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“Lewis never beat me,” reflects Niki Richardson, over a late-afternoon coffee in Basildon’s town square. “We had a few on-track scraps, but I often went past quite quickly.”
Accustomed as we have grown to the dominance of Lewis Hamilton, it is striking to discover how, back in those carefree karting days, Richardson was the one rival of whom he seldom had the measure. In the 25 years since they duelled as children, their paths could hardly have diverged more sharply. One has just become a six-time Formula One world champion, arriving in Brazil for this weekend's penultimate Grand Prix of the season as lord of all he surveys, while the other makes his living as a driving instructor here in the heart of Essex.
A year ago, Hamilton took his admiration for Richardson public, disclosing just moments after sealing his fifth championship in Mexico: “As an eight-year-old, I looked up to Niki. He was so quick, I thought, ‘I’ve got to be better than him somehow.’ My dad would stand where he was braking, move several metres down and tell me, ‘This is where you have to brake.’"
Watching from home, 5,500 miles away, Richardson was both staggered and touched by the name-check. He confirms, too, that the story is true.
“In 1992, Lewis came on to the scene at Rye House, our home track in Hertfordshire. He was causing a lot of problems on track. He was outbraking himself, spinning off, smashing into people. It was all rather dangerous. Anthony, his father, asked us lots of questions about our set-up. It was cheeky, in a way, as they were our rivals. But Lewis would study my braking zones, trying to work out why he was crashing so much. It is one of the reasons he is such a late braker now.”
Hamilton has likened his odd-one-out status in karting to a scene from Cool Runnings, the 1993 film about Jamaican bobsledders’ implausible appearance at the Calgary Winter Olympics. Where he and his family would pitch up to races in a clapped-out Vauxhall Cavalier, with a box trailer on the back, a more established competitor such as Mike Conway, who later finished second in the Le Mans 24 Hours, was arriving in a £140,000 motorhome.
There was, to be sure, a Caribbean wildness in his blood. On the west coast of Grenada, Hamilton’s paternal grandfather, Davidson, had acquired a reputation as the quickest man on two wheels, tearing along mountainous roads on his BSA motorbike, once reputedly completing the three-mile journey from his home in Grand Roy to Gouyave, the nearest town, in just five minutes. As a racer restless to make an impression, the young Lewis showed similar heedlessness in the face of danger.
We are familiar by now with Hamilton’s vast body of work in F1: his 83 wins and 87 pole positions, his crushing of every challenger in the turbo-hybrid era and his supreme poise in the wet. Less well-known is the fact that his first victory of any kind, at the bucolic Kimbolton circuit in Cambridgeshire, came tinged with tragedy.
“It was 1994, and Lewis and I were close by then,” Richardson recalls. “We would go fishing, and I stayed over at his place in Stevenage a few times. He introduced me to peanut-butter sandwiches. He was a really relaxed lad. That day when he won, one of our friends, Daniel Spence, had a terrible accident. He overtook a backmarker, went the wrong side of him and shot up the back wheel.
“His feet were caught up with the pedals, so he got flung with the car, suffering a punctured lung. There were no paramedics on scene at the time, and he died soon after. I remember it vividly. My mum was telling me, ‘Go and congratulate Lewis.’ I said, ‘No, I’ll make sure that Daniel is OK first.’ It was one of the worst days of my life, seeing my mate get killed in front of me. He was only 10.”
Hamilton alluded to Spence’s death in the aftermath of Jules Bianchi’s fatal crash at Suzuka in 2014, when the Frenchman lost control on a saturated track and collided with the rear of a tractor crane. He admitted that witnessing such a tragedy as a nine-year-old had a traumatising effect. One moment, he was standing on a grassy bank alongside Spence with his race suit on. The next, he was at his funeral, the first he had ever attended.
Even today, Hamilton still carries some of his childhood scars. Toto Wolff, his team principal, has ventured that the experience of being racially abused in his early karting days damaged him psychologically. Ever since, Hamilton has fought a battle to improve the dismal diversity quotient in F1, where he remains the sole black driver. In his tender years, his response to the uncomfortable sense of being the odd one out was more visceral, leading to his enrolment in karate classes. “Lewis was of slight build,” Richardson explains. “So, for self-defence, he felt that he needed to look after himself a bit more.”
Richardson’s own story starkly illustrates how the rise of Hamilton depended, for all the preternatural talent, on a fair amount of luck. In 1994, he became the British champion in the Super One karting series, but without TV cameras there to capture the glory. A year later, McLaren chief Ron Dennis helped launch their Champions of the Future series, with lavish investment and nationwide exposure. The inaugural winner, auspiciously, was Hamilton.
“You can see the link,” Richardson says. “From there, Ron would back Lewis all the way to Formula One. But for me, that was when the financial struggles started. Everything fell apart within two years. My family went bankrupt, we lost our house in Benfleet, and my parents eventually split up. I always said to my dad, ‘I never asked to do it,’ as it was more his dream than mine. I didn’t know they were in such dire straits at the time. They told me much later. Then I felt very, very guilty.”
The danger, when quantifying Hamilton’s achievements, is to overplay the concept of destiny. Such is the prohibitive expense of funding a racing prodigy’s rise through the feeder formulae, young aspirants are less likely to climb any golden staircase than to fall straight through a trapdoor. So it proved for Richardson, forced through lack of money to shelve the F1 dream at 15, the same age that Hamilton found himself anointed by the British Racing Drivers’ Club as a “rising star”.
“It wouldn’t be good for me to look back and think how lucky Lewis was,” Richardson says. “It’s the cards you’re dealt. I’m not one of those people who pushes my name out there. It’s probably why, in the end, I didn’t get very far in motorsport. But I can’t be too bitter. I have a lovely daughter, a lovely family, a decent job. My uncle trained me up to be a driving instructor, and it gives me a huge amount of satisfaction. Students are in tears when they pass their tests. It’s emotional to see.”
Prior to this season, Richardson, thrilled by the fact that Hamilton still remembered their battles, wrote to Mercedes to see if a meeting could be set up. While it has yet to materialise, there remains an intention to bring the two of them together at a race soon, so that they can swap memories of a distant period when somebody other than Hamilton emerged on top. Will there be pangs of regret for Richardson at missing out on a world of such intoxicating glamour? “I realised my racing career was over a good while back,” he smiles. “But I still believe I could have done it.”
'His father gave him a sense of duty to others'
Hamilton counts as perhaps the most recognisable British sportsman on the planet, his achievements setting him in that gilded band of athletes whose feats make them more famous than their sports. Only Michael Schumacher has more world titles, and few would wager against him eclipsing the German before he retires.
Yet for all those stellar achievements, Hamilton remains curiously unloved, and unknowable. He has never won BBC Sports Personality of the Year - a mere bauble in the grand scheme of things, but still a useful gauge of the nation's sporting affections. This year, his odds of winning the prize are only just shorter than those of Anthony Joshua, whose principle achievement in 2019 was being knocked out by Andy Ruiz, a fighter who described himself as a "little fat boy".
Hamilton is undeniably a complex character, prone to cod philosophising on his Instagram one day, and lapsing into bouts of truculence the next. But beneath the social media froth there is undeniable substance to his character.
At Hamilton's core are his family values. One is loyalty, a quality absorbed from his father, whom he credits for supporting his racing dream long after his parents divorced when he was just two. Another is a fierce work ethic: while Anthony reflects that he first steered Lewis towards motorsport to deter him from hanging around on the streets of Stevenage, he would juggle three jobs – one of which involved putting up estate agent signs at 50p a time – to ensure that the 10th-hand go-kart he gave his son as a Christmas present could soon be traded in for more.
Perhaps the signature Hamilton trait, though, is an almost obsessive desire for self-improvement. Lewis’ half-brother, Nicolas, appreciates this acutely, having spent much of his life subverting medical wisdom. He has been a regular fixture in the garage at his sibling’s moments of triumph, from a first F1 world title at a sodden Interlagos in 2008 to a maiden championship in Mercedes colours six years later. And yet his own path to recognition has been strewn with obstacles.
Born two months premature, Nic was diagnosed with spastic diplegia, informed by doctors that he would never walk and that the sight in his right eye would be seriously reduced. Not that his condition would defeat him: at 28, having long abandoned his wheelchair, he earned his place this year in a first full season of the British Touring Car Championship, driving a specially-adapted car with only two pedals and a clutch on the steering wheel.
We meet in between his practice sessions at Hampshire’s Thruxton circuit, where the younger Hamilton, despite his disability, cannot conceal a frustration that he is still struggling at the back of the field. Such self-reproach, he explains, comes straight from Anthony’s uncompromising parenting.
“I’m like my dad on the inside,” Nic says. “There’s never a point in my driving when I’m truly happy. Even when I’ve had a strong race, I still know that I’ve made mistakes. It’s the mentality that my dad has instilled in me. Part of me wishes I had less worry and stress with my motorsport. There’s all this pressure with being a Hamilton, with who I am. But equally, I’m proud to be a Hamilton. I’m proud of what my brother has done, of what my dad has done, and of where we have come from.”
Lewis grew up at first in a council-owned Stevenage semi, opposite a now-derelict women’s hostel. By the time Nic arrived, Anthony and his second wife, Linda, had moved the family to a four-bedroom home in which Lewis had the luxury of a personal garage. It was not exactly “the slums”, as the prodigal son has since unwisely dubbed his hometown, but it would hardly qualify as a cradle of privilege either.
After Anthony spent £20,000 in one year on Lewis’ karting adventures, he re-mortgaged the house and dipped into his life savings to sustain the investment. Nic was an integral part of the quest even before he could stand, sitting on Linda’s lap in the trailer while they all dined on Noor chicken noodles. “It wasn’t a bed of roses,” he smiles. “It was blood, sweat and tears. We would pile in the van, drive five hours to Scotland for a race, stay out of school because of it. It required huge dedication from everybody. True, it was hard work, but it brought us together. And it was all to get Lewis where he is today.”
At times, Anthony could be a relentless disciplinarian, to the point where the 15-year-old Lewis felt compelled to remove the studs from his newly-pierced ears, terrified of his father’s reaction. In part, such strictness was a response to Ron Dennis’ instruction that the family had to keep themselves clean to justify McLaren’s sponsorship. But it was also hardwired into the Hamilton credo that all progress had to be earned the hard way.
“I struggle, for example, to carry a glass of water,” says Nic, whose condition has significantly impaired the strength in his legs. “I can spill it everywhere. But my dad isn’t going to carry it for me. He will tell me to work out how to stop it spilling, maybe by putting more ice in it. The same mentality can translate to anything. Today, I don’t rely on anyone physically. I can carry knives or scissors without worrying about failing over. Being an independent person living, let alone racing, has all come from my dad being hard on me. His philosophy is that if you ever come across an impediment, you have to navigate your way around it. You can’t expect it to be done for you.”
Lewis, for his part, has acclaimed his brother as his abiding inspiration. “I often try to imagine myself in Nic’s position,” he wrote in his 2007 autobiography, My Story – a book published rather too hastily, in light of subsequent feats. “I don’t think I would be anywhere near as strong as him.” For both of them, the fundamental life lessons imparted by their father have left an indelible mark.
David Richards, the chairman of Motorsport UK and former champion rally co-driver, has known Hamilton since the days when a tiny racing obsessive was on Blue Peter, displaying his skills with remote-controlled cars. “We were karting with Lewis when he was very young and even then, he was deeply thoughtful, quite serious for somebody of that age,” he says. “You can see the influence that Anthony has had, introducing a sense of responsibility and of duty to others. That lives with you forever.”
In Austin a fortnight ago, a poignant sight was of Anthony, absent from his eldest son’s previous two title-winning races, being brought to the centre of the revelries. The pair endured a famously turbulent patch after Lewis ditched his father as manager in 2010, no longer able to tolerate professional interference from a parent. Nine years on, there has been a rapprochement: Lewis even attended Hamilton Snr’s 63rd birthday party in London this summer. That the two have been reunited in celebration of championship No 6 represents a powerful affirmation of the ties that bind.
'McLaren were directing him - Lewis found that claustrophobic'
The McLaren with whom Hamilton made his F1 debut in 2007 was every inch the house that Ron Dennis built, its space-age Woking lair crafted in the image of F1’s ultimate technocrat. Carpets were grey, engineering areas were as immaculate as operating theatres, while the canteen thermostat was set rigidly at 21C: the optimum temperature, Dennis believed, for productive work.
Sponsors loved the attention to detail, but drivers could soon discover it was a restrictive place in which to express their personalities. At first, though, Hamilton’s sole priority was to showcase his speed.
Even when thrown alongside Fernando Alonso, the reigning double world champion, it was a task he fulfilled with gusto. In his first seven races, Hamilton never finished outside the podium, achieving his maiden victory in Montreal. Come Budapest in August, he had ruffled Alonso to such an extent that the Spaniard resorted to the skulduggery of blocking him in the pit-lane during qualifying, prompting Dennis to rip off his ear defenders and grab the Spaniard’s assistant by the shoulder, whispering darkly: “Come with me.”
“Fernando would be widely regarded as one of the most formidable competitors, but when he was at McLaren with Lewis, he knew he had met his match in terms of speed,” says Damon Hill, the last British driver before Hamilton to claim a world title. “He overplayed his hand. He upset people and ruffled feathers in an overly political way, which marked his card. If you compare the two career paths, Lewis has known when to stick and when to twist.”
Hamilton's principle rival in that first campaign was Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. While the Finn would prevail by a single point, the near-miss merely fuelled Hamilton to launch his 2008 season with a win in Melbourne, a moment so richly restorative that it left many McLaren employees in tears.
By the time he converted such energy into the title-deciding Brazilian Grand Prix, where he thwarted Felipe Massa with a final-corner pass on Timo Glock, the team motorhome was a scene of pandemonium. “The last corner of the last lap of the last race,” reflects Matt Bishop, then McLaren’s communications director, still with a sense of wonder. “It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life – an astonishing sporting drama.”
And yet a breaking point would soon come, with McLaren producing a feeble car in 2009 and drastic regulation changes consigning Hamilton to the chasing pack. In Australia, he endured his first chastening brush with authority, forfeiting third place after giving misleading information to stewards. Plus, there was a nagging feeling that the culture at McLaren, the enterprise that had been at the core of his life from the age of 13, was starting to suffocate him. Even Dennis, for so long his benefactor, claimed acidly: “It has become difficult for Lewis always to live up to the perfection he presents to the world.”
“At McLaren, he had people directing him, and I think he found that claustrophobic,” Hill argues. “Lewis has the confidence to create the conditions that he needs to give the best of himself.” Anyone who has met Hamilton would attest to the intensity of his sense of purpose. Even his handshake is one of finger-crushing ferocity. Such a single-minded temperament encouraged him, once the first seeds of discontent were planted, to seek greater autonomy over his own affairs.
Sacking Anthony was simply a sticking plaster. Indeed, for two years after he cast his father’s managerial efforts aside, he was a diagram of disenchantment. When pressed for comment on a strong weekend in South Korea in 2011, he snapped: “I’ve had the worst year, so if you expect me to be all happy-doolally after a race like that, you’re not going to hear it.” These remarks fed a misplaced perception of self-absorption and hubris, while Sir Jackie Stewart questioned his mental state.
Through it all, however, a softer, kinder side to Hamilton endured, which to this day has stayed largely hidden from public view. Bishop learned as much when his mother Bernadine, a novelist, was dying from cancer. “By 2012, she was already not well, and Lewis knew that,” he recalls. “I happened to be doing a media briefing and my phone rang. He saw it was my mum calling and answered. He said, ‘I’ve heard that you’re fighting cancer. You should be really proud of your son.’
“He didn’t even tell me. A year later, just after she died, I was sitting in her living room in North London. It was 10pm, and Lewis rang from the German Grand Prix. ‘I know you’re not in Germany,’ he said, ‘but I understand that your mother passed away.’ She was a great lady, and I want to say that you have all my condolences. Tell your family that I will remember her in my prayers tonight.’”
Here lay the dichotomy in Hamilton’s personality: the sensitive soul who seemed full of empathy versus the incorrigible hothead who reacted to Jenson Button’s 2012 victory at Spa by tweeting his team-mate’s telemetry. Even by his standards of provocation, it was an astonishing breach of protocol, given the lengths that a team of McLaren’s clout would go to protect such details.
“The only time you are going to see this different side to Lewis’ nature is if he is seriously challenged,” says Button, none too impressed at the time by Hamilton’s indiscretion. “That changes your mindset, and sometimes it’s hard to take. You see the true individual then. But he has learned a lot since we were team-mates. He is an extreme talent.”
There was, as the Button episode highlighted, a fair degree of maturing to do before Hamilton could purport to be the complete driver. For McLaren, alas, that change would not come in time to prevent their restless superstar from searching for a way out.
'He is now making a name for himself in a different world'
It was on a couple of rented deckchairs in Green Park, in the midst of a baking London afternoon in the summer of 2012, that the deal to take Hamilton to Mercedes was sealed. This would be F1’s coup of the century: a driver at the zenith of his powers, with an appeal far transcending the parameters of his sport, forsaking his childhood team for the three-pointed star, one of the most seductive marques in motor racing. Simon Fuller, the one-time Spice Girls manager who had added Hamilton to his roster of A-list sports clients, had been lining up the move for some time. But he needed Nick Fry, then chief executive of the Mercedes team, to help pull it off.
“The quality that Simon has repeatedly demonstrated is to feel the zeitgeist,” says Fry, who had struck up enough of a friendship with Fuller to share lunches at the pop mogul’s New York penthouse. By the time of their clandestine London meeting, the feeling was clear: Hamilton had to break away from McLaren to maximise his potential as a global sports icon.
“With Lewis, Simon knew the way things were moving, just as he did with pop music and with television,” Fry explains. “He laid the cards on the table for Lewis to make a choice. Granted, Simon was not loved within Formula One. Bernie Ecclestone saw him as a potential threat. But he did a professional job of allowing Lewis to have another option.”
For all that Fuller pressed for the switch, any decision, in the final reckoning, needed to be Hamilton’s alone. At 27, he had to balance the notional benefits of staying at McLaren, the only F1 habitat he had known, with taking a punt on Mercedes, re-establishing themselves at the highest level after a 55-year hiatus. Courtesy of an intervention by the late Niki Lauda, who persuaded Mercedes’ board to stump up £45 million for a three-year contract, he chose the Silver Arrows. History would suggest that Hamilton, in contrast to Alonso – who made three moves after winning two titles with Renault and timed every one wrong – was blessed with the gift of clairvoyance.
Thrillingly, he would be racing alongside Nico Rosberg, with whom he fought so zealously in karting that the pair had pizza-eating competitions to see who could finish fastest. In Mercedes overalls, they retained a wary mutual respect at first, happily playing up the fact that they shared the same apartment block on Monaco’s Avenue Princesse Grace and would raid each other’s fridges for food. Come 2014, though, the first lines of fracture were opening, not least when Hamilton declared in Monaco that the two were no longer friends. When they tangled clumsily in Belgium, in what Toto Wolff called a “totally unacceptable race”, the die was cast.
Wolff, an Austrian venture capitalist who bought a 30 per cent stake in Mercedes’ F1 operations in 2013, has acquired a reputation in the paddock as the deftest mediator. But even he was taken aback by the depth of antagonism between his squabbling drivers. “Formula One is never serene,” Wolff acknowledges. “It is an environment where your team-mate will always be your competitor. “But this rivalry spilled over into controversy, and almost into animosity. It was a distracting factor for the team.”
Not that it derailed Hamilton on his headlong rush towards history. Amid a blaze of neon at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina, a champion became, to quote Prince Harry on the pit wall, a “legend”, taking the 2014 crown under fierce pressure from Rosberg. In Texas 11 months later, he emulated Stewart, as only the second British winner of three world titles, but not without a memorably petty tiff with his German nemesis. Waiting in the green room for the podium ceremony, he casually tossed the cap for the second-placed driver at Rosberg, only to find it flung straight back at him.
All told, the dynamic was too toxic to be sustained. When Rosberg seized a surprise championship in 2016, despite Hamilton’s best attempts to sabotage his final race by backing him into the cars behind, Wolff likened the situation to “anarchy”. It was a predicament that Rosberg resolved within a week, shocking the world of motorsport by retiring aged 31.
Against this backdrop of strife, it was little wonder that Wolff sought a quieter life for Mercedes for the next phase, turning instead to Valtteri Bottas, an equable Finn who would not quibble about being cast as Hamilton’s understudy. “A part of our thinking was that we wanted a very quick driver, but a non-political driver,” he explains. “Somebody who would do his talking on the track.”
There is little doubt the ruse has worked. Across three seasons in Bottas’ peaceable company, Hamilton is undefeated, having wrapped up the title each year with two races to spare. The sourness that marked his relationship with Rosberg has evaporated, replaced by scrupulous expressions of gratitude to the team who have propelled him to such heights.
Wolff, offering his first detailed comments since Hamilton made sure of a sixth championship at the Circuit of the Americas, says: “Lewis has developed as a personality, understanding that he can only be as good as his car. There are times when you need to consider the interests of the wider team, not only your own. This isn’t easy for a racing driver to embrace, because from the earliest stages, you are alone in your go-kart. It’s a very opportunistic sport. But the best drivers, Michael Schumacher in particular, have understood the importance of motivating the team, not blaming them.”
A defining feature of Hamilton’s successes at the Silver Arrows has been his indulgence of extramural passions, to a degree unthinkable when he was still under McLaren’s constant watch. Quite apart from the 62 wins amassed in Mercedes colours, Hamilton has curated a bespoke fashion line for Tommy Hilfiger, contributed back-up vocals on a Christian Aguilera song, and even opened his own vegan restaurant off Regent Street.
“It was always the pact we made, back in the day, that so long as the on-track performance was on the highest level, I was very happy to give him the freedom to pursue his interests,” Wolff says. “I firmly believe that it is giving him strength, rather than stressing him out. When you look at his activities in the fashion industry, it is going far beyond a hobby. It has become a real creative and business interest. He is starting to make a name for himself in a different world.”
Today, Hamilton recognises that he has a platform to advance the causes closest to him. As such, he used it last month to deliver an Instagram lament about ecological destruction, which invited widespread accusations of hypocrisy in light of the giant carbon footprint associated with his F1 lifestyle. For all the dangers of wading into these waters, Wolff is happy to encourage his driver’s environmental conscience.
“We have a voice, and an obligation to use it to the best of our abilities,” Wolff argues. “Lewis has always expressed his opinions on being vegan and sustainable without holding back. It’s something he is very passionate about. People can criticise, asking, ‘How can someone say that when he is taking 200 flights a year?’ But this is how he makes a living. You can still reduce your impact on the world and be mindful of that. We are trying to do the same within Mercedes.”
Whether or not Hamilton surpasses Schumacher’s seven titles to become statistically the greatest driver who has ever lived, he will, in all likelihood, continue to polarise. Even since he moved from the UK to Geneva at just 21, the tax card has been used against him, despite fellow Britons Button and Stewart having also left the country to reduce their liabilities. Hamilton was deeply hurt by the Paradise Papers revelations of 2017, which showed he had exploited a legal tax loophole on a private jet.
To balance the picture, David Richards, as the leader of British motorsport, has written a letter to the Prime Minister, identifying Hamilton as one of the UK’s 5,000 largest tax-payers and appealing for him to be honoured, belatedly, with a knighthood. “People are not aware enough of what an extraordinary story it is for Lewis to come from his background and reach the top of F1,” Richards says. “There is nobody in his peer group who has such a tale.”
If you cast your eye down the grid for Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix, you can appreciate the point. None of his nearest competitors, from Bottas to Sebastian Vettel, from Max Verstappen to Charles Leclerc, move the needle as Hamilton does or touch the realms that he can reach. None have risen, either, from such a marginalised, money-deprived start.
That Hamilton has not only done so but dominated, to an extent F1 has seldom seen before, confirms him as surely Britain’s finest active sportsman. It must simply be hoped that the nation wakes up to what it has before he is gone.