Lewis Hamilton recalled one of his most painful experiences of racism in Formula 1 when fans turned up in blackface wearing shirts that read ‘Hamilton’s Family’ when he was just 23.
Hamilton became the first black driver in Formula 1 history when he was signed by McLaren in 2007, and he became world champion a year later. After making the switch to Mercedes in 2013 for the turbo-hybrid era, the Brit has taken more pole positions and won more races than any other driver.
Hamilton is now a seven-time world champion but, as a trailblazer in a sport lacking in diversity, he has experienced horrific instances of racism – and perhaps none more troubling than the Spanish Grand Prix in 2008.
Fans showed up in blackface and wore t-shirts that labelled them as part of Hamilton’s family – and the Brit was deflated by the lack of action within the sport.
“I remember the pain that I felt that day, but I didn’t say anything about it,” Hamilton told WSJ Magazine. “I didn’t have anyone.
“No one said anything. I saw people continuing in my industry and staying quiet.”
Hamilton is troubled by the lack of diversity in his sport, although he used to use his status as motivation. He and his father Anthony believed the future phenomenon could imitate Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters by starring and inspiring the next generation while breaking barriers in motorsport.
However, Hamilton was left frustrated when he realised that nothing had truly changed at the end of the 2019 season after claiming his sixth world title. A photo of him celebrating with his team made him realise he was still the only black person.
“I zoomed in on them, from the F1 instagram,” he said. “I’ve been here 15 years, 14 years – how has it not changed?
“I was really sad about it. I was frustrated and sad.”
Since Hamilton arrived in the sport, 56 drivers have made their debut – with none of them being black.
It has led the 36-year-old to question his purpose as he is not only a trailblazer but he’s doing so as perhaps the greatest driver in the history of the sport.
Hamilton, who is looking to stand alone with the most world championships as he chases an eighth, partnered with the Royal Academy of Engineering to release a report in July delving into the sports diversity – and less than one per cent of people working in Formula 1 are black.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, who has a close relationship with his star driver, believes there would have been a push for diversity within the sport even without Hamilton and his unparalleled success – a stance the Brit disagrees with.
“Maybe initiatives would have taken place, but certainly not in the dimension that Lewis triggered,” Wolff said. “We must stop putting people into boxes. Everyone functions differently.
“If you're as successful, who can hold it against you? Seven-time world champion, you hold the records in the most wins and the pole positions, you can show up with a pink suede tracksuit. If you're not winning, people will see you as a fool.”
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Hamilton took action amidst the Black Lives Matter movement triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, when the driver wore a t-shirt that read 'arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor' at the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix.
He founded Mission 44 this summer, a foundation to back children from underrepresented groups and kicked it off with a personal donation of £20million to help inspire careers not just in F1 but in science, technology, engineering and maths.
Hamilton also ensured that, in his contract signed earlier this season, there were extra stipulations regarding increasing diversity within the team.
Formula 1 returns to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez for the Mexican Grand Prix on November 7, with Red Bull star Verstappen holding a slender 12-point lead over Mercedes’ Hamilton.
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