Lewis Hamilton sees ‘significance’ in Miami Gardens F1 race

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain answers questions during the drivers press conference before the start of the first practice session of the Formula One Miami Grand Prix auto race at Miami International Autodrome on Friday, May 6, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain answers questions during the drivers press conference before the start of the first practice session of the Formula One Miami Grand Prix auto race at Miami International Autodrome on Friday, May 6, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida.



Miami Grand Prix weekend

The inaugural Miami Grand Prix takes place Sunday, May 8 at the Hard Rock Stadium site in Miami Gardens.

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First of all, Lewis Hamilton is blunt and he admits he probably will not win Formula One’s inaugural Miami Grand Prix on Sunday. Mercedes-Benz, his team, is kind of a mess right now and hasn’t placed a driver better than third in the first four in the first four races of the 2022 Formula One World Championship and Hamilton said he doesn’t expect to get much closer to the pace this weekend.

None of this seems to matter too much at the Miami International Autodrome. At a 30-minute press conference with four other drivers Friday, Hamilton wore eight rings, four necklaces, three watches and two earrings, and fielded three different questions about Federation Internationale de l’Automobile’s newfound desire to enforce an in-race jewelry ban. Once he left the interview pen, cameras followed him while he rode a scooter back to Mercedes’ on-site headquarters a few hundred feet away.

Wherever he goes, Hamilton, with his record-tying seven world championships, is the major draw and it’s even more true in the United States, South Florida and especially majority-Black Miami Gardens, where the Grand Prix is actually being held.

Hamilton, who hails from England the only Black driver in Formula One history, is the closest thing his sport has to a household name in the US. He’s something of an iconoclast — every few years, a threat of suspension seems to follow Hamilton, including the latest one regarding the earrings he wears in his car — and has the charisma Miamians tend to love. He’s also an outspoken advocate for various causes, including diversity in auto racing, LGBT rights in Saudi Arabia and just Thursday he voiced his support for Roe v. Wade in an Instagram post.

In Miami Gardens, the average resident — even if not the average spectator this weekend — looks more Hamilton than in most of the cities where Formula One (F1) tends to go, mostly across Europe and the Middle East, and it matters, he said.

“It definitely does have a significance,” Hamilton said Friday. “The first five or 10, maybe five years or so I didn’t see many people of color in the grandstands. When I was on stage, very, very few people of color — not as diverse as I’d hoped and, as I said, yesterday I was standing on stage and I’m seeing the crowd. It couldn’t be any more diverse and that’s amazing for me.”

Even in an uncharacteristic season for the most accomplished driver in F1 history, no one in the sport matters more than Hamilton and his week in Florida is a reminder why.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain makes his way around the circuit during the first practice session of the Formula One Miami Grand Prix at the Miami International Autodrome in Miami Gardens, Florida on Friday, May 6, 2022. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Miami’s long road to F1

F1’s first ever race in Miami-Dade County took six years and two different cities to make happen, and Hamilton was the idea’s most outspoken advocate among the F1 World Championship drivers.

In 2017, he voiced his excitement about the idea when F1 started scouting downtown Miami for a potential road race. In 2018, he offered to redesign the track when a city commissioner tweeted out a proposed design he didn’t like.

Eventually, F1 moved its eye toward Miami Gardens — about 15 miles north of downtown Miami — after city delayed multiple votes on the original proposal, following public backlash. The move to the suburbs, of course, also did not come without major pushback — residents of Miami Gardens have been split on their feelings and one group tried to file a lawsuit to stop the race as recently as April — from a working-class town asked to host another major, international event.

“It’s not a place to dump events that are toxic to people,” former Miami Gardens mayor Oliver Gilbert said back in 2019.

Yet, the race is going to happen Sunday at 3:30 p.m. after the city voted to give the Dolphins the green light to hold the event around Hard Rock Stadium. For the last nine months, the team has had 300-1,000 workers on site virtually every day to build the track and campus to host one of two American races on the 2022 F1 World Championship schedule, and it will stay in Miami Gardens for 10 years after F1, the city and the Dolphins reached a decade-long deal.

On Wednesday, Hamilton called a race weekend in Miami Gardens the “Super Bowl” of F1, which is fitting because the city has also hosted six Super Bowls, including three since 2007.

“I’ve been to a couple,” Hamilton said. “This kind of feels like a similar vibe.”

Hamilton should not be expected to understand the nuances of South Florida politics or why controversy surrounds this race. One of Hamilton’s missions in the waning years of his career — he’s 37 now, the second oldest driver in the World Championship — is to grow the sport in the US, where he lives for part of the year.

The Miami Grand Prix (GP) is evidence of the sport’s unprecedented popularity stateside: Grandstand tickets sold out on the first day and organizers expect a sellout of the roughly 85,000 person venue, with tickets as expensive as any other race on the calendar.

The sport owes its increasing American popularity to Netflix’s “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” as well as a good television deal with ABC, but also to Hamilton, who has been known in the USA since long before Netflix had a show or ESPN was talking about other drivers. Who else would be able to draw both “Star Wars” director George Lucas and Michelle Obama, the former First Lady of the United States, to sit in his garage for practices Saturday?

“Maybe now’s the time to start focusing on how we can include more people here,” he said, “because it’s such a diverse country.”

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain holds interviews in the interview pen prior to the first practice session at the Formula One Miami Grand Prix at Miami International Autodrome on Friday, May 6, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Hamilton’s importance in Miami Gardens

As part of their promise to Miami Gardens, the Dolphins have an F1-centered initiative to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in nearby schools.

On Wednesday, Aston-Martin’s Sebastian Vettel visited Miami Gardens’ Carol City Middle School as part of the “F1 in Schools” program. On Thursday, Hamilton met with local children, too, and wants to be an inspiration.

Although locals will inevitably be boxed out of the Miami GP by prohibitive prices, the Dolphins did create 12 scholarship for students at Miami Gardens’ St. Thomas University and Florida Memorial University, the region’s only historically Black university. They also brought people from the community to the Miami Autodrome on Thursday for a track walk and tour through the pits, and are providing 500 free tickets per day for residents of Miami Gardens.

Hamilton has seen change in his sport and it has been for the better. His week in Miami Gardens is a window into more.

“I met a bunch of kids from diverse backgrounds, who now want to get into engineering and STEM subjects,” Hamilton said. “It’s just great to be seeing that we’re tapping into those different cultures, those different communities, who perhaps once didn’t think it was for them because they didn’t see someone that looked like them in the sport maybe, and I think that’s super encouraging.”

This story was originally published May 7, 2022 8:00 AM.

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David Wilson, a Maryland native, is the Miami Herald’s utility man for sports coverage.

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