Why being a six-time world champion isn't enough for Lewis Hamilton

AUSTIN, Texas — Doing the right thing isn’t easy. Soon-to-be six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton found that out the hard way a couple of weeks ago when he posted a message on Instagram vocalising his concerns about climate change.

“Extinction of our race is becoming more and more likely as we over use resources,” Hamilton wrote. “I’m sad to see so many people, even close friends ignore what is happening daily.

“Honestly, I feel like giving up on everything. Why bother when the world is such a mess and people don’t seem to care?”

The sentiment in the message is the same one gaining traction around the world, as awareness of climate change, and its impact on the planet, takes hold. Across the music industry, among high-profile actors and increasingly in business and politics, the desperate need for the human race to change its habits is coming to the fore.

But as a highly paid sportsman travelling around the world to race cars, there is an unavoidable paradox woven into Hamilton’s message. How can someone who has dedicated his life to a sport that burns fossil fuels for fun state a case for saving the planet?

“It’s really difficult,” he said in a recent interview with ESPN before posting the above message. “You do one positive thing but people say ‘Yeah, but you fly on a plane’ or ‘You race cars.’ So it’s a very, very conflicting message at the moment and it’s really difficult.”

Like most people who have woken up to the devastating effects of climate change in recent years, Hamilton is in a transitional phase. His job can never be 100 percent eco-friendly — the laws of physics won’t allow someone to travel the world to the extent he does without using up a significant amount of energy — but should that preclude him from changing other aspects of his life?

Radiohead’s lead singer, Thom Yorke, recently admitted he was a “hypocrite” for simultaneously campaigning on climate change while flying for his work. He added that the real change has to happen in parliaments around the world, warning, “We’re out of time.”

By his own admission, Hamilton is not political but believes promoting a message of individual change is important.

“I don’t think I’m particularly political,” he said. “I watch the news as much as I can. I find it very interesting to watch what is happening around the world. I think it’s a scary time for all of us.

“There’s so much talk in all the different governments around the world and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of solutions, or they don’t seem to be coming up with a lot of solutions, so it definitely is a bit worrying but there’s not a lot that we can do individually except for just try to be better within our own bubble. And if you have a platform, try to project some positivity.”

Changing priorities

Hamilton started out on his current path in go-karts at the age of 8 and has become a multiple world champion in Formula One thanks to two decades of dedication to his craft. Early in his career he was focused only on winning races, but as the years have rolled by he has broadened his horizons and found interests outside the sport. From there he has spent time away from the track figuring out what is most important to him.

“I get really frustrated because there are so many things I want to do and sometimes I don’t know how to do them,” he says. “But I think ultimately understanding who you are and what your purpose is and what you want to be a part of … I guess as you get older you grow to understand the world a little bit more and you focus on things you want to focus on.

“There are so many causes, so many foundations and charities, so it’s about which ones you want to work with — you want to help all of them, but you can’t help them all. You try to figure out what you are most passionate about and for me, number one it’s people — mostly kids — and then animals, I love animals, and then the other of course is the planet, because I want my kids and your kids to have a future.

“It’s not looking too bright right now with the way we are overconsuming our resources and I look at how I can be a part of the many people that are doing stuff, at how I can also be a part of it.”

Speaking in a news conference ahead of the Mexican Grand Prix, Hamilton outlined his objective of becoming carbon neutral before the end of the year. He listed ways in which he is cutting his carbon footprint, from selling his private jet over a year ago to reducing his use of plastics, including his toothbrush. And as, inevitably, he looks to a future outside Formula One, he is lining up new ventures that align more comfortably with his concerns for the planet.

Outside of F1, he works as a fashion designer for Tommy Hilfiger and his latest collection of clothing uses just under 70% sustainable or recycled materials, with Hamilton looking to make it 100% in the future. He has invested in a vegan burger chain called Neat Burger — “maybe it will be the next McDonald’s,” he says with a smile — and was an executive producer on a recent documentary film about vegan athletes starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. One opportunity has led to another, and with it he has been able to open doors in the projects he is pursuing to align with his views on climate change.

“I think it’s been quite authentic and quite natural,” he says, “because it has been a part in the shift of what I’m projecting out on my socials, and how I interact with people. Things I am trying to do, like using sustainable clothing, for example, it just started falling into place together.

“Starting with the Tommy thing, focusing on the sustainability, that has put me into this area and then it starts to build. So I think timing is everything and it’s just the timing that has been right.”

Yet all of the above, including his huge Instagram following, have come from his celebrity as a Formula One driver. The paths open to him at this stage of his life are based on his success in motor racing, and he is not about to cut it out of his life.

“I wouldn’t be able to have the platform and the voice at the moment if I didn’t do this,” he says. “At the same time, this is what I love and, ultimately, this is going to continue to go on whether I am here or not.

“But I think today, and what I’m working on right now, is offsetting my carbon footprint … but it’s a really big task. I’m trying to work on those kinds of projects in the background, and it’s about finding the people to help you make it happen.”

On a more personal level, Hamilton has made a big deal out of his plant-based diet. He stopped eating meat several years ago but started to fully focus on a vegan diet just over two years ago around the time of the Singapore Grand Prix. He swears he has more energy and a greater level of fitness as a result and, while being careful not to force it on others, he has preached the benefits of removing meat from his diet.

“I really try not to force it on people,” he said. “I do have people, Serena [Williams], for example. She went that direction. I don’t know if she is still on it right now, but there are a few people that have gone in that direction and that’s cool.

“And then there are some fans that have also gone in that direction. But none of my family has yet gone that way, and it’s hard because unless you do it, you don’t know. It seems like hard work and a lot of people don’t like hard work. It’s easy to get a burger, and I like meat, but there is actually a cool replacement for it that tastes just as good.

“It’s down to education. We are taught at school that milk is good for you, for example, and there are all these things that we are tuned in to believing and my whole life I had meat and fish and all those things.

“It’s really odd because now I have switched to the other side and now I can’t even imagine having those things. But to get over that wall, you have to have willpower. Luckily for me, I’ve got plenty of it, but I don’t know if everyone has that kind of willpower.”

While Hamilton is trying to harness control of his personal impact on the environment, he still needs to travel long distances and partake in a sport that has done little to promote its green credentials in recent years. F1 is due to launch some new initiatives in the coming months to reduce its effect on the environment and go carbon neutral, but speaking ahead of the launch, Hamilton said he was concerned by the sport’s carbon-emitting past.

“On an ethical side, I am massively concerned about what Formula One is doing,” he said. “From what I can see, [previous CEO] Bernie Ecclestone didn’t do anything and had no interest in climate change and the impact we are having in countries and around the world. The feeling that I have is the same thing with the current management, but I can’t judge because I don’t know for sure.

“There’s this whole thing of ‘trying,’ but it’s super easy to enact change. You set a rule that by this date it has to change, and with every organiser in every country you say, ‘Hey, we are going to do a recycling weekend,’ and that’s the big thing.

“You put recycling bins everywhere, you don’t let them go out and buy plastics. I think it’s easy. People make it seem a lot harder than it is, but I don’t think they try hard enough.”

Hamilton’s current contract with Mercedes expires at the end of 2020, but he has made clear that he wants to continue in Formula One beyond that point. Although the sport is not currently aligned with his view of the world, he is hopeful that, with Mercedes, he can enact change from the inside and play a greater role in promoting the German carmaker’s green products even after he has retired from racing.

“I was just on the phone to Ola Källenius, the CEO of Daimler, and I’m like ‘Hey, man, what can we do?'” he says. “In the past, I think sustainability, climate change and emissions and all that stuff, it’s been something they know it’s there, all companies around the world, but they just add it to the bottom of the list of priorities but it wasn’t a prominent lead figure. But now it is moving up the priority list for all these brands, which is a great thing.

“I’ve been with Mercedes since I was 13, but you’ve got to think about how you can evolve your role and how I can be more involved with Mercedes now I’ve been with them for 20 years. How can I be more engaged with them? How can I help Mercedes be bigger and better?

“But it’s also about how I get more in-depth so that when I stop racing I am still part of it. Right now, if I stop racing, I’m just the most successful driver they have ever had — but that’s not enough, I want to be more impactful.

“So how can I help shift, for example, Mercedes using suede and leather in every car. You could easily use faux leather and faux suede and nobody would know the difference — and that would make a big, big difference to the world.”

Lewis Hamilton can win his sixth Formula One world title this weekend. Watch live on ABC at 14:10 EST this weekend.

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