Lewis Hamilton admits he is constantly troubled – and saddened – by the continuing lack of diversity in Formula One.
Since first taking to the track in 2007 in a McLaren cockpit aged 22, and making the switch to Mercedes in 2013, Hamilton has won more races and taken more pole positions than any driver in history, and won seven world championships, a joint record with Michael Schumacher.
But the 36-year-old has now opened up on his own painful experiences with racism in the sport and how diversity is still a problem as he remains the only black driver.
In an interview with WSJ Magazine, Hamilton recalled that in 2008 Spanish Formula One fans showed up in blackface while wearing shirts that read ‘Hamilton’s Family,’ before trying to claim that blackface and offensive T-shirts somehow weren’t racist.
‘I remember the pain that I felt that day, but I didn’t say anything about it; I didn’t have anyone,’ he said. ‘No one said anything.
‘I saw people continuing in my industry and staying quiet.’
As he was starting out, Hamilton, along with his father Anthony, believed that he could follow in the footsteps of Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters and move the industry forward.
But he was left ‘frustrated and sad’ when the jarring realisation that nothing had changed hit him at the end of the 2019 season. Looking at a photo of him and his team celebrating his sixth straight title, he realised that despite all those seasons he spent trailblazing, he was still the only black person.
Spanish Formula one fans turned up to an event in blackface and ‘Hamilton’s family’ T-shirts
The 2019 photo of Hamilton’s team highlighted that he was one of the only black members of his team; a study showed that less than 1 per cent of people working in Formula One are black
The Brit, F1’s only black driver, has equalled Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world titles
‘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.’
Hamilton has gone from prodigy to statesman in the sport, equalling all-time great Michael Schumacher’s record, and in that time 56 drivers have made their F1 debuts – not a single one of them black.
The seven-time world champion is still the only black driver in the sport and he couldn’t help but ask why.
The British driver was the only black person in a similar Mercedes team photo taken in 2016
Hamilton opened up about the lack of diversity in Formula One in WSJ Magazine
56 drivers have made their debuts since Hamilton but the seven-time world champion is still the only black driver in the sport
Hamilton holds the record for most wins and pole positions but none of the drivers who have followed him into the sport are black
‘I’m 36 years old; I’ve been wondering, “Why me?”,’ he said.
‘Why am I the only black driver that’s got through to Formula One, and not only that – I’m at the front? There’s got to be a bigger reason for me being here.’
Hamilton partnered with the Royal Academy of Engineering, who released a report in July which revealed that less than 1 per cent of people working in Formula One are black.
But Mercedes team principal and CEO Toto Wolff insisted that there would be a push for diversity at F1 without Hamilton, claiming success makes it irrelevant.
‘Maybe initiatives would have taken place, but certainly not in the dimension that Lewis triggered,’ he said.
‘We must stop putting people into boxes. Everybody functions differently,’ Wolff said.
‘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.’
Hamilton disagreed, saying: ‘I’m pretty sure that nothing would’ve changed.’
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff (right) claims Formula One would have changed
The Brit wore a T-shirt reading ‘Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’ last year
Hamilton partnered with the Royal Academy of Engineering to release a report on F1 diversity
He took action amidst the Black Lives Matter movement when he wore a T-shirt that read ‘arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’ at the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix.
This summer he founded Mission 44, a foundation to back children from underrepresented groups, with a personal donation of £20million, not only in F1 careers but in science, technology, engineering and maths too.
He also pushed for his latest contract, signed during the 2021 season, to include stipulations for increasing diversity within the team.
The Formula 1 superstar covers WSJ. Magazine’s highly anticipated November Innovator’s Issue, out on newsstands Saturday, November 13th.