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Lewis Hamilton: “It doesn’t matter how you fall”

At school he was told, "You will never be anything." On the go-kart tracks he was the victim of racism. In the world of Formula 1 he did not feel welcome. The champion's answer was seven world titles, which he dedicates "to all the children out there who dream of the impossible." To whom he says, "The important thing is how you get back up."

"I didn't feel welcome. I didn't feel accepted. There are many who think that a Formula 1 driver does not behave this way. "A Formula 1 driver does not have tattoos or piercings! A Formula 1 driver cannot be original.'" But Lewis Hamilton went on his way without letting it affect him, doing things his own way, and you can't say it went badly for him. And today, thanks in part to the Netflix docuseries Formula 1: Drive to Survive, which has expanded the motorsports audience, he has become even more famous. 

The British driver has won seven world championships and, when it comes to driving 300-kilometer-per-hour behemoths, is the best of all time for some. Given his achievements, it would be reasonable to imagine that any tensions between him and the "notables" of the sport have long since been resolved. Reasonable, but wrong. Hamilton, who routinely races wearing two earrings, was told he had to take them off. "People like to have the power to impose it," the driver commented. "I seem to be the only one who wears them." Last May, aware that the issue was about to blow up, he showed up at the Miami Grand Prix press conference provocatively wearing rings on each finger, multiple chains and three watches. "I put on what I could," he recounts, and announced that, if necessary, rather than remove the jewelry he would give up racing. "I don't have any more piercings, anywhere. But I like that there are those who think I had my balls pierced." He has been granted a temporary exemption, but when it expires he will have to make a final decision, and it is easy to imagine his position: "Ever since I was a kid, I never liked being told what to do." 

We meet for lunch at a Moroccan restaurant in Manhattan. He orders hummus and falafel. "I used to look at hummus and tell myself I would never eat it. Now I love it," he says. Veganism was also not part of his life, but now, at 37, he has been practicing it for five years, ever since a friend opened his eyes to the world of the food industry. "I've been more consistent than I've ever been before."

Proving people wrong is a recurring theme in his life. "I was dyslexic, and in school I struggled with all my might," he recalls. "Teachers would tell me, 'You'll never be anything.' It was the most demotivating thing you could hear, especially when you saw them acting the opposite way with white classmates." Today he talks about it as if that cruelty and indifference had been an incentive: "I don't hold any grudges against those people, because they got me used to fighting."

Before him, there had never been a black driver in Formula 1, and his colleagues generally came from more privileged walks of life. At age 13, McLaren offered him a position in the development program dedicated to drivers. After his 16th birthday, however, an incident happened that seemed to be expected to change the course of things: Hamilton, falsely accused of assaulting a classmate, was expelled from the program. The father contacted other families whose children corroborated Lewis's account and his claim of innocence, and thus succeeded in getting him reinstated in the program. But he never returned to school. This story came back to him in 2020, on the last lap of the race that would win him his seventh title. From his earpiece, as he slowed down after the finish line, spectators heard his emotionally broken voice utter the words, "This is for all the kids out there who dream of the impossible." "In that moment, feelings that I had repressed without even realizing it came back," he says. The repeated racist assaults he had had to endure back in the days when he raced go-karts, particularly in competitions in Italy and France; the beating he suffered around age 12 in Newcastle, where he lived with his mother and stepfather. Two of them, father and son, had attacked him and then kicked him as he lay on the ground, shouting, "Go back to your country!" "I never told my parents about it: with my mother because I thought she would not understand; with my father because I was too scared to tell him and I didn't want him to think I was a jerk, unable to defend myself. I remember many times I would find myself alone, crying in my room."

In his efforts against racism, Hamilton has tried to get the motorsports world involved, for example by convincing his team to repaint their cars black and by going to pick up a Grand Prix victory trophy in Italy in September 2020 wearing a T-shirt that read, "Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor" (the young emergency services worker killed during a search of her apartment on the night of March 12, 2020 in Louisville, ed.). Shortly after that gesture of his, as was perhaps predictable, a ruling was issued that drivers can only show up on the podium in their team's clothing. But he did not stop there. He started the Hamilton Commission, which published a report examining the reasons for black underrepresentation in British motorsport and suggesting potential remedies. In addition, he is an advocate for the Mission 44 foundation, whose goal is "to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed by narrowing the opportunity gap in education, employment and wider society." 

When he agreed to join his current team, Mercedes, in 2013, Hamilton wanted to set the record straight right away: "This is who I am. This is what I like to do. Don't try to control me or limit me in my private life. I will give everything for the team and to win championships. I will show you that being different will not be bad for the brand." 

During the racing season, the rule called for drivers to go to bed early and avoid distractions. Hamilton's chosen path has been a different one. For example, once, before flying to Singapore for a race, he attended a Tommy Hilfiger fashion show in New York City, followed by a big party-his response to the perplexity aroused was a best lap time. Hamilton's interest in fashion is long-standing and is expressed both in the creation of clothes-since 2018 he has designed a number of collections in collaboration with Hilfiger-and in personal style, to which his fans pay manic attention. He speaks proudly of this: "There are not many big black-owned brands out there." This season, however, Valentino has chosen him as the poster child for DI.fferent VA.lues, a set of codes and values embraced by Pierpaolo Piccioli, the fashion house's creative director, and the pilot is the first face of the Pink PP Men campaign.

The champion's activities outside sports are varied: his London-based vegan restaurant chain, Neat Burger, is now expanding into the United States, where he has Leonardo DiCaprio as a partner. Staying in the film world, Hamilton, who in 2016 appeared in a cameo in Zoolander 2 and lent his voice to Car 2 and Car 3, along with Brad Pitt is one of the producers of a Formula 1 film to be directed by Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski. His passions also include music. "I love music, it's my salvation." For years he has been writing and recording his own, hinting that he may soon share it with the public.

In the first half of his Formula 1 career, Lewis Hamilton had a long relationship with former Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger. The couple's ups and downs were followed with obsessive attention by the British tabloids. Since then he has always tried to protect his private life from prying eyes. "I learned the hard way how necessary it is to protect one's privacy. I don't talk much about my own business, partly because I am focused on work. I realized that I cannot do two or three things well at the same time. Also, I wanted to feel good about myself before I welcomed another person into my life." 

On Instagram, Hamilton has more than 29 million followers, and, of course, there are also those who do not always leave positive comments on his posts. He recalls an incident a few years ago that was very important to him: on Christmas Day 2017, he had posted a video in which he joked with his grandson who was wearing a purple dress wielding a magic wand with a pink heart. "Why are you wearing a princess dress? Boys shouldn't!" The Network's response had not been long in coming, accusing him of sexism with the usual corollary of insults from haters. "I did something stupid," he admitted. "I realized that part of my upbringing came out: it was a display of ignorance. And I realized that was not the way I wanted to be perceived" (The next day the post had been deleted).

 "The idea that through a statement, the result of ignorance, I could hurt someone, reminded me of how I had felt in the past when I was the one being insulted. And so, while I couldn't undo what happened, I tried to show that community that I was with them and supported them." "It's not how you fall that counts, but how you get back up," is one of Hamilton's favorite mottos. To the verbal apology for the mistake made and the pain caused, she had quickly added a willingness to pose in a kilt on the cover of GQ and accompany her grandson to buy another princess dress. "The crazy thing is that I had to learn something from a six-year-old."

When we meet a second time, in Nice, Hamilton is behind the wheel and I am his passenger. The experience is different from what one might expect: I discover that his vehicle of choice for short trips is a tiny electric Smart car. On the roads he is an extremely cautious and careful driver, not speeding and stopping often to let impatient drivers pass. As he explains, he actually dislikes driving in traffic, between pedestrians and intersections. "I find it stressful." On the track, however, he has no fear and also enjoys skydiving, rock climbing, and surfing. What scares him are spiders: according to him, it is the fault of his sister, who made him watch the movie Arachnophobia as a child. 

In the movie version of his life, Hamilton was supposed to return to racing this season, after the painful fiasco at the end of the last one (at the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP, the last race cost him his eighth world title and saw Verstappen win), and dominate all competitions. But it has not turned out that way. More or less every year Formula 1 teams have to design cars with new specifications. Mercedes was expected to excel in this challenge, but for 2022 something did not work. After he finished 13th in a race in April, rumors resumed about his possible retirement. Some thought his pride would not hold up. He, after a few days of silence, posted on Instagram a picture of himself in the tire area of the garage, with this message, "I am working on my masterpiece, I will decide when it is finished."

Hamilton has another year left on his contract, which could be a natural end point for a driver of his age who has achieved everything he could have hoped for, but he says, "I would be lying if I said I didn't think about extending my contract." He is now reflecting on his life after sports and how to fulfill his credo: "To live to the fullest and best of your ability, helping as many people as you can in the time you have." The fact that he is making plans for when it is over does not mean, however, that it is over. "I still enjoy driving and challenging myself." And to those who insinuate that he may be the kind of person who shies away from challenges, he replies, "They're wrong. And I will prove it once again." 


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