Lewis Hamilton shows grace and purpose to rise above F1 racism rows

Were Lewis Hamilton’s task on track not hard enough, Formula One has long presented an altogether more formidable struggle. Before this weekend’s British Grand Prix he was served another stark reminder of the unpleasant reality that race remains a serious issue for the only black driver in the sport. Hamilton has faced it down with grace and stoicism.

The depths of bigotry have served only to elevate further an ambassador of which the sport can be proud.

F1 roundly condemned Nelson Piquet’s use of a racist slur in speaking about Hamilton, which was made public this week, since exacerbated as further examples of his intolerance have emerged. Piquet has form in this department, few were surprised by it or convinced by his apology in which he claimed his words had been mistranslated. There was great distaste across the sport but it was a salutary lesson of the racism Hamilton has faced in his entire career.

Related: Nelson Piquet aimed further racial and homophobic slurs at Lewis Hamilton

When the 37-year-old came to address it this week at Silverstone it was with a thoughtful and considered air that was a world away from the base, ignoble nature of Piquet’s comments. Hamilton was not only able to draw inspiration from adversity but in his actions has proved to be by far the bigger man, whose influence will be felt for decades to come.

“These undertones of discrimination and microaggressions are in today’s world not helpful and create more divide,” he said. “I love how Michelle Obama says when they go low, we go high. So I try to continue to do that. I’m still here. It’s not going to deter me from doing what I think is right and doing what I love, which is working in the sport.”

Hamilton’s reaction to Piquet’s comments was to demand action. He was in a strong position to do so, already going high as Obama advised. On Thursday he announced the first grants being made by his Ignite Partnership, a joint commitment with his Mercedes team to improve diversity in the sport for which he and the team have created a $6.2m fund.

One of the beneficiaries is Motorsport UK, British motor racing’s governing body. It will be focusing on increasing female participation in grassroots motorsport and developing new partnerships to reach more communities with high representation from low-income and minority ethnic groups.

Hamilton takes a corner in practice at Silverstone, where he has won eight times in F1.
Hamilton takes a corner in practice at Silverstone, where he has won eight times in F1. Photograph: David Davies/PA

Hamilton has been outspoken about the need for diversity in racing and has emphatically put his money where his mouth is. Alongside the Ignite initiative he has donated £20m to his Mission44 project to promote diversity.

David Richards is a former F1 team principal who has been involved in the sport all his life and is the chair of Motorsport UK. He has known and followed Hamilton since he first made a mark in karting. Richards is astute, thoughtful and above all an enthusiast for improving the sport. Unsurprisingly he has only admiration for Hamilton’s determination to make a difference.

“He’s not just talking about it, he is actually doing something about it,” he said. “Would this have happened without Lewis’s initiative, without the investment by himself and Mercedes Benz? It probably wouldn’t. It takes people to stand up and be counted to make these things happen. It’s all very well having great ideas but you have to follow it up with substance and he has done just that. We will see more female and black participation as a result of it.”

Hamilton has stood up to be counted, especially when he was spurred into action by the Black Lives Matter movement. His vocal demand for F1 to take a stance on racism and equality was crucial in the sport adopting its anti-racist and pro-diversity We Race As One initiative.

His action galvanised other drivers and the sport itself. Yet as he noted, for all that he had endured racist rhetoric the politics-do-not-belong-in-sport brigade felt he was stepping beyond his boundaries, a farcical notion that a man should not express an opinion on the issues that affect him on a personal level.

Richards dismisses those objections and notes that in fact the sport has been enriched by Hamilton’s contribution. “I bet you the very same people that criticise him for what he’s doing would also criticise him for not standing up for these issues if he said nothing,” he said. “He has a platform and he uses it appropriately, he uses it for the inclusion debate and the racism issues and the environment. I applaud him for it. Young people listen to him because of what he has achieved and I am certain he is using that platform very effectively and very appropriately.”

Hamilton’s success has brought the sport to a whole new audience and Silverstone has long been his fiefdom. Of his record 103 F1 victories, eight have been claimed here, ensuring he is the most successful driver at the old airfield. The fans have developed a special relationship with him as he has given them the chance to exult in victory time and time again.

Lewis Hamilton is pictured with his dog, Roscoe.
Lewis Hamilton is pictured with his dog, Roscoe. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

This weekend it will be an altogether tougher task. Mercedes remain off the pace of Red Bull and Ferrari, their car design has proved difficult to manage and their issues with bouncing a setback to developing and improving their ride. Hamilton is 98 points off the championship leader, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and has acknowledged a shot at an eighth title is beyond him this season.

Yet there will be no shortage of effort from the British driver and his team this weekend. Mercedes have brought a raft of upgrades to Silverstone and are hopeful their car will be well suited to the circuit’s smooth track and flowing fast corners. If they are to turn the season round this is their best shot at making a resurgence.

Certainly the seven-times champion does not appear to lack motivation despite this being his 16th season in the sport. Richards believes he is as hungry as ever, even when dealing with one of the most recalcitrant cars of his career, but is convinced his legacy will extend beyond on track.

“I think we will see Lewis Hamilton influencing F1 and motorsport generally for many years to come,” he said. “I hope we can embrace him in a life after F1 to continue doing the good things that he has started already.” For Hamilton, then, the struggle remains but the man is avowedly unbowed. “I’m still here, I’m still standing strong,” he noted pointedly at Silverstone.