Johannesburg - Fashionista, activist, international icon, member of the Order of the British Empire, racing driver …
Very few sport personalities transcend their code, but in the case of Sir Lewis Hamilton, the British Formula One driver has ascended into the zeitgeist of popular culture. Much like Wayne Grestzky in ice hockey, Michael Jordan in basketball, Dan Carter in rugby and Sachin Tendulkar in cricket, Hamilton has become synonymous with F1 and beyond.
The current and defending world champion is the most decorated driver of all time and many consider the 36-year-old the greatest racing driver of all time; the Ayrton Senna of his generation. And with good reason.
Hamilton holds an array of illustrious records in the sport: The most grand prix victories with 103; the most pole positions, also 103; 181 podiums; 59 fastest laps; and the most triumphs at the same grand prix – eight in Hungary and at Silverstone; and most wins from pole, to name but a few.
If he beats his rival, Red Bull's Max Verstappen, on Sunday at the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP, then he will stand alone as the most successful world champion in the sport with eight titles, overtaking the record he currently holds with legend Michael Schumacher.
But Hamilton has become so much more than a man sitting in the cockpit of a F1 car. In recent years he has become a political activist, advocating the Black Lives Matter movement; championing increased diversity in motorsport; supporting the LGBTQ+ movement; and voicing his concerns regarding human, environmental and animal rights.
He has become an ambassador for Unicef and the UN’S 17 Global Goals, specifically Goal 4, which endeavours to provide quality education to children worldwide.
Through his Hamilton Commission with the Royal Academy of Engineers, he launched an organisation to find ways in which motorsport can engage more with young black people to promote their interests in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. His Mission 44 charity, meanwhile, helps previously disadvantaged young people to achieve their ambitions at a wider societal level.
As the only black F1 driver in the history of the sport, he has come to represent that demographic, while also appealing to a younger audience through his social interactions, his evolving fashion style, and edgier appearance which is far removed from the more conservative, clean-cut veneer that F1 is accustomed to.
BEYOND THREADS AND FABRICS
Hamilton owns his own line of designer clothing through Tommy Hilfiger and his fashion statements also go beyond threads and fabrics. At this year’s Met Gala, the stylish Hamilton paid over R1.2 million for three young, black designers – Theophilo, Kenneth Nicholson and Jason Rembert – to attend the function as his guests and highlight their work.
It is easy to see why Hamilton has become the face of F1, and its most important export – his success on the track and his work off it have endeared him to millions of supporters.
Of course, an F1 driver is only as good as the rivalries that define him – and this is perhaps the one area where he doesn’t receive the plaudits he so richly deserves. Many have argued, incorrectly and disingenuously, that it is the machine – the mighty Silver Arrows that he has piloted for nearly a decade – that has made him the champion that he is today.
This season, however, has shown unequivocally what a master of the drive he truly is. Unlike most sports, F1’s rivalries – often petulant and ill-tempered – form the basis of legendary status.
WHO IS THE PROTAGONIST?
For every protagonist in a memorable world driver’s championship, there must be an antagonist – a Darth Vader to a Luke Skywalker; an Ernst Blofeld to a James Bond, a Roy Batty to a Rick Deckard.
The roles this season are still to be identified and cast, but much like the storied rivalries of old between Alain Prost and Senna; Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet; Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen; James Hunt and Niki Lauda – to name but a few – Hamilton vs Verstappen 2021 might well be remembered fondly as one of the great battles for supremacy.
In this struggle for dominance, Dutchman Verstappen has done his part, winning nine races to Hamilton’s eight, both drivers pushing each other to the brink and elevating them far beyond the chasing paddock. Both are currently operating at another level that the remaining 18 drivers can only aspire to.
In recent years, F1 has often been accused of being too clinical, too boring; its drivers too robotic.
The flair, the controversy and will to win this year have made for a brilliant and refreshing change, and a title race that fans can barely peel their sights and minds away from.
As they have traded wins, there have been clashes on the track and off it, most notably at Silverstone, where Hamilton forced Verstappen off the asphalt and into a heavy shunt; or at Monza, where an overly aggressive Verstappen collided with the Brit, landed on top of the halo of the Mercedes driver’s car and ended the race for both of them.
This past week Hamilton won the hugely controversial Saudi Arabia GP – which was certainly a spectacle but not necessarily a good race – as the two drivers once again collided, with accusations of favouritism being bandied about.
Verstappen left Jeddah the worst off, fuming after a collective 15-second penalty, his post-race antics where he stormed off the podium berated by fans and pundits alike. It was perhaps uncalled for, but well within the ambit of a characteristic F1 rivalry and tame compared to some struggles of the past.
Coupled with this on-track battle is the acrimonious relationship this year between the team principal of Mercedes, Toto Wolff, and his Red Bull counterpart, Christian Horner.
Both have engaged in verbal sparring, accusations of bending the rules, and even of cheating. There has been an air of disdain between the two, which has only spiced up the title fight.
Liberty Media, who hold the rights to F1, have also done a stellar job in ensuring their supporters, old and new, are fully engaged with their sport. Through their social media strategy, they have introduced new, younger fans to the sport; and Netflix’s Drive to Survive has certainly pulled back the curtain on the backroom struggles between teams and drivers that was often impenetrable to fans.
It has all made for a tasty treat, yet it is the rivalry between the enthroned King and Young Turk that has captured the imagination and catapulted F1 into the stratosphere of public opinion.
In Abu Dhabi this weekend, all of this will come to its exciting conclusion. Both Verstappen and Hamilton are level on points and Hamilton must finish ahead of the Dutchman to win a record eighth world title. The great fear is that the two will cancel each other out in an incident, leaving the masses to argue who was truly the best in 2021.
Hamilton’s legacy – personally and professionally – has already been cemented for generations to come through the allure of his success and philanthropic work, but this season might signal the end of his reign on the track as the alpha and herald the ascension of the next dynasty.