The gardens of the Tokyo Prince Hotel are heaving with people. Polite conversation mixes with a hip-hop beat as waiters move their way through the crowd topping up champagne flutes. As a group of cameramen position themselves around the hotel’s swimming pool, the iconic red and white Tokyo Tower provides the backdrop. The party has been going for a couple of hours, but the main event is just about to start.
The red and blue strip lighting around the pool dims and the music stops. A soft, commanding voice informs us that we are here to “celebrate the leaders of now as the icons of tomorrow”. The voice is Tommy Hilfiger’s, the “icon of tomorrow” is Lewis Hamilton.
In the corner of the garden, a bunch of iPhone screens light up above the heads of the crowd. Through the raised arms and craning necks it is just possible to see Hamilton and Hilfiger shaking hands with guests as they make their way to their seats. Models Winnie Harlow and Hailey Baldwin — also “icons of tomorrow” according to Tommy Hilfiger’s latest advertising campaign — flank the two men. Once they are seated in a small area overlooking the pool, the show can begin.
A huge fountain sprays a wall of water high into the air. Images of models wearing bold colours are projected onto it and dance to the beat of “This is America” by Childish Gambino. Sat between Hilfiger and Harlow, Hamilton leans forward, pulls out his iPhone and starts recording. The video will form the basis of an Instagram post for his 7.6 million followers later in the evening.
For someone who is such a perfectionist, these occasions are ideal. In this scenario image is everything and Hamilton is able to manage every detail right down to the colour of the stitching on his red and white leather jacket. Most of his on-track rivals wouldn’t go to such painstaking lengths to build their brand, but none of them currently have one as powerful as Hamilton’s.
The 33-year-old from Stevenage in the U.K. is at the top of his game right now. He is closing in on a fifth world title, has just launched his first clothing collection and recently signed a two-year Mercedes contract extension worth an estimated $50 million a year. In the Formula One paddock he is being talked about as the greatest of all time and on the track he continues to break records.
But behind closed doors he’s been working on a number of other projects. Some, such as the Tommy Hilfiger deal, are starting to bear fruit (a third collection is already in the pipeline), but others, such as his collaboration with Christina Aguilera on a single under the pseudonym XNDA in June, he prefers not to talk about. There are more projects too, but, as a perfectionist, he is not yet ready to share them in public.
“I am definitely planting seeds in other areas to see how things will grow,” he says. “Sometimes you start something and then you fall off it because you don’t enjoy it anymore, but we will see how long those different seeds that I have planted will grow. I’m definitely trying to build an empire.”
But Hamilton isn’t a fantasist. He’s not trying to be something he’s not. He’s aware of his weaknesses and aware that his God-given talent to drive racing cars is still his greatest strength. He’s not about to throw it all away to pursue a new career elsewhere. He’s simply laying solid foundations for his future after F1.
“First and foremost I’m a racing driver, but I’m trying to grow into an entrepreneur and be successful in business. I want to do it my own way — I don’t feel that I am a cut-throat businessman as such. My view is that positive relationships will equal respect, trust and longevity.
“I like to think I’m quite good at choosing the business ventures that I enter. I like to think I have got relatively good foresight on a lot of things that I choose to be a part of and do.”
Although it is now opening doors for him, Hamilton says he never really wanted the fame that now follows him everywhere he goes. As a boy he idolised the Brazilian three-time world champion Ayrton Senna — one of the most famous sports stars of the early 1990s — but only ever saw the racing driver and not the global superstar.
“I find it interesting today because you see people go on TV shows to get quick fame and people want to be famous immediately,” he says. “For me, it was never a thought I even had to be famous, I just wanted to race. I don’t know why I didn’t connect fame to Senna. I saw him as a racing driver, but I never looked at him as a famous person.”
As with almost every other story of fame there have been highs and lows for Hamilton, but right now he appears to be in full control of his public image. Just last month, his name was all over the gossip columns after he was pictured with musician Nicki Minaj in Dubai. There were the inevitable stories about a romantic hook-up, but from a publicity point of view the images created more global headlines than his victory a week earlier at the Singapore Grand Prix.
The photos, which appeared on both stars’ Instagram feeds, were embedded on the websites of Cosmopolitan, MTV and Billboard, reaching millions of eyeballs that would never watch 90 minutes of motor racing on a Sunday. Hamilton has not always found his fame so easy to deal with, but now that it’s here he plans to take advantage of it.
“The fact is, I have whatever amount of fame I have and you have to try and enjoy it. It’s taken a long time to realise that, so I enjoy it. Do I like it? It’s kind of cool when people surprise you out of the bushes or people come up to you, kids and adults, rushing towards you to get autographs. I think it’s kind of cool, but it’s not been my drive.
“It’s part of the package. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, that’s for sure. People today want to be famous and they think it’s the greatest thing, but there are other things that are much better.”
Scrolling through Hamilton’s Instagram feed, you’ll find a carefully cultivated image. At the start of the year he reset his social media channels after receiving widespread criticism for a post in which he appeared to mock his young nephew for wearing a dress at a family event over Christmas. An apology followed swiftly after and by January 1 his Instagram feed had been wiped clean. It now features a mix of promotional posts, photos of his on-track success and the occasional glimpse into his private life, such as the Minaj images.
“Every day I have to really make sure I appreciate the platform social media gives me and the voice that it gives me,” he says. “I think every year you are trying to understand how you can portray the right message. There are a lot of people on social media who smoke blunts, do the dumbest stuff … some stuff is funny and can be comedic, but I think the most powerful thing is to be uplifting.
“I read some comments and I just post one thing saying ‘I know it might be a tough day but you can get through’ and people post back saying ‘I woke up with a heavy heart this morning and I really needed that; it’s almost like it was heaven-sent today’. So when I realise the impact that it can have and you realise what your ability is, you can use it for better. That’s what I want to use it for.”
But for all his fashion collections, business deals and social media followers, Hamilton is unlikely to ever scale the heights he has achieved in his F1 career in any other field. Just 20 wins now stand between him and the all-time record of 91 career victories held by Michael Schumacher, and it’s an achievable goal given that Hamilton has averaged ten wins a year for the last five seasons.
This year he has fended off a challenge from fellow four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, and with a 67-point lead with four races remaining, he has made it look surprisingly easy. If it wasn’t the case already, Hamilton has to be in the running for the title of ‘Greatest of all Time’.
“That feels very weird,” he says when he’s reminded of his GOAT status. “I think because I’m in it and living in it, I don’t see that stuff.
“It is definitely cool when people mention a great’s name and they put your name alongside it. I mean, I remember me and my dad turning up at this race track, my kart shoved in the back of the car and we were nobodies.
“My dad had the roughest clothes on him, he looked like a tramp, and we used to watch Senna on TV — we never thought, one day, people would mention my name in the same sentence as his. It’s very, very surreal that’s for sure.”
Hamilton often references those early years spent karting with his father, Anthony. They help give his success a sense of perspective and he also uses it as motivation to reach new heights.
“I grew up seeing kids arriving in helicopters and stuff. Me and my dad were in our Fiat Cinquecento and they were turning up in their Lamborghinis. It was like, ‘OK, you can have that now, but there is no way you are going to win this race’. I really hope that there is some of that rawness coming through in the next generation, those diamonds in the rough. That’s what all sports unleash at some stage, and that’s the greatness I think.
“If you look at Muhammad Ali, if you look at Mike Tyson, these guys were from the streets. Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe, they are all digging deep from super basic roots and the struggles that they go through and the pain that they have from the struggles that they go through, you can’t beat that raw natural hunger. If I had a kid right now he would have such an easy life, and there is no way he is going to be as hungry as me.”
But for all the achievements behind him, Hamilton insists his best years are still to come. At 33 he has the potential to race for at least another five years and in that time he could set records well in advance of Schumacher’s seven world titles and 91 grands prix victories. He has not yet decided if his current contract, which runs until the end of 2020, will be his last, but it’s clear his ambitions stretch well beyond F1.
“I do believe I have the best ahead of me, yes. There are so many better days ahead of me. I’ve got so many things to potentially look forward to if I can stay healthy. There are more races, there are more achievements we can accomplish as a team, there are more things I can do with my family and there are more business things I hope to end up doing. I’d like to have a family one day, there are so many great things to look forward to.
“There are opportunities to continue to rise with new adventures and I’m excited about that. I value life and time more than I ever have and I want to make the most of that time.”
There’s little doubt he will. Remember, these are just the early days of the Hamilton empire.