Racism is a big deal in racing, says F1 champ Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton challenged stereotypes when he became the first black F1 champion. He still doesn’t understand when people say sport has nothing to do with race. The most candid F1 driver on the grid talks about life, love, his racing idol Ayrton Senna and sensibilities.brunch Updated: Nov 10, 2013 22:56 IST
There’s a musician lurking inside Lewis Hamilton. Not dating former Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger any longer, the first black F1 world champion shifted gears to tracks of another kind when he wrote love songs in a reported bid to win her back. Hamilton even cut some tracks at a Los Angeles recording studio.
Sure, he is much better at pit stops than hip hop, but last week, Hamilton’s movie star looks and the interest in his personal life unleashed the kind of frenzy among Formula One fanatics at Greater Noida’s Buddh International Circuit, usually reserved for Bollywood stars and cricketers. Sitting in the pit area of the Mercedes AMG Petronas team at the 2013 Indian Grand Prix, after interacting with winners of Airtel’s ‘Join our crew contest’, Hamilton, 28, declared that India was one of his favourite venues in the world.
What does he like the most about coming here? "The people. The weather is great and the track awesome. I haven’t really seen a lot of the country. But the people are always smiling and very down to earth. I love the way they fold their hands together and say ‘Namaste’. I love the warmth of the culture."
With Sebastian Vettel’s victory at the Indian Grand Prix and coronation as World Champion, Hamilton didn’t live up to expectations of a podium finish. Wasn’t old flame Nicole’s version of Jai Ho, inspired by him, meant to motivate Hamilton to victory at Greater Noida? “That was cool. When Nicole wrote that and she was performing Jai Ho and pointed me out in the audience. But I also like coming here since I love Indian food. Growing up, when I hadn’t even imagined coming to the country, my family used to have Indian takeaway on a weekly basis. It’s funny, but when we were actually watching Grand Prix on the weekend, the only food we would have was canned Indian delicacies. And after every race here, I look forward to having a good curry.”
Now before you dismiss Hamilton as just another curry Westerner, let’s get a few facts clear about the F1 champ right away. Racing legend Niki Lauda, on whose rivalry with James Hunt Ron Howard’s biographical sports drama Rush is based, described Hamilton’s victory at 2013’s Hungarian Grand Prix as the best ever he had seen.
In 2008, before F1 settled into the predictable good-Vettel-best routine, Hamilton became the youngest Formula One champion in history. Suddenly, at the age of 23, the Briton’s emotions hurtled from dismay to delirium. Hamilton says that looking back, in case he became world champion again, he’d relish it more than the first time. “When I first won the world championship, I did not enjoy it as much. The previous year I had lost and the next year I had it. And then I didn’t and then I did. By that time, my emotions were destroyed. And then I won, with so many cameras around, it wasn’t so much fun.”
At that time, Hamilton did not realise the import of being the youngest Formula One champion in the universe. “I didn’t care that it came at a young age. I was proud to have finally realised my dream. Just to get to F1 was an incredible achievement for my family and me. After some weeks, it really started kicking in and then it was nicer.”
He’s Got A Fast Car: Know The Champ
In the 2013 Formula One standings, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, 28, is currently fourth behind Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen. His best years were during his debut season in 2007 and 2008, when at only 23, he became the youngest world champion in F1 history. His record was broken by current champion Vettel in 2010.
The tag of being the first black world champion appears to sit lightly on Hamilton. After all, wasn’t he the victim of racial abuse in Barcelona in 2008, an incident that threatened to snowball into a diplomatic row? How does he respond to detractors who say being the first non-white world champion is no big deal? "I am a little bit surprised when they say race has nothing to do with the sport. Formula One is a white-dominated sport. You haven’t seen any black athletes till now, have you? I mean there have been a couple of Indians who have come and broken that barrier, and now in every sport throughout the world, that’s how it has been. Tiger [Woods] came in and broke that barrier and now you have people from different cultures who are getting into golf, and the same is the case with karting and racing; and that is great I think."
In India, too, home-bred racers such as Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok struggled to find international backers for years. Is it tougher for a non-white driver to break through the Formula One barrier? "I think it was definitely the case. My dad used to go and meet potential sponsors when I was younger and ask whether they would like to back a non-white driver and they used to laugh at him. Now that attitude has changed. I hope there will be many more non-white drivers on the grid now, including those from India."
In 1993, as an eight-year-old, Hamilton began karting at the Rye House Kart Circuit in Hertfordshire, UK. By the age of 10, he was British champion and after collecting his award, he famously approached McLaren team boss Ron Dennis and told him: "I will race for you one day."
Dennis reportedly wrote in the young Lewis’s autograph book that he should call him after nine years. Less than three years later, he had signed Hamilton up for the McLaren Mercedes Young Driver Support Programme. "I came home from school and dad said Ron’s office had called and they wanted me to test. I just went upstairs to do my homework. And then, during the entire process of studying with them, I realised what a huge opportunity it was to begin living my dream."
In 2008, Hamilton went on to become world champion in his second year on the circuit and subsequently, after a long association with McLaren, went on to race for Mercedes. During his golden run, he drew comparisons with cult racing icon Ayrton Senna, a James Dean-like glam figure, who, like Dean, died young in a car crash, albeit on the race track. "I would feel really honoured if I am mentioned in the same sentence that Senna’s name is mentioned. He was a legend. You hope that you win championships and one day you can look back and people say you are a legend. You never know if such a thing ever happens, but I am working towards it. It is not just about winning. It is also about winning the love of fans who’ve helped you along," he says.
Is it true that as a teenager growing up in England, young Lewis was fascinated by Senna’s personality? "Yeah, I mean, I was more fascinated with girls. But I admired Senna as a driver. I loved his style, his charisma and the fact that he was massively into reading. I loved reading books about Senna, watching his videos and taking notes. Watching his videos is like reading a book. He was an aggressive driver and he influenced me in a huge manner."
For the uninitiated, Ayrton Senna’s biggest rival on the Formula One race track was Alain ‘The Professor’ Prost, the French champion whose scholarly approach towards the sport was in contrast to the Brazilian’s flamboyant, tearaway penchant for burning rubber on the track.
Hamilton says Greater Noida’s Buddh International venue is a great circuit to drive on. "When I first came here, it had just been completed. Sometimes I feel we should open it to the people. In India, people know a little about F1 but don’t know enough. The entire perspective changes if you go to one race. If it was my track, I would open up the gates and get as many people as possible. I really like the Buddh International Circuit since it has good opportunities to overtake."
You read right, Hamilton loves to overtake. That’s how he emerged triumphant at the Hungarian Grand Prix earlier this year. That would make him ‘apna banda’ with most Delhi drivers who fancy themselves as Vettel’s long-lost cousins. "I like overtaking, yeah. I like it when carefully calculated situations come true."
So, here is another Formula One champion who gets a kick out of routine manoeuvres. Which part of F1 racing does Hamilton enjoy the most? "Everything. In the garage when they stuff the car up. When the engineers take the tires off the blanket. I love the sound, the noise, upshift, gears. No one can ever see it, but when I first pull away, I have the biggest grin on my face."
In The Club
In 2008, Hamilton shifted base from England and now lives in Monaco. He likes the idea of living by the sea and taking his dogs for a walk. "Monaco is a beautiful place. You can do water sports like ride a jet ski and do the kind of stuff that I love to do. You can do that by the lake. That was really the reason I wanted to go. But also I know people there. Nico [Rosberg, his Mercedes teammate] stays in my building. Eddie Jordan is in my building, Mika Hakkinen and all those people. So, I am not so lonely out there," he says.
Hamilton likes the idea of blending anonymously with the crowd when he travels to the United States. On certain days, does he feel the public obsession with the private lives of celebrities is a little too much? "It isn’t more than any other athlete or movie star. But if you are in London, there are cameras everywhere. Sometimes it is horrible. You want to walk the nicer streets of London, but it is not possible. But the United States is like the best of both worlds. Even here in India, I can walk around and not get mobbed."
Although he has shifted base from the UK, Silverstone remains his favourite Grand Prix venue. "Winning the home GP in 2008 was special. That is why it was particularly disappointing in 2013. I have great fans in the UK and I started in pole position. While turning away on the eighth lap, the tyre burst at 200 kph. So, it was really disappointing," he says.
Formula One has come a long way in improving driver safety, says Hamilton. But you cannot still rule out mishaps on the track. "When you are out there and you have a head-on collision at 180mph, it is really terrible. You are likely to damage something. Fortunately we haven’t had those big, big crashes for some time since Montreal in 2008. But the biggest risk in these Formula One cars is concussion and fortunately, no one has had it for some time," he says.
Hamilton’s childhood hero Senna died in a horrific car crash while racing in Italy in 1994. Does the thought of death cross his mind? "No, I mean really. [There are] two good ways to go. One is doing something you love, that is racing, and the other would be in bed with your wife," he says and lets out a cackle.
The gruelling nature of Formula One puts enormous demands on a driver’s body. Exposure to G forces and temperatures can make race drivers lose up to 5kg in a race. As they zoom out of corners, they experience tremendous G forces that exert pressure on their neck muscles, says Hamilton. "The neck takes a lot of brunt, particularly when you take a break over winter and come back. To strengthen my neck muscles, I wear a helmet with a few kilos of weights on top. What I do is sit on the edge of the bed or a bench just holding my neck up," he reveals.
Loves of his life
Lewis Hamilton’s website and Facebook page are teeming with dog photos. "I love all animals, not just dogs, but I am allergic to horses. I wish I could buy a horse but I can’t. Since I was born, I’ve always had a dog. My mom has four, my dad has one. At the moment I have two British bulldogs: Roscoe and Coco. They are the best things in my life," he says. "If I was fortunate enough to win this weekend, I would dedicate it to my dogs," he had said before the race.
Really? After a five-year-long courtship made in tabloid heaven with onetime Pussycat Dolls lead vocalist
, Hamilton says his relationship status is back to being ‘single’.
Lewis and Nicole were believed to have been discussing marriage just before the break-up, but reportedly went their separate ways because of clashing work schedules that made it tough to see each other. Still, it seems, he keeps her memories close to his heart. “I have loads of songs of Nicole’s that have never been released on my phone. I listen to them on shuffle. She has even recorded a song for me. Now and then it pops up and reminds me of those times.”
Apart from songs by his former girlfriend, Hamilton has a few other favourites. “I listen to Drake, a lot of Bob Marley, Frank Ocean, Rick Ross, Tupac Shakur and Frank Sinatra. A lot of stuff that I listen to would be R&B or hip hop,” he says.
Even the body art Hamilton flaunts – tattoos he’s got done in Los Angeles and Hong Kong – are an extension of his love for music. Lewis’ tattoos include a crucifix; the words Still I Rise (the title of a 1978 poem by Maya Angelou that inspired his favourite rap artist Tupac Shakur); Michelangelo’s Pietà, and, not surprisingly, musical notes on his right wrist.
At one point, says Hamilton, owing to endorsement commitments, he was trapped into wearing Hugo Boss suits. “So I really worked hard to get the best ones they had. Given a choice, I’d be in track suit bottoms and a hoodie,” he says with a grin. F1’s own Eminem, did someone say?
From HT Brunch, November 10
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch
Cover story part 1