Lewis Hamilton has found his voice as a crusader – but shaming of his peers has to stop

Oliver Brown
Lewis Hamilton in Melbourne in March - AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, File

As familiar as we are with seeing orchestrated shows of solidarity in sport, it will still be quite the moment if on Sunday, all 20 Formula One drivers follow their observance of Austria’s national anthem by taking the knee. These are young men who tend, in less febrile times, to be untroubled by issues outside their orbit. Earlier this year, Daniel Ricciardo struggled even to muster a reaction to the bushfires engulfing his native Australia. “We weren’t affected in Perth,” he said. We can be forgiven, then, for being a touch sceptical about his reinvention since as a cultural revolutionary.

Lewis Hamilton, by contrast, has taken the scorched-earth approach to promoting the causes closest to his heart. In recent weeks, he has been British sport’s loudest voice on the George Floyd killing, the toppling of the Colston statue, and all points on the compass in between. At the same time, he has turned on fellow members of the F1 paddock for their reticence. “Just know I know who you are,” he said. “And I see you.” He sought to clarify on Thursday that he was not referring to other drivers directly, but to the entire motor racing industry.

Trouble is, his peers did not take it that way. Fearing they had just been Instagram-shamed, Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc and George Russell all rushed out statements of their own to stress how much they cared about the Floyd tragedy and the disturbing questions it raised. It all looked a little hasty and uncomfortable, especially in the case of Leclerc, a highly intelligent soul who prefers to keep his own counsel, as shown by his habit of preparing for a race by leaning quietly against a wall, ignoring the hundreds of cameras thrust in his face.

“To be honest, I felt out of place sharing my thoughts on social media, and this is why I haven’t expressed myself earlier,” Leclerc wrote. “I still struggle to find the words to describe the atrocity of some videos I’ve seen. Racism needs to be met with actions, not silence.” His response was of a careful kind, which Hamilton struggles to compute. There was no reason to doubt that Leclerc was perturbed by events in the US, but his difference from the six-time world champion was that he chose not to signify as much on his online platforms. This should hardly be an offence. Hamilton, for all his commendable activism, cannot seem to accept that outrage and passionate reactions to injustice are still valid without a hashtag in front of them.

All of which begs the question of what is motivating the drivers when, as expected, they take the knee in Spielberg this weekend. Is this a deep matter of conscience for them, or have they simply felt strong-armed by Hamilton into doing so? There is the intriguing example of Lando Norris, McLaren’s young star, widely quoted this week on his urgings for F1 to unite against racism. “We all need to do more,” he said. Norris has not, it would be fair to say, found himself compelled to speak out in this manner before. That is because he has limited life experience, and is more at home live-streaming his simulator racing on Twitch. In normal circumstances, you would no sooner regard him as an authority on race relations than you would the Milky Bar Kid.

Mclaren driver Lando Norris of Britain speaks during drivers news conference the at the Red Bull Ring racetrack in Spielberg - Mark Sutton/Pool via AP

As dubious as the drivers’ credentials are, perhaps it is sufficient to celebrate the fact that F1 is at last throwing its weight behind equality and diversity, when for years it has done nothing. This, Hamilton insisted, was his intention all along: to shake the sport out of its complacency. “It’s something I’ve been aware of for a long, long time, without really seeing anyone doing anything about it,” he said.

In the interests of balance, though, it is worth exploring what, in practical terms, Hamilton has done to transform the face of his sport. In the past fortnight, he has created the Hamilton Commission, designed to encourage more young people from under-represented backgrounds to contemplate a future in motorsport. But this is his 14th season in F1, so what else, since 2007, has he done to help smooth the pathways for those from minority groups to follow his lead?

Frankly, not a great deal. Hamilton just assumed that he would inspire other black drivers to emulate him by his achievements alone. He has admitted as much, explaining: “There was a point when I thought that maybe by me being here, and breaking down barriers, that I could help change the industry for the better. But it has not done enough.”

It is tempting to subscribe to a narrative of Hamilton as the lone crusader, shepherding F1 out of the darkness and into the light. But the harsh truth is that nobody within F1, not even him, has acted with any vigour until now to overhaul the image of a white-dominated sport. This is why it is galling to see him calling out others so readily for being opposed to progress. Last month, Hamilton had to apologise to Helmut Marko, having wrongly alleged that the Red Bull advisor suggested his pursuit of racial equality was a distraction. This is not a moment for trigger-happy condemnation by Hamilton or anyone else. F1 as a collective has been complicit in perpetuating the status quo. If it is sincere about moving on, the shaming tactics have to stop.