He is Britain’s wealthiest sports star, with an annual driving contract worth £40m and estimated total wealth of over £200m. Now Lewis Hamilton, Britain’s six-times world Formula One champion, is fighting to change his sport by challenging its record on racism and equality.
In common with so many sporting celebrities in the past month, Hamilton last week chose to take the knee alongside 13 of his fellow F1 drivers in a symbolic gesture of support with the Black Lives Matter movement, which has swept across the globe since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May.
It was the most striking move so far in a push by Mr Hamilton to get his sport — which has had only one black driver in its 70-year history — to take more direct action to address concerns on equality. For some observers, the failure of six drivers to join him underlined the battle Mr Hamilton faces.
Weeks earlier, and in the days after Floyd’s death, Mr Hamilton took to Instagram to voice his anger at F1’s muted response. “I see those of you who are staying silent, some of you the biggest of stars yet you stay silent in the midst of injustice,” the Mercedes driver wrote. “Not a sign from anybody in my industry which of course is a white dominated sport.”
His outspoken post encouraged others to finally speak out. Competitors published posts of their own in support of Mr Hamilton and the protests. And after decades of racing in silver, Daimler’s Mercedes switched to an all-black car just days before the first race of the season at the Red Bull Ring in Austria.
“We have been — all of us — guilty of being silent for way too long,” Toto Wolff, team principal for Hamilton’s Mercedes team told the Financial Times.
In 2008 Mr Hamilton was welcomed to the Spanish Grand Prix by fans wearing black face paint and T-shirts that read “Hamilton’s family”. Bernie Ecclestone, the former F1 supremo credited with turning the sport into a global multibillion-dollar success, was criticised at the time for his response.
“I think it’s all nonsense. I don’t think it was anything to do with racism,” Mr Ecclestone said then. “I think people look and read into things that are not there.”
Speaking ahead of this weekend’s Styrian Grand Prix, also in Austria, Mr Hamilton explained on Thursday how he had been “silenced and told to back down” in 2017 when he was considering supporting the former American Football player Colin Kaepernick.
Mr Kaepernick was excluded from his sport for protesting against police brutality by taking the knee.
Mr Hamilton, who did not disclose the identity of the senior person from outside the sport who told him to reconsider, said he now regrets that he did not support Mr Kaepernick at the time.
Three years later Mr Hamilton seems to be making some progress. He and the Royal Academy of Engineering are setting up the Hamilton Commission to drive more diversity in F1 by encouraging young people from black backgrounds to get into motorsport.
Meanwhile the sport has set up a task force and foundation to create employment opportunities for people who are under-represented in the sport.
Chase Carey, chairman and chief executive of F1, seeded the initiative with $1m of his own money. The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the governing body for motorsport, followed up with a €1m donation.
“Traditionally, F1 has been a very white sport, with Lewis Hamilton being the glaring exception,” said Murray Barnett, founder of consultancy 26West Sport and F1’s former head of global sponsorship. “That’s reflective of where the sport originated and also the cost of participation as a driver, which requires either wealth or wealthy supporters.”