ABU DHABI – Lewis Hamilton will cement his position as one of Formula One’s legends if he wins a record eighth world title in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, representing another staggering achievement for a boy who grew up in modest circumstances.
It has been quite a ride.
The son of a black father and a white mother, whose parents separated in his youth, Hamilton grew up on a housing estate.
His father Anthony at one time held down three jobs to fund his son’s embryonic racing career in karting.
It was clear from an early age that Hamilton had a gift for speed and the gutsy natural instincts of a born racer.
In 1995, aged 10, and wearing a jacket and shoes borrowed from his predecessor as British Formula Cadet karting champion, he went to a glittering awards ceremony in London where he met McLaren’s then-boss Ron Dennis.
He asked for an autograph and told him “one day I want to race for you”. Dennis replied: “Phone me in nine years and I’ll sort you a deal.”
Mercurial and tempestuous
Bold, determined and original, he almost won the title in his first record-breaking season as he reeled off nine successive podiums from his debut in Melbourne, astonishing with his speed and his style.
On and off the track, he was fast, mercurial and occasionally tempestuous and the combination led to a fierce rivalry with team-mate and two-time champion Fernando Alonso at McLaren.
He narrowly missed the 2007 title, but in 2008 grabbed fifth place on the final corner in Brazil to edge Felipe Massa by one point and at 23 become the youngest ever champion.
Hamilton showed frustration as McLaren failed to deliver the speed to beat Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull, who reeled off four straight title triumphs from 2010 to 2013, by which time Hamilton had departed for Mercedes.
Escaping the management regime of Dennis and his father, Hamilton found freedom at Mercedes alongside team-mate Nico Rosberg, his teenage karting friend and rival.
This enabled Hamilton to express himself with a headline-grabbing trans-Atlantic lifestyle, mixing with musicians and ‘fashionistas’.
He showed little love for conventions and, for many observers, gave his sport a welcome injection of freshness and diversity as champion again in 2014 and 2015.
Rosberg broke Hamilton’s supremacy in 2016 and then retired, leaving the Englishman to dominate.
His former McLaren team-mate Jenson Button said Hamilton had pure speed.
“For me, over one lap, I don’t think there is anyone as quick as Lewis and I don’t think there ever has been,” Button said.
That speed has in recent seasons been allied to a more mature attitude to his job as team leader.
Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff said of Hamilton: “He is never satisfied. He never settles. He is never happy with where he is as a racing driver and a human being.”
Having achieved so much as his sport’s most high profile figure, Hamilton has expressed views on social issues more frequently.
He began voicing his concerns for the environment and in 2019 used Instagram to declare the planet was “a messed-up place” and he felt he wanted “to give up”.
That commentary, including revelations about his vegan lifestyle, led to the man who frequently used private jets and competes in a sport hardly known for its green credentials being accused of hypocrisy.
“I’m only human,” he retorted. “Like everyone, we have up and down days. That’s what I’ve been really trying to convey.”
Last year, following the death of George Floyd, he pressed for greater diversity in the paddock and vocally supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
That very public stand did not meet with universal approval.
“It is a little bit wrong to say to other drivers I am world champion you should do the same..he is entitled to his opinion but he should keep it to himself,” former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone told AFP.
Hamilton’s belief in self-expression and freedom has shaped his advice for young drivers.
“What I can definitely advise any kid that’s out there trying to race is don’t listen to people who tell you that you need a mental coach or you need someone to help control your mind,” he said.
“You need to let it run wild and free and discover yourself. It is all about discovery. And only you can do it.”