Lewis Hamilton is not a racing driver

In our Summer 2020 cover interview, the British Formula One champion talks us through his creative process, his love of space and what it’s like to attend the Met Gala

I’ve never met anyone quite like Lewis Hamilton. Although that’s not altogether true — because I haven’t met Lewis Hamilton, either. But I’ve been closer than most. Closer than those who watch him quietly chat his way through post-race press conferences. Closer than those who can call to mind his acceptance speech for the 2014 BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Even closer than those who’ve actually seen him in person, hurtling by at 200mph behind a tinted visor.

But make no mistake, Lewis Hamilton is a difficult man to pin down — even more so when a conference call is conspiring against you. Yet here we are; it’s early 2020, and we’ve all had time to learn the art of patience. What’s a dropped call here or a dial tone there in the scheme of things? We’ve not got anywhere better to be.

It’s a good thing, too – because my phone is having something of a meltdown. It’s making ‘beeps’, ‘boops’ and a noise that sounds like a doorbell being rung underwater. I fear the interview has stalled before it’s even started. But then, a new line clicks on, and here’s Lewis Hamilton. Where he actually is, of course, I have no idea. How he’s feeling, I have no clue. The one certainty? I’m about to get a whole lot more than I bargained for.

Why? Because sportsmen, for all their achievements, do not tend to make for the most interesting interviews. That sounds harsh, now I’ve said it — especially given all the trophies they’ve lifted and the records they’ve set. It sounds ever harsher when you consider the blood, sweat, tears, shin splints, muscle strains and torn ligaments. But it’s true. By and large, if you’re looking for interesting — you look elsewhere.

You look to the world of entertainment; of music and television. You look to the fashion industry, or the arts. You look to the buzzing world of business, the celebrity sphere, or the vicious, volatile culinary scene. In these places, you’ll find stories to run circles around athletes — and personalities to put sportsmen to shame.

But you’ll also find something else. In each and every one of these places — without fail, and often explanation — you’ll find Lewis Hamilton.

Lewis Hamilton is a R̶a̶c̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶D̶r̶i̶v̶e̶r̶ Visionary

It sounds conceited, doesn’t it? But Hamilton is softly spoken, disarmingly self-effacing and would never use the V-word in relation to himself. He’s actually remarkably casual about his creative talents. If I was expecting some grandiose explanation of his boundless inspiration — and, I’ll be honest, I kind of was — he isn’t going to give it to me.

“I’m a doodler,” he tells me plainly. “I fly a lot, so I often have a lot of time to myself — and a lot of time to think. So I jot down a lot of notes, in my notepad.”

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Rumour has it that Ernest Hemingway, John Lennon and Marlon Brando were also partial to a scribble or two — and they’ve all made a fair impact on culture. Hamilton, however, admits that his best ideas don’t come at 38,000 feet — or at the piano or the easel, for that matter. Instead, he thinks most freely on his runs.

lewis hamilton interview

“You know, everyone has their own version of meditation, and I think that running is mine. I usually run for an hour, or an hour and a half most days, so I get a chance to think about a lot of things. And sometimes, I just have to stop to jot something down.

“Even when I’m midway through a conversation,” he adds. “Something could just come up, and I’ll have to stop. That’s just the way my mind works. I could be at work, with my engineers, sometimes in a meeting or talking about a race coming up, I’ll be like: ‘Gosh, I’m so sorry, I’ve just got to write something down’. It could be an idea for a TV show, or for a song, or for a pair of trainers. Anything.”

It’s an eclectic mix; but then Hamilton is an eclectic man — and his whole approach to creativity is characterised by secrecy. There’s an art collection somewhere, we’re told. Each of Hamilton’s houses is personally furnished and decorated by the racing driver. Even his tattoos remain largely hidden under his race suit; depictions of swordsmen, feathered wings and astrological symbols designed by — and for — the man himself.

And then there’s his complicated relationship with music. Not only does Hamilton count artists including The Weeknd, Pharrell Williams and, amazingly, Chaka Demus & Pliers amongst his favourites, but he also started playing the guitar at 13-years-old. He once even built a music studio in his house. And, allegedly, he made his official debut as a featured artist on Christina Aguilera’s 2018 rap track, Pipe. Is it an urban myth? Hamilton doesn’t bite when asked. But the featured artist, XNDA, is widely regarded to be his musical pseudonym.

Even if Hamilton isn’t R&B’s biggest secret, his artistic talents still race the gamut. The man’s got more strings to his bow than Prince’s gold-plated Fender Stratocaster — a guitar that, of course, you’ll find in the racing driver’s personal memorabilia collection. Unfortunately, from his doodles to his duets, Hamilton’s creative flair remains largely under wraps. That is, except, for his helmets.

“I think that’s one of the places it all started,” says Hamilton of his headline-making headgear. “I was always into drawing. From the age of about 12, I started designing them. Every year, I would spend the best part of a day just sitting, drawing up a new design and colouring it in. I did that every year, starting from 1997.”

There have been countless helmet designs over the years, featuring depictions of everything from Christ the Redeemer to roulette wheels. Hamilton even criticised the FIA for trying to limit the number of designs a driver is allowed during one season. Last year alone, he had four different styles. But, for 2020, Hamilton reveals, he’s slowing down. Though we’ve yet to see it in action, Hamilton’s new helmet will feature his favourite colour since childhood — purple — and it’ll be here to stay.

“That’s because there was a period of time where I was doing multiple ideas,” he explains. “Some good and some bad. But I’m stopping that, because everyone else has started doing it — and I don’t like doing what everyone else does.”

Lewis Hamilton is a R̶a̶c̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶D̶r̶i̶v̶e̶r̶ Misfit

You heard the man. He’s not one for conforming. Hamilton doesn’t so much stand out from the crowd as jump into his single-seater and tear, full pelt, away from it. And nowhere are his idiosyncrasies plainer to see than in Formula One. Not only is Hamilton the joint-youngest driver to ever win a World Championship, he is also the only black racer to ever compete in the sport. Just think about that for a moment — because Hamilton certainly has.

“When I got into Formula One,” he exhales, “I actually thought to myself: ‘Okay, you have to look this certain way, speak this certain way, present yourself the way these people want you to present yourself’.”

lewis hamilton interview
lewis hamilton interview

“I couldn’t be me,” he continues, with an audible shrug. “I had comments on my hair. I had comments on my earrings. I had all these pressures. But I also had a choice: Did I listen to these people, do what they wanted me to do and be unhappy? Or did I just be myself? They might be unhappy with me — but is that my problem?”

It certainly wasn’t. Hamilton himself may be something of an enigma, but the story of his success on the track is one we’ve all heard before. He grew up karting in Stevenage, erupted into Formula One in 2007, and has been gathering speed ever since — leaving fellow racers, long-held records and dropped jaws in his wake. He’s raced for McLaren, Mercedes, and is only one world title away from Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven. But it’s not the fairytale that it sounds.

“It was particularly uncomfortable when I started,” he admits, pausing for a moment. “But I grew up uncomfortable, generally. I didn’t feel like I fit in for a very long time. I still feel that way, sometimes. I’m a bit of a misfit. I have my odd things and my odd ways of doing things.

"I’m a bit of a misfit. I have my odd things and my odd ways of doing things..."

“I don’t do the things that other drivers do,” he continues. “I’m not in bed at 10pm every night. I do more than train and race. During this period, for example, when we’re not racing, lots of drivers are doing simulations. I’m not. But then, as I said, I’m not normal.”

It almost doesn’t make sense. How can Hamilton possibly have other interests — and pursue them so passionately — and still be this good at racing? Because he is good. Really good. He’s so good that you’d expect him to spend more time on the track than anyone. You’d think he’d be constantly plugging himself into simulators, triple-checking cornering speeds and mumbling about Delta times and tyre compounds in his sleep. But he’s not.

“There’s just so much life outside of racing,” reasons Hamilton. “And I love exploring those different elements of life. Maybe it comes back again to that feeling of not fitting in. As I say, I’ve had that feeling since I was at school. But I want to be against the grain. I’ve always been someone who doesn’t want to do what’s expected of me. It’s taken me a long time, over the course of my life, to figure out who I want to be, what I want to do — to have the balls to be myself and not care what other people think.”

Lewis Hamilton is a R̶a̶c̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶D̶r̶i̶v̶e̶r̶ Celebrity

And so we reach the heady heights of celebrity culture. Because that’s what Lewis Hamilton is. He may have rolled into the spotlight on four wheels, but the man is no longer confined to a car. He’s parked up, got out and walked off — while fellow drivers, such as Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen are still struggling with their seatbelts.

Hamilton is approaching a level of fame most sportsmen can only dream of. It’s Beckham-esque. He was the only racing driver to lend both his name and voice to a character in Pixar’s Cars franchise. He cameoed in Zoolander 2 alongside Kate Moss and A$AP Rocky. He even voiced a character in his favourite video game series, Call of Duty.

He’s walked red carpets at the BRIT Awards, the Time 100 Gala and the Cannes Film Festival — not to mention his standing invite to the biggest event of them all; the Met Gala.

“That, personally, is a very overwhelming experience for me,” Hamilton says of the annual New York benefit. “There’s just so much glitz and glamour. I don’t know if there’s another event like it. From the moment you get there, hundreds of people on the street. And the amount of work that goes into everyone’s looks? So much time and energy.

“You never really know what to expect,” he adds, “until you see Anna Wintour, and she’ll have a whole host of guests standing next to her, who greet you and welcome you. Tom Brady, Serena Williams, Jennifer Lawrence — you go along them like a line of royals.”

lewis hamilton interview

As fate would have it, Hamilton met one of his best friends at the Met Gala. Miles Chamley-Watson is a British-born Olympic fencer and, like Hamilton, represents a minority in a sport with very little diversity.

“I walked past him at the Met Gala a couple of years ago,” laughs Hamilton, “and he was sitting on a table between Rihanna and Madonna. Just sitting there. I was like, who is that? We still talk about that all the time — because he has no idea how he ended up in that seat. It’s a crazy place, though, because you’re surrounded by people you’ve seen on TV, or in movies. I caught myself standing next to Rami Malek last year — and I’m a big movie buff, you know?”

I’d never heard that about Hamilton, but he isn’t lying. I ask him for his favourite film — and he rattles off about 30. Cool Runnings. Coming to America. Seven Pounds. His favourite favourite, if he had to pick one, would be the 2004 indie drama Crash. On the face of it, an ironic choice for a racing driver. But the reasoning runs deeper.

“Stories are just so special, so important,” says Hamilton, explaining how Crash tackles race relations in a starkly honest way. He pauses, and considers that it’s been a long time since he’s been to the cinema. He misses it. And then he’s back to listing films. Man on Fire. The Pursuit of Happyness. Scarface, a film Hamilton has just learned is due to be remade by Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to watch it,” he laments. “Why would you remake Scarface? It’s such a great movie. There’s never going to be a better Tony Montana. And they’re never as good as the originals. Look at Point Break. Did you see the new Point Break? It was terrible.”

He moves onto actors. Will Smith. Eddie Murphy. Robert Downey Jr.n “Downey Jr. is incredible. I like Marvel a lot. That’s mainly because they do a lot of space movies. You know, I think Guardians of the Galaxy is just awesome. And I’ll watch anything about space. I was watching a documentary on Saturn the other day. I also watched a documentary about the lunar landings. I’m really interested in space and space exploration.”

Lewis Hamilton is a R̶a̶c̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶D̶r̶i̶v̶e̶r̶ Astrophile

That’s right. Space. Lewis Hamilton loves it. He really can’t get enough. Even his hardbacks — he’s currently reading The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and The Attachment Theory by Annie Chen — have taken a back seat to his true passion; scouring the web for articles about the stars.

“I’m very, very much into astronauts and the cosmos,” he confirms, matter-of-factly. “I’m psyched about the possibilities about what might be out there. I just love reading about and watching documentaries about space. I’m currently counting down the days until the new James Webb Space Telescope goes up into orbit. It’s a new telescope that they’re planning to put beyond the moon, and it’s much bigger than, for example, the Hubble Telescope. So I just really can’t wait to see what sort of imagery they get from that once it’s up in space. It’ll be actually behind the moon. And the current telescope is only two metres wide — this one has a diameter of six-and-a-half metres.”

He’s lost me. Not about telescope dimensions specifically; but in general. For the fourth time in the space of an hour, Lewis Hamilton has spectacularly subverted my expectations. Along with doodling, self-penned songs and a fondness for the silver screen, we may now add ‘the universe’ to the seemingly infinite list of this man’s interests. And, of all the rug-pulls, this may be the most surprising. He’s still talking, in fact — effortlessly and effusively — about space. He’s visited NASA! He’s driven a moon buggy! He even wanted to become an astronaut when he was younger — but ended up forgoing a space suit for a race suit.

lewis hamilton interview
lewis hamilton interview

The more time I spend on the line with Hamilton, the clearer something becomes. This man has the sort of mind most of us aren’t equipped to understand. In another life, he would have made a brilliant Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, or an elusive, reclusive Howard Hughes figure — he’s undoubtedly got a few inventions in that notepad of his. Speaking to Hamilton is how I imagine a conversation with Elon Musk might go. And that’s a comparison the racing driver would love.

“I can’t knock it,” he says when I bring up Musk’s interstellar SpaceX tourism venture. “I mean, I don’t have any current plans in place to go when they launch — I definitely wouldn’t go immediately, let’s put it that way. I wouldn’t go in the early stages of any of them.

“But Elon,” he adds, “and what he’s doing with SpaceX and Tesla — he’s got such a great mind. He’s doing some incredible things. He’s such an intelligent man. And I would love to go to space, so I’ll keep a close eye on what he’s doing. There’s just so little that we know, isn’t there? So much that hasn’t been explored. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in our lifetimes.

“But, while I am in awe of what is potentially out there,” Hamilton says, his enthusiasm fading slightly, “I feel like we need to take care of this planet first. This is our home. We’re not going anywhere else in this lifetime, or the next lifetime. So the important thing is to take care of our home now; to focus on our own planet.”

Lewis Hamilton is a R̶a̶c̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶D̶r̶i̶v̶e̶r̶ Vegan

Hamilton cut meat, eggs, and dairy products from his diet three years ago. But it wasn’t a choice thrust upon him by an eager nutritionist — “I don’t have a dietitian,” he tells me. “People naturally expect that I do. I have dibbled and dabbled, but I don’t have one.” It also wasn’t a PR stunt — the move actually caused a fair amount of grief for Hamilton, with fellow drivers even labelling him a hypocrite for wanting to save the planet, but also racing for a living. So why did he do it?

“Look,” he says, “I grew up loving bacon sarnies in the morning. I grew up having full English breakfasts. Eggs were a huge part of my diet. I went to beautiful restaurants and ate the finest meats. And, honestly, I was just completely oblivious to the effect it was having on my body, and definitely oblivious to the effect it was having on the environment. I don’t know why. I think it was just so entwined with being happy that I didn’t notice. But then I met a few people who brought it to my attention, and I started reading up about it.”

Now, no more animal products. Hamilton says it’s one of the hardest things he’s ever done, but also one of the best. And, in the driver’s eyes at least, it appears to have turned him into a superhuman.

lewis hamilton interview

“I’m hardly ever sick,” he asserts. “I’ve been so clean for the past three years that I don’t even have to take antibiotics anymore. I don’t have to take any medicines. Before I was vegan, I’d have to have antibiotics every year, multiple times. I took painkillers; all sorts of tablets which affected my gut. They affected my hormone levels, my thyroid, my energy levels.”

But now, his body is clean and his mind is clear. And Hamilton is keen to spread the word. He was instrumental in producing hit 2018 documentary, The Game Changers, a film that extolled the virtues of a plant-based diet. He uses his own social media to frequently decry the animal agriculture industry. He’s even bringing vegan food to the masses.

“A friend and I had the idea to open up a fast-food restaurant in London,” says Hamilton of his latest venture, Neat Burger. “We’ve got three outlets now, selling burgers and fries. And it’s all vegan — even down the packaging. You see, once you’re in the movement, you begin to discover more and more ways that you can help. And it’s not about throwing it down people’s throats. It’s about educating people.”

"I would love to go to space, so I’ll keep a close eye on what Elon's doing..."

But, for all of Neat Burger’s culinary innovation, Hamilton adds that cooking is not one of his creative outlets. In fact, it might be one of the few things the polymath is actively bad at.

“I’ve just never enjoyed it,” he brushes off. “Obviously, living on my own, I have had to cook in the past. But, honestly, I don’t like doing it. I don’t really know why. I think it’s just too slow for me. And I’m not great at it — so the desire to do it just isn’t there.

“And I’ve had some really bad experiences in the kitchen,” he adds. “It’s been a disaster in the past for me. I’m ADHD, so if I do cook something — say a pasta dish — I’ll make it, but then I’ll have to clean everything I used before I eat it. I also like to watch TV while I eat, so I’ll probably spend another half hour figuring out what to watch before I’ve even taken a bite. You know, we’re all weird in our own ways — and that’s just one of my weirdisms.”

Lewis Hamilton is a R̶a̶c̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶D̶r̶i̶v̶e̶r̶ Fashion Designer

Add it to the list. But, for the most part, Hamilton’s ‘weirdisms’ are fairly noble — especially on the conservation front. In the past, he’s stood toe-to-toe with the CEO of Mercedes-Benz to argue against the use of leather in the brand’s cars. He’s urged his 16 million Instagram followers to boycott zoos and circuses. He even donated half a million dollars to the Australian bushfire cause. His activism may seem arbitrary, but there’s a thread of environmentalism running through all of it.

Perhaps it stems from the guilt of having a gas-guzzling day job. But it doesn’t seem to. Hamilton’s philanthropic pursuits seem genuine enough — and it appears he’d still want to fight the good fight even if he were flipping Neat Burgers for a living. Even his role models include icons of conservation. He may idolise Ayrton Senna and Muhammad Ali, but also David Attenborough — and the few fashion designers who actively champion sustainability.

“Take Stella McCartney,” he says. “I love her energy, I think she’s a beautiful person, and I really love her fight for sustainability. But, since working with Tommy [Hilfiger], only now do I realise how hard that fight has been for her.”

Hamilton launched his first collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger, TOMMYXLEWIS, in 2018. This year, the new collection is to be released, and the now fully-fledged fashion designer tells me that he is always trying to push Hilfiger and his team in a more sustainable direction. How? By never taking no for an answer.

“They might tell me that they can’t get vegan glue for the shoes this season, but maybe next season they’ll look into it,” explains Hamilton. “And I’ll just say no. It has to be this season. Find it. There has to be a way to make this shoe 100 per cent vegan. And then they will. So it’s just about pushing people — as well as yourself.”

lewis hamilton interview
lewis hamilton interview

The Hilfiger partnership began when Hamilton bumped into the American designer at Paris Fashion Week. The two kept crossing paths, and eventually decided to collaborate. Hamilton seems to regard Hilfiger as something of a father figure, describing him as: “One of the first, and only people who has accepted who I am, and how I dress”.

“But here’s the thing about me,” he continues, “I’m either at zero or one hundred per cent. I don’t do anything in-between. So Tommy’s team probably had no idea how heavily involved I was going to be. As soon as that contract was signed, I started researching — coming up with an idea of my collection. I went to lots of shows, or watched them online if I missed them. I took things from my own wardrobe, and purchased a whole load more.

“When I did turn up,” he laughs, “they were like: ‘Oh shit, you’ve brought several bags of ideas with you’. But they went with it, and we’ve since built up this great relationship and rapport.”

Hamilton’s collection, much like the man himself, manages to be both bold and soft at the same time. It brings together nostalgic touches from his childhood and futuristic styles, all realised in a rainbow of punchy pastel colours. I said earlier that he’d have made a good Silicon Valley entrepreneur. But perhaps I was wrong. Next to the grey hoodies and washed-out jeans that populate San Francisco’s Bay Area, Hamilton looks like a different species.

But fashion is hardly a new passion. Along with music and design, Hamilton has had a penchant for couture since youth. This collaboration isn’t even his first. In the past, he’s joined creative forces with Police and PUMA. He’s created a chronograph watch with IWC, two limited edition motorcycles with Italian brand MV Agusta and an energy drink, LH44, with Monster. Add to that Neat Burger, endorsements with Bose and Vodafone, and his lucrative day job — and it’s no wonder that, last month, he officially became the richest British sportsman of all time, with a personal fortune of £224 million.

Lewis Hamilton is a R̶a̶c̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶D̶r̶i̶v̶e̶r̶ Human Being

Hamilton’s life is so alien to most of us that he may as well come from beyond the stars. He’s revolutionised Formula One, showcased a frankly intimidating proclivity for creativity and has his fingers in more (presumably vegan) pies than perhaps any other sportsman in history. His achievements are so impressive that it’s easy to forget that he’s just a man. But he is. And, occasionally, a disconcerting glimpse of this raw humanity shows through.

Today is an emotional day for Hamilton. It is the one-year anniversary of a close friend’s death. When he first met Niki Lauda, it took some time for Hamilton to adapt to the Austrian’s brand of tough love. But, over the years, the two forged a firm, if unlikely, friendship. They shared texts, phone calls and frequently visited each other. When Lauda died, Hamilton was about to race the Monaco Grand Prix. He pulled off a typically prodigious victory. But at what cost?

“People might not have fully appreciated it, but that was a really tough race for me,” Hamilton says reflectively. “I had seen Niki just the week before, so the pain I had inside knowing that he’d passed away was constantly on my mind and in my heart. But I knew that this was one moment in life I was never going to get back. I had to win — for him. The pressure was crazy. And I think that’s the most emotionally drained I’ve ever been, after that race. I remember not being able to even enjoy my success.

“But I know Niki would have been happy with the result,” he adds — coughing away a slight voice break. There’s a pause at the other end of the phone line, and I check to see if the call has dropped. But no. For once, Hamilton is just taking his time.

“He’d have been proud of me,” comes his measured assessment, before falling quiet. It’s a rare moment of introspection — a new talent Hamilton has been honing these past few months.

“2020 has been a bit of a blessing,” Hamilton sighs. “Because I’ve been full-on for as far back as I can remember; particularly since I got to Formula 1. It’s been non-stop. You roll into a season, it comes to an end, you have a two-week break and then you go back to training. It’s constant. Sport doesn’t sleep. And, if you want to be the best in the world, you can’t really stop. There have been times where I’ve thought it would be nice to have a year off. But I don’t believe you can come back and still be No 1. Those pressures push me to continue.”

"I knew that was one moment I was never going to get back. I had to win — for him..."

He sounds exhausted just talking about it. But then, we’ve raced through a lifetime in the space of an afternoon. We’ve talked through every one of his interests and pursuits — from the design studio to the race track to the far-flung corners of the cosmos. And one word keeps popping up. A very human word. ‘Pressure’.

“Look at anybody successful,” says Hamilton slowly. “They put pressure on themselves. I mean, diamonds are created from pressure, right? But, I think, for me, I’ve finally found the right balance. When I was younger, I definitely put too much pressure on myself. But these days, I know myself better. I know when to push myself. I know how far to push myself. But I’ll back off if I need to breathe.”

Another pause. Again, I’m worried the call’s dropped. And then, as if from the depths of space, comes Hamilton.

“But I suppose that comes with experience.”

Want more interviews from the latest issue? 10 years on from The Social Network, here’s why Jesse Eisenberg never signed up to Facebook…

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