In 1992 a young boy from Stevenage got his first taste of life in the public eye. At the time it was just another story featured on Blue Peter, the BBC’s flagship children’s programme. Countless boys and girls before and since have appeared on the show, but for most, it is a fleeting moment in the spotlight. The hobby gives way to real life, while the clip is just something to look back on fondly in years to come.
But this particular appearance was different. As presenter John Leslie knelt to speak to the boy, who stood glassy-eyed beside a miniature race track, he introduced a name that has become synonymous with Grand Prix racing. “Lewis Hamilton is only seven years old…” enthused Leslie, glancing across at the child. Lewis didn’t look back. His focus was elsewhere.
AN ALL-TIME GREAT
A quarter of a century later, Hamilton stands on the cusp of his fourth Formula 1 world title, which could be sealed as early as this weekend’s U.S. Grand Prix. From those first 60 seconds of exposure, he has gone on to become one of the most recognisable athletes on the planet. Having embraced his status as a celebrity in recent years, he has transcended his sport and entered the consciousness of people who have never even watched a Grand Prix.
The boy who made his TV debut back in 1992 was not yet old enough to race on a circuit. Instead, Lewis was piloting a radio-controlled car, a hobby he’d shown prodigious talent for.
It seems a world away from the man of 2017, yet something crucial has remained the same: despite the distraction of an excitable kids’ TV presenter bobbing around next to him, young Lewis kept his eyes firmly fixed on the track. Even as a seven-year-old, he was able to shut out the rest of the world and focus when it mattered most.
It is this same ability that has carried Hamilton to a record 71 pole positions and counting, not to mention 61 race victories. Only Michael Schumacher has stood on the top step more. Clearly, there is no longer a debate worth having over whether Hamilton is an all-time great. The numbers do all the talking required.
But perhaps Hamilton’s most remarkable achievement is remaining at the top of his profession for as long as he has. Though his first Blue Peter appearance was quickly forgotten, at the age of 13 he was signed by the McLaren Formula 1 team and quickly became a famous name within his sport.
And so it is no exaggeration to describe him as the F1 equivalent of a child star. From the moment he signed with McLaren, anyone who followed motor racing knew about a kid coming up the ranks named Lewis Hamilton. Being the centre of attention became the norm, but so did the burden of expectation, of having his life micro-managed by others.
For those who had watched for long enough, it was no surprise when Lewis began exhibiting some textbook child star behaviour: breaking away from the people who’d guided his early career, seeming to search for who he really was. But while there are countless cases of child stars whose identity crisis impacts their professional life, for Hamilton it had the opposite effect. Somehow, he has shut it all out at the crucial moments.
A LIFE IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Between 2000 and 2006 Hamilton developed from a promising kid into fully-fledged Grand Prix driver, winning at home and abroad in karts and subsequently cars.
Amid all of this, he was also a teenager and then a young adult. Except, he wasn’t. Leading a normal teenage life would have been incompatible with developing into an elite athlete capable of dominating on a global scale. Aside from the fitness and mental preparation required, much of his time would have been consumed by traveling. Unlike a footballer or rugby player of the same age, by 14 Hamilton was competing across Europe on a regular basis, racing against future F1 rivals like Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica. At 18 he won the British Formula Renault title, while also contesting races across Europe and in Asia. And at 21, Hamilton was completing his path to Formula 1 by winning the GP2 Series.
The constraints that come with growing up as a hot-housed athlete can become suffocating for even the toughest competitor. Many fall by the wayside at this stage of their development, unable to commit their entire life to sport.
Hamilton was among the handful that came through. But the trade-off was that from the age of 13 his career and life were managed by McLaren and his father, Anthony. He would have been told where to go, when to train, what to eat. From the fastidious McLaren there would even have been instructions on how to speak and present himself, what kind of person he would need to be.
He was generally pretty good at playing the part. During his early years in Formula 1, Hamilton’s off-track persona was unremarkable, perhaps even bland. While he had become a genuine star of the sport by winning the 2008 world title, he was a fairly low-key character, the kind of clean-cut and well-mannered athlete who could appear in TV spots for Vodafone.
But by his mid-twenties, Hamilton was beginning to reclaim his independence. This was not always an easy process, as demonstrated in early 2010 when he asked his father to step down as his manager. It doesn’t rank alongside Macaulay Culkin divorcing his own parents, but symbolically at least this was a huge shift.
Initially, it showed no signs of affecting Lewis’ F1 performances, but after fighting for the 2010 world title the following season was his worst in F1. The supreme self-belief on which he relies so heavily became elusive, and he finished fifth in the standings. To make matters worse his McLaren teammate Jenson Button was the star of the campaign, finishing as runner-up to the dominant Sebastian Vettel.
Hamilton appeared to be wilting after spending so long in the spotlight. People talked about him never adding to his 2008 title, burning out in the style of a Björn Borg or George Best.
When he announced that he would leave McLaren for the faltering Mercedes-Benz squad at the end of the 2012 season, some even cast his decision as an act of immaturity, a move based not on racing but on the size of the pay packet and the opportunity to expand his personal brand.
LEAVING HOME AT LAST
In reality, it was the move that allowed him to go from world champion to all-time great. But this is not solely down to the exceptional cars Mercedes have built. Leaving McLaren broke ties that has existed since Hamilton was 13, ties that had kept him bound to his childhood even as he neared 30. Leaving the team was no different from wanting to leave home.
Crucially, it allowed Hamilton to shift from the kid that McLaren had developed into a man of his own making. This is a driver whose success is built on huge self-belief, but who is also vulnerable to crises of confidence that can leave him all at sea for entire Grand Prix weekends. He’s undeniably very naturally fast, but that alone is not enough. At his low ebb with McLaren, when Hamilton seemed conflicted about who he was and who he wanted to be, the self-confidence crumbled and he failed to harness his innate ability. It’s no coincidence that his 2011 deficit to Button was by far Lewis’ worst compared with a teammate.
Allowed much free reign at Mercedes, he has developed well beyond his McLaren years. On a superficial level, this freedom has seen Hamilton dress and act quite differently from the more reserved character of his early F1 career. He has hung out with celebrities, skipped fan events in favour of a few days on a Greek island, and walks the paddock with a pair of pedigree bulldogs.
All of this sounds very much like the child star who is finally catching up on their lost teenage years, and it’s hard to believe that this interoperation isn’t at least partly true. It is only normal that someone who grew up in the way Hamilton did would want to enjoy their youth before it had completely slipped away. And certainly, some of his behaviour has had a ring of teenage confusion to it, like boasting about his drinking or writing a poem for Princess Diana.
But whereas many before him have fallen at this stage, knocked off balance by so much change, Hamilton’s professional life has only improved since he went through his delayed teenagehood. Allowed to be who he wanted away from the circuit, he became even more potent on it. 2017 has been his best season in F1 yet. The changes may appear superficial, but they have allowed him to regain the inner calm that is crucial to his success.
LET LEWIS BE LEWIS
Hamilton’s post-McLaren transformation seems to bother some people, though in many cases they are the same people who thought him too bland and corporate at his old team.
What is more difficult to fathom is when past Grand Prix greats weigh in and suggest that Lewis should scale back his personal life to put more into his racing. Ultimately, what does any of it matter if he continues winning Grands Prix and world titles? Clearly that’s the attitude Mercedes have adopted and it has paid them back enormously.
He is not perfect. Hamilton is a difficult character when things are going against him and has shown himself to be naive of the vast racing world that exists outside the F1 bubble. He can rub people up the wrong way.
But he is at least an interesting character, one whose personal development is worth discussing. In a sport that depends on big personalities but can call on very few, anything that differs from the norm should be encouraged. Perhaps he is a little strange by conventional standards, but most people would be after growing up in the way Lewis did.
And unlike most child stars, whose early gift fades as the years pass, Hamilton retains a vital skill that he has carried from childhood until today: at the crucial moment, he is still able to shut everything else out and focus on what matters.