Lewis Hamilton has broken numerous records through his Formula 1 career, and two longstanding landmarks may fall to him in 2020.
He is just one world championship behind Michael Schumacher’s record of seven and only four wins behind Schumacher’s record of 91 total victories.
But Hamilton is focused on creating a wider-reaching legacy this year.
Amid the activism against racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd in May, Hamilton, 35, has been Formula 1’s leading voice for increasing diversity in the sport.
“I see those of you who are staying silent, some of you the biggest stars, yet you stay silent in the midst of injustice,” Hamilton, the first Black driver in Formula 1, wrote on Instagram after Floyd’s killing.
“Not a sign from anybody in my industry, which of course is a white-dominated sport. I’m one of the only people of color there, yet I stand alone.”
It was a call Hamilton later said was directed at Formula 1’s leaders. It set off a conversation about diversity within the sport.
Hamilton said he felt that Formula 1 had taken no steps to improve diversity.
“We have said things, and there’s been statements released, and we’ve made gestures such as kneeling,” he said. “But we’ve not changed anything, except for perhaps some of our awareness.”
Jean Todt, president of Formula 1’s governing body, the F.I.A., said that he had a “very constructive discussion” with Hamilton last month and that the F.I.A. was committed to “make a program to monitor,” but “that takes time, unfortunately.” In one initiative, Formula 1 will offer internships and apprenticeships in motor racing for underrepresented groups, with the help of a $1 million donation from the F.I.A.
Mercedes, which Hamilton has raced for since 2013, changed its car from silver to black in an anti-racism message.
The team said more than 95 percent of its work force was white and pledged to improve diversity. Formula 1 said it did not have statistics for the sport as a whole.
“We will not shy away from our weaknesses in this area, nor from the progress we must still make,” said Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal. “Our livery is our public pledge to take positive action.”
Wolff said the color change came as a result of a phone call with Hamilton. “In the conversation, the idea of the black livery was born, and I had to say to him that I’m not sure we can make it work,” Wolff said. “We have to paint the whole car and all the spare parts, and needed to convince all partners, and Daimler [Mercedes’ parent company] to back us on that.” Within 12 hours, they had the necessary approvals.
“I continue to be really proud of my team,” Hamilton said. “The team has held themselves accountable and continue to follow through and understand it.”
As in many sports, Formula 1 gave drivers an opportunity to take a knee before the start of the first race of the season in Austria. That day, Hamilton wore a Black Lives Matters T-shirt and the other drivers wore ones reading End Racism. Fourteen drivers took a knee, including Hamilton. Six stood, citing concerns over the connotations of kneeling.
“I believe that what matters are facts and behaviors in our daily life rather than formal gestures that could be seen as controversial in some countries,” said Charles Leclerc of Ferrari, who stood.
Hamilton said he was “really, really grateful” to the drivers who knelt with him.
“I think it’s still a really powerful message,” he said. “Everyone had a right to their own personal choice. And for me personally, that was what I felt was right to do.”
Formula 1 did not allocate time for an organized kneel at the second or third races of the season, with some drivers concerned about continuing to kneel. Hamilton was disappointed by the lack of unity.
“There definitely is not enough support for it,” he said. “Many people seem to be of the opinion that they’ve done it once, and they’re not going to do it again. And I don’t know all the reasons for that opinion.
“Formula 1 did an OK job, I would say, at the first race. It’s not good enough in terms of what you see in other sports. It’s almost like it’s gone off the agenda after that.”
Hamilton called on Formula 1’s leaders to be stronger in their anti-racism messaging. “It’s lacking leadership,” Hamilton said. “It shouldn’t be for me to have to call the teams or call the teams out. That should be announced or discussed from the top down. That should be coming from the higher powers that control and pull all the strings.”
Hamilton’s peers recognized his influence on the diversity issue.
“The way he has approached the situation and how much he has managed to put in everyone’s minds the anti-racism message, all the drivers and all the paddock respects him for that,” said the driver Carlos Sainz Jr. of McLaren.
“I haven’t lived with racism myself, in any kind of situation, and maybe he is the one who has lived it more closely, and that is what makes him more engaged in this matter. I am full of admiration for Lewis.”
Daniel Ricciardo, a driver for Renault, said Hamilton had been a positive influence.
“He’s used his following and reach to good use by trying to educate not only Formula 1, but I think the rest of the world, which isn’t quite there yet,” Ricciardo said. “He’s been very active on it. I feel we’re having conversations that we wouldn’t have had before.”
In a bid to enact “real, tangible and measurable change” within motorsport, Hamilton announced the creation of the Hamilton Commission, in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering. Hamilton said his organization was “dedicated to exploring how motorsport can be used as a vehicle to engage more young people from Black backgrounds with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and, ultimately, employ them on our teams or in other engineering sectors.”
“The time for platitudes and token gestures is over,” Hamilton said. “When I look back in 20 years, I want to see the sport that gave a shy, working-class Black kid so much opportunity become as diverse as the complex and multicultural world we live in.”