Lewis Hamilton stood on the podium after a dominant victory in the Styrian Grand Prix with his fist raised in a black power salute, an image emblematic of the twin goals the Mercedes driver has set himself this year.
Hamilton started off the delayed Formula 1 season with a difficult race in Austria a week ago, amid his prominent role in organising an anti-racism demonstration by the drivers on the grid.
On Thursday, he was asked before the second race of the season at the same Red Bull Ring track whether he now needed to refocus on the championship.
“I’m still focused on both,” he said. “Trying to fight and win this championship but also fighting for equal rights.”
Hamilton is bidding to win a seventh world championship this year, an achievement that would equal the all-time record held by Michael Schumacher. It’s not clear, given his achievements, why anyone might have doubts about his ability to deliver on that aim while also expressing the need for the world to make progress on human rights. But if they did, they were disabused of it by his performance this weekend.
Hamilton admitted that at the first race of the season he had been the victim of “a domino effect” of errors.
He exceeded track limits on his first lap in final qualifying, which meant he needed to set a time on his second. But then team-mate Valtteri Bottas went off track in front of him. That brought out yellow flags, but Hamilton did not slow as was required, and that led to a three-place grid penalty.
Then a chaotic race was punctuated by safety cars, Mercedes were unlucky with the timing of one of them, and that made Hamilton vulnerable to Red Bull’s Alex Albon on fresher tyres behind him. They collided, and Hamilton was given another penalty, which dropped him from second to fourth.
It was far from his best weekend, but he certainly made amends when F1 returned to the same track this weekend. It was a vintage Hamilton performance.
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Friday practice did not go well – an experimental set-up leaving him off the pace in the second session. But the rain on qualifying day left him rubbing his hands in anticipation.
He knows no-one is better in the rain than him, and in qualifying he went out and proved it with one of the greatest laps in the career of a man who has specialised in them. It’s not by accident that Hamilton has scored 89 pole positions – 21 more than anyone else in history.
In the worst conditions a qualifying session has been allowed to run in for years, on a circuit with effectively only eight corners, Hamilton was more than 1.2 seconds faster than anyone else. It was awe-inspiring stuff, and it drew admiration from far and wide.
Ex-F1 driver Mark Webber a former rival of Hamilton’s, wrote on Twitter: “There’s an F1 category and there’s then a F1-plus category. Lewis is/was in a different league. And whoever references ‘easy, he’s in the best car’, please don’t comment.”
Bottas underlined Webber’s point for him. Struggling with low tyre temperature and glazing brakes, avoiding which is part of the skill of driving in the wet, the Finn was 1.4secs off and fourth.
From there, all Hamilton had to do was get a good start and the race was effectively won, and that’s what he did. Bottas, meanwhile, fought up to second, past McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
The upshot is Hamilton has cut Bottas’ advantage in the championship to six points with the next race this coming weekend in Hungary, on a circuit on which he has won seven times in the last 13 years.
A statesman emerges alongside the driver
Hamilton’s comfortable victory came after another anti-racism demonstration on the grid.
This one was considerably messier than the first, a week before at the Austrian Grand Prix.
Last week, the drivers assembled together, most taking a knee with Hamilton, a few preferring to stand, all wearing T-shirts expressing their opposition to racism.
This week, though, the unity was missing – or at least that was how events made it erroneously appear.
Most of the drivers who attended knelt again alongside Hamilton, and again a minority preferred to stand. But this time not all the drivers were in attendance, and the television director cut away after a few seconds, making it impossible for the audience to see exactly what was going on.
Hamilton explained afterwards that this was down to circumstances rather than anything else.
He said the drivers had discussed on Friday what to do. Some had initially felt one demonstration was enough. Others said they agreed on a second, but, as last week, would not kneel. Hamilton said he “tried to spend a little more one-on-one time with those who had chosen to stand and just have a chat”.
In the end, it seems all agreed to do something.
Hamilton said the drivers had planned their actions, but the protest had not been put in the official pre-race schedule, so “it was all a rush”.
Some drivers did not make it in time, and F1, contractually committed to show some of the promoter activity before the race, cut away – to some planes doing aerobatics. It was, in many eyes, an unsatisfactory and unfortunate outcome on such an important and sensitive topic.
A beginning, not an end
Hamilton has been deeply affected by developments around the world following the death in police custody in May of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man who suffocated after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
As the only black F1 driver, Hamilton says he has been confronted by racism all his life, and the aftermath of the Floyd incident and the global protests that followed have galvanised him into action. He has emerged as a powerful and eloquent advocate for change in a sport that clearly lacks diversity.
“What I do see and read and hear is people out there who go on the defensive and say: ‘Well, all lives matter, white lives matter.’ Which is not what we’re contending,” Hamilton said in his post-race news conference.
“It seems that people of colour, for a long time, hundreds of years, their lives seem to be less important. So it’s just trying to get through to people because some people put a wall up, a barrier up.
“It’s because this is stuff that has been shielded from all of us at school, in our upbringing, in our communities. Perhaps there are some people who have not grown up around it, who perhaps have not been around people or friends who have been subject to abuse.
“I have got black friends who have managed to go through life not having any particular abuse in their community. They have grown up in a black community. Whereas there are others like myself who grew up in a white community.
“It is about understanding. And I’ve spent a little bit of time within the sport here talking to some of the drivers.
“I don’t know whether they fully understand just how impactful their voices can be. Or some of them just don’t want to support Black Lives Matter but they stand for anti-racism. But it’s the same thing.
“There are those who said they felt the Black Lives Matter movement seemed political and I’ve made it clear I am not supporting the political side of things; it’s the human rights side.”
Hamilton has set up a commission to look at the causes of the lack of ethnic minority representation in motorsport. He was asked how he would take his ambitions forward, at the next race and beyond. And he said he had not yet made up his mind.
“What we do moving forwards I really don’t know,” he said. “But what I can say is that this is not it.
“Us taking a knee at the start of the race and having a black car doesn’t solve the problem. It helps continue to raise awareness. But we have a whole season, a whole year and it’s a constant fight that we all have to do – including you guys. We can all chip in and do our part and have a positive impact in our environments.”
“When I’m having the discussions with the drivers, the young guns, I’m like: ‘Guys, you are the future of this sport. I am going to try and stay as long as I can but you guys are going to be carrying on the baton and really leading this sport.’
“We together need to set a great example for the world that is watching in fighting the injustice and inequality. I’ll get there. I won’t give up.”