It takes a precocious ten-year-old to walk up to one of motor racing’s leading figures and say that he wants to drive for his Formula One team when he grows up.
But there is something to be said for having big dreams, because now, at 22, Lewis Hamilton is a prodigiously talented driver who is enjoying his first year in F1. And he’s driving for McLaren, the British team owned by his mentor and the man he approached at ten, Ron Dennis.
It’s certainly an achievement to become a F1 driver and it’s even more special for a young black man. Hamilton, whose grandfather came to Britain from Grenada in the 1950s, breaks the black sportsman stereotype of footballer or sprinter, and joins the ranks of sport stars like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters who have reached the highest level in a predominantly white sport.
He leapt into the British consciousness in November 2006, when McLaren announced he would partner reigning World Champion Fernando Alonso. While the mainstream media heralded F1’s first black driver as if he had come out of nowhere, the write-ups in the black press announced Hamilton’s achievement with something of a “we told you so” tone.
That was the only place – along with racing sites and magazines – that reported on Hamilton’s exploits when he was busy winning the British Formula Renault in 2003, the Formula 3 Euroseries in 2005 and the 2006 GP2 title.
Rodney Hinds, sports editor of London-based black paper The Voice, has long been predicting an F1 career for Hamilton. “It’s absolutely wonderful. He’s a level-headed, talented and proud black man with some important things to do,” he said.
One of those important things is being a role model for young black people, and there’s a story that says a great deal about the young man’s commitment to this ideal.
The weekend his elevation to F1 was announced, Hamilton was scheduled to attend a function at a youth centre in Hackney, one of London’s most deprived boroughs. Many didn’t expect him to show, thinking their little event might be pushed aside in favour of bigger media happenings.
But not only did he turn up, he also spent a lot of time chatting with the young people, signing autographs and posing for photos.
“The kids were so excited to see him. People were impressed that he stuck to his commitment and that he was so down to earth,” said Hinds, who was at the Hackney function. “He was like the Pied Piper, we knew we had magic in our midst with this guy.”
F1 has been described as an unforgiving sport, and Hamilton will need all the magic he can get on the track if he’s to do well and even keep up with his teammate Alonso.
The McLaren team has played down the hype by saying they would be happy if the 22-year-old actually wins a race this season. But Hamilton is determined to be a worthy contender on racing’s main stage, and he definitely intends to mix it up with the big boys.
“I am not here to take part, I am here to win!”