Lewis Hamilton is the greatest champion ever... for this one reason.
Sometimes to be the best, you need more than just skill.
There is an age-old question in Formula 1: Who is the best Formula 1 driver of all time? While this question may seem somewhat intriguing, it is almost impossible to answer. Recently, AWS attempted to show who the fastest drivers of all time were by using a complex algorithm comparing drivers to their teammates. But whoever saw the top 10 on the list would tell you it was a load of rubbish as Heikki Kovalainen lined up as the 8th fastest of all time. Comparing drivers over 70 years is a difficult task for a plethora of reasons, with the main one being how the challenges that faced the drivers have changed. For example, arguably the biggest challenge for Juan Manuel Fangio in the 1950s was the constant knowledge that he could crash and be killed at any moment, whereas, for Lewis Hamilton it could be said the constant scrutiny of being on a global stage is his biggest challenge. The skills that every driver possesses have adapted and changed however the challenges still remain. However, one variable that has remained constant and will continue to is their attitude and sportsmanship. And I believe this is exactly why Hamilton is the greatest champion ever.
Lewis Hamilton ranks statistically as the second most successful driver of all time with 6 championships, 90 wins and 95 pole positions (as of the 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix). He is rapidly closing in on Michael Schumacher’s record of 7 world championships and will thus place him as the most successful Formula 1 driver the world has ever seen. However, mere statistics do not show the full picture when it comes to credibility as a true legend of the sport. Take the example of Ayrton Senna, he ranks as the fifth most successful driver of all time however many drivers and fans believe he is the greatest driver ever. But the fact Hamilton has achieved so much is not the reason that I label him as the greatest champion ever, his wins and championships are simply a by-product of his most valuable attribute, his sportsmanlike attitude.
What do I mean by sportsmanlike attitude? F1 Digital Presenter Will Buxton summarized this point perfectly, he believes all great champions have within them an ‘inner bastard’, meaning they will push the limits of legality to land them in a good position. Lewis Hamilton is an anomaly in this case. Take Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, or Fernando Alonso, each one of these has pushed the rulebook on many occasions in order to either destabilize a teammate or to win a championship (in Schumacher’s case more than once). However, Lewis Hamilton rarely if at all resorts to these sinister tactics. His success has come about purely because of his sheer natural talent behind the wheel.
This is something Hamilton has had to adapt to ever since he first set foot at a karting track as a kid. Lewis and his father Anthony would scrape as many pennies together as they could just for the chance to compete at local circuits. This meant they would usually be the poorest competitors there and would have to fight their way to compete in the first place, in many cases, they couldn’t afford wet tyres to put on the kart for when it rained meaning he would have to use dry tyres on a wet track. Hamilton’s fellow competitors then unsurprisingly bullied and picked on him, and when he would try to confront them, his father would say ‘do your talking on the track’. And so, he did, overtake after overtake he demonstrated his natural talent on the track without having to resort to unsportsmanlike behaviour. This is one attribute he continues to exercise, and it has continued to pay dividends.
In comparison, in the case of Michael Schumacher, the 1997 European Grand Prix is a prime example of this ‘inner bastard’ as he fought Jacques Villeneuve for the title. If both cars were to not finish, Schumacher would be world champion for the third time. On lap 48, Villeneuve went for an overtake on Schumacher that would give him the lead and the championship. Villeneuve braked later than Schumacher and was ahead going into the corner, however, in desperation Schumacher turned into Villeneuve and hit him in the hopes of damaging his car so that he couldn’t finish the race much like he did to Damon Hill in 1994. To his disappointment, Schumacher went off the track and retired from the race while Villeneuve went on to finish third to win the title. As a result of Schumacher’s actions, he was disqualified from the entire 1997 F1 Championship. This unsportsmanlike behaviour from Schumacher is consistent with greats such as Alain Prost where he crashed into Senna in 1989 and used the FIA in his favour to win the championship, Fernando Alonso when he held up Hamilton in the pits during the 2007 Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying and Ayrton Senna when he returned the favour to Prost and crashed him out of the final race of 1990 to win the championship. However, it is difficult to name a particular time when Hamilton reverted to such tactics.
Hamilton has had many opportunities to do this, however, take the example of the title decider in Abu Dhabi 2016. Hamilton’s only option of winning the title was to somehow have Nico Rosberg retire from the race. In order to achieve this Hamilton could have caused Rosberg to get a puncture when wheel-to-wheel racing to simply cause him to spin by tapping one of his rear wheels but he did not do this because he knew that he would not have won the title in a fair manner. David Coulthard summarized this by saying, “I’d rather finish second knowing I had done my best than finish first knowing I could have done more.”
I believe the main reason he is able to not engage with his ‘inner bastard’ is because his skills are so profound that he simply doesn’t need to. The fact he finished level on points with teammate and reigning world champion Fernando Alonso in his rookie season shows he has immense levels of natural ability. His decision to move to Mercedes no doubt allowed him to showcase these skills and to be frank, if he never joined Mercedes and won the 5 championships since, I doubt I would have written this article. However, the best drivers find themselves in the best cars at the end of the day and although most of his success is due to the dominance of the Mercedes car, it is fair to say that many drivers would struggle to reach his level of success in just 13 years of Formula 1. Hence, why I believe much of his success is thanks to his fair and sportsmanlike attitude that drivers struggle to replicate under the immense pressure of being a Formula 1 driver.