REBIRTH OF THE COOL
The mega-sized life and record-breaking times of Formula One phenom Lewis Hamilton
Around noon on Martin Luther King Day, Lewis Hamilton, the world’s first black Formula One champion, settled into his chair at a conference table in a private room at Koi at the Trump SoHo. A selection of still and sparkling waters awaited him. “Svens?” he called to a member of his team outside the room. Daniel Forrest, his childhood friend and social-media director, popped his head in. “Can you text Kirsten and make sure they don’t feed Roscoe?” he asked. “Otherwise he’ll need to go to the toilet on the plane.”
These days, Roscoe, Hamilton’s three-year-old bulldog, rides in style. In February 2013, several months after signing a $91 million contract with Mercedes-Benz, Hamilton, then twenty-eight, acquired a Bombardier CL-600 jet, which he had painted candy-apple red with a black tail stripe to match the detailing on the crown jewel of his growing car collection, a GT500 he purchased after seeing Gone in 60 Seconds.
(The Daily Mail reported that Hamilton got the plane in order to “ease the strain of his long-distance relationship with former X Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger.” Hamilton’s primary residence is Monaco, while pop singer and one-time Pussycat Doll Scherzinger is based in Los Angeles. Alas, the comforts of the $30 million jet offered only a temporary salve — the couple split earlier this year.)
A taste for the finer things did not come naturally to Hamilton, now thirty. The go-kart he won the British Championship with in 1995 had five previous owners. By now, his incredible rags-to-riches story is wellknown to the millions of F1 fans who have watched him since his F1 debut in 2007, when he became the first rookie to make the podium on all of his first five Grand Prix races. No doubt the legend of the boy from Stevenage, Hertfordshire, whose father was a black British Rail technician and whose mother was a white schoolteacher, dominated the 2008 F1 season. As did Hamilton, winning the Australian, Monaco, British, Hockenheim, and Chinese Grand Prix — and then, in the last corner of the Brazilian, becoming at twenty-three the youngest driver in history to clinch a Formula One World Championship title.
What followed was five agonizingly competitive seasons punctuated by a steady stream of Grand Prix victories but no silver cup. Until November 23, when the so-called Billion Dollar Man zoomed to a sec-ond world title with a victory at the final race of the year in Abu Dhabi.
“Yeah, it was a long — ” he hesitates and corrects himself — “it was a good stretch of time without being champion.” The storybook narrative of Hamilton’s humble roots might continue to fuel his fan base and provide a nifty selling point for the sport, but the last six years have been mostly the quiet drama of a racecar driver coming of age. Discipline, sacrifice, and tedious dedication to a sport that has as much — or more — to do with engineering and a driver’s familiarity with the nuts and bolts as his own poise and decisiveness behind the wheel.
“The thing with Formula One is, people perhaps struggle to understand what’s going on inside of the driver,” he says. His heart is beating 160 times per minute through the whole race. He would know: both driver and car are lathered in sensors. “There’s the stress of millions of people watching. You’ve got the pressure of the massive corporations sponsoring you.” Namely: Mercedes-Benz, Bombardier, and IWC. “And then, on top of it, you put pressure on yourself, because you really want to succeed.”
Formula One, he says, is not like golf, where it’s just the club and the player — how he trains, how he uses technique. “The driver has that same scope of technique,” he says, “but there’s a car and a whole team. There’s over a thousand people who build my car.”
Hamilton drove for McLaren from 2007 up until 2012, when he signed with Mercedes-Benz, which employs four hundred technicians in one factory, to build the F1 engines, and another seven hundred in a separate factory, where the car is rebuilt and tested.
“You’re dependent on those people to give you the platform to be able to execute your abilities,” he says. “It’s a lot different from go-karts.” Hamilton takes on a lighter, more joyful tone when recalling his go-karting days. Indeed, to hear him retrace his journey to F1 is to enter a sort of fantasyland.
Hamilton’s parents, Carmen and Anthony, divorced when he was two. He started spending weekends at his father’s one-bedroom flat in Hatfield. When he was four, Anthony bought him a radio-controlled car, like the kind you get at RadioShack, to give them something to do together. The guy across the road also had a radio-controlled car, but one with a petrol engine — the kind that goes fast, makes lots of noise, and costs hundreds of dollars. One day he came over to where Hamilton and his dad were playing with their dinky little machine and said, “Hey, do you want to have a go?”
He handed over the complicated controls to the boy. “It was so fast,” Hamilton recalls. “And I was amazing at it.” The neighbor was aghast that the five-year-old instinctively knew how to drive his grown-up toy, and at high speeds, without crashing. His father couldn’t believe it either. So he bought one for his son. They began taking it to a local farm where older kids would race their cars around a small dirt track. When you hit a jump, you had to brake or accelerate to control the pitch of the car in the air. Hamilton was the youngest competitor by at least ten years. And not only was he five years old — he was beating everyone, too.
Someone suggested to his father that his son’s hand-eye coordination might translate to actual driving — that he ought to try him in a go-kart. On the Christmas before his eighth birthday his dad took him to a go-kart track and presented him with his very own (fifth-hand) go-kart. They would go to a nearby parking lot and practice and practice, until Hamilton was ready for his first race. “We ended up placing first in six races as a black plate,” he says with a smile. The experienced drivers who qualify are given yellow plates.
He started to win quite a lot. In his second year on the go-karting circuit, he won the British Championship. At the Autosport Awards ceremony, Hamilton, then ten, famously walked up to McLaren team principal Ron Dennis and told him he wanted to drive for him. Three years later McLaren and Mercedes-Benz signed him to their Young Driver Development program.
Back then his father was his only mechanic. Anthony remortgaged the house to pay for parts and built a shed in the back garden that would serve as their garage. Hamilton’s stepmother would make them bacon sandwiches. She sewed his name on his jumpsuit. His main competition was the son of a wealthy guy who had a big construction firm; they would turn up at races in a tricked-out RV. The kid had his own mechanic, who was supposed to be the top go-kart expert around.
“It turns out, his wheel fell off in the last race because that mechanic didn’t put the wheels on right,” Hamilton marvels. “My car never failed. My dad was very diligent.” His dad was his hero — and thorough — but it was Hamilton’s heroics behind the wheel that won races. Formula One is more about not making mistakes than it is about fancy maneuvers.
The sensors on the car trace every movement you make. From the throttle, to the braking, to the amount you steer, how aggressive you are — all those data points are recorded and analyzed, studied. It’s a continuous process.
“And the dude next to you, your teammate, can see it all!” Hamilton says. His teammate for the past year, Nico Rosberg, son of Finnish 1982 Formula One world champion Keke Rosberg, has been his main competition on the circuit for the past two seasons — though their rivalry dates back to their go-karting days.
“It’s like having that all documented and given to your competitor — who’s in your company, trying to do the story you are about to do, just trying to take your spot. He’s got all of your DNA, almost.”
Only Hamilton’s DNA is unique in a sport that continues to be dominated by wealthy white Europeans. During his second season in Formula One, a tense rivalry with one-time teammate and double world champion Fernando Alonso earned Hamilton the ire of Alonso’s Spanish fan base, some of whom turned up to preseason testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in blackface.
“Of course you have to work, but I like to maximize every day, enjoy it, because you never know when it’s your last. I’m very, very, very conscious of that.”
“I guess, in life, it’s about turning negatives into positives,” he says. “It’s not always easy to do, but if you can create tools to do that, it’s going to be more powerful than anything you have. Subconsciously, it may be something that we have as a family.”
In recent years, the challenges have become more complex. Conditioning is constant and intense. There are no more bacon sandwiches. Even the joy of pancakes is forbidden but for one week out of the year. His breakfast this year was oats with almond milk, a protein shake, a small piece of grilled salmon with black beans and avocado, and a fruit plate. It’s not always pleasant.
After the season ends, in November, he heads to his home near Vail. He trains three times a day in the off-season. (Twice a day once testing resumes.) First cross-country skiing for two hours, then the gym, followed by resistance training in the pool.
During the summer, in Monaco, the day might begin with a surf session or a mountain bike tour — then the gym or pool in the afternoon. “As a Formula One driver, you are not training to be the best long distance runner or Tour de France cyclist,” says his trainer Ville Vihola, a Finnish native. “The goal is to be fit enough to concentrate all of your efforts on the race at hand and feel one hundred percent focused in trying moments like the last lap of the Singapore Grand Prix when the temperature in the cockpit is forty degrees Celsius and the car is going more than three hundred kilometers per hour.” (Allow me to do the math: that’s 186 miles an hour.)
“Lewis learns everything really fast and he never gives up,” Vihola says. “It doesn’t matter how hard we push in the gym: he won’t stop before I tell him to. Most of the time I have to tell him to slow down rather than tell him to go faster.”
There is also the challenge of enjoying life without losing that focus. Hamilton really enjoys his toys. In addition to the Mega Jet, as he calls it, there is also the Mega Zone — the nickname for his palatial pad in Monaco. Jetskis, dune buggies, paintball guns, motorcycles — everything is Mega. His favorite toy at the moment is a motorized wakeboard.
“Of course you have to work, but I like to maximize every day, enjoy it, because you never know when it’s your last. I’m very, very, very conscious of that, so I just like to make sure I enjoy the time I get, and I like to share it with people,” he says. “That’s why we have the Mega Zone. I like to share it with all my friends and help them do things they wouldn’t necessarily ever get to do.”
Hamilton’s back is tattooed with a giant crucifix, above it the words “Still I Strive.” With success, he says, comes the responsibility to represent himself in a way that allows other less fortunate kids to dream. “I want to empower young guys with the same belief I had instilled in me as a kid,” he says. “Not everyone who gets beaten down by other people can overcome and use those experiences to get stronger.”
His favorite athlete is Muhammad Ali. He has close to a million followers on Instagram and tries to keep it positive: “I don’t want to just put up shit like guns and cash. I want kids to think, Oh, man, I want to do that, or, I want to do more.” “That’s just one small way of empowering people without saying, Hey, you’ve got to believe in yourself,” he says.
Hamilton does not like to be controlled or pushed around. He was bullied in grade school, told he was a nobody. “You still go through ups and downs — it doesn’t matter where you are or how much money you have.” When we meet up in late January, he is reportedly in “pole position” to sign a new $150 million, five-year contract with Mercedes-Benz. “You still have problems in the world, you still have insecurities, you still have things you have to overcome. There are kids who don’t have opportunity, but there are also adults who are stuck in an office and frustrated. They need someone to help them, too. They’re like, Shit, this is all I’m doing? But actually, there’s more you can do. If you can send one message or meet one person, and boost them for a week or for a day or for an hour, that’s freaking cool.”
Later in the day, Hamilton acknowledges MLK Day on Instagram: “‘If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.’” Preferably, at 186 mph.