Hamilton’s rise through motorsport is incredible because such a story is so rare. He is F1’s first and only Black world champion in its 70-year history and a racing great from a humble background.
But will there ever be a champion like Hamilton again? Will we ever see another working-class driver or a person of color achieve sustained success in motorsport?
Five years later, it seems fair to assume that that figure will only have increased.
PA media’s F1 correspondent Phil Duncan believes the sport is fortunate to have had even one champion of the caliber of Hamilton.
“He got there because he was good, but in a way [he is] fortunate that he was picked up by McLaren and Mercedes at 13, who were then effectively able to bankroll his future career.”
“I’ve got a friend of mine who was nearly in Formula One and then he got leapfrogged by a wealthy kid and then his opportunity was gone.”
Traveling to races in a caravan
Current Renault driver Esteban Ocon matches Hamilton’s background, albeit from across the English Channel.
He didn’t mind the lifestyle, saying, “I was 11 or 12 or something. I was happy to live in the caravan back then. I was enjoying my life, I was doing karting all the time and it was awesome for me.”
But, like Hamilton, without the immense sacrifice of his parents, he would not have been able to continue in karting.
Without Hamilton, Schumacher and Vettel, F1 loses the winners of a combined 18 world championship over the last 27 years.
The backing of billionaire fathers
That is not to say current drivers blessed with substantial financial backing throughout their lives do not deserve their seats.
Mercedes team principal Wolff says that drivers like Stroll face “stigma” because of their wealthy background even when they have the results to back up their selection.
“I don’t think we can say just because his father is a billionaire that he’s not here on merit, right? It’s even more impressive that a kid with that environment chooses one of the most competitive sports in the world.”
‘Born into the sport’
And many of the sport’s other young talents were effectively born into the sport.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, 23, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, 23, Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly, 24, and McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, 26, all had fathers and other family members who competed, at various levels, in professional motorsport. That’s 20% of the current grid.
But Duncan says it is a costly sport for even those with motorsport pedigree.
“I spoke to [1996 world champion] Damon Hill earlier this year and he was telling me about the eye-watering sums that he used to have to put aside for his son when he was karting,” Duncan says of the English driver whose father was also a former F1 champion.
“He was saying he was costing him a hundred thousand [pounds] a year ($131,000).
“If a world champion, whose father [Graham Hill] won two world championships, is saying how difficult it is to have the money to be able to allow his son to race it shows you just how expensive it is and how difficult it is to get into this sport.”
The majority of current drivers, therefore, didn’t face immediate financial difficulties when entering the sport at a young age. And, without financial backing, the door into elite motorsport — and the chance to prove one’s talent — is still closed to the vast majority in society.
What steps are being taken?
Initial funding of $1 million came personally from F1 Chairman and CEO Chase Carey. The sport had previously set out its goal to attract more diverse talent across technical, commercial, corporate, and on-air roles.
The FIA also donated an additional €1 million ($1.18 million) to the pot.
Asked how this money directly translated into giving people from non-wealthy backgrounds a chance break into motorsport, F1 told CNN that the sport aimed to “reflect the world in which we race.”
“That means starting from the grassroots level to remove any barriers for participation in karting, making it as accessible as possible for people from all backgrounds,” a spokesperson said via email.
“We are exploring ways to make karting more affordable and accessible and working with the FIA to develop a structured pathway to single-seater racing.”
While F1 said it hoped the initiative would “encourage people from underrepresented background” to race, the sport also wanted its efforts to have an impact beyond the track, offering opportunities “through engineering scholarships, internships throughout the organization and working closely with the teams to provide as many avenues as we can into the industry.”
The karts used in Electroheads Motorsport offer performance parity for significantly lower running costs, meaning talent is the most important factor to being a successful racing driver.
Smedley, who is CEO of Electroheads Motorsport, says a desire for a truly meritocratic and democratic form of karting is at the heart of the series.
“The main thing that I always talk about is democracy,” he tells CNN. “You want to democratize it because motorsport should be for the many, not for the few.”
At the lower levels of karting, open-ended budgets create a disparity in the competition, with Smedley saying costs “can tend to spiral,” even at grassroots.
“If your budget is big enough, you can buy up all of the best engine(s) and there’s other levels of performance that you can effectively procure,” he says.
That effectively creates a system where the fastest drivers will be in the fastest karts. That does not necessarily equate to them being the most talented drivers.
“The genesis of it all has to be done with the grassroots to make that more accessible to more people,” says Smedley.
“Then, the chances are that you’ve got a big catching net where you can find this talent and talent shouldn’t be defined by budget.
“Budget should be secondary, or should be more accessible at least, and it has to be talent first.
“It’s about being much more meritocratic than perhaps we are now because the barriers of entry are so big, and basically give the opportunity to the people who normally wouldn’t get it.”
Will F1 ever be more diverse?
“I’m just trying to think about what I can do, and diversity is a continuous issue, and will continue to be an issue for a long time, and there’s only a certain amount I can do,” he said.
“I am trying to think about what it is I can actually do and work with, and how I can work with F1, rather than it just be a tick on their list of things to add to ‘we also do’ — which businesses often do, and actually have something that is really implemented and actually making an impactful difference.”
Smedley, who is also director of data systems for F1, believes the sport isn’t making empty promises with its financial pledges to increase diversity and equality of opportunity, and is doing “a brilliant job.”
“It’s [Formula 1] trying to look at every single level and look at how you make a difference, and how you make systemic change,” he says. “We’re just at the start of the journey, so hopefully more and more fantastic things continue to happen.”
Duncan agrees, saying: “As it stands, the current system is still in place and it is costing parents tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to get their children in a position to be able to go racing.
“That’s ruling out pretty much most of the population because most people don’t have that cash just lying around. So there needs to be a change.”
However, Duncan does not believe change will happen soon — unless drastic action is taken.
“I can’t see anything really changing for the next generation at least,” he says.
“We saw someone like Lewis come through as a young Black guy in 2007. It’s now 2020 and the makeup of the grid is pretty similar to how it was when Lewis started.
“So, although he’s been a trailblazer, it hasn’t exactly paved the way for similar kids in a similar position to make it into F1.”
Smedley is more confident than Duncan that there will be another working-class driver achieving excellence in F1, saying the sport’s commitment to increasing diversity and opportunity has “gathered at an alarming pace” in the past two years.
“I think that the time is right for change and the time is right for the systemic change,” he says. “But it’s got to be that systemic change. You’ve got to change the system if you’re going to actually move the needle.
“The next Lewis Hamilton, or the next person of color either running a team or winning a world championship … you’ve got to have that change for that to be effective. But I’m convinced that it will happen.”