This Is Lewis Hamilton's Defining Season

·6 min read
Photo credit: Joe Portlock - Formula 1 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Joe Portlock - Formula 1 - Getty Images

From Road & Track

Lewis Hamilton entered this year as the six-time and reigning Formula 1 World Driver's Champion, the all-time leader in career poles, and looked likely to eclipse Michael Schumacher as the winningest driver in series history in the same season he would match his record for most championships. It seemed he had nothing left to prove, which makes it all the more incredible that he found a way to prove something.

On track, Hamilton has had a season that lived up to every expectation. He has nine poles, six fastest laps, and ten wins through 14 races, enough to officially make him the winningest Formula 1 driver ever and officially a champion yet again with three races yet to run. Two more wins will make this his winningest season ever, despite only 17 races being run in a year initially scheduled for 22, and a clean sweep of the final three races will tie him for the most wins in a single season and set a new record for the highest winning percentage in a season of F1 competition. With these cars set to continue with limited changes into next season, Hamilton is likely to eclipse 100 career wins and will be heavily favored to become the first-ever eight-time World Driver's Champion. Soon, no records will remain to be broken, and all he'll be chasing are bigger numbers and bigger gaps on former record holders like Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna.

But all of that is more or less par for the course. This sort of dominance is where Hamilton's career has been heading since he joined Mercedes AMG F1 in 2013, just before both he and the team hit their greatest-ever form with the introduction of new regulations in 2014. He has seemingly gotten better, both compared to himself and compared to the rest of the field, every single year, and all remaining records seemed doomed in the face of his current form and pace. All of this makes this the best statistical season for Hamilton, but what has been so incredible is how Hamilton has used the platform he has spent the past fifteen years creating to fight for what he sees as right, to be a voice for what he believes in.

This is where it becomes essential to note that Hamilton is a Black man in a predominately white sport presided over almost exclusively by the very wealthy sons of very wealthy men. This is a defining trait of auto racing across all levels and codes, and the direct result is an undercurrent of what is at best disinterest in racial justice and at worst active participation in racism. Hamilton has seen this directly since at least 2008, and to this day has to deal with the powerful voices of powerful men belittling his lived experience because they do not care to learn or understand it. The problem may be less directly visible than it was when Wendell Scott faced the horrors of the 1960s South in a NASCAR presided over by a man who ran a Presidential campaign for a segregationist, but it has not gone away. Lewis Hamilton has known this his entire career, and has understood what it meant.

In 2020, with everything he had seen around him, Hamilton had decided he could be silent no longer. He turned his platform, with all of the power that came with it, toward the Black Lives Matter Movement. He was met with a deafening silence by the rest of the paddock, and, rather than let it happen and continuing to stand on his own, he challenged them directly: Join or accept what it means to stand against me.

It would be an overstatement to say that the entire sport has since stood with him, with Formula 1's unfortunate directing choices and rules written to weaken the power of his voice standing out as obvious failures, but many have supported him and, rather than speak over him, amplified his voice even further. His team has re-branded itself entirely, wrapping their cars in an all-black livery for the year and, according to a popular Twitter observation, possibly providing him with team-sponsored Black Lives Matter apparel that allows him to circumvent the sport's implicit ban on his speech.

This may end as the winningest Formula 1 season ever, but it will likely be remembered first and foremost as the year Lewis Hamilton gave power to his voice. As he detailed in a candid conversation with Road & Track this past month, it has been a very conscious effort, one on his mind since the day he saw Colin Kaepernick take a knee in 2017. This is Hamilton's final form, the greatest driver on the grid who chooses to get out of the car and immediately speak about what he sees away from the track and why we, as spectators, must turn our eyes to it even when it may be uncomfortable to do so.

Whether in the cold and calculating actions of Nicki Lauda or in the one-man bubble Kimi Raikkonen seems to so proudly live in, Formula 1 is a sport where "Cool" has for so long been associated with stoicism and reckless disinterest in the lives and actions of others. Hamilton stands in direct contrast to that. He is not only not afraid to care about the world at large, he now puts it above all else. He wants us all to see these things, and he is not shy about wanting that more than he wants another grand prix victory or world championship. His unimpeachable one lap speed will eventually fade and his seemingly-unreachable records may eventually fall, but this will be his legacy.

This, more than the poles, wins, and championships, is why Hamilton is the greatest ever. In July, I wrote that "The ascension of Lewis Hamilton was almost complete." Today, I say that he has arrived. Lewis Hamilton, impossible to ignore and impossible to beat, is the greatest Formula 1 driver I have ever seen, and, through the power of his voice, the most the significant Formula 1 driver to ever operate.

Both Hamilton and Mercedes AMG F1 are performing at a level so high that we all know what will come next year. In 2021, wins and championships are not just the favored result but the expectation. I see no reason to wait for 100 wins or 8 championships to make a declaration. Hamilton has already passed all contenders in on-track contribution, and in just one season of using his voice has already re-defined what it means to be a Formula 1 driver in the public eye. No number of victories or titles is going to add any more impact. Hamilton has ascended to a place in the F1 pantheon that cannot be reached any time soon. Simply, he is the greatest.

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