How Good is Hamilton?
Lewis Hamilton is a six-time world champion, that was merely a formality for this weekend but his drive to 2nd place in the showed the greatest of Hamilton. It would’ve been magnificent for him to seal the title with a win but he sure did his best to do the impossible for the second week running. Hamilton started 5th on the grid, disposed of a slow starting Leclerc before turn one and pulled a brilliant move around the turn seven on Vettel. This showed the aggressive Hamilton, the Hamilton who burst onto the scene back in 2007. Then throughout the remainder of the race we saw the second part of Hamilton, the part of his game that he’s developed throughout his career. He nursed his hard tyres for 28 laps and came 4 laps from keeping Bottas behind him despite his softer and 11 lap younger tyres. He then successfully kept a charging Max Verstappen at arm’s length.
Hamilton’s determination to seal the title in style was clear, constantly asking Bono over the radio about the chance of a win. That is Hamilton’s most admirable attribute, his constant dissatisfaction with ‘just doing enough’. It would’ve been extremely easy for Hamilton to, having started 5th, merely trundled round at a delta safe in the knowledge he would secure the title with little difficulty. He took the aggressive option. We know Hamilton is a born winner, a street fighter with an unshakeable belief in his position as the greatest driver in the world. He was never going to take the first option. He then executed his task with masterful judgement, making Bottas sweat over the prospect that he might not get his lead back. So much so I was standing up in my living room full of adrenaline, given a sense of anticipation that Hamilton might pull off the impossible and eek 28 competitive laps out of those tyres.
I think the fact that we’re talking about Hamilton eking life out of his tyres shows what a complete and adaptable driver he has become. Ally that to the speed, consistency and aggression he showed from his first corner in Formula 1 and you can see that Hamilton is a seriously special talent and becoming a British national treasure. Consider this, everybody is very quick whenever Verstappen or Leclerc make a mistake to add the caveat “he’s young, he’ll learn”. Hamilton matched and should’ve beaten Fernando Alonso in his debut season. Alonso is considered, not least by Hamilton himself, to be the fastest and best of his generation and Hamilton was right with him from the word go. In 2007, Hamilton didn’t make rookie errors especially, aside from an over-ambitious lunge on Alonso at Interlagos.
It’s very easy to bash Hamilton with the ‘he has gift-wrapped a great car from day one’ stick but think of the pressure that was on his shoulders in those early years at McLaren. He had been signed at 13, McLaren nurtured him through all the junior formulas and ear-marked that seat next to a reigning two-time champion for him. Given all the financial and effort invested in him, Hamilton simply had to deliver. Even though he didn’t win the title, I believe Hamilton’s best season was 2007 and he should’ve won the title and he would’ve done but for an awfully botched strategy in Shanghai when McLaren refused to bit Hamilton despite a tyre that had gone through the carcass that led to the infamous slide into the gravel trap in the pitlane. To then come back from that emotional down, having led the title for 6 months, and win the title the following year showed incredible mental fortitude. That, above anything else, shows how Hamilton is a genuinely special talent.
That isn’t to say Hamilton has had a blemish-free career. Even Hamilton’s most ardent on supporters (and I’d consider myself to be one) will admit that Hamilton’s 2011 season was a horror show. He crashed with Felipe Massa on five separate occasions, despite having a car that was faster. He was comprehensively out-performed by teammate Jenson Button and he had numerous other incidents on and off the track. One of Hamilton’s greatest attributes is his aggression and the psychological impact he has on his rivals when he appears in their mirrors but he lost his ability to manage those skills and became a liability when in wheel-to-wheel combat. Sound familiar, Max Verstappen? What this shows is Hamilton’s humility. He had to analyse his failings as a driver and has been markedly better even since then. People often break Hamilton’s career into two sections, the McLaren and Mercedes segments. I separate into pre-2011 and post-2011. He was superb in 2012, he would’ve got very, very close and maybe even would’ve won the title if it weren’t for McLaren’s horrendous pitstops and reliability that season. But in retrospect, maybe that was the best thing to have ever happened to him. Had McLaren been as excellent as a team as Mercedes are now, he’d never have gone to Mercedes and the United States Grand Prix 2012 may well have been his last win and Nico Rosberg would be a six-time world champion, not him.
The question on everyone’s lips though is how long can Hamilton go on for? In some ways, why should he go on? He’s got nothing to prove, he’s made enough money to never have to worry about it ever again, he’s getting older and has huge interests in fashion and music. On the other hand, Hamilton’s determination to win is clear, as evidenced by his radio calls on Sunday. The conception regarding Hamilton is that he is a burning natural talent, a force of nature, reliant upon his incredible speed and talent to succeed. What has become inescapably true though is that Hamilton has now added a relentlessness, a remorselessness, adaptability and a neurotic drive for improvement to his game. These were once considered Fernando Alonso’s greatest traits as a racing driver and what made up the minor inadequacies, he had to Hamilton in the raw speed department. Given the additions to his driving, he is going to be incredibly difficult to beat over the course of a season even though he has lost that one-tenth of qualifying speed that he once had (evidenced by the fact Bottas has had more poles than him this season). He’s talked about being a pioneer of the new 2021 regulations, Schumacher raced on, in his first career at least, until he was nearly 39. I see no reason why Hamilton can’t do another 4 seasons in Formula 1. Yes, he won’t be as eye-catching by 2023 as he was earlier in his career but provided Mercedes equip him with the machinery to at least compete Schumacher’s records for world championships, wins, point-scoring races, podiums, laps led etc will all be well beaten.
Is Hamilton already the greatest of all time? Maybe, the answer to the question lies in whether you believe that he’s achieved everything just because of the fastest car. Just consider this, by the time Hamilton had done 100 races, as Verstappen has just done, he was the youngest world champion, he should’ve been the youngest double world champion and he’s shown a willingness to compromise his ideals as a racing driver to maximise his point-scoring and therefore championship-winning possibilities. The other million-dollar question is the Ferrari one. I don’t think it’s too far fetched to suggest Hamilton will add number seven to his haul next season given the regulations are nigh on identical and Ferrari’s power advantage has been kerbed. Will the draw of winning his eighth title while wearing red, being the man to bring glory back to the Scuderia after, by then, 14 years of pain prove too much? It’s like, as a 20-year-old ambitious student, the pull of London is sometimes awesome. The prospect of living in the biggest financial hotbed in the world, the most multicultural and vibrant city ever seen and have career prospects apparently sky-high appears incredible. Hamilton to Ferrari may well be a similar thing. I have a sneaking suspicion he’ll go there in 2021 and what a storyline that could be.