"I’m very much an outsider,” says Lewis Hamilton. We’re cruising around east London in the back of a pearlescent white Maybach, when I put it to him that he’s different to the other drivers in Formula One.
He dresses differently, acts differently, hangs out with a different entourage; he’s the only driver who could be considered an A-list celebrity. F1 is among the most widely televised and commercially fuelled of sports, but the other drivers tend to keep a low profile.
They race cars and stick to interviews about racing, nothing more. Few have interests away from sport, and this is where Hamilton differs. “There’s a lot more to me than just driving. Driving, while it’s what I do best, is not a huge part of me in the sense that I have a lot more to offer.”
Formula One isn’t exactly progressive; it’s almost exclusively white, male and carries with it the lingering whiff of testosterone. Formula One drivers are put in a box, and if they try to emerge from that box they are open to criticism from the middle aged men who employ and write about them.
It doesn’t matter what the pundits say – ‘Oh he’s off travelling and partying’ – I turn up and I win. Don’t talk to me about what I can and can’t do. I define who I am, I’m not defined by what people say.
And with the pressures of corporate sponsorship, the carefree days of drivers acting like rock stars are long gone. They’re expected to be in bed at 9pm and think of nothing but racing. The more boring, the more two dimensional they become, the better. Such is the commitment necessary to reach the top, and to do so by an increasingly young age, few F1 drivers have a particularly broad palette.
Two things marked Lewis out when he made his F1 debut with McLaren in 2007. Firstly, he was the first black F1 driver. Secondly, we’d been following the 22-year-old’s rise through the lower formulae for a decade, after he was signed by McLaren aged 12. He was groomed to be a superstar pilot from that moment, with the media taking a strong interest from the off. It must have been like growing up on The Truman Show.
“That’s a cool interpretation, it was a bit like that. I was groomed and restricted and felt that was the only space I was allowed to be in.” He was surrounded by PR handlers, adhering to the corporates, and walking a press tightrope where they build you up then knock you down.
He had to wear what he was told to wear, keep to the key messages, “look like this and behave like that,” and be, ultimately, who McLaren boss Ron Dennis – the man who a ten-year-old Lewis first approached at an awards dinner and pledged he’d race for one day – wanted him to be. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, no question, but it also restricted his personal development. It bound and clipped him like a bonsai tree, stunting his growth.
“For me, it was all about racing. I was generally quite shy as a kid.” So it took everyone by surprise when in September 2012 Lewis announced he was leaving McLaren for Mercedes’ works team. “It was only then that I started to make my own decisions in life.”
In the seasons that followed, this proved an inspired move. McLaren sunk into irrelevance. Mercedes, on the other hand, provided the car that would take Lewis to his second and third world titles. But, for me, the most striking thing about his time at the three-pointed star is how he has developed as a character. “I started to take down some of the shields that had been put up around me. I’ve been finding out who I’m comfortable being.”
He is embracing his background, his future, and his off-track interests. He is living the life of a multi-millionaire celebrity and he’s not afraid to show it. In the process he’s building a brand, reaching an audience that would never normally tune into motor racing, and annoying jaded F1 purists who think racing drivers should wear cloth caps and stick to the Grand Prix Ball, rather than the Met Ball.
The trips to Barbados, LA, New York, and his Colorado ranch (known as the Megazone, with tracks for high-speed buggies and bikes) between races in his custom red and black Challenger jet, sometimes with Rihanna or Rita Ora by his side, make some question his commitment, but Hamilton has more energy than the rest of the grid combined.
Kanye said to me: ‘I’m big in the music world but I’m trying to do what I love in fashion and people don’t like it. You’re big in your racing world but you love your music, and people will probably struggle to accept that. You need to do what you love and not give a f**k about what anyone thinks.’
“I got my diving certification the other day, and I want to get my helicopter pilot’s licence. And music is my biggest thing. I’ll record till 3am before a race and then go out and win, and that’s the best feeling.”
And he loves nothing more than proving people wrong. “It doesn’t matter what the pundits say – ‘Oh he’s off travelling and partying’ – I turn up and I win. Don’t talk to me about what I can and can’t do. I define who I am, I’m not defined by what people say. I might be in ten different countries in a week, but I’ll turn up at the track and kill it.”
While his rise to the pinnacle of racing took over a decade, he’s become a social media star within three years; since being unshackled from McLaren, he’s ditched his management, and hired a PR and digital agency experienced in fashion and showbiz.
A different approach has generated a new audience that never used to follow F1 but now anxiously consume his Instagrams posts (3.4m followers) and tweets (3.8m).
Often distrustful of racing journalists, he says he prefers the direct line to his fans; in October he earned some bad press when he spent a press conference playing with the ‘bunny rabbit filter’ on Snapchat and, feeling the abuse from Fleet Street was unjust, walked out of a Mercedes media meeting later that weekend, and rather petulantly blocked a number of F1 correspondents on Twitter.
A lot of commentators accused Lewis of being too big for his boots, and of biting the hand that feeds him. But it could also be a sign that Hamilton just feels he’s outgrown F1, that he can straddle the entertainment and sports divide on his own terms, and that he believes – rightly or wrongly – that he no longer needs the racing press.
Lewis isn’t a fan of driving on public roads, despite his collection of exotic cars (including a Ferrari LaFerrari, Shelby Mustang GT500 and Pagani Zonda 760) and performance bikes (most recently his collaboration with MV Agusta, the Dragster RR LH44).
“I’ve loved motorbikes since I was a kid, and I love fast cars but it’s more for the look and the sound. I hate driving on the road, I hate traffic and I can’t text. I’m not really in a rush on the road, only on the track, so I prefer to be chauffeured. The Maybach is a great car for sleeping in. I actually find it really difficult to sleep in a bed, I sleep much better here or on my plane.”
He likes to stay up late writing and recording music, having learned the guitar, drums and piano, and has worked with some high-profile hip hop producers in the studio.
“I have enough music for several albums,” he says, dodging the question of when these tracks might see the light of day. “When I first came into F1 I had racing, and a relationship [with pop star Nicole Scherzinger], and nothing else I really aspired to. I didn’t have time for the other interests I had growing up, they fell by the wayside. Now I’m playing catch up.
“I wanted to do music at school, but my dad made me take history. That wasn’t my thing, I still pursued music but in the background. Now I’m able to give 100 per cent to my racing and still give a good chunk of my energy to other things. I love creativity, so I go to art shows, fashion shows, I love going to concerts when I can. I’m in awe of seeing people perfect their craft.”
He sees Tom Cruise as the ultimate professional. This morning, before we meet, Lewis was on a sound stage watching the movie star at work, “doing magical things”.
“He’s out-and-out the most professional, hardest worker I have ever met. He’s always focused, always training, he remembers everyone and knows the name of every person on set.”
Is Lewis intrigued by scientology? “I respect everybody’s beliefs and religions, or refusal of religion, that’s fine. Tom’s never mentioned religion to me and vice versa. I mean, when I left I said God bless, but that’s just me.”
The film business appeals to Hamilton, particularly given his love for Los Angeles. In fact, he once told me how he would love to be cast as the next James Bond.
But he seems to have accepted he’ll never be in Tom Cruise’s league. Most recently, he made a fleeting appearance in Zoolander 2. “I wasn’t really doing much in it, but I’m grateful to Ben [Stiller] for putting me in it. Again, getting to witness people doing their art; it’s taken 23 years for me to get to where I am today. You can imagine it’s true of all of them – Tom Cruise has been making movies since before I was born.
For me to pick another profession like acting… I’m so far behind. I’ll dibble dabble, never say never, but it would be hard to reach the heights elsewhere that I’ve achieved in Formula One. Then again, look at The Rock. How awesome is he?
"For me to pick another profession like acting… I’m so far behind. I’ll dibble dabble, never say never, but it would be hard to reach the heights elsewhere that I’ve achieved in Formula One. Then again, look at The Rock. How awesome is he? He was this crazy wrestler, then a so-so actor, but he’s grown into an amazing actor and is now the highest paid actor in Hollywood. People look up to him, he seems like a very inspiring guy.”
Lewis looks up to David Beckham too, with whom he used to share management; his family values and the way he’s built them into his brand. These days, though, Lewis manages Lewis, negotiating his £100m Mercedes deal himself.
Another of his entrepreneurial heroes is Kanye West; after meeting at various global fashion weeks, they’ve formed a friendship. “I went to see him at his house,” says Lewis, “and he goes ‘You know, you’re just like me, me and you are very much the same,’” which coming from Kanye must be the greatest compliment of all.
“He said ‘I’m big in the music world but I’m trying to do what I love in fashion and people don’t like it. You’re big in your racing world but you love your music, and people will probably struggle to accept that. You need to do what you love and not give a fuck about what anyone thinks.’
“Ultimately,” says Hamilton, “we shouldn’t feel like we need to shrink ourselves for other people to feel comfortable. Kanye’s outspoken, to say the least. I love that. He’s electrifying in everything he does. I wish I could be that outspoken, I really do. But I’m signed to all these brands that have an idealistic image that they wish to be connected with, so I need to be careful.”
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He also feels he needs to be careful divulging anything about his love life. Since splitting with Scherzinger he’s been linked with dozens of Instagram-friendly ladies, including Barbara Palvin, Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner. I suggest that this does his status no harm at all, but he disagrees.
“It’s not good for the brand, but I don’t really care. What the tabloids and gossip sites write makes no difference to my life, and it’s not going to stop me winning races. Since school I’ve always been into girls, and there are some beautiful girls out there and that’s definitely a good thing. I certainly can’t complain.”
Despite his frequent front-row attendance for brands like Balmain and Stella McCartney, Hamilton says his passion for fashion is unlikely to result in his own label. “I don’t envision launching my own, but collaborations would be neat. But that’s all hearsay at the moment, though.”
We shouldn’t feel like we need to shrink ourselves for other people to feel comfortable. But I’m signed to all these brands that have an idealistic image that they wish to be connected with, so I need to be careful
At 31, Lewis still has plenty of time to run on his F1 career but one senses he’ll bow out on top and never look back. This year he is locked in another tense face-off with team-mate Nico Rosberg and, for the first time, the bookies are starting to favour the German.
Lewis has had some car reliability heartache and, at times, Rosberg has just looked the hungrier driver. Maybe that’s because he has more to prove than Lewis, or perhaps it’s because for him there is no other ambition than to be F1 world champion. Unlike his competitors, Hamilton doesn’t envisage his professional life ending with the chequered flag.
“Some drivers have retired and come back, some have stayed racing into old age. I respect why they would do so, because we’ve been racing all our lives. How do you step away from something you’ve loved for so long? For many, it’s the only life they know.
"As far as I’m aware, all the other drivers I’m racing against only do racing. I don’t want to be trapped in that position. I’m going to be doing stuff, don’t worry about me. I’m experimenting and trying to learn new things, growing personally and maximizing the opportunities I have.”
The driver to whom Lewis is most frequently compared is his all-time favourite, Ayrton Senna, who was killed when Lewis was nine and just starting on his journey in go-karts.
Having gone on to equal the Brazilian’s tally of world titles he’s got to meet other heroes whose passings have affected him; Prince, Nelson Mandela and Muhammed Ali. One wonders, when Lewis reaches the end of the road, where he might rank among the all-time greats.
“It’s like we’re running out of stars,” he says, “but maybe in 40 years the people coming up now will shine the brightest of all.”