The Profile Dossier: Lewis Hamilton, the Driver Revolutionizing Formula 1
“I was born to race and to win.”
Lewis Hamilton didn’t buy his way to Formula 1. He earned it.
Unlike many of his peers, Hamilton came from humble beginnings and his racing career started with remote-control cars. He was only six years old when he won his first two trophies for remote-control car racing.
As you can see in the video below, Hamilton has a laser-sharp focus paired with impressive hand-eye coordination. After a race like this, he would go home and watch Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna’s documentary Racing Is in My Blood on repeat.
Remote-control car racing led to go-karting, which put him on a path to Formula 1. He was fast, he was talented, and he was a winner. Hamilton joined the McLaren young driver program as a 13-year-old, and he eventually got officially sponsored by the F1 team at age 22. After six years with McLaren, Hamilton joined Mercedes in 2013.
Since then, he’s made history on multiple fronts. At 36 years old, Hamilton tied racing legend’s Michael Schumacher’s seven-time world title record. With a few more years ahead of him, he is likely to break that record soon. (There was controversy around a failed eight-time win.)
Hamilton makes winning look easy, but the road to the podium was anything but.
To race in F1, you need talent, skill, and ... a whole lot of money. The entry fee for a two-day go-karting competition can cost you several thousand dollars. Hamilton estimates that between a junior karting career, four seasons in the lower Formula series, and the expenses of transitioning into Formula 1, the total price amounts to more than $9 million.
Hamilton’s family didn’t have that kind of money, but they did have determination. His father, Anthony, worked three jobs and his stepmom contributed a large sum of her savings in an effort to fund Hamilton’s F1 dream.
To this day, Hamilton is the first — and only — Black driver in his sport. “My dad and I would watch people like Tiger [Woods] who kind of broke the mold, and we watched in admiration. The Williams sisters also did the same,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “We’re like, ‘Oh, if we could do something like that, that’s going to help change the industry moving forward.’”
Like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, Hamilton’s career was encouraged by a dominant and obsessive father figure. At go-kart races, Anthony would study the fastest kid on the track and coach Hamilton on the exact point where he should brake. Hamilton became known for his aggressive driving style and braking much later (and harder) than any of the other competitors.
The track was his refuge from the bullying and overt racism he experienced as a little kid.
“I have spoken so little about my personal experiences because I was taught to keep it in, don’t show weakness, kill them with love and beat them on the track,” he says. “This is why I drive the way I do, it is far deeper than just doing a sport, I’m still fighting.”
Although his dad often told him, “Do your talking on the track,” Hamilton has recently found — and raised — his voice for social issues close to his heart. He knew he couldn’t stay silent after the events of 2020. He decided to speak out by wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts and taking a knee before races. He also founded Mission 44, a foundation to back kids from underrepresented groups. He seeded it with a personal donation of £20 million.
“We deserve this as much as anyone. Equality is paramount to our future, we cannot stop fighting this fight,” he says. “I, for one, will never give up!”
For Lewis, it’s about winning the mental game just as much as it is about winning the physical one. Here’s what we can learn about mental preparation, determination, and a relentless drive to succeed from F1’s most fierce competitor.
On revolutionizing Formula 1: Hamilton’s seventh world title last season tied the all-time great Michael Schumacher. At 36, in one of the highest-performing cars the sport has ever seen, Hamilton has at least a few more seasons to break that record before retirement. In this profile, he explains the pressures and stresses that come with being a trailblazer in his sport.
On using his voice: Hamilton is focused on changing the sport from the inside. He took a knee and voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. He feels a very personal responsibility to raise his voice. “I was like, ‘You know what? I have to do something. I cannot stay silent,’’ he says. “If we all stay silent, it will continue for generations. I look at my niece and nephew and do not want them to experience what I experienced.”
On developing confidence: Hamilton says his confidence in his ability is what propelled him forward. He attributes it to a love for learning new things and mastering them until he feels a sense of competence. “I’m not going to be good at everything, but I can be damn sure I’ll give it my best go,” he says.
On his winning formula: As Hamilton rose through the ranks in F1, he ruffled some feathers. He had entered — and began to dominate — an insular sport full of drivers who came from wealthy families. Rather than buying his spot, he earned it. This is a fascinating look at how Hamilton’s determination, focus, and winning mindset took him.
On becoming a student of the sport: Hamilton is so impressive not just because he’s a talented driver, but because he’s a skilled operator of the vehicle. In this wide-ranging conversation, Hamilton explains that it’s not enough to have talent — you need to understand the technology in order to solve problems in the heat of the moment. “I basically had to study to be an engineer,” he says. “I was just making notes, making notes, making notes.”
On cultivating a dream team: Hamilton and Mercedes chief Toto Wolff have been called "the Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson of F1." In this honest conversation, they admit that they are friends, colleagues, and mates all at the same time. When they have a disagreement, they take a break from the situation, let things cool down, and then discuss it openly. "We've always been transparent with each other which is why our relationship is as healthy as it is," Hamilton says.
Back up your words with meaningful action: Your words carry weight, and Hamilton understands this better than most. That’s why he’s very deliberate when he speaks. Ever since he was a child, Hamilton was often one of the few, or the only, Black driver on the team. In 2007, when he made his F1 debut, fans showed up wearing racist outfits. He didn’t say anything in the moment. “When I was younger I did have that anger — I’d get pissed off with someone, and want to knock him off the track,” he says. “But then I learned: don’t retaliate – do your talking on the track – beat him!” In 2020, he was a vocal advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement, and rather than just speaking, he backed it up with action. That’s why he formed the Hamilton Commission, a special task force that aims to improve representation of Black people in U.K. motorsport. “No matter how hard I worked, I was told I wasn’t smart enough, that I had no potential,” he says. “I’m a seven-time World Champion, holding the highest number of wins, poles, and podium finishes in the world of Formula 1. I am the same boy who got told he’d never achieve anything. The one thing that connects that boy with me today is opportunity.”
Have a state of the union with yourself: When he was younger, Lewis used to neglect the recovery process. He could push himself time and time again without rest. But he’s come to realize that without active recovery, he was unable to perform at his highest level due to injuries and pain. So at the end of each season, Hamilton sits down with himself and reflects on how to improve the following season. For instance, he does yoga and pilates to properly stretch his body and he’s turned to a vegan diet to feel better mentally and physically. Host a State of the Union-style reflection in which you write down your personal and professional goals along with self-care activities that would allow you to attain them without burning out.
Disconnect from distractions: On race weekends, Hamilton has a rule that he does not look at his phone. Why? He needs his mind focused on winning instead of worrying about closing business deals, managing media opportunities, and fielding questions from reporters. “I put those things aside. I put my phone aside,” he says. Ask yourself: Can I really be present if this device in my pocket is constantly pulling my mind elsewhere? Focus on one thing at a time and watch your thinking sharpen.
Learn, don’t idolize: Ayrton Senna is Hamilton’s favorite driver. He was a three-time Formula 1 World Champion before his tragic, premature death. Like Hamilton, Senna appeared on the scene as a young racer who revolutionized the sport. “It was the way he raced, his passion for life and for the sport. But more than anything it was the way he faced alone a system that wasn’t always kind to him,” he says. But here’s the catch: Hamilton doesn’t idolize him. “I don't aspire to be like other drivers — I aspire to be unique in my own way,” he says. That’s because Hamilton understands an important lesson: idolizing forces you into blindly worshipping imperfect humans. Learning, on the other hand, allows you to observe, synthesize, and pave your own imperfect path. (More on learning vs. idolizing here.)
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“I was born to race and to win.”
“You can knock me down, but I get up twice as strong.”
“Winning is definitely the ultimate goal, the lessons learned when I don’t win only strengthen me.”
“I feel like people are expecting me to fail, therefore, I expect myself to win.”
“My saying is; We win and lose together. I think that really does apply to both my fans, family and the team.”
“You can’t change the past. It’s behind you. All you can do is prepare yourself to shape the future.”
“There is no shortcut to experience.”
… Want more deep dives of interesting people?
The Profile is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.