The 36-year-old British Formula 1 driver made history when he clinched the 2020 F1 Championship with his victory at the Turkish Grand Prix, tying racing legend Michael Schumacher for the most championships ever, with seven total. Lewis has now won 100 races in his career. He previously beat Schumacher’s record of 91 career wins at the Portuguese Grand Prix.
In that moment of victory in Istanbul, Lewis tells PEOPLE his mind drifted back to his humble beginnings, and the support and unwavering dedication of his father Anthony Hamilton.
“I came across the line, and all the things about me and my dad — when we went away from our first championship singing ‘We Are the Champions,’ the struggles that we had — it just flashed through my mind, and all this emotion came up,” Lewis reflects. “There were times where we didn’t think we were going to be there. We were not going to make it. … They were worrying times, but he never doubted me once.”
A love for cars become obvious as the father-son duo watched Grand Prix races. Lewis first drove a go-kart at age five while on a family vacation. By age eight, he had his own go-kart. “You could say from five I already knew that I wanted to be a Formula 1 driver, basically,” he says.
His first British karting championship came in 1995 when Lewis was only 10. It had become more obvious, then, that he was competing against other young racers from families with more means for supplies and training.
“We have a racing award called the Autosport Awards at the end of the year,” explains Lewis. “We couldn’t afford a suit for me, so I borrowed the suit from the kid that won the previous year.”
Racing is, of no surprise, an expensive sport, and Lewis grew up living in British public housing. To afford much of what was needed for Lewis to be competitive, Anthony — who eventually started his own IT company — at first worked three jobs and even re-mortgaged their home.
“When we arrived on the go-kart track, we were the only Black family there. We’ve always been the only Black family there,” he tells PEOPLE “There was a lot thrown at us in those early years. I always relate it to Cool Runnings, my favorite movie, because when they get to the top of the hill for the first time, they have this rusty sled. That was my go-kart.”
He continues, “It was owned by five different families. It was bent and buckled, and it didn’t look like much, but I loved it. [Anthony] went to a DIY store, and he made it look as brand new as he could.”
“We had things thrown at us, particularly a lot of words, but my dad said, ‘Do your talking on the track,’ because I’m a fighter,” Lewis reflects. “I got bullied at school, so I always wanted to be able to defend myself, or fight back, but my dad’s like, ‘Do your talking on the track.’ “
“People see me winning these championships but I think the important story really is that father-son, or son of a parent, story which so many people across the world, in America and the U.K., can relate to, because we did it as a family,” Lewis tells PEOPLE. “I think probably every parent wants the best for their kids. My dad, he never went out. He never had new clothes. He wasn’t saving up to buy anything new. Everything — remortgaging the house multiple times — went into go-karting, which sounds crazy. It is crazy, but he believed so much in me.”
He says, “He’s the real hero, but obviously I’m the one that gets to stand on top of the podium at the end.”