ISTANBUL (AFP) – Lewis Hamilton cemented his position as one of Formula One’s true greats when he equalled Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven world titles yesterday, another staggering achievement for a boy who grew up in modest circumstances.
His victory in Istanbul – the 94th of his career – allowed him to add the 2020 title to his championships of 2008, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
The son of a black father and a white mother, whose parents separated in his youth, Hamilton, 35, grew up on a municipal housing estate. His father Anthony at one time held down three jobs to fund his son’s embryonic racing career in karting.
Hamilton’s journey was unprivileged and without luxury, but it was clear from an early age that he had an outstanding gift for speed and all the gutsy natural instincts of a born racer.
In 1995, aged 10, and wearing a jacket and shoes borrowed from his predecessor as British Formula Cadet karting champion, he went to a glittering awards ceremony in London where he met McLaren’s then-boss Ron Dennis.
He asked for an autograph and told him “one day I want to race for you”. Dennis replied: “Phone me in nine years and I’ll sort you a deal.”
Bold, determined and individual, he almost won the title in his first record-breaking season as he reeled off nine successive podiums from his debut in Melbourne, rocking the establishment along the way with his speed and his style.
On and off the track, he was fast, somewhat mercurial and occasionally tempestuous and the combination led to a fierce rivalry with team-mate and two-time champion Fernando Alonso at McLaren.
That was a signal of how tough it was to be for all his future team-mates as Hamilton, who narrowly missed out on the 2007 title, returned to triumph in 2008 with a dramatic last-gasp fifth-place finish in Brazil.
He also showed frustration as McLaren failed to deliver the speed to beat Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull, who reeled off four straight title triumphs from 2010 to 2013, by which time Hamilton had departed for Mercedes.
Escaping the management regime of Dennis and his father, Hamilton found freedom at Mercedes alongside team-mate Nico Rosberg, his teenage karting friend and rival.
This enabled Hamilton to express himself with a headline-grabbing trans-Atlantic lifestyle, mixing with musicians and ‘fashionistas’.
He showed little love for any duty to obey conventions and, for many observers, gave his sport a welcome injection of freshness and diversity as champion again in 2014 and 2015.
Rosberg broke Hamilton’s sequence of supremacy in 2016 and then retired, leaving the Englishman to dominate.
His former McLaren team-mate Jenson Button summed up Hamilton’s pure speed when he said: “For me, over one lap, I don’t think there is anyone as quick as Lewis and I don’t think there ever has been.”
That speed, which has always been a natural talent, has in recent seasons been allied to a more mature attitude to his job as team leader.
Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff once summed up: “He is never satisfied. He never settles. He is never happy with where he is as a racing driver and a human being.”
Having achieved so much as his sport’s best-known ambassador, Hamilton’s interest in social issues has emerged more frequently.
Last season, he began voicing his concerns for the environment and revealed a fleeting despair at the state of the world when he used Instagram to declare that the planet was “a messed-up place” and he felt he wanted “to give up”.
That commentary, including revelations about his vegan lifestyle, led to the man who frequently used private jets and occupies a sport hardly know for its green credentials being accused of hypocrisy.
“I’m only human,” he retorted. “Like everyone, we have up and down days. That’s what I’ve been really trying to convey.”
This year has seen him press for greater diversity in the paddock, a push sparked by his vocal support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
His own career and his quest for self-expression and freedom has shaped his advice for young drivers.