing catchup from the off. The form book suggests it is Red Bull and Max Verstappen who are Hamilton’s closest challengers.
The pressure will be high, but Hamilton has the gravitas to handle it. A blow-for-blow battle with Verstappen would be a mighty show but one in which Hamilton seems unassailable. Yet he may consider that even should that remarkable seventh title be claimed, it will be the change he has helped bring off track that he is most proud of when the flag falls at the end of the season.