He Might Well Be The Greatest F1 Driver of all time, But Lewis Hamilton Is Just Getting Started

28 November 2019
Culture, Cover Story, Formula 1, Celebrities, Lewis Hamilton
Images: Renell Medrano
With six Formula 1 world championships in the bag, Lewis Hamilton just keeps on getting better

It’s stupid that this is surprising. But you could run this circuit for 10 years and never ever see it. Some will even claim they’ve gone entire careers without seeing it. But, lo and behold, the talent is early. Lewis Hamilton is early. He is 33 minutes early. He’s hit a purple sector and the shoot hasn’t even started. Praise the legends of racing and magazines and fashion looking down on this GQ shoot.

Read More: Lewis Hamilton claims his sixth world title

We’re in a quiet spot in Brooklyn, New York – a big old sprawling pair of studios whose façade blends peacefully into its surrounds. It’s been less than 48 hours since Hamilton cruised to second place in Texas, clinching his sixth Formula 1 world title, and his third in a row.

It feels like an eternity ago, but the last time Hamilton wasn’t world champ was waaaaaay back in 2016, when his teammate Nico Rosberg inched him out of the title by a hair. What’s gone down since has been something of a hostile takeover.

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You say this in the kindest way, but Lewis Hamilton has systematically made mince of his opponents for the past three seasons. He has, singlehandedly, relegated to distant memory the heady Sebastian Vettel streak of the early 2010s. He’s taken the throne, the castle, the moat, the kingdom, and guess what? There ain’t no army coming for him anytime soon.


Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition “Lewis Hamilton”, price on request, IWC Schaffhausen. Coat, $1960, Etro. Shirt, $920, shorts, $640, socks, $210, boots, $890, Prada. Jewelery (throughout), talent’s own

Hamilton has entered that rarefied stratosphere of athletes and teams whose momentous championship runs both totally take the suspense out of watching a sport, and somehow replace it with electricity – a sense that you’re witnessing Real Live History go down.

That was the joy of Peak Federer. That was the wonder of the Golden State Warriors’ run in the NBA. It was the ecstasy of watching Michael Jordan strike fear, anxiety and doubt into the hearts of defenders. It’s that feeling – that niggling, “He’s gonna do it again, isn’t he” – you get when Messi curls it, again, into the top corner. That’s the company Hamilton is in.

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Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition “Lewis Hamilton”, price on request, IWC Schaffhausen. Coat, $1960, Etro. Shirt, $920, Prada. Jewellery (throughout), talent’s own

At risk of getting breathless before this thing even begins, it has to be said: Hamilton is, by many measures, the greatest driver to have ever raced. At the time of writing, he’s won points in 31 consecutive races, and in 64 of the last 65 races, going back to 2016. He’s the all-time leader in pole positions won – no driver in history is within 20 of him. He is a single world championship away from tying the all-time record of Michael Schumacher, and, if you ask most in the sport, Hamilton owning that top spot outright feels pretty much predestined.

So with all of this, you might expect the 34-year-old champ to arrive with swagger. You might expect him to big himself; to have some well-earned smugness. Instead, you find serenity.

“I don’t even know what day we’re on right now,” he says, sinking back into a couch.

The day, of course, is Tuesday. With Sunday being the day you clinched a sixth world championship, and yesterday being the day after you clinched a sixth world championship.

There was no head-nursing yesterday. There were no hazy memories to try to re-trace. No, Hamilton started the first day of a fresh tenure as world champion with a long, slow run along the Hudson River. He got back to his New York apartment, took his parents out for lunch in the Meatpacking District, then put them in a car to the airport – they were headed back to the UK – and then retreated back to his bedroom, and lay down.

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“I was just…zen,” he says. At 5’9, Hamilton has these big, contemplative eyes and reality-distorting body language. For all the hype about twitch reactions and cat-like reflexes on a track pass, Hamilton moves slow, deliberate and confident.

“This year’s just been trying,” he says. “Within my team, my number two engineer became my teammate’s number one. So then, he raised his level through that partnership with someone who had been working with me for six years. Trying to raise the bar every year is the hardest thing… Every year you have to come back with a bigger bite, a bigger punch and the challenge of that – the physical side, the mental side, the consistency – over a long, long season...”

He trails off, the past 12 months probably running back through his mind like an old film. Really, to understand what this season and this championship means, you need to wind things back.

In 2007, Hamilton was the skinny, precocious rookie driver who entered into an instant alpha face-off with teammate (and defending world champion) Fernando Alonso, shaking up the entire sport and coming within a point of claiming a world championship in year one. In year two, he waited for his moment – the final corner of the final lap of the rain-slicked final race of the season – took his chance, and took the crown.

Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition “Lewis Hamilton”, price on request, IWC Schaffhausen. Jacket, $2920, Etro. Turtleneck, $1340, trousers, $1920, Tom Ford. Jewellery (throughout), talent’s own

Hamilton has spoken more than a few times of his love for Ayrton Senna – the enigmatic Brazilian driver whose tragic death devastated the sport in 1994. To the young Hamilton, Senna was the one who broke the formula: the man who drove like no other, who took risks, who challenged the status quo and was beloved off the track. And so Hamilton learned to hack convention, to go and defy standards.

“As a kid, I wanted to do something like Ayrton. If I could be remembered and respected as he was… he moved a nation. When he passed away, the whole country came out on the street at his funeral. It was unbelievable,” says Hamilton. “I cried when he died. I was racing that day, I remember. I couldn’t show my dad. I could never cry in front of my dad. He said, ‘That’s a sign of weakness.’ I remember going to the front of the car and letting the tears come out, and then I had to clean them up and go back out to where he was, fixing my go kart to go out racing. I was nine.”

Early in his career – and to be fair, many times since – Hamilton was branded at various times arrogant, over-aggressive, dangerous, ruthless, immature. (Monikers that were, on occasion, attributed to Senna, too.) But over the seasons, Hamilton has rebranded and re-adjusted, pulling off a stunning metamorphosis to become a driver as level-headed as he is aggressive, as patient as he is deadly.

As much as experience and accumulated wisdom help, mentorship bridges the gaps in ways that nothing else can. 2019 came with no shortage of adversity for Hamilton, however gaping his championship lead appeared from the outside. Atop that list was the loss of long-time friend, mentor – and as Hamilton dubs him, “teammate” – Niki Lauda. The three-time world champion passed away in May. The two met while Lauda was a commentator on German broadcasts of the F1, and also involved with team Mercedes-AMG.

“I had seen many, many different things that he had said about me – mostly negative. I don’t think he was a fan of mine initially,” says Hamilton. “And then we got on the phone one day. And we was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I think you should join [Mercedes].’”

Hamilton said he’d think about it. Eventually, the pair met in a hotel room: the legendarily disciplined Austrian champion and the hot-headed Briton who was winning hearts and raising eyebrows around the world of F1.

“We got on like a house on fire. There’s things I realised about him that had not known – about his personality, there were so many similarities. We just gelled,” says Hamilton. “I feel like Niki, you know, he’s an older school cat. He was one of many whose mental opinions I had to break. He’s like, ‘A driver’s like this: a driver goes to bed at ten o’clock, wakes up at five or six a.m., and does it like this. No way a driver can be at a fashion show! There’s no way you can be travelling from here to here. No way!’ I had to break that ideal that he had. Eventually, he came around to it. He was like, ‘Jeez, this is actually helping. This is making him drive better.’ And so he encouraged it, he supported it.”

Hamilton went to visit Lauda when he was in the hospital.

“He was even funny when he was just sitting there, saying, ‘Oh, s*** man, nobody told me it was going to be this hard.’ He was witty about any scenario he was in,” says Hamilton. “When we found out that he had passed away...it’s hard to believe that you’re not going to see that person. Every time I walk into the garage, there’s a row of all the headphones for all the mechanics. And there’s his spot, with his name and his cap, and so even on Sunday, I walked through the garage and looked at his cap and I just knew he was there with us.”

Shortly after he clinched in Texas, Hamilton was quick to dedicate his latest championship to Lauda.

“I miss Niki so much and I know today that he would be taking his cap off,” Hamilton said after the race. “Yesterday he would have been saying he’s paying me too much but today he would have taken his cap off. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without Niki. He’s here with us in spirit.”

It was a momentous championship win. The kind that looks, approximately, five hundred times easier than it in fact is. Because, simply put, there’s a target on Hamilton’s back. It’s been painted there for so long, it might as well be tattooed at this point.

“Each year, you have to give more. It’s not like you’ve built it up so you can rest on your laurels. No, you have to give more each time. You have to spend more time with your engineers, you have to spend more time with the individuals who can make that difference within your team. You have to understand the equipment better. You always have to be five or 10 steps ahead of your competitors. And it’s so hard to do,” says Hamilton.

In a sport where the key tools are provided with plenty of equity, and where the difference between elation and embarrassment lies in the apex of a corner, or the blink of reaction time, it’s little wonder that opponents (and, y’know, teammates) study each other closely.

“It’s probably similar in golf: they film your swing, they go and practice that swing. You show your cards quite early on, and people are then studying. It’s like an NFL game or a football game: they watch replays of how they play line-ups. You’ve got to keep on creating, you have to be dynamic.”

All of the capital-g Greats have their own a-ha moments – the little off-season tweaks that can put you atop your competitors. Ever wondered how NBA sharpshooter Steph Curry went from ‘great’ to ‘insane’ in a few seasons? Peep the wild custom-built workout he put himself through, replete with goggles that recreated an arena full of flash photography while he practiced in a training facility.

For Hamilton, there was also an element of biohacking. He hacked his diet.

Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition “Lewis Hamilton”, price on request, IWC Schaffhausen. Two-piece suit, $6650, top, $1540, Tom Ford. Jewellery (throughout), talent’s own

“Over the last two years, the biggest adjustment has been going onto a vegan, or plant-based diet,” he explains. “It wasn’t until five or six years ago that I had a nutritionist. I had suffered through my whole life with allergies, energy levels being up and down, and a lot of sickness: tonsillitis that I fought with for a long time; every year, I was always catching illnesses. So, I’m always looking to how I can better myself. How I can feel better. When I train, how can I recover quicker? Is it better to go and stay in high altitude? All these different things.”

After a blood test revealed that he was allergic to a smorgasbord of everyday foods like eggs, dairy and gluten, Hamilton was, to put it bluntly, shook. He had been eating this stuff, all his life. Every day. He’d have six or eight egg whites in the morning, for starters. He’d been playing with a handicap, without ever realising it...even if the signs were there.

“When I was living at home, my stepmum would cook the best chicken and rice: Caribbean food. I remember afterwards, my stomach beginning to feel really bloated. I thought that was just normal. It really would be swollen. I wouldn’t feel comfortable.

“I started taking these things out of my diet, I started to read more about it, then I met some vegan people. They started to show me what was happening with the cruelty to animals, and that just broke my heart. I didn’t even know it was happening. I didn’t know how it was happening, I didn’t know where it was happening, or to what extent it was happening. That hit me in my core.”

And so emerged the new meaner, leaner, less bloated Hamilton. And with the a-ha moment came a newfound appreciation for sustainability and a holistic vegan lifestyle.

Hamilton set to work, applying the principles to his partnerships. Case in point: the exclusive IWC Big Pilot’s watch you see on these pages. It’s a one-of-a-kind Hamilton collaboration, replete with a textile – not leather – strap, hand-picked by the man himself. Elsewhere, his menswear collection with Tommy Hilfiger is nudging 70 percent sustainability.

“It’s so important. The goal is to get to 100 percent. They were like, ‘Yeah, but it’s really...we’ve got to go out and find the vendors.’ And I’m like, ‘Let’s do it! Let’s not start the collection until you start doing it. What’s the point?’”

Where most celebrities and athletes approach the press as coy and guarded, cunning and media-trained, Hamilton comes across as something altogether more gentle. There’s little doubting it: pockets of the media have been brutally unfair to him. But the man that’s emerged from years in the pressure cooker is one that’s still in progress.

In a way, Hamilton feels like the state of modern man: slowly, carefully, thoughtfully, trying to map out his place in the world, the impact he wishes to have, and the legacy he wishes to leave behind.

“I’m trying to figure out what my purpose is, and how I can have more of an impact. It’s just difficult when you’re in Formula 1, because you’re driving cars. People then say, ‘Yeah, but you race cars, and you travel around the world, so...’ It’s conflicting,” he says. “Over the last couple of years, I’ve realised that I have this platform. It’s taken me a long time to fully understand what social media really is... I realised the real power in which it holds, and the responsibility that I feel that we all have with that platform. I followed a lot of people – people that I liked and admired, athletes. I looked at a lot of people who had massive followings, who were doing nothing with their platform, just posting pictures of themselves. On one side, I understand that you want to share – that’s the normal part of it. But I thought, ‘Jeez, that person can have such an impact. There are so many people out there that will really follow in their every footstep.’”

Vulnerability seems to be the mood of the moment for Hamilton, even if in fits and bursts – Instagram stories posted and deleted.

“It’s a growing process. It’s learning. And making mistakes. I shy away from doing too much of the norm. When I write something, I want to show more vulnerability. It’s very difficult: you’ve got a helmet on, no one sees how hard it is. They just see you turn up and win races, and don’t see your emotion inside the helmet. It’s not like basketball or other sports. [You don’t see] the tears, the pain, the struggle. It looks like it’s always bliss. I’m sure those people who I thought were having perfect lives also have those struggles from day to day: waking up, looking in the mirror, questioning yourself, how you look, how you feel. I wanted to open up a little bit more, particularly this year. I’ve opened up a lot more to my following,” he says. “I see all the messages they write. I see there’s a lot of pain out there. And I’m like, ‘If I can just connect with you, and show you that I’ve also felt that – I know exactly what you’re feeling – and I somehow got around it, I did this, just keep believing.”

More and more, Hamilton seems to be discarding the negative traps of fame, taking control of his own message, and wielding the muscles of stardom to push an agenda that’s more uniquely him.

Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition “Lewis Hamilton”, price on request, IWC Schaffhausen. Coat, $1695, turtleneck, $350, trousers, price on request, Alexander Wang. Sneakers, $150, Tommy Hilfiger. Jewellery (throughout), talent’s own

“What I’m really proud of is that I’m bringing a new audience to a sport, I like to think. That’s something that’s been really important for me. It was a very white-dominated sport for many, many years. It’s great to see it slightly, slowly, slowly becoming more diverse. The fan base is becoming more diverse, we’re slowly starting to get more minorities within the team. I’m hoping to encourage a generation of kids that want to be engineers or mechanics,” he says. “It should be open to more people. I’m really, really keen to push for more inclusivity.”

Here’s what, above all else, surprises you in an afternoon with the champ. It’s not the vegan spreads or the (seriously swervy) jewellery collection – it’s the focus. Because any time the conversation began to steer towards his place in the history books, his ranking against the greats, his borderline unprecedented feats in one of the world’s most illustrious sports, he would take the wheel and show you his cards. He’ll tell you how his heart hurts a little, for instance, when he sees his niece and nephew for the first time in a while, and how he rues missing them growing up.

“I definitely can’t have kids while I’m doing what I do – unless they’re on the road with me. I would never want to miss what I’ve missed already with my niece and nephew.”

Yes, even though Hamilton is closing in on becoming the sport’s winningest driver, it seems as though he is more interested – far more interested – in becoming the most influential. Because he knew that the people wept over Senna for reasons far bigger than a fastest lap. And because he knows that there’ll be more than a few nine-year-olds watching him on televisions around the world.

“I want to change how it filters down. At the moment, it’s only rich kids coming through. Look in football: the kids off the streets, Neymar’s off the streets; you know, the coolest, most talented ones are out there with the hunger. I want to somehow work to tap back into that. It’s getting more and more expensive in the karting realms. I want to figure out how I can change that, so working class families can come through,” he says. “Like me and my family came through.”

Words: Adam Baidawi
Photography: Renell Medrano
Styling Keanoush: Zargham
Grooming: Akira Yamada
Producer: Amira Elraghy
Executive producer: Emily Strange
Production assistant: Dana Heis
Styling assistants: Zeid Jaouni and Matthew Han
Photography assistant: Max Rainoldi