The karate kid racing into the history books

Ice cool: Hamilton is fearless on the track but admits he is terrified of spiders. © Getty

Is Lewis Hamilton the world’s greatest sporting champion? As part of our series on modern role models to mark Black History Month, we look at the motor-racing ace’s extraordinary career.

It was the final race of the 2008 Formula 1 season. Brazil’s Felipe Massa, racing on his home track, was on course to become world champion. The only man who could beat him, Lewis Hamilton, had had a disappointing day. But on the last corner of the last lap, Hamilton made a crucial overtake. At the age of 23, by a single point, he became the youngest world champion in the history of the sport.

There was a further significance to Hamilton’s victory. He was – and still is – the only black driver to have competed at motor-racing’s highest level.

He has gone on to break many other records. No other driver has achieved as many podium positions, or points in a season or pole positions. His tally of six world championships is the second-highest ever, as is his total of 90 first-place finishes. He is the most successful British driver in history, and many regard him as the sport’s greatest driver of all time.

Hamilton was born in Stevenage in 1985 to a black father and white mother. At school he suffered such bad bullying and racist abuse that when he was just five he learnt karate to defend himself. His passion for racing began the following year, when his father gave him a radio-controlled car and a go-kart. By 10 he was British junior go-karting champion. His father made great sacrifices to support him, sometimes taking three jobs at a time.

That year Lewis met Ron Dennis, head of the McLaren Formula 1 team, and told him, “One day I want to be racing your cars.” Dennis wrote on a page in his autograph book, "Phone me in nine years, we'll sort something out then." In fact it was just three years before Dennis signed him as an apprentice driver.

In 2007 he made his Formula 1 debut – and finished third in his very first race. He then won the Canadian Grand Prix. “I remember looking down from the podium and seeing my dad, and the smile on his face from ear to ear,” he says. “He was the proudest person. I felt like I’d finally done everything he’d hoped and expected of me.”

Hamilton ended that first season as runner-up in the world championship. Now 35, he continues to dominate the sport: he has been world champion for the last three years, and is comfortably ahead in this season’s standings.

There has been plenty of controversy along the way. Hamilton has been criticised for over-aggressive driving, and penalised for overtaking safety cars. He in turn has accused officials of coming down hard on him for racist reasons.

One of the most important figures in his life is his younger brother, who suffers from cerebral palsy. “He was told that he wouldn’t walk, that he wouldn’t be able to play drums, that he wouldn’t be able to race a car—and he’s done all those things. He’s defied the odds, defied disability. I look at him and I’m so inspired.”

Is Lewis Hamilton the world’s greatest sporting champion?

Lap happy

Some say, no: brilliant driver though he is, Hamilton would not be a champion without the fantastic cars he has been given. The greatest sporting heroes, such as Venus and Serena Williams, owe their success to their own efforts rather than the equipment they are supplied with. Hamilton’s achievements would be much more impressive if he had been driving for lesser teams than McLaren and Mercedes.

Others argue that motor-racing is a far more physically demanding than most people realise. Hamilton is super-fit as well as super-skilful, and he has won races against drivers with better cars. His record is outstanding, but for five years he finished no higher than fourth in the world championship – and the determination he showed in making a comeback proves that he is the very best.

You Decide

  1. Formula 1 racing has been criticised as environmentally damaging because of the amount of fuel consumed and the teams’ international travel. Should it be banned because of that?
  2. Lewis Hamilton criticised his fellow drivers for not speaking out in support of Black Lives Matter. Some people have criticised the ex-footballer and TV presnter Gary Lineker for voicing his opposition to Brexit. Should sports stars get involved in politics or not?

Activities

  1. In ancient Greece, poets wrote odes to champion athletes. Write a poem in honour of Lewis Hamilton.
  2. Hamilton has started a foundation to encourage young black people to study engineering and other subjects that could lead to a career in motorsport. Draw a blueprint of a Formula 1 car, labelling the key parts.

Some People Say...

“You're not obligated to win. You're obligated to keep trying to do the best you can every day.”

Marian Wright Edelman (1939–), American activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Hamilton has been an outstanding campaigner against racism and other injustices. He has been a leading spokesman for Black Lives Matter, and races in a symbolic all-black kit. Time magazine has just named him as one of the 100 most influential people of 2020. “When I was karting,” he says, “there was no one who looked even a little like me, who could help me see that this was something I could do. Now there are kids who see me. I’m very proud to be a part of that.”
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether Hamilton is the greatest driver of all time. There is every chance that he will beat Michael Schumacher’s record of Grand Prix wins this season, and equal his number of world championships. But another former world champion, Jackie Stewart, points out that in the era of the legendary Argentinian driver Juan Manuel Fangio there were only half as many Formula 1 races per season, and there was much less difference between the competing cars.

Word Watch

Formula 1
The highest class of motor-racing. The cars can go as fast as 230mph.
Podium
Platform. The drivers who finish first, second and third take their places on the podium at the end of a race.
Pole positions
Drivers who record the highest speed in practice get to start the race from a position on the track ahead of everyone else.
Tally
Total amount. In medieval times a stick marked with notches to record a financial transaction was called “a tally stick”.
Second-highest ever
The German driver Michael Schumacher achieved seven world championships and 91 Grand Prix victories.
Stevenage
A town in Hertfordshire, 30 miles north of London. The England footballer Ashley Young also grew up there, and played in the same school team as Lewis Hamilton.
Grand Prix
A French term meaning “Great Prize”. It was originally applied to a horse race, the Grand Prix de Paris. There are around 20 Formula 1 races per season, each called the Grand Prix of the country or region it is held in.
Safety cars
When there is an accident that obstructs the track, an ordinary car leads the way around it until the debris is cleared. Drivers have to remain in the same positions, and overtaking the safety car is forbidden.

Subjects

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