Editor’s Note: This article was first published ahead of the start of the F1 season in July.
On a karting track in southeast England, an eight-year-old Lewis Hamilton has the measure of his rivals. He is flying around the course. He is quicker than the other boys and, though these are supposed to be carefree years, is racing with the intensity of someone who is eager to make an impression.
“There’s a downhill section on this track into a hairpin bend and there was little Lewis Hamilton, and he was small in those days, coming down, leading the pack of these little karts that sing along like bumblebees and he was just extraordinary even in those days,” David Richards, chairman of Motorsport UK, tells CNN Sport of the first time he saw Hamilton – who was on the same karting team as his son – race.
“He was quite shy, but he and his father had an exceptional rapport with each other, and they just got down and did the job better than anybody else and it stood out even in those days. He went from class to class, from strength to strength, and I think it’s easy to be flippant and say he was a future world champion at eight years old, but you could see he had standout talent that’s for sure.”
By now, the world is familiar with Hamilton’s body of work. As a six-time world champion, he is the second most successful Formula One driver of all time, one title behind Michael Schumacher’s seven which few would wager against him passing. The Englishman has won 83 races, again only Schumacher has more, and no driver has secured more pole positions than Hamilton’s 87. Whatever he achieves in the years ahead, Hamilton’s place in F1’s pantheon is assured.
The 35-year-old has long been the face of F1, his domination of the sport and heart-on-sleeve personality has made him arguably the most recognizable British sportsman on the planet, but in the last few months especially, as one of British sport’s leading voices supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, Hamilton has become, says Richards, the sport’s conscience, too.
No world champion in F1 history has used his stature like Hamilton, the sport’s first and only Black world champion in its 70-year history. While three-time world champion Jackie Stewart campaigned to make F1 a safer sport, none have stood up against injustice and tried to help sweep down the walls of oppression.
Earlier this month, the Briton said he was “completely overcome with rage” at the sight of George Floyd’s death and called out the rest of the F1 grid, and the sport itself, for remaining silent.
In June alone he has attended a peaceful protest in London, urged people to “keep pushing” for change, backed anti-racism demonstrators who tore down a statue of 17th-century slave owner in Bristol, southwest England, and has announced plans to set up a commission in his name to increase diversity in motorsport.