Lewis Hamilton is sending a very useful and positive message to black kids that if they are talented and remain focused, their aptitude can be recognised and they could be given the chance they need to succeed.
It is difficult, if you’re a black person living in Britain, not to acquire a certain amount of interest in a young man called Lewis Hamilton. This is because, if, like me, one has been a motor racing aficionado for any length of time, the sight of a black face in a cockpit – not to say a cockpit in the lead – is so rare that it would be unnatural for it not to have a special significance.
In my opinion, the Lewis Hamilton story is phenomenal. He has only competed in four Formula One races, and won a place on the podium in each of them. In only four races in his debut year, he was already leading the championship table by two points at the time of writing this column. Nobody in the history of Formula One has ever achieved such a feat at the beginning of his career – not Ayrton Senna (one of the greatest drivers); not Alain Prost (another great driver); not Michael Schumacher (the most successful driver); not Jackie Stewart and not even Juan Manuel Fangio, who, according to some motor racing enthusiasts, was the best driver ever.
Lewis is only 22, and shares a stable with the current world champion, Fernando Alonso. It is not easy to share a stable with the world champion, because it is expected that he will use his experience to do better than his team-mate – especially if the team-mate happens to be a young lad making his debut in Formula One.
The McLaren team, however, has, so far, not given any visible preferential treatment to World Champion Fernando Alonso. This has been a wise move, because Lewis is driving better than Alonso. Lewis was third in his first race, and has been second in every race since. That’s how he has come to lead Alonso by two points. The next race will be in Monaco, where Lewis has been consistently victorious every time he has raced there in the formulas below Formula One.
In my view, the Hamilton phenomenon could only have occurred in Britain because Britain is one of the few countries in the world where a young black kid could have got the opportunity Lewis got. Motor racing is very popular here, and although there is a certain amount of snobbery attached to it, it is so demanding that if one shows promise in it, one is bound to shatter any prejudices that come one’s way by simply demonstrating ability.
It is, of course, a rich man’s game, with the result that most black kids, even those keenly interested in it, can only follow it from a distance. You need money to start off with karting; and you need more money to enter a real car and race it and then move on to the junior championships that precede Formula One. For a black kid to have both the resources and the ability is hard to imagine, and Hamilton’s father, Anthony (originally from Grenada) deserves great credit for the enormous sacrifices he must have made to finance his son’s ambition.
Born in January 1985, Lewis started driving go-karts when he was only eight years old. His father, Anthony, who was working for British Rail when the boy was growing up, realised that his son had a real talent for driving and decided to put everything he possessed into supporting him. Anthony had to take another job and sometimes he held more than two jobs. He is currently an information and communications consultant.
He has identified so totally with the ambitions of his son that he has shown himself prepared to make any sacrifice and undergo every hardship to enable his son to achieve his ambition. You should have seen his face on TV when the boy came third in his first Grand Prix race in Melbourne, Australia.
In the early days, when Anthony Hamilton realised the sheer joy and determination with which young Lewis took to karting – and the talent he demonstrated doing it — he made sure Lewis got as much practice as possible. This meant money. He also found the best machines available for Lewis – which meant more money. Anthony then began entering Lewis in races in competition with boys in his age group – which meant even more money.
Meanwhile, he had to ensure that the boy did not neglect his studies in school. He in fact made a deal with Lewis: “You study hard and then you can go racing. Neglect your studies and you won’t be going anywhere.” Lewis accepted the deal, and today he speaks with the posh accent and self-assurance of a person who has had a proper education. He packs bags of sheer cool, which would make him a superstar, even if he was not as physically good-looking as he is.
Lewis’ karting career began in 1993 and he quickly began winning races and championships. He progressed through the Cadet (1995-6), Junior Yamaha (1997), Junior Intercontinental A (1998-9), Intercontinental A (1999) and Formula A (2000) ranks in six seasons. The British Racing Drivers’ Club recognised his talent by making him a “Rising Star” Member in 2000.
In 2001, when he was only 16, Lewis moved into car racing by competing in the British Formula Renault Winter Series. He finished fifth overall. This led to a full 2002 Formula Renault UK campaign. He finished third overall with three wins and three pole positions. He won the Renault Championship in 2003 with 10 victories. His debut appearance in British Formula Three was less successful, as he crashed out of both races at the Brands Hatch season finale. In the 2004 Formula Three Euroseries, he came fifth.
He had his first test in a McLaren F1 car in December 2004. This was achieved through sheer bravura. In 1994, at the age of nine, Lewis went up to McLaren boss Ron Dennis, at a function, and told him he would like to have his autograph. He introduced himself to Dennis and told him: “I would like to drive one of your cars one day.” He got Dennis to write down his address and telephone number in his autograph book. He kept in close touch with Dennis and Dennis eventually rang up to offer him a sponsorship. He enrolled Lewis in the McLaren and Mercedes-Benz Young Driver Support Programme at its inception in 1998. As Lewis moved through the ranks of karting (his victories included the McLaren “Mercedes Champions of the Future” karting series in 1998), it became clear that he was destined to be a McLaren driver.
In both 2004 and 2005, Lewis competed with Mercedes-powered cars in the Formula 3 Euro Series Championship. On 8 September 2006, Lewis won the GP2 Series Championship with the ART team at Monza in Italy, winning five out of 22 races. Five days later, he was invited to test the Team McLaren Mercedes Formula One car for the first time at the Silverstone circuit in the UK. And on 18 March this year, he drove the McLaren F1 car to win a first podium place by coming third — in his first Grand Prix in Melbourne, Australia.
His progress in the 2007 season is being watched with eagles’ eyes by all motor racing fans. If he wins the championship — and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t – it will be one of the greatest fairy tales ever told in motor racing. And it will prove that if you work hard at your dreams, no matter what the initial disadvantages may seem, you can make those dreams come true.
He is sending a very useful and positive message to black kids that if they are talented and remain focused on what they want to achieve with their talent, their aptitude can be recognised and that they could be given the chance they need to succeed.
Because of those very reasons, Lewis Hamilton and his amazingly supportive dad have to be very careful where they tread. There will be malicious busy-bodies working assiduously to bring them down – especially in the psychological sphere. An example is this remark written by someone on The Daily Telegraph website: “I can’t help feeling I want to say you are no Tiger Woods – yet. I can’t help feeling his unbelievable pride may well have come before an equally unbelievable fall”.
Yet Hamilton has not exhibited any “pride” at all so far, apart from the normal self-confidence that someone who has won championships in the appropriate races below Formula One before entering that arena, and who has a room full of motor racing trophies to show for it, should feel in his own ability. Do they want him to say that he doesn’t feel he can win the title this year, when he knows he can win, in a sport that thrives on self-belief?
I say to him: “Go for it, Lewis! You have nothing to lose but self-doubt”. A lot of black people all over the world will be praying for him at every race that he takes part in.