Lewis Hamilton won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year for the second time this week, with the first being back in 2014. (He was also nominated for the award 8 times in total and came second 4 times.) This comes in the same year that he tied Michael Schumacher for a record-tying 7 World Drivers Championship titles, further surpassed Schumacher for a historical number of wins in his F1 career, and will have the Silverstone pit straight named after him. Clearly, he is a hard worker, even coming back to place third at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix a mere week after he contracted coronavirus. And this is only a (limited) list of his achievements relevant to Formula One. Off-track, he is set to receive knighthood, been an advocate for more recognition of diversity and environmental awareness, and also established the Hamilton Commission, a venture that hopes to engage more young black people in STEM and motorsport. With all of this, there is no doubt that he is a role model and one of the greatest sportsmen in the UK.
Yet his all of his efforts (and accolades) have been called into question with a singular debate: is motor racing a sport?
The other disciplines of the athletes Hamilton was up against this year were football, cricket, boxing, horse racing and snooker. Assuming one were to reject motorsport, they would have to take another look at snooker. If one were to say Hamilton did not deserve his nomination, then that would mean knocking out Ronnie O’Sullivan. And who would dare rule out O’Sullivan, arguably the best snooker player in the world?
So what constitutes an athlete? Competition? Physical aptitude? Mental agility? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “an activity involving physical exertion and skill, one regulated by set rules or customs in which an individual or team competes against another or others.” Therefore, motorsports sits comfortably in that category. There is a World Championship consisting of 20 drivers belonging to 10 teams, the FIA writes and enforces the rules, and the drivers undergo physical training to endure brutal forces and intense cardio. And in case this simple breakdown wasn’t enough to convince you, read on.
You could argue that they are paid millions to sit in a car for a couple of hours and drive in circles, and fundamentally that isn’t too far off. One wouldn’t be standing in a car going upwards of 300 kph after all. But those speeds also mean an unfathomable amount of G-forces constantly pressing against their body. Even just accelerating down the pit straight lends itself to 2 Gs - twice the amount of the gravitational weight we feel on a daily basis - and the only time they get a respite is during the pitstop (which hopefully, is barely anything) and the end of a race. Most of us wouldn’t even be able to keep our heads up under the 4-6 Gs the drivers will feel around corners, let alone stay on a smooth racing line, complete overtakes and make the necessary adjustments to the car.
Yes, each driver is constantly braking and making gear changes while dialling the car to specific corners, modes for overtaking and to account for the diminishing fuel load. On top of that, they must think about tyre degradation and evolving track conditions. And this is all assuming it is a dry race without winds to blow against the cars. Although a lot of work is done at the factories and garages by the engineers and mechanics, knowing what to do with the car comes with practice and experience. So while going at inhuman speeds, they must fight off fatigue, battle other drivers on track and keep the car’s condition in mind at the same time. Let’s not forget that these races are upwards of a few dozen laps and often last around an hour and a half, so they must be conditioned to stay at peak physical performance and mental awareness throughout it all. Furthermore, they will sweat off an average of 3-4 kilos throughout the race because of the extreme temperatures inside the cockpit, and hydration is key to maintain not only their health, but also the minimum weight requirement when they are weighed after each race.
You could look at a driver’s diet and training regime, and find that there is just as much regulation as athletes of other disciplines. Neck and leg training are also crucial in terms of resisting the G-forces on their heads and having the necessary strength to apply the brakes. Cardio fitness and core are high on their list because of the length and intensity of the race. Hamilton has said that since the drivers’ bodies tend to get thrown to one side of the cockpit around corners, he tries to maintain high core stability so his legs don’t move around too much and his pressing of the throttle and brakes are smoother. Diets are carefully planned to ensure that each racer stays under a certain weight as to not affect the car’s aerodynamics and balance.
There are dangers to motorsport as well. Although safety has massively improved over the years, as seen in Bahrain where Romain Grosjean was able to walk away with just burns to his limbs, many fans still know about numerous big tragedies over the years. This reinforces the need for mental strength to allow themselves to focus on driving and racing to their best ability. Without the confidence and mindset to be the quickest they can, there is no point in them competing. The ludicrous G-forces the racers already endure on a perfect racing line go up exponentially in a crash. Grosjean’s accident in Bahrain came in at an estimated 53Gs, Carlos Sainz endured 46Gs in Sochi to race the following day, and Robert Kubica’s 75G crash that he came back from to race with Williams in 2019. He then became Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen’s reserve driver in the 2020 season. Many have lauded him for his determination to come back to the sports he loves even though technically races with a disability. Therefore drivers must not only train their bodies, but their mental strength to keep fighting no matter the risk they face.
Lastly, beyond the drivers and teams themselves, there is a big industry surrounding motorsports. There are sponsorships, big brands used in operations, media channels, branding and merchandise etc. From the contracts of the sponsors to governmental funding to fans buying tickets and clothing, there is a huge amount of money being invested into the sport. Companies recognise the influence and reach of motorsport, so they pour money into teams in exchange for space in team liveries, gear and even the clothing and accessories that drivers wear day to day. Rolex has enjoyed a long history with racing, starting from Sir Malcolm Campbell’s love for the luxury watches in 1935. Since then, they have signed names like Sir Jackie Stewart and Mark Webber as brand ambassadors, become the official timekeeper of F1 in 2013, and has also been a title sponsor in numerous races, for example, Austria this year was officially named the Formula 1 Rolex Großer Preis von Österreich 2020.
Now that we have established that motorsports is sports, (come on it even has sports in the name) why don’t we compare it to what the world has collectively decided are sports. If we are so quick to call basketball players (people who run around and chuck a ball at a hoop) and footballers (people who play a game found in high school PE lessons and backyards) athletes, then why shouldn’t drivers at the pinnacle of motorsport receive the same consideration? Sure, they are driving in circles, but both aforementioned examples of athletes are sprinting within a rectangle much smaller than an F1 track. And to pull out an example of circles, what about baseball and softball? If you would like to step up to the plate and tell Babe Ruth he wasn’t an athlete, be my guest.
With all of the above factors in mind, to question the legitimacy of Lewis Hamilton’s achievements by attacking the avenue in which he accomplished them is an absurd notion. It is clear that he has invested time and effort to get to where he is today, in a sport at a level that most would not be able to replicate, and in return, we should give him the respect and recognition he deserves.