The Value of Difference
The fastest man on four wheels explains why celebrating his differences made him the man he is today, and how he’s defining tomorrow.
Can you remember the first time you got behind the wheel?
I was on my first holiday with my dad and my step-mum, about five at the time. We came across a place with mini Formula 1 cars with three wheels and rubber round them. You put a token in and essentially drove around an oval. My parents couldn’t get me off it. Later on, touring the city, we stumbled across a little go-kart track. I remember driving a couple of laps and already picking up this braking technique that I used through my whole karting career. It actually still applies today. I’ve always been known as a late-braker, but I already had it in me when I was five.
What was driving you in the beginning?
When I was young it was just fun. It’s something I did well, and I didn’t do everything well. I never got a good school report, no matter how hard I tried. But on the race track, I was able to progress and see the recognition in my dad’s smile. That was a great feeling, especially when you win races. Racing gave me that lift.
Is there any fear on the race-track?
I don’t have a fear of losing, but I suppose I have a fear of not being able to continue doing what I love. But I feel like holding onto any fear makes you a prisoner and I’m not a prisoner. I’m free. That’s just a state of mind.
Of course, I’ve gone through ups and downs. I’ve had adults, teachers, tell me, “You’re just not good enough, you’re never going to make it.” I was only able to overcome that through my family. My dad worked hard to provide me with opportunities that gave me the confidence that at least someone believed in me. If you don’t have that belief from the most important people in your life, then perhaps everything could fall away. If anything, I felt like those experiences enabled me to become stronger and battle my way through all obstacles that I came across later.
Are there any Formula 1 skills you rely on to adapt to life outside the grid?
I apply my work ethic and approach to racing to everything else I do. So that’s diligence and determination both inside and outside of Formula 1.
What passions or aspirations do you have outside of driving?
At the moment I’m an aspiring fashion designer and very much interested in music. Through these fields you meet people who are very good at expressing themselves. I think all humans have a certain amount of creativity - which is the freest way of being able to express yourself - whether that’s through art, or music or design. Everyone should try to find a creative outlet.
In your job, timing is everything. Would you say time is more important than money?
Absolutely, we only have a certain amount of time on this earth, so time is priceless. Time with your family, time with your friends, when memories are created - that’s something money can’t buy.
Who inspired you?
Growing up, I had posters of Mohammed Ali on my wall. I used to watch old videos of him too, looking at how he was speaking and carrying himself. I thought, “If he can do it, then I can do it too”, which is what great athletes and sportsmen should do for young people - inspire. I try and take responsibility, like all of us do. Ultimately, I have a light and it’s up to me how bright I want to shine it. We all have a light within us and so the key is to try and shine as bright as you can. You encourage others to do the same.
How important is it to do things your own way?
As a driver, I’ve had to find my own way. You have to discover it’s about trial and error. In my sport, the majority of the older drivers, look upon the youngsters coming into Formula 1 and say, “You have to be like this to be the best.” I think that’s wrong, because it’s actually what they had to do to be the best. For everyone else it’s different.
When I stand at the front of the grid, I definitely stand out like a sore thumb. But I quite like that. I see that as a strength, rather than a weakness. I think different is beautiful. We all are different.
You're already considered an F1 legend. What kind of legacy do you want to leave?
That’s a question that’s been asked a lot and I currently don’t have a definitive answer for it because I’m still trying to understand exactly what a legacy can be and how I would potentially like mine to look. But I hope to be a part of at least one - if not many - great causes in the world that help shift the views and opinions of people for the better of the planet.
Is the sport changing?
The world is in a different place now. We’re seeing a lot more diversity and I love that I’m a part of that. I go to events around the world and meet Asian, Latino and Black parents who say, “My kids wants to be you”, which is neat, because before my career that was not necessarily the case.
With time I have come to understand that I have a platform that can inspire others and help drive change. When I have kids, they’re going to be in a much better place than when I started. But I’m old-school. I’ll buy them a crap go-kart and say, “This is what I had and this is what you’re going to have to do with.” I think that builds more strength, more character, personally. The struggle that they’re going to go through in that go-kart - the same struggle that I went through starting at the back and having to work my way through - is why I’m able to drive the way I do today.
As technology and economies are changing fast, our priorities are quite different from our parents. How will what we pass on to our children be different from today?
I imagine it would be an evolution and hopefully an improvement of what your parents have passed on to you. So, you pass on the same values, because you shouldn’t lose them, but you enhance them. As the world changes and our brains and technology evolve, there’s no reason why our values and those things that we instil in our children can’t also evolve.
How are you defining your future?
That’s the big question mark at the moment. I’m not worried at all though, because right now, I’m in discovery mode. I’m in the process of trying to build up my knowledge and experience outside of racing, which I’ve done my whole life. I know the formula and I can continue to do that, but eventually that’s going to stop. When it does, if I haven’t done any other groundwork learning elsewhere, it’s all going to fall down. I’ll be stuck in the mud, not knowing what to do, so I’m currently trying to learn other things. Through my career, coming from the ground up, I know that I can’t just leapfrog into another role and immediately be at the top. There are no shortcuts to success.
Where is your favourite place to drive (and in what)?
When I get to the airport and I drive home. I feel relaxed. Put on the cruise control. You are in your own car, your own space. You can listen to your own music. The drive home is my favourite drive of all.
At the age of eight, Lewis sat in a kart for the first time and was immediately hooked. In 1997 McLaren Mercedes enrolled him in their young driver program while his Grand Prix debut on the team came 10 years later, in 2007. The numerous records set by Lewis in his rookie season highlighted his class - including the most race wins, pole positions and points scored in a debut season. At 23 years old, he captured his first FIA Formula One World Championship - taking the accolade of the youngest ever champion. After six successful seasons Lewis joined Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport for the 2013 season to soon secure his fourth World Title. He now continues to reach new heights in the Formula One hall of fame. Having won four Drivers’ World Championships, Lewis is now joint-third, with Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel, in the all-time list of World Titles, as well as Britain’s most successful Formula One driver.