Like Jedi slaloming through canyons on their jumpspeeders—only ground-bound, and revving roughly 210 miles per hour around a world capital—Formula One racers have to be equal parts Zen master and unabashed daredevil. Not only are they the best drivers in the world, making hair-trigger decisions at unthinkable speeds, but also endurance athletes nonpareil, weathering an intensely strong g-force for long periods of time. The most accomplished of these drivers are often captains to their team of technicians, engineers, and even brand managers. The very best, Lewis Hamilton, is also a whole lot more.
From a young age, Hamilton, in his hometown of Stevenage, England, was eager to get behind the wheel. He started kart racing at 8. At 22, in 2007, he began his glittery F1 career, winning four Grand Prix (out of 17 that season), and finishing second in the overall championship. The following year, he won the first of his now three Formula One World Championships, the youngest and first black driver ever to do so. Massive success, and money—as well as intra-team competition and unbelievable racism—followed Hamilton round and round as he went.
But in the last decade, as he has become arguably the greatest F1 driver ever, Hamilton, now 32, has also looked beyond racing, dipping his toes into product design with limited collaborations, throwing his celebrity stock behind charities dear to his heart, and even making a bunch of music we might, or might not, hear. These days, if his life outside of racing seems to attract more attention than his still red-hot career, maybe that’s because he has made his phenomenal F1 feats the status quo, while the headlines from his civilian life—crashing a $2 million car in his adopted hometown of Monte Carlo; spending much of Grand Prix weekend on a yacht with Bella Hadid and other models—still feel surprising. As Hamilton tells his friend Serena Williams, the greatest tennis player of all time, for someone who wants to be the best at everything, you just have to start somewhere.
SERENA WILLIAMS: Hey, Lewis.
LEWIS HAMILTON: Hey, Serena. I just saw a picture of you plucking your eyebrows [on Instagram].
WILLIAMS: I just saw a picture of you in a Santa suit. [laughs] I know how tedious it is to constantly be asked the same questions, so I tried to think a bit outside the box. One thing I want to focus on is what I call “creating a champion.” There are a lot of elements that go into creating a champion, among them the ability to confront your fears. I’ve seen you race. Do you have … any fears?
HAMILTON: In my sport, I don’t. I don’t know what it is about me. When I was younger, my dad used to go, “Is he really mine? Because this kid’s crazy. He’s not scared of doing anything that comes in conjunction with adrenaline.” I don’t know if you’ve ever been skiing, but if you go to the slope you’ll see all these kids fearlessly zooming by. It’s only when we get older that fear creeps in. But for me, it just never has. And when it comes to racing, it’s always about who is willing to go further, who is willing to take that extra step. I’m willing to take any amount of pain to win. I’m hungry like you. There are fears I have outside of racing, though, like spiders. When I’m in Australia, I check under the toilet seat. And more than anything, I fear not being as great as I know I can be.
WILLIAMS: Our sports are very different. I’m not out there putting my life on the line. Do you feel like you’re recognized as a great athlete, or do you feel overlooked?
HAMILTON: I’m constantly watching my weight for my job, and I’ve trained so hard this year to be ready for this season-more rigorously than ever—but people who tune in to Formula One have no comprehension of what we have to do to be fit. It’s so physical. This year, the car is way faster than when you came to the race. And the physicality has gone up quite a lot, at least 20 to 30 percent. People don’t see that. They don’t see us as athletes. They just see us driving.
WILLIAMS: I need to see you on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
HAMILTON: I’m working on it!
WILLIAMS: Do you remember how it felt the first time you won a professional race?
HAMILTON: Yeah, it was in Montreal in 2007. I remember looking down from the podium and seeing my dad, and the smile on his face from ear to ear. He was the proudest person. I felt like I’d finally done everything he’d hoped and expected of me. As a kid, there was a lot of pressure on me—like it was for you guys. My dad wanted me to have a better life than he had ever had. He wanted us to succeed so badly. And I never wanted to let him down. So to finally get up on that podium was really magical.
WILLIAMS: Do you chase that feeling every time you race, or has it changed?
HAMILTON: Now it’s different every time because it’s a different journey to get to it—the difficulties you faced getting the car into that position. I manage myself. I chose this team myself. So there’s a huge satisfaction for me.
WILLIAMS: Do you feel like you’re now expected to win every time?
HAMILTON: I feel like people are expecting me to fail, therefore, I expect myself to win. Just like you—everyone knows how good you are, and they’re just waiting for you to fall.
WILLIAMS: I actually just wrote that down. That was really inspiring. What part does winning play in your life?
HAMILTON: It used to be the be-all and end-all. You know how it is—you’ve trained, you’ve made the mistakes before, you know how not to do it, and then you do it again, and you fail in such a spectacular way. The fall feels like it’s never-ending. It used to take me days to recover, literally. One time I didn’t leave my hotel room for four days, I was so stuck in my head. But now, with maturity and age, I’ve realized that winning isn’t everything. It’s very much about the journey, particularly in my sport. There are so many people on my team, and I’ve got to be conscious of them. So while winning is definitely the ultimate goal, the lessons learned when I don’t win only strengthen me.
WILLIAMS: That was my next question. Does losing actually make you better?
HAMILTON: I hate losing. It doesn’t matter if it’s racing or playing Ping-Pong, I hate it. “You’re either first or you’re last.”
WILLIAMS: Ricky Bobby. [both laugh]
WILLIAMS: Your brother is super-important to you. I love your relationship, how you really look after him.
HAMILTON: I grew up with two sisters. I always wanted a brother, and he came along when I was 7 years old. He was just a little fat sack of sparks, a little chubby baby. He has cerebral palsy, but he was never fazed by the difficulties he experienced growing up, not once. He was told that he wouldn’t walk, that he wouldn’t be able to play drums, that he wouldn’t be able to race a car—and he’s done all those things. He’s defied the odds, defied disability. I look at him and I’m so inspired, by his mentality and by how incredible the body and the mind are. There’s really nothing you can’t do. My brother has proved that. He’s helped remind me how easy it was for me, for us, to be able to walk around, to swing a racket, to kick a ball, to drive a car. He used to fall over when we played football, and he’d get straight back up. He never once said, “Damn it. It’s so easy for you.” He’s racing now. He’s a grown man and an inspiring figure for so many people. That’s his life mission, really, to encourage people who are going through similar situations that “can’t” really shouldn’t be in their vocabulary.
WILLIAMS: Do you think your belief in God helps you in your sport and your job?
HAMILTON: I used to be insecure about the fact that I’m Catholic and that I have a relationship with God. It wasn’t until I got to Formula One that I really started to embrace it and feel comfortable showing it. There’s a quote from Marianne Williamson: “There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.” I have that tattooed on my chest. She goes on to say, “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
WILLIAMS: We almost dim our light when we’re doing well. And it’s important to always keep that light bright.
HAMILTON: The first time I met you and saw your smile, the beam of light you are, you immediately made me want to shine my light.
WILLIAMS: [laughs] Thank you. Back to you: Lewis, have you broken color barriers in racing?
HAMILTON: Definitely, yes. My dad and I admired watching Tiger do that in golf, and you and your sister do that in tennis. We are very proud that we’ve done that in motor racing. I was at an amfAR event and an African lady came over and showed me a picture of her son who’s now karting and wants to be me—and it’s not just black people, but Asian kids, people from all walks of life. When I was karting, there was no one who looked even a little like me, who could help me see that this was something I could do. Now there are kids who see me. I’m very proud to be a part of that.
WILLIAMS: When I see you, I don’t see Lewis Hamilton the black racecar driver; I just see Lewis Hamilton, Formula One champion. And Lewis Hamilton, the musician. When are you going to release your album? You sing really well.
HAMILTON: I don’t know if I ever will. I have so much music, but I’m meticulous. I’m like, “You’ve got to redo that part, redo that part.” And people are like, “Just forget that and go ahead with it.” But it’s all about perfection, about trying to make it as good as you can. I’ve got my music guys meeting me on Monday in Australia. All next week while I’m racing I’m going to be doing my music. It’s just something I love doing, and I think if I start to focus on trying to release something, it might take the fun away from my passion. It’s a bit like you, when you do karaoke every day; it’s a release for you. You should definitely do some music.
WILLIAMS: I don’t know if people understand, so let me just say, Lewis is a wonderful singer, and he’s a great writer, and you would be completely shocked. You would think this is someone who has already been on the radio and been on tour.
HAMILTON: Thank you for saying that. It’s such a vulnerable moment when you play your music for someone else, so it’s nice that you’re so supportive of it.
WILLIAMS: Another one of your hobbies is fashion. You’re a staple at all these fashion shows, and you’re always posting these fashion pictures.
HAMILTON: When I look at pictures from when I was younger, I think, “Holy crap, what the hell was I wearing?” I’m sure you have the same thing. I’ve made it a real mission to fully understand what fashion is all about. I love going to these shows because I love seeing creativity. So when I get to meet these fashion designers, I’m kind of like, “Where did you get the idea to make this? What were you thinking?” Some of that stuff is so crazy and loud. I’ve got five, six years left of my career in racing, and after that I want to avoid becoming a commentator or a manager.
WILLIAMS: Do you see yourself having a clothing line? A line of vehicles?
HAMILTON: I like creating with people, so having my own line is hard to imagine. But doing capsule collections with different artists, I can imagine that. I think that would be kind of neat. I’m designing a new motorcycle right now. I did a limited-edition one last year. I’m just going to continue to explore. And I guess it will come to me, what I’ll do beyond my sport. I wonder what you’re going to do when you stop. I guess that’s a question I can ask you in private, but I’m sure you’ve thought about it.
WILLIAMS: Well, my advice would be to work on it now, because you don’t want to start and then stop. You have a lot of momentum now, so I’m sure you have a lot of things going on. Definitely focus on your career, but dip your toe in other things. Investments and stuff like that.
HAMILTON: Maybe we can be partners.
WILLIAMS: We can definitely be partners. Okay, rapid-fire round: cat or dog?
WILLIAMS: Instagram or Snapchat?
WILLIAMS: Really? You’re always on Snap. Snow or island?
WILLIAMS: Ooh. I thought you would say snow. Steak or fish?
WILLIAMS: You’re surprising me.
HAMILTON: I haven’t eaten meat for two years.
WILLIAMS: Oh, me neither. [laughs] I should have known that. Villain or hero?
WILLIAMS: Really? What was your last Halloween costume?
HAMILTON: True, I did play a villain. Villains always look the best. They always have the best gadgets, the biggest team.
WILLIAMS: Cake or chips?
WILLIAMS: And lastly, be careful how you answer this one: Serena or Venus?
HAMILTON: That’s the worst question ever! [laughs] I can’t possibly answer that one.
SERENA WILLIAMS IS THE WINNER OF 23 GRAND SLAM SINGLES TITLES, AND THE WINNER OF FOUR OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALS, ONE IN WOMEN’S SINGLES AND THREE IN WOMEN’S DOUBLES.