The first thing you notice about British Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton, besides the impeccable grooming and expensive-looking gold chains, is his surprisingly firm handshake. Okay, so the third thing you notice about Lewis Hamilton is his surprisingly firm handshake. But what a handshake!
It shouldn’t be shocking that perhaps the greatest driver on earth and a three-time World Champion of Formula 1—the highest class of single-seat auto racing in the world—would put some muscle behind his greeting, but this is Lewis Hamilton. This is the party boy who sits front row on the runway, dates celebs like Nicole Scherzinger, gets twerked on by Rihanna, toasts with Pharrell and Kanye, flies in his own bright red private jet, and secretly records R&B tracks in his house when not racing for Mercedes-Benz. One might assume the man’s fragrance to be stronger than his grip.
If you were that one, though, you’d be wrong. Hamilton, 31, is the face of a sport exceptionally popular all around the world—except in America, where it’s desperate to grow. As F1’s best talent, its sole black driver, and it’s only true pop culture crossover, Hamilton holds much of Formula 1’s future in his hands—his super-strong-handshake-y hands.
On an overcast September afternoon in Midtown Manhattan, Hamilton sat down with Complex to discuss his American aspirations, his music, racial injustice, and why he keeps getting cease and desist letters.
There are headlines that say things like, “Lewis Hamilton will be the greatest F1 driver of all-time.” Others say, “Lewis Hamilton is the greatest F1 driver of all-time.” How does that make you feel?
That’s been the goal! [Laughs.] That’s definitely been the goal. That’s what I’ve worked towards for 23 years—I’ve been racing 23 years now. Started when I was eight, I’m 31 now, and that was always the goal: to be the best. That’s always been the dream. Why dream small? When I was 10 years old I went to McLaren. Ayrton Senna was my favorite driver who I wanted to be like. And I was like, “Hey sir, I’m Lewis Hamilton I just won the British Championship. One day I want to be a Formula 1 driver and World Champion in your car. A Formula 1 World Champion in your car.” Three years later he signed me and 10 years later I won the World Championship in his car.
Read somewhere that you decided you wanted to be an F1 driver when you were six years old.
Most people don’t know what they wanna do when they’re like 25.
Exactly. And most people switch. When you’re six you want to be a firefighter and then you’re 10 and you want to be a police officer. How did you know what you wanted to be so early?
Well there was only two: I wanted to be Superman—still wouldn’t mind being Superman —or be a Formula 1 driver. And obviously I couldn’t do the Superman so I opted for the other one.
Don’t give up on your dreams, man. You’re giving up on your dreams!
[Laughs.] True, true. There was no other; there was nothing else. I didn’t want to be a footballer. I did want to do music, but I didn’t look at artists and say, “I want to do that.” It was different. With driving it was like, “I wanna do that.”
“You can say what you want with music. You can say shit you wanna say and not be bothered by whether sponsors are gonna be upset with it.”
Heard snippets of some of your songs—they’re really good. You’re already the best in the world at one thing—it’s not easy to be very good at multiple things. How did you get into making music and when we can expect an actual mixtape or album?
Kanye’s someone who talks about it—you’re put in a box when you’re doing something [well]. I feel that the bridge, the crossover, shouldn’t be difficult and people should be less scared of it. You don’t have to be passionate about just one thing in life. There’s no reason why you can’t do other things.
I started playing guitar when I was 13. I’d written a few songs on the guitar over some time, I’d written a book of poetry, and I got a book of lyrics that I had when I was a kid. I was frustrated because I didn’t have the strength or the movement that I wanted to have in my voice. I just couldn’t maneuver it the way I wanted to maneuver it, but I caught the bug. I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna go and do my vocal lessons and practice and practice and practice and practice.” And I’ve progressed; I’ve got like 250 songs I’ve written or mostly co-written.
In terms of when—it’s definitely getting to a place where in my heart I feel like I’ve put so much into it that I’d love to share it with my fan base. I want them to hear, because when you’re a racing driver and working for these big corporate companies, it’s hard to be vulnerable and connect. It’s always, “How do the tires feel?” And they ask you every frickin’ weekend, so most of the time it’s, “They feel the same as always.” [Laughs.] But you can say what you want with music. You can spill your heart out if you want to. You can say shit you wanna say and not be bothered by whether sponsors are gonna be upset with it.
The Williams sisters, Tiger Woods, Jackie Robinson—every single one of them across the board has a story of triumph or dealing with subtle or maybe not-so-subtle prejudice while breaking into a predominantly white sport. I haven’t read a lot of that about you.
Uh, yeah, I mean, well...I relate my life a lot to Cool Runnings the movie.
Cool Runnings is one of my favorite movies. There’d never been a Jamaican bobsled team. When they went to people and said, “Would you like to sponsor the Jamaican bobsled team?” people would laugh. And my dad would tell me about going to all these companies, “How would you like to sponsor the first black Formula 1 driver?” And I just imagine them doing the same thing. And now they’re probably like, “Shit...”
Also, when they first arrived on top of the mountain with the real old sled and everyone stopped—it was just like me and my dad. We arrived, the go-kart was stuffed in the back of the trunk, and all these people had tents and RVs and the best stuff. And we were just so amateur, you know? And it wasn’t like they stopped but they all looked. And it was almost exactly like that. Like, all eyes are on us. “What are they doing here?” We were the only black family. And it was just like that every weekend we arrived.
“I don’t need your validation. I know my heart. I know how hard I work. I know my values. I know the love for my family. I know who I am as a person.”
Do you think part of that made you who you are?
Yeah, of course. I had a lot of racism growing up where I grew up. Bullied at school. It definitely encouraged me. It’s like battle wounds—you come out the other side and it just makes you tougher. My dad always said, “Do your talking on the track.” So from day one, I always did my talking on the track. “Let your results speak louder than anything you have to say. You don’t have to say anything to these people.” But you know, I had kids shouting stuff, teachers that told me, “You’re never going to be a racing driver. You’ll never amount to nothing.” Just really just trying to pull you down.
It’s interesting you said “do your talking on the track” because you are a three time World Champion, but there are still people who are critical. Is there ever a point where you let your talking do the talking? Because it seems like some people will never give you your due.
There was a point where I actually cared. And I guess just with age, I got to the point where I don’t need your validation. I know my heart. I know how hard I work. I know my values. I know the love for my family. I know who I am as a person. And I enjoy my life. They don’t want me to enjoy it. [Laughs.] DJ Khaled! They don’t want me to go out and enjoy myself!
He was just here at Complex about month ago yelling that.
It’s crazy that it’s so true, you know? In my world they’re like, “This is how a Formula 1 driver is: goes home, sleeps, wakes up, eats, breathes, and doesn’t do anything else but race. Can’t have a life outside.” [Laughs.] People used to complain, they used to write shit about me all the time. I’m here or I’m doing that or I’m traveling too much or I’m this. And I travel like crazy. Like way more than any other racing driver. I party when I wanna party and I make sure I fit my work in, and I arrive and I win. And you can’t say nothing! And that’s just the best. When you arrive and then you dominate and they’re like, “Oh, guess he can do that.” [Laughs.]
Does today's society lack the ability to see greatness as it happens? Do we only appreciate greatness when it’s over?
That’s one of the best questions I might’ve ever been asked. And I think it appears like it is when it’s over, that we notice greatness. And I don’t know why that is. It’s always when someone’s passed, then it’s like, “Oh my God!” You know, but they were there. I don’t know why that is. That is definitely a part of our society.
Formula 1 was recently purchased for $4.4 billion—by an American mass media company—and is looking to expand in North and South America. How should F1 do that?
I don’t know what the answer is to it. Unfortunately for Formula 1 it only comes here once a year. And then the races are on at weird times so it’s hard for everyone to be like, “The race is this weekend!”
It’s an incredible business obviously, but Formula 1 has been run by the same people for a long, long, long time. They’ve done amazing but unfortunately not with the new and the now. Social media, that’s a huge thing that’s been missed. Like, I’m not allowed to take video at the race track. I mean, I do. [Laughs.] But I get cease and desist letters and those kind of things.
There’s also the shows that the Americans do. The NBA and the sport shows are amazing with their entertainment. They need to somehow start bringing in that world because America’s kind of like the most important place in the world for music, even though there’s good music all around the world.
“I party when I wanna party, I make sure I fit my work in, I arrive, and I win. And you can’t say nothing!”
You dated Nicole Scherzinger for some time, you’ve been linked to Rita Ora, Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Barbara Palvin, Rihanna, and most recently America’s Next Top Model star Winnie Harlow. Honestly curious—is there a secret celebrity dating app that I don’t know about?
[Laughs.] There’s not but I wish there was! There should be!
How do you have this other celebrity’s number randomly? As a non-famous, I’m curious.
[Laughs.] Well you meet these people in places and you just end up hanging out. You generally vibe with someone’s energy and, you know, “Hey I’m gonna be back in town….” For example, Bella, Gigi, Kendall came to Monaco. And then we all did like a group chat. Because we took pictures and we just put them in a chat and the friendship grows from there. And then you’re just homies, you know? And then some of them you really want their number so, you happen to be at an event and you go up and you do your thing. [Laughs.] But they all just happen to be beautiful.
I’ve seen pictures of you and Melo—Carmelo Anthony—together, a couple of times I think.
I just sat next to his wife yesterday.
He became recently more outspoken about racial issues, and has won over a lot of people in doing so. I know the UK and America are different, but there are some similarities in terms of overall tension within the countries. Melo’s been really outspoken about these issues. Going back to looking at how you’ve been criticized throughout your career—are you able to even talk about race?
I’ve been in this sport for a long time now and it’s kind of been like, “Don’t get into that subject. Don’t talk too much about it.” It has always been an issue and for sure people in the limelight are guarded about what they’ve built and created. I see the things that go on and I feel a certain way about it. But [it’s about] making sure if you are saying something, if you’re doing something, it’s for the right reasons in the right way. It’s just hard to strike a balance, I think.
My sport, it’s a much more predominantly white following and naturally there are people of different ethnicities who don’t know what it’s like to be the other. So it’s just making sure you’re careful with it. But we are on social media, and how we inspire and give knowledge to these young kids through social media, it’s going to shape the future.