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Lewis Hamilton’s record-equalling seventh world title the eye-opener F1 needs to enjoy him while it can

Lewis Hamilton’s seventh title, another feat of history as he equals Michael Schumacher’s record, is by no means the end.

Motorsport remains as binary as being number one or nothing at all, and here is an opportunity for a kid from Stevenage to put himself out in front among 70 years’ worth of racers, and counting, in as uncatchable a position as possible. The German’s 91 race wins have already been ticked off. At only 35, with a dedicated team ensuring his body is as finely tuned as his car, pulling away into double figures is not beyond him.

It does, however, feel like the beginning of an end. More and more the chores of Formula One, among that of celebrity life, grates on Hamilton. And though talk of a shock retirement at the end of this campaign, when his current deal with Mercedes expires, were slightly overblown, it did prompt one question. While he will leave with no regrets having made the most of his time in F1, has F1 made the most of him? The answer, right now, is no.

He is a champion of which the wider public knows very little about. He permeates the consciousness every now and again, often as part of the stale jamboree of Sports Personality of the Year. He won in 2014 and been a runner-up four times, and it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that victory came because the British public could not bring themselves to make Rory McIlroy golf’s first winner since the more amenable Nick Faldo in 1989. Though it is no measure or sporting success, or even personality, it’s a handy marker of relevance in his own country.  

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Hamilton’s lack of cut-through is very much a product of F1, and vice-versa. Where man and machine are in conjunction and the greater the success the more credit gets attributed to the latter. Thanks to a dedicated global fanbase, the sport and the man have never had to pay attention to that.

That was until the Covid-19 pandemic brought it to a total standstill, prompting more than just introspection.

Initially, F1’s focus was on 98 per cent of this fanbase who do not attend races. As they pushed towards the virtual experience of online Grand Prix, their figureheads for greater social cut-through were primarily footballers such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Sergio Aguero and Thibault Courtois.

Racing, fundamentally, is an unsexy sport of minimising fault on and off the track. Thus, it is one of the more media managed, and Hamilton, in particular, has used these parameters to create his own safe space, insulated from the bad noise and the good, both of which he regards as inconsequential. It is why, despite Sky Sports being F1’s main broadcaster in the United Kingdom, their interactions with the main reason they forked out for exclusive rights are limited when the cameras aren’t rolling. “I do a lot with Lewis,” Sky presenter Simon Lazenby told The Independent in July, “but we don’t really talk away from the microphone.”

Lewis Hamilton plans a low-key celebration after clinching his seventh F1 world title

(Reuters)

That changed when Hamilton broke from the sanitised ranks to drive the Black Lives Matter movement within F1, and Lazenby and others at Sky sought him out behind the scenes to offer their unwavering support. The rest followed, some grudgingly, as the sport’s first permanent black driver took it upon himself to lead a conservative organisation to more enlightened pastures and not let it fester in the comfort of its own blue-pencil living.

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The industry was shocked into action, even though others were going through their own reckoning. Diversity has always been a topic of conversation among administrators of F1. But fumbled attempts to purvey even a watered-down anti-racism message when Hamilton had done the brunt of the work showed how out of touch they were with the broader discourse and a driver they have showcased as one of their own for the best part of two decades.

Indeed Hamilton, having held his cards so close to his chest over the years, knew this was the right time to play his hand. History shows the battle for civil rights is fought by individuals forced to sacrifice their own endeavours to do so. Like other athletes, he realised the separation of their two worlds up to this point meant the platforms created by their accomplishments put them at a greater advantage than those before them.

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F1 needs to make the most of Hamilton while it can

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F1 needs to make the most of Hamilton while it can

(Reuters)

Mercedes were in sync with their number one. Just as they have tailored their engineering to suit Hamilton’s standards of aggression, warts and all, they ditched their trademark silver for black, from the chassis to the uniforms of their pit crew, to show solidarity. More importantly, they undertook company-wide diversity and inclusion training, and have backed Hamilton’s grassroots projects, such as getting more children from different ethnic and social backgrounds to study STEM subjects to open up career opportunities in F1 further down the line. It is in keeping with the mantra that the very best teams serve the man as much as the driver.

So as the chequered flag went down for win number 94 in Istanbul to confirm title number seven, F1 should see it as green. Now is their turn to rush out of the grid, even at this late stage, aligned with someone who can carry them forward to new audiences. Too long have they relied on its engineers and stars for progression. Now they must take the wheel. 

Everything is there for the British public to know all they should need to know about the scale of Hamilton’s work. Whether he ranks as their favourite driver among the nine other home champions is down to personal preference. Even meeting halfway those whose criticisms of him are coded in xenophobia – and those whose prejudices can be seen in the cold light of day – acknowledging him as a modern great should not be a stomach churner ordeal.

For those who may need further convincing, the context of his legacy will only grow  season especially when he finally decides to take his helmet off for good and those “greatest of all time” conversations can really get going.

Time is running out for F1 to make use of his slipstream and get ahead as a more exciting and open organisation. There is willing, no doubt, especially from the people that matter, and the majority of those reticent to change are so out of ambivalence. Many of them will point to Hamilton, a pioneer who transformed into a legend, and say “we did that”. 

But when he’s done, he’ll be gone: engaging in the next challenges of a life he feels has only scratched the surface of duty and making a difference. This title may further cement him as one of the pillars of F1, but he will not be around to prop it up for much longer.

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