Thursday 5 July 2018 2:43 pm

Lewis Hamilton interview: How the most decorated British racing driver in history, may be about to swap the track for the runway

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I find Lewis Hamilton quietly thumbing through a sheaf of technical sketches.

But he’s not in a pit garage or race car factory perusing the work of aerodynamicists – he’s in Tommy Hilfiger’s Knightsbridge studio, studying pictures of sneakers.

Just as he gives his Mercedes crew feedback, demanding different damper settings or more wing, he’s now requesting changes from Team Hilfiger. Make these stripes pink. Move the logo to the left. He’s creating a capsule collection, undertaking what he calls “an internship” in what will become his next big challenge after he hangs up his helmet.

I sat down with the reigning world champion to talk about the next chapter of his life. I’ve known Hamilton for over a decade, watched from the sidelines of the F1 circuit as his personality has grown, been consistently impressed by his seemingly indefatigable lust for life. Lewis felt unable to express himself in motor racing until he joined Mercedes-AMG in 2013, when he began managing his own career.

He still feels like an outsider in his own sport, however, one that’s traditionally white and privileged. His dad, Anthony, re-mortgaged their flat and worked four jobs to pay for pre-teen Hamilton’s karting hobby. The feeling that they didn’t belong made the pair all the more determined to win.

No one underestimates Lewis now. At 33, he’s already the most successful British driver of all time and, with four titles, is a member of a very exclusive club. Only Juan-Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher have won more crowns.

“My goal for 2018 is to continue on my journey of expression and supporting diversity, and to continue to grow as a driver,” he tells me. “I think I’m at my peak in performance, but how do I take the DNA I have as a driver and do something unexpected, take it further? Title number five is inherently the goal, but having my own fashion line accepted…” He trails off as he spots a moody poster of himself modelling Hilfiger apparel. “Whoa, I hadn’t seen that one yet!” he beams.

His daring dress sense has garnered plenty of attention and a fair amount of criticism, but Hamilton wasn’t always such a bold clotheshorse. He was a shy child who used to change in the alley before going home to his father, because Anthony didn’t care for clothes that were too ‘street’. Lewis raced for McLaren until he was 27 and describes how the team made him dress in a very straight-laced way. His boss and mentor, Ron Dennis, disapproved of tattoos, hip-hop-inspired chains and trendy haircuts. It made Hamilton self-conscious, unsure of who he really was.

Now he views fashion as key to his self-expression. “As a kid, I wanted to blend in. It’s taken a long time to find my own direction, which you can see in what I wear. I’ve made lots of mistakes, but that’s how you find your own style. I like to go to the shows because you see the craziest, wackiest stuff. It’s how it makes you feel that’s important. Fashion is a very personal thing. I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” In F1 terms, if you don’t have a couple of spins in practice you’re not trying hard enough; perhaps the same goes for fashion. Now he’s found his style, Hamilton appears more content.

He already signed-off his first capsule collection at the start of the year and is working on his second. Obsession with detail is a familiar trait with F1 drivers, who are constantly looking for faults, opportunities and improvements. Growing up, his friends called him “eagle-eye” because he never missed a trick. He says he loves to learn and wants to soak up as much information as possible, which is why his meetings with Hilfiger’s designers are exhausting affairs. He’s hands-on because he’s passionate, but also for the same reason he ended up being a great driver; the perception that people want to see him fail.

“Before a race I always sleep fine because I know what I do. When it comes time for people to see this collection I’m not going to sleep at all. This is an extension of who I am, an expression of my character. I’ve put so much effort into it, so I’m super tied to it and conscious of how people are going to react. It means a lot to me because this is potentially the beginning of a future beyond F1. I couldn’t sleep before my first F1 test, and then I got the call and got the job and my career began. I’m in that same period right now, clothes-wise. If it works, my goal is to continue. In this, I’ve found something that could equal my passion for racing.”

Tommy Hilfiger himself is in the studio when I visit. The 67-year-old has long followed grand prix racing and first met Hamilton on the fashion week circuit. It was through their friendship that the collaboration was born, leading to his brand sponsoring Mercedes this season. Lewis takes over from supermodel Gigi Hadid as the label’s primary global ambassador, a lucrative arrangement no doubt, but it was the chance to design his own collection that was most alluring.

“I’m an energy person,” he says. “I’m all about positive energy. The first time I met Tommy, he comes up to me, this icon I’ve always looked up to, and he says ‘You look great! I love what you’re wearing. You look like a rock star!’ I was just so happy he recognised me.”

Normally, professional drivers are taught to be practical in their outlook rather than imaginative. Lewis describes his relationship with Tommy Hilfiger as not dissimilar to the one he has with Mercedes-AMG. “I love to observe people who burst the bubble and find new ways of doing things. Seeing the engineers at work at the [Mercedes] factory is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. These people went to Harvard and Cambridge. I topped out at John Henry Newman School, Stevenage. So when I came into F1, I had to learn a new language in order to explain what I was experiencing on the track. What I bring is practicality to people who specialise in numbers. Which is why creativity feels like freedom to me.”

Hamilton describes himself as a “late bloomer” creatively, and feels he’s playing catch-up with his peers on the catwalk and in music (another of his extra-curricular escapes). “I was so focused on racing as a kid that other stuff I wanted to do went by the wayside. As a result, I now meet 15, 16-year-old kids who are so much further along with their art and their creative passions than I was at their age. The interests I had at their age have now come back, which is a bit of a surprise but it’s great, I love it. In some ways you grow up, but in others you don’t. I like to find that balance.”

He has a home recording studio and has laid down hundreds of tracks, sometimes working with Drake’s producers. He plays guitar, piano and has taken up the harmonica because it’s easy to travel with.

Hamilton has often vented about how stifling F1 can feel, with most drivers put in a box, restricted from doing anything but drive cars and rep sponsors. Fashion and music are, to Hamilton, like a hammer to a window. “You should never feel restricted, that you have to stay in one medium; that’s why I have so much respect for Kanye and Pharrell and how they’ve blurred the lines between music, fashion and art. At the moment, with the work I’m doing with producers and designers, I feel like an intern. They’re able to pull out of me skills and ideas I never knew I had. If I apply myself creatively, like I have my racing career, I think I can do pretty well. I’ll never stop coming up with fresh ideas.”

There’s a sense that Hamilton is making up for lost time, filling in the holes of an upbringing that was dominated by racing and the ambition he shared with his dad. “My teenage years weren’t normal. I was surrounded by adults and racing all over Europe. I wasn’t at school much, so I had a private tutor. I missed out on normal things like hanging out with friends. These are the years that usually define your interests. I had to stop my music lessons and everything to concentrate on racing.

"Ultimately it was worth it, though there were times I wished I could just kick a ball around like the kids on my street, instead of doing school work at home because I had to fly to a race in Italy at the crack of dawn. I had a dream to pursue, although once I achieved that dream I was in a position to loosen up and let life come to me a little bit.”

Hamilton’s approach to life has changed since then, and not only because of the fame and wealth he’s accrued. Having prioritised racing over schooling, he’s now a voracious reader, constantly learning new skills and gaining fresh insight. “Nelson Mandela told me that, at the age of 90, he was still learning. That really stuck with me. We don’t just stop learning when we leave school, life is about learning from start to finish.”

Losing is a lesson he’s begun to learn from, too, having previously tried to filter out any suggestion of it. Now it’s something he accepts and failure makes winning even sweeter. “I used to beat myself up an insane amount if I had a bad race, it was unhealthy. I’d get the worst headache, like I was under a dark cloud. I’d hardly eat, I’d just sit in silence trying to find my way out of the negative space. I used to be so stubborn I couldn’t get past it.

"One time, I didn’t leave my hotel room for four days, I was so stuck in my head. But now, with age, I’ve realised that winning isn’t everything and losing is part of the journey. Positivity is essential to moving forward and achieving your goals. You learn to manage disappointment so you’re stronger next time and even more powerful. It drives me to push harder.”

If fashion or music don’t bear fruit, there’s always the motivational speaking circuit. Another new aspect of his lifestyle is, he says, his diet. “A few years ago, I stopped eating meat. I’m now full-on vegan and I can’t imagine going back. I feel incredibly clean and healthy. Most people I know say they could never be on a plant-based diet, and that’s fine. I’m not out to convince other people to change their ways, but this is what works for me. And it’s not easy, it takes real dedication. But I’ve studied nutrition and I understand the science, and I can’t go back to eating crap. In fact, the thought of eating meat makes me feel sick.”

Lewis’ current contract with Mercedes comes to an end in December and, while the three-pointed-star is gagging to sign him for another three years there are, evidently, hold-ups; Hamilton’s reported nine-figure demands are doubtless one, and his wish for flexibility perhaps another.

He has another three seasons worth of world title-fighting ability, but will he still have the motivation and commitment necessary once he draws level with Fangio in the history books – especially when there are other challenges far away from the cockpit? He isn’t only in planning mode, I sense, he has actively started to turn a page. I’d be surprised if he’s not on the grid next year, but the chequered flag seems destined to fall on his F1 career sooner rather than later.

He will leave a bigger legacy than any driver since Ayrton Senna. “Being the first F1 driver of colour feels like an achievement in itself,” he says. “It’s pretty cool to join the likes of Tiger and Serena and knock down barriers. Now we’re seeing black and Asian drivers coming into the sport and that makes me so proud, knowing I helped break the mould. Promoting diversity is one of the most important jobs I have, and it’s a job for life.”

Having F1 as a platform, with its 300m global viewers, plus the combined 16m followers he has across his social media accounts is a strong place to start, but this summer’s Tommy Hilfiger campaign and his future fashion endeavours could take him to a whole other level. “Fashion is like racing,” he says, “it never sleeps. It’s always evolving, reinventing, innovating, moving forward fast.” Just like Hamilton himself, in fact.