Lewis Hamilton has opened up on the racial discrimination he faced as a school kid and how it motivated him to become one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time.
Hamilton, now 38, said the bullying started when he was just six years old and, as one of just a handful of black students, that it was racially aggravated.
“I mean, school was the probably the most traumatising part of my life,” Hamilton told the On Purpose podcast. “I already was being bullied at the age of six.
“I was probably one of three kids of colour, and just bigger, stronger, bullying kids were throwing me around a lot of the time. I was always the last picked in the playground when they pick in teams for football, even if I was better than somebody else.
“And then the the constant jabs, the things that are thrown at you like bananas, or people would use the ‘N’ word just so relaxed. People calling you half-cast, and just really not knowing where you fit in. That, for me, was difficult.
“Then when you go into history class and everything you learn in history, there are no people of colour in the history that they were teaching us. So I was thinking, ‘Oh, well, where are the people that look like me?’
“In my school, there was only around six or seven black kids out of 1200 kids. And three of us were put outside the headmaster’s office all the time, the headmaster just had it out for us and particularly for me.”
To make things more difficult for the seven-time F1 world champion, he didn’t find out he was dyslexic until he was 16, meaning he had a lot to contend with while also trying to improve as a young up-and-coming karting star.
However, it’s this difficult journey that he credits for becoming not only one of the greatest drivers of all time, but also for shaping him into the person he is today.
He added: “We would pack up the motorhome, we would travel around the country to race on the weekends. And no one else knew when I’d get back to school.
“All the kids have done normal things on the weekend and I’ll come back and say, ‘I was racing’ and people will be like, ‘I’ve done that before’ but no one really knew what my goal was. They thought maybe it was a joke.
“I missed a lot of that social interaction. Also, I was put in all the lowest sets at school and told that if you do well you can progress and then never, ever let me progress no matter how hard I tried.
“So I really felt that the system was really up against me and I was kind of swimming against the tide. But I’m so grateful for that journey because that’s what built me into the person that I am today.”
Hamilton’s relationship with his father
It’s been well documented that Hamilton and his dad, Anthony, have had a bit of rocky relationship. Lewis has always heaped praise on his parents for the sacrifices they made to enable him to forge a career in Formula 1, but speaking to Jay Shetty on his first-ever podcast appearance, he revealed the difficulty of home life in his early years.
“My dad never let me cry as a kid, he said it was a sign of weakness,” Hamilton said. “There were a lot of things that I suppressed because I didn’t feel I could go home and tell my parents that these kids kept calling me the ‘N’ word today, or I got bullied and beaten up at school today, or I wasn’t able to defend myself.
“I didn’t want my dad to think I was not strong. If I had tears, I would hold them back. If I had emotions, it would be in a quiet place. And it wasn’t really till I started racing, that I was able to channel this emotion that I had into my driving.
“Superman was my favourite [superhero], I loved how he fought for the people and I loved how he did the right things. He was a really inspiring character for me, but again, no superhero was of colour.
“But you can still aspire to be someone if they don’t look like you know, and so I remember going into karting and I remember putting this helmet on and it felt like it was my cloak.
“My superpowers had come out when I was driving. And I was battling with these kids and I was doing able to do things that they seemed to not be able to do as well. And that was my love.”
Fighting inequality in F1
Not only has Hamilton shown his quality on the track since joining the F1 grid in 2007, but he has also led the push for more diversity in a sport that has been white-dominated since its inception in 1950.
As well as battling for world championships, the 37-year-old has challenged Mercedes, his current employers, to do more in the fight for equality within the sport and set up Mission 44, a campaign with the aim of helping young people from all backgrounds.
“I’ve been racing 30 years,” Hamilton went on. “Being in the stadium or being at the race and being at the pinnacle of the sport, being at the front of the grid or coming through the grid, that emotion that I get there; when I do stop, there’ll be a big hole.
“So I’m trying to generally focus on things, find things that are going to replace that that can be just as rewarding, like Mission 44.
“Meeting kids at schools, having these conversations with families and parents who clearly are going through difficult times and want to create the best opportunity for their kids. It’s like, ‘OK, I’ve been there and look where I got so you can get there’.
“For me, that’s way more rewarding than winning the race, so much more.”