Lewis Hamilton and His Place in History
As Lewis Hamilton stands on the brink of Michael Schumacher's all-time grand prix win record, let's discuss his standing in the annals of Formula One.
THE GREATEST OF HIS GENERATION?
Hamilton burst onto the scene in 2007 and made about as big a mark on the sport as is possible in a rookie season. He had built up some hype through his stellar junior career, but he would be going up against Fernando Alonso - the reigning double world champion and the man who had just dethroned the great Michael Schumacher - as his McLaren team-mate. Expectations were that he would be a solid number two driver whilst he gained some experience and learnt the intricacies of Formula One. But that's not how Lewis Hamilton operates.
He swept around the outside of his team-mate at the very first corner of his F1 career and that set the tone for what would be a most fractious and dramatic year at McLaren.
The then 22-year-old should probably have won the championship but for a bizarre moment in China - McLaren leaving him out on tyres that were down to the canvas led to the driver sliding agonisingly into the gravel trap upon entering the pit lane - and some technical gremlins in the last race. But, whilst one point shy of the first rookie title in the sport's history, Hamilton still finished ahead of his illustrious team-mate, who promptly left for Renault.
Hamilton would right some wrongs and claim his maiden title the following year with the infamous 'Is that Glock?' moment but then followed something of a dry spell. Brawn turned the sport on its head in 2009 and the beginning of the 2010s were a tale of Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel dominance. McLaren provided Hamilton with cars that were fast but often fragile. That, combined with frequent operational errors in the team and an annus horribilis for the driver himself in 2011, meant there was never a sustained title challenge.
Around this time, popular consensus was that Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel were the three biggest talents of their generation. But the order was up for debate.
Then came the hybrid era, however. Hamilton's move to the Mercedes team, a year earlier, turned out to be arguably the best career decision in the history of the sport as McLaren - ironically, with Alonso back at the helm - stalled with underpowered Honda engines and Mercedes took up their now perennial position as the class of the field.
Add to that, Hamilton combining his undeniable speed with a new-found maturity and he has become near untouchable in the years since. He has won 68 of the 130 races - a little over 50% - and every world championship bar 2016, when he was denied by a lot of bad luck with mechanical issues and some impressive consistency by then team-mate Nico Rosberg.
The 2017 and 2018 seasons were billed as the battle for supremacy between Hamilton and Vettel with Mercedes and Ferrari finally closely matched. In the end, it was the man from Stevenage who consistently landed knock-out blows, as Vettel's challenges faltered and there is now no real debate as to which of the two men is top dog.
Some have pointed to Alonso as the most complete driver, but surely Hamilton has proven his worth in all areas by now. And Alonso's notoriety when it comes to being hard to work with, along with the path of destruction he has left in his wake throughout his career, must be factored in. There is a point at which career choices are no longer poor by coincidence but that there are reasons for each failure.
Lewis Hamilton is the greatest driver of his generation.
THE GREATEST OF HIS NATION?
This is where things start to get particularly tricky. It is incredibly difficult to compare drivers across different eras of the sport as Formula One today is near unrecognisable when compared to the 60s. The cars, the technology, the safety, the media - it is simply a different beast.
Hamilton celebrating his sixth world title. Photo: eju.tv/author/marina/
The two other obvious contenders for 'Best Brit' would be Jim Clark and Sir Jackie Stewart. But then Stewart is quite adamant that Clark was a superior driver to himself so let's focus on the two-time world champion.
Clark is still frequently referred to as the best ever by some. Even the great Juan Manuel Fangio himself described Clark as "outstandingly the greatest Grand Prix driver of all time". We will never know what the Scot could ultimately have achieved, as his life was cut tragically short at 32 with a crash at the Hockenheimring, but he was undoubtedly the phenom of his era.
Out of the car, Clark was an introverted, simple farm boy from Scotland who was notoriously on edge before a race. Jack Brabham recalls that a doctor taking pulses and blood pressures before the race start thought that Clark was "in such a state that he shouldn't start" But once behind the wheel, he was transformed. Ferociously fast with the deftest of touch; he had an absolute natural ability.
Whilst Clark's career was obviously far shorter than Hamilton's, the two men's statistics are somewhat comparable once converted to percentages. Win percentage is currently almost identical at 34.72% for Clark and 34.75% for Hamilton. Clark has an advantage when it comes to pole position percentage (45.83% to 36.68%) whilst Hamilton has the lead in podium percentage (61.00% to 44.44%).
Ultimately, even those statistics are fairly meaningless as they are intrinsically linked to the subtleties of the sport at that time. For example, Hamilton will claim more podiums through better reliability whilst qualifying held less importance and was given far less attention in Clark's day. But, nonetheless, they make it clear that both men were the class of their respective fields.
I fall back to my point that it is basically impossible to definitively say whether a driver from the 1960s or 2010s is better, but Hamilton certainly doesn't fall short of Clark's incredibly high standards when it comes to piloting a racing car.
THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME?
Hamilton and Schumacher battle during the 2011 Monaco Grand Prix. Photo: Getty Images.
G.O.A.T. (or Greatest Of All Time) is a term that is thrown about far too often on the internet these days, to the point that it is now used facetiously about as often as it is genuinely. But is Hamilton actually the G.O.A.T.?
As per the aforementioned point, comparing drivers across 70 years of F1 history and trying to conclusively choose the best ever is basically impossible. Fangio in the 50s was a winning machine and every driver racing today still has the utmost respect for him. Hamilton referred to him as the 'Godfather' upon matching his five titles in 2018 and Schumacher partied into the night having surpassed that former record.
Beyond Fangio and Clark, however, the two most commonly proffered names are Schumacher and the late, great Ayrton Senna. Whilst now spanning more than thirty years, all their careers narrowly overlapped - Senna and Schumacher between 1991 and 1994, Schumacher and Hamilton between 2010 and 2012 - and I think this period of time can be considered as modern Formula One and thus they are just about comparable...ish. So, let's give it a shot.
On pure numbers, Schumacher still just about leads the way in many categories. The conversation obviously extends far beyond numbers, but they are at least a foundation.
The German racked up 91 wins, 155 podiums, 68 pole positions, 77 fastest laps and, of course, seven world championships over the course of 307 grands prix. Those are simply ridiculous numbers and ones that many thought would never be beaten. But then came Hamilton.
The consistency of both Hamilton and his team has been such in the hybrid era that he now stands on the cusp of surpassing all those hitherto unassailable records. He has long since passed the record for pole positions, broke the podium record earlier this seaon, and is now just one win behind Schumacher. If all seasons are converted to the current points system, Hamilton is now 49 points ahead.
It is well noted that it is easier to rack up the numbers now as the F1 calendar has expanded and the tally of races per season has gradually increased. But when analysing Schumacher's numbers, it is also worth considering his consistent status as clear number one driver. Senna experienced this to some extent with Berger for a couple of years and Bottas has been Hamilton's 'wingman' on a handful of occasions, but Schumacher had outright number one driver privileges throughout basically his entire career at Benetton and Ferrari. Many of his team-mates struggled to challenge him anyway, but they were certainly not allowed to on the occasions where they were able to do so.
Senna's career was another cut tragically short in 1994 - I went into great depth in hypothesising what he potentially would have achieved in a post last year - but once the statistics are converted to percentages, the three drivers are fairly evenly matched. Hamilton probably has a slight edge when looking as a whole, but there is not much in it and obviously his percentages could go either way between now and the end of his career.
Schumacher has been undeniably the greatest driver statistically for over 15 years now. And yet, generally, more people seem to have considered Ayrton Senna the greatest when the debate has arisen. That's because being the greatest of all time goes far beyond the numbers.
GOING BEYOND THE NUMBERS
There are two main components to being an incredible racing driver: raw speed and racecraft. There are other attributes, of course, such as technical aptitude, discipline, focus, being able to build a team around you and so on. Senna, Schumacher and Hamilton obviously all excel at these, but who comes out on top?
Raw speed is best demonstrated in qualifying; man and machine pushed to the absolute limit over the course of one lap. And this is where Senna and Hamilton are arguably a level above Schumacher. They have both produced laps that are scarcely believable. Senna claiming pole in Monaco in 1988, nearly one and a half seconds ahead of team-mate Alain Prost, or Hamilton in Singapore 30 years later, producing a lap faster than the Mercedes computer thought possible. Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff described it as "the best lap I have ever seen in a Formula One car".
Some have said that Schumacher's qualifying record was hindered by the rules that had drivers qualifying with their race fuel in the car during the years when refuelling was a part of the sport, thus making qualifying more strategic and less about outright speed. But that was only the case for 3 of his 19 seasons.
Hamilton receives a helmet from the family of his idol, Ayrton Senna, upon matching his number of pole positions. Photo: www.f1fanatic.co.uk.
Racecraft is something that is tricky to define but - simply put - it is a driver's ability to manage the entirety of a Grand Prix and everything that may be thrown at them. So that's measuring their pace and the toll it is taking on the car, wheel-to-wheel racing, strategy calls, etc.
This is where Hamilton and Schumacher perhaps have a slight edge over Senna.
Schumacher's ability to produce lap after lap at full qualifying pace during the race is well-known and, if he was on pole position, it was very unlikely anyone would be able to find a way past him.
Once again, the goalposts have moved slightly when it comes to racecraft these days. With the current car and tyre designs, drivers are rarely pushing flat-out on a Sunday and it has become predominantly about tyre conservation. Hamilton has transcended his reputation of being blisteringly quick but not quite as smart during races, from a decade or so ago, and is now famed for his racecraft; Paddy Lowe describing it as "unparalleled among the F1 greats".
His ability to eke out the life of his tyres has been demonstrated numerous times recently. Just last season, he had to manage most of a race on ancient tyres in Monaco, Mexico and the US, coming away with two victories and a second place. Sure, he moans all the way but, boy, does he get the job done...
Whilst discussing some of the technical ways in which Hamilton manages his car, Mercedes Technical Director James Allison - a man who has also worked with Schumacher and Alonso - describes his "instinctive ability" as "remarkable".
When it comes to the other factors, it is hard to separate them. All three are famously relentless in their pursuit of perfection, leaving no stone unturned. It is possibly what sets them aside from the rest of the greats. All are very technically minded and each built a hugely successful team around them - McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes respectively.
Hamilton, Schumacher, and Senna are all incredibly good at basically every aspect of the sport. Of course. But there is something else beyond speed and ability that should be considered.
GOING BEYOND THE SPEED
There is undoubtedly a level of ruthlessness that is necessary to become a champion. But there is also a line. Senna and Schumacher crossed that line on multiple occasions, most famously in the two images above.
Whilst Senna's infamous crash with Prost can be understood to some extent when you hear the full story of the politics with Jean-Marie Balestre, he still intentionally crashed into another driver to win the title, in an era of much-reduced safety. Senna's intensity and unflappable self-belief often resulted in uncompromising driving to the very edge of acceptability and, on more than one occasion, beyond it. It was part of what made him so great, but he sometimes went too far and that has to be seen as a negative.
Schumacher has an unfortunately long string of misdemeanours. His attempts - one successful and one unsuccessful - to take out a Williams in the title decider were the biggest blots on his copybook. There is no doubt in my mind that both his collision with Damon Hill in 1994 and the one with Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 were fully intentional. He would be disqualified from the entire 1997 season for his actions but somehow escaped unpunished with his world championship intact in 1994.
There were plenty more to come; another notable transgression was parking his car at Rascasse during qualifying in the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix in an attempt to prevent Alonso claiming pole position, which also led to a disqualification from the session. And even upon his return to the sport in 2010, he very nearly put his former team-mate Rubens Barrichello into the wall at high speed in Hungary. The Brazilian describing it as "the worst piece of defensive driving I have ever seen".
Off the track, things weren't squeaky clean either. There were plenty of rumours - some proven - regarding the 1994 Benetton's legality, Ferrari used every trick in the book (including threatening to end a Sauber driver's career) to hinder Villeneuve in 1997 and their team orders in the early 2000s brought the sport to its knees.
These varying kinds of misconduct are something we have never really seen from Hamilton.
Of course, there has been the odd drama. Off the track, there was 'lie-gate', where he was instructed to lie to the stewards by his McLaren Sporting Director, and his tweeting of sensitive telemetry. But these were fairly minor discretions and on-track, Hamilton can only ever fall under the category of firm but fair. Even during his prickly relationship with team-mate Nico Rosberg, as the German set about all-out psychological warfare, he would push his wheel-to-wheel racing to the limit but never beyond.
The Mercedes pair's infamous 'duel in the desert'. Photo: ca.autoblog.com.
This is what really sets Hamilton aside from the other two men. He has that steel and the relentless will to win...but he is also truly committed to winning the right way.
I'm not going to be quite that definitive...not yet anyway. But he is well on his way.
There is a very good chance that, by the end of this year, he will hold most of the records the sport has to offer. He is accepted as one of the very fastest when it comes to raw speed and has, in recent years, added maturity, technical prowess and experience to create a winning machine.
Wolff says that the media, and people in general, should "recognise the opportunity [to] see maybe the best driver that has ever existed on an exceptional journey". He has a point. It may be easy to grow tired of seeing the same driver win again and again but it will always be looked back upon with nostalgia and misty eyes. We are witnessing history being made.
It is worth remembering that Hamilton's story has been something of a fairy tale. From a council estate in Stevenage, he came through the ranks the hard way, funded by his father working multiple jobs, and has now reached the very pinnacle of his sport. He has also broken down barriers as the sport's first black driver - even having to deal with racist abuse early in his career - and brought F1 to a whole new audience through his numerous extracurricular activities and massive social media presence.
He has taken that onto another level this year with his push for F1 activism. He is a leading light in the #WeRaceAsOne initiative and launched 'The Hamilton Commission' with the aim of increasing diversity within motorsport.
Did anyone expect all this when a fresh-faced Hamilton showed up to Melbourne in 2007? Probably not. Although there is a surprisingly prophetic quote from Schumacher on the eve of Hamilton's first title the following year.
I will stick by my opinion that defining a clear 'G.O.A.T.' is near impossible, but there is nobody I consider to have a better claim than Hamilton anymore.
And there is still more to come. As the man himself says, "I am working on a masterpiece and I haven't quite finished it yet". When he has finished, maybe we will have a definitive answer.