In claiming his fifth world championship title, Lewis Hamilton has firmly ensconced himself in the pantheon of Formula One greats.
Ever since joining the McLaren stable as a precociously talented 13-year-old, Hamilton’s stock has only gone up as he achieved the rare feat of marrying expectations with results.
His supreme talent has guided him to four world championships in the past five years to go alongside the one he won in just his second ever season, all the while breaking the mould from what many still consider to be a privileged, white-man’s sport to sit on the cusp of becoming the sport’s greatest ever champion.
After all, 33-year-old Hamilton is just the first black driver to race in Formula One, let alone win world championships.
Moving level with the godfather
Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton is embraced by team physiotherapist Angela Cullen after winning his fifth driver’s championship. (AP: Alfredo Estrella)
Hamilton now sits joint second on the overall list of Formula One world champions, level with Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio but still two behind Michael Schumacher — whose seat at Mercedes Hamilton moved into when the seven-time champion retired for the second time in 2012.
F1 World Championship winners
- Michael Schumacher – 7 (1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004)
- Juan Manuel Fangio – 5 (1951, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957)
- Lewis Hamilton – 5 (2008, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018)
- Alain Prost – 4 (1985, 1986, 1989, 1993)
- Sebastian Vettel – 4 (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013)
Racking up titles doesn’t necessarily guarantee a path to greatness — although it certainly helps — and in winning his fifth, Hamilton has now equalled one of the great idols of the sport.
“He’s the godfather for us, one of the greats from the beginning and will always be admired in the sport,” Hamilton said of the man who won his fifth world championship as a 46-year-old in 1957.
“It is crazy to think that I’m embarking on a similar number of championships that he had.”
Fernando Alonso, who is also widely acknowledged as being one of the all-time greats of the sport, described Hamilton as one of the top five drivers in the sport’s history.
“Michael [Schumacher], [Juan Manuel] Fangio, [Ayrton] Senna, [Alain] Prost, Lewis [Hamilton], probably this will be the top five, probably,” the two-time champion said prior to the race at Circuit of the Americas last week.
“But it’s difficult to compare different times and different ways to win those championships.”
Alonso is right: to compare drivers from different eras tends to raise more questions than answers, particularly in a sport where the car plays such a key role in driver performance.
However, Hamilton is well on his way to placing himself at the forefront of any conversations that need to be had about who is the greatest driver of all time.
If you want to make a case for Hamilton being the best, you don’t have to look too much further than the numbers he is racking up.
Lewis Hamilton is closely following Michael Schumacher, and is getting closer to matching his achievements. (Daniel Munoz: Reuters)
Hamilton has won a race in all 12 of his seasons in Formula One, a record bettered only by Schumacher, who won races in 15 straight seasons, starting the year after he made his debut right through to his first retirement in 2006.
Hamilton also sits behind Schumacher in total number of race wins and podiums, although the Brit has the upper hand over his German predecessor by winning a greater percentage of races, 31.28 per cent to 29.55 per cent.
Of drivers who have competed in more than 50 races, that just puts Hamilton behind fellow countryman Jim Clark, who won 25 of his 73 races between 1960 and 1968, and Fangio himself, who won 24 of just 52 races, a win rate of 46.15 per cent.
One statistic in which Hamilton is already streaking away from the rest of the pack is the number of pole positions, qualifying fastest an incredible 81 times, 13 more than Schumacher’s previous record — and counting.
Michael Schumacher has recorded the most number of race wins and podiums, as well as a record seven world championships. (Reuters)
Qualifying is an area of the modern sport in which drivers can really show their class, getting the most out of their cars, without worrying about tyre degradation or engine management.
Although managing the car over full race distance within the regulations is an inescapable part of driving a modern Formula One car, current drivers often deride the fact they are unable to “push” for the full race distance, a far cry from the flat-out racing of Fangio’s era.
However, qualifying still offers a glimpse of a driver’s sheer pace and daring, attributes Hamilton has always exceled in.
Schumacher’s strike rate of 22.08 per cent of qualifying on pole is dwarfed by Hamilton, who has finished fastest in the pre-race shootout 35.68 per cent of the time in his career to date.
That is a figure only bettered by Fangio (55.77 per cent), Jim Clarke (45.21 per cent), Alberto Ascari (42.42 per cent) and Ayrton Senna (40.12 per cent) — although those drivers, with the exception of Senna, raced in under a third of the number of Grands Prix that Hamilton has.
Longevity is a key factor in determining greatness, and Hamilton ticks that particular box as well, starting a record 227 races.
Hamilton was also forced to bide his time behind winning his first title in 2008 and his second in 2014, waylaid by the dominance of Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull.
Only twice before has a world champion had to wait for five or more years to claim another world championship: Graham Hill between 1962-1968 and Nicky Lauda between 1977-1984.
The best car
With any successful driver, the caveat to Hamilton’s achievements, there is little doubt he has the best car on the grid and has done for the past five seasons, although this fact is far from uncommon among the great champions — Fangio was famous for chopping and changing cars to ensure he was driving the best.
But that hasn’t always been the case for Hamilton, and yet his talent has always shone through.
“I’m happy for him because he showed the talent from day one,” Alonso said.
“He was able to win races when the car was there to win it, but he was able to win races in some of the seasons when the car was not in the top of the form, like 2009 and things like that, he’s still winning a couple of Grand Prix a year.
“He still put in some performances to show his talent and that’s difficult to see in our days.
“It’s impressive — and now it’s time to enjoy for him, so I’m happy.”
If the measure of which car is strongest can be simplistically determined by which team won the constructors’ championship that season, then Hamilton’s record backs up what his former McLaren teammate Alonso suggested.
When he won his maiden title in 2008, McLaren did not win the constructors championship, finishing second to Ferrari.
That was the first time the drivers’ champion did not drive the constructors’ winning car since 1999, when McLaren’s two-time champion Mika Hakkinen claimed the title, and has only happened 10 times since the constructors championship was first awarded in 1958.
There has only been one other driver who has achieved that feat in the past 32 years — Michael Schumacher in 1994.
Emulating Senna, pursuing Schumacher
Lewis Hamilton had always looked up toward the records of Ayrton Senna, now only Michael Schumacher stands above the Briton. (AP: Graham Hughes)
Hamilton’s boyhood hero was Ayrton Senna and the 33-year-old has repeatedly paid credit to the legendary Brazilian.
Hamilton has even said the gift of a race-worn helmet of Senna’s, which he was given when equalling his hero’s 65 pole positions at the 2017 Canadian Grand Prix, “is the most special thing I have, above and beyond all my trophies and everything.”
That was 31 races ago. Hamilton has qualified on pole in 16 races since, underlining the rate at which he has continued to dominate the rest of the competition.
“I started out with the goal to match Ayrton Senna or to equalise with Ayrton Senna who’s the guy that I aspire to be like, and I equalled him two years ago.” Hamilton said when asked about winning his fifth championship last month.
“Since then it’s kind of been going into unknown territory.
“Michael [Schumacher’s] stats are incredible and [are] still quite a long way away, but I’m here for some time still.
“I’m just going to keep working hard and keep trying to do what I do and what I love and enjoy it and we’ll see where it takes us.”
Hamilton is right in saying that Schumacher’s stats are incredible, but he is wrong in thinking that they are a long way away.
Schumacher’s record for overall wins (91) and podiums (155) are far from being insurmountable for Hamilton, who has 71 race wins and 132 podiums.
If Mercedes continues to produce a car that will perform at the front of the pack — and all things point to the fact that the German manufacturer will be at the pointy end of the grid for some time to come — those records may start to tumble.
Rivalries elevate Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel have had a fractious relationship, but it is their rivalry that has propelled both toward greatness. (AP: Luca Bruno)
In winning his fifth title, Hamilton moves one clear of his greatest modern rival in Vettel, underlining a superiority that has been in clear evidence this year.
The two youngest world champions in Formula One history, who both claimed their maiden titles at 23-years-old, have developed a fierce rivalry that on occasion has spilled over into the unsavoury.
F1 instagram: Throwback to 2015 the scene of Lewis Hamilton’s third world championship triumph
These rivalries have been a feature of Hamilton’s career, with the younger Hamilton “enjoying” a fractious relationship with Fernando when the two shared a garage in his formative years in the sport, and later clashed repeatedly with teammate Nico Rosberg.
All the great drivers have been pushed toward greatness by those around them; think Senna and Prost or Schumacher and Damon Hill or Mika Hakkinen.
That Hamilton has had a difficult relationship with many of his rivals is not unexpected either, it is a trait shared by many, if not all the greats and those who attempt to knock them off the top step of the podium.
Hamilton’s battles with Vettel, and Alonso before him, and the outcomes of those battles have marked him out as the premier driver of this generation.
The difference between the two drivers was clearly evident last weekend.
Although Hamilton was unable to wrap up the title at the Circuit of the Americas by failing to overtake Verstappen in the closing laps, the champion-elect showed a level of maturity that his key rivals have failed to adopt this season, choosing to live and fight another day than go down in a blaze of glory and prolong the title fight even further.
Vettel personified the rashness that has beset Hamilton’s closest rivals, spinning after a collision with the luck-less Daniel Ricciardo on the first lap after trying to fit through a gap that simply wasn’t there.
The relationship between Vettel and Hamilton has improved this season, with the pair even defending each other as a sign of “mutual respect” but Vettel will be burning that he hasn’t been able to keep pace with his British rival, despite being given a car by Ferrari that is close to, if not the equal of Hamilton’s Mercedes in recent weeks.
So is he the best? There’s still time to find out
The ominous sign for his rivals is that Hamilton not only seems to be getting better, but potentially still has many years left to run in the sport.
Alonso is leaving Formula One at the end of the season at 37 years of age, but is set to continue racing in the future, starting with the World Endurance Championship after plans to compete in IndyCar were confirmed to be false in Texas last week.
Schumacher was 38 when he retired (for the first time), meaning Hamilton probably has at least four years of racing in the premier class.
But it could be much longer, as Hamilton confirmed he had no interest in following recent retirees into another form of motor racing after he leaves Formula One, meaning there will be plenty of time to further cement his legacy.
“I honestly have no desire to do any other racing beyond Formula One if I’m really honest,” Hamilton said, after being asked about the prospect of following Alonso in branching out to Indy Car racing.
“Maybe that will change when you do stop, because you do it your whole life and temptation is always going to be there.
“I’m always going to be a racing driver at heart.”