The current Formula 1 season may see Lewis Hamilton equal Michael Schumacher’s seemingly unattainable world championship record, but arguably it shall be his work off the track that will leave the lasting legacy.
Words By Rob Barrie
2020 has been the year of change. Our daily lives being vastly affected by COVID-19. But another sea of change that has risen up amongst the pandemic has been a further collective call for racial equality. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has spread throughout continents with immense strength and its message is as potent as ever.
One of the major platforms for the propagation of this message has been sport. When, in 2016, Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the US anthem – in response to incidences of racial inequality and police brutality – this ignited the touch paper on utilising sport, often televised to millions of watchers, to voice important messages. It is not just in the 21st century that sport has seen this kind of vocalisation, though. In the 1968 Olympic Games, black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium whilst the US anthem played, with the former later saying it was a “human rights salute” in response to criticism from mainstream media.
This is a theme with similarities more than 50 years later in sport, with Lewis Hamilton one of the major activists. The six-time world champion has always been vocal about experiences of racism, but 2020 has been the year where he has implemented observable change and actions. When George Floyd was killed by American police in May, Hamilton was active on social media about the necessity for change. Being the only black driver out of the current twenty on the grid, and with black and ethnic minorities being under-represented in many of the teams, his outspoken messages were significant and important. For people of colour, Hamilton saw parallels between the lack of opportunity in Formula 1 and the wider world. He urged fellow drivers to speak out, and while some did, many chose not to. He has received criticism from drivers he currently shares the track with, in addition to disapproval from past drivers; Jackie Stewart for example denying that Formula 1 has a racism problem. Fans, too, have lamented and abused Hamilton for bringing politics into sport and he even faced an inquiry from F1’s governing body itself. However, despite Stewart’s and some fans’ views of there being no racism or discrimination in F1, the facts paint a very different picture. Mercedes, for example, the team Hamilton drives for, openly admit that just 3% of their workforce identify as belonging to minority ethnic groups and only 12% of their employees are women. There are similar statistics amongst the other nine teams.
The facts, therefore, support Hamilton in his call for more equal opportunity and treatment. “People talk about sport not being a place for politics but ultimately it is a human rights issue and that is something we should be pushing towards,” he said. And after being included in TIME’s list of 100 most influential people in 2020, his work is getting the awareness that he and, most importantly, black people deserve and with it a better cognisance of racial injustice amongst more conservative societies.
Being the only black driver on the grid, it should come as no surprise why Hamilton feels so strongly about perceptions of race and this is before his own experiences are looked at. He experienced racism when rising through the junior racing categories and was bullied by fellow competitors. Presumably envious of his natural talent, they chose to taunt him for the colour of his skin. His father taught him to not show weakness and to “kill them with love and beat them on the track”. The racism reached its zenith at the end of his youth, however, with one of the most famous incidents occurring in Spain during the 2008 season. A group of spectators coloured their faces black and hurled insults at the British driver. He would go on to win his maiden championship that year in one of the most remarkable finales in motorsport history – but not before being racially abused once again, this time on a Spanish website. Even today, just searching his name on social media presents a plethora of hate and negativity that centres around him on race weekends. One can assume that Hamilton’s own experiences of racism, ranging from youth and now into adulthood, has shaped his outlook on the injustice present in motorsport and, with this, he has become a beacon in the world of not just Formula 1 but sport in general.
Since the beginning of the season, the British driver has been in constant discussions with the governing body of Formula 1. It is, in part, thanks to him that the “we race as one” initiative was born as the theme of this season. In addition to this, a pre-race demonstration now takes place with all twenty drivers wearing t-shirts saying “End Racism”. Hamilton, and most of the drivers, take a knee too but still there are some drivers that refuse to do so stating the gesture has negative connotations in their home country. Part of the problem, therefore, is perhaps Formula 1 does not seemingly “race as one”. Especially in comparison to other sports where now there is such unanimity about anti-racism messages. . The Premier League in England wore jerseys with “Black Lives Matter” substituted for the players’ names on the back. In addition, both sets of players and the managers take a knee before each game without fail. The NBA in America, long seen as the central catalyst for sporting vocalisation, wore BLM T-shirts and knelt before the game.
This was further amplified during the Mugello Grand Prix, when in response to the shooting of Breonna Taylor, Hamilton wore a shirt displaying the words “Arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor” during the pre-race anti-racism display and also on the podium after the race. Hamilton was investigated by the FIA (Formula 1’s governing body) for violating a regulation that forbids political demonstration. Though nothing came of the investigation, there is a sense that the FIA will clarify its rules on such displays.
The most impressive action Hamilton has undertaken this year was to found The Hamilton Commission. It is a research partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering. Its aim is to make motorsport “as diverse as the complex and multicultural world we live in.” Hamilton stated “I’m used to being one of very few people of colour on my teams and, more than that, I’m used to the idea that no one will speak up for me when I face racism, because no one personally feels or understands my experience.” The creation of this research programme will identify the hurdles that young black people face when trying to forge careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. Hamilton and the research programme will analyse and publish the results and take it to the higher positional seats of Formula 1. As Hamilton adds: “Thousands of people are employed across this industry and that group needs to be more representative of society.” Mercedes, the team Hamilton drives for, openly admit they need to improve too. As mentioned earlier, they concur that they are under-represented by black and ethnic minority backgrounds. But they have been hugely supportive to their driver, and, as a combination, they have been the major driving force in the promotion of anti-racism showings in Formula 1.Mercedes are on course to win a record 7th straight constructor’s championship. And their driver, a record equalling 7th driver’s championship. But with his unrelenting desire for equality and the formation of The Hamilton Commission, Lewis Hamilton is not just combating this, but also helping to fix his own sport with its quiet undertones of discrimination. So despite the countless trophies he has lifted or the endless records he has tumbled, it may be Hamilton’s human rights work off the track that shall leave the greatest legacy.