It is safe to say that Lewis Hamilton is now synonymous with Formula 1. The world’s most popular auto racing sport has been absolutely dominated over the past 11 seasons by two men, Britain’s Hamilton and Germany’s Sebastien
Vettel. These two rivals have picked up an incredible 9 of those titles, with another Brit, Jenson Button and another German, Nico Rosberg, claiming the other two.
Britain and Germany have certainly been the most successful countries in F1 over the course of the past decade but the debate surrounding the best driver in this period always comes down to Hamilton and Vettel. It is somewhat ironic that Hamilton, the Brit, has spearheaded Mercedes’ reign at the top for so long.
The German team is aiming to put together a run that will at least equal Ferrari’s five-in-a-row F1 Championships secured under the guidance of Michael Schumacher between 2000 and 2004. Comparisons between Hamilton and Schumacher are now a thing of the norm, as are similar likenesses between the Brit and another legend, Juan Manuel Fangio.
Such comparisons are only superseded by those who believe that Hamilton is greater than both men. In the case of Fangio – the last man before Hamilton to win a championship for Mercedes (in 1955) before Mercedes-Benz withdrew from F1 due to the Le Mans disaster of that year – it is difficult to compare drivers from two distinctively different eras, surely? Or is there a case to argue that Hamilton is the greatest of all time?
While Vettel is currently the youngest F1 champion in history, Hamilton was until the German beat his record. However, he was the first black driver to win the title. Hamilton was also 23-years-old when he won that historic championship while driving for McLaren, finishing fifth to take the title by a single point. Given that he lost the title by such a fine margin the season prior, it was a fitting end to the season.
The Brit would wait 6 seasons to win his second championship, watching fellow-Brit Jenson Button win his first title the following year and Vettel win 4 consecutive championships. However, the next 5 seasons would see Hamilton claim 4 titles and set a number of records along the way. At this point, the 33-year-old must be considered the greatest driver of the decade.
He is certainly the most successful British driver of all time. Hamilton’s 5 championships and 73 race victories put him out there, statistically, as the most successful driver to race under the Union Jack.
There are many fans that would argue against him being the best driver to emerge from Britain, however, given that Jim Clarke, Jackie Stewart, and Stirling Moss are all still greatly revered names in the sport.
You cannot dispute that Hamilton is up there as one of the greats. After all, he is the record holder for the driver with the most career points (3,018) of all time. Hamilton also has the most pole positions of all time at 83, the most wins at different circuits (26), and the most Grand Slams in a season, at 3. Such statistics tell a tale of a driver who has had an exceptional career and is still yet to reach 35-years-old.
Hamilton certainly has a skill-set that puts him up there with the greatest drivers of all time. The Brit has what can only be described as natural talent in many departments, with unbelievable reaction times, a comprehensive understanding of racing, and the ability to adapt. Given that Hamilton has enjoyed success despite numerous regulation changes, the latter is certainly an overlooked part of his skill-set.
In 2007, Hamilton was pipped to the title in a car with traction control and when this was removed in 2008, he won the title. This itself shows just how adaptable he can be. He drove well during the aerodynamic period that was prevalent in the next four years and was absolutely unbeatable during the last four years of turbo-hybrid engines. Consistency in the face of so many changes puts him up there with the greatest.
Certain adjectives and descriptions can often take the shine of a driver. While Hamilton is consistent and mechanical, he is also great to watch and spectacular at times. His driving in the wet is also ridiculously impressive at times, putting him up there with other drivers who were equally as adept in such conditions. Drivers like Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, and fellow-Brit, Jim Clark.
Hamilton possesses skill, in abundance. He is an incredibly fast, gifted driver with confidence, flair, and a hunger to win. This combination serves as the perfect cocktail for success, as Hamilton has demonstrated, time and time again. Whether it is adapting to regulation changes or heavy rain, you cannot deny that this is a special driver that has an edge over every peer in the modern age.
Is Hamilton a lucky driver? There is perhaps no genuine F1 fan that will say that he has not enjoyed some luck along the way. Has this contributed to his success? Perhaps it has. Does this negate his claim of being one of the greatest drivers of all time? Not a chance. Every great sportsperson has enjoyed luck at some point in their careers. Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Pele… luck has always been a part of success.
F1 is a sport of inches – often quite literally – meaning that there is the smallest margin for error.
Generally speaking, drivers who manage to avoid making the most mistakes tend to have better careers. It sounds simple, right? Just don’t make mistakes and you will win. Of course, this is a lot easier said than done in a sport where the pressure is as high as it gets and things are moving so fast.
Hamilton has often been accused of being “lucky” throughout his career, as if this luck has been explicitly instrumental in his success. It hasn’t. While he was certainly fortunate to have found himself on the best teams and racing with the best cars from the beginning of his career. You can’t say that Hamilton has ever been in a poor position in this regard at all. However, talent dictates this: both McLaren and Mercedes wanted Hamilton for his skills and attributes, so it works both ways.
Throughout the course of F1 history, there have been some incredible drivers that rarely get a mention alongside the “Big Four” of Schumacher, Clark, Senna, Fangio. Take Senna’s greatest rival, Alain Prost, for example. The Frenchman is one of the most underrated drivers in the history of the sport, but good enough to beat anyone on his day. It was Prost who arguably made Senna the driver he was by putting such pressure on him to perform.
F1 is a sport that has rarely seen a poor or below par driver. The nature of the world’s foremost auto racing championship is that a driver has to be excellent to make it as far as the grid. As such, there have been extraordinary drivers who could have been considered greats, if they had the right car and team behind them. Then again, there have been drivers who had the right equipment but just couldn’t make it work.
When comparing Hamilton to drivers of eras gone by, you have to remember that the cars, regulations, speeds, and demands were different. Even the structure of the F1 Championship was nothing like what we have today. In some cases, it can be argued that the drivers of years gone by had it easier, and in others, they had a more difficult time of it making it as a champion.
There is a huge area of subjectivity that comes into comparing drivers as it is simply too difficult to measure two drivers from two different eras by the same metrics. For example, Fangio won the same amount of championships as Hamilton at a time when there were between 7-9 races, as opposed to the 20+ that Hamilton is used to. In some ways, this is seen as easier for either man. There would have been a smaller margin for error with Fangio but fewer races; it is a case of debate.
Juan Manuel Fangio is regarded by many as the grandmaster of F1. Indeed, he was the first superstar of the sport. It is incredible to think that the Argentine only started racing in F1 in his early 40’s, winning the second championship in his second season in 1951. Fangio broke his neck at Monza in 1952 but came back strong two years later to win the first of four championships between 1954 and 1957.
Hamilton, like Fangio, has five titles to his name. However, Hamilton will turn 34 years old on January 7, 2019, meaning that he is almost a decade younger than Fangio when the latter started. The two have similar characteristics in that both possess excellent control. Like Fangio, Hamilton has a great feel for his cars, and the same could be said for the Argentine. However, the differences between the vehicles Fangio raced and those Hamilton competes in and against are huge.
Fangio retired with an incredible 24 wins, 35 podiums, 29 pole positions, and 23 fastest laps. Comparing these to Hamilton’s records, however, is like comparing the 1951 Rochester Royals with the 2018 Golden State Warriors.
A comparison with Michael Schumacher is perhaps a little easier to do, given that the legendary German is of a similar era. The two have similarities, certainly, with the most obvious being the fact that they are both considered two of the greatest “rain masters” in the history of the sport. Both Schumacher and Hamilton are also regarded for their intense hunger and adaptability.
Like Hamilton, Schumacher had a lot of financial positives behind him. His five-in-a-row championship haul for Ferrari came at a time when the Italian giants were keen to dominate the sport. They chose Schumacher to help them do it, and he delivered. While both men have been on the same track, it was late into Schumacher’s career and he wasn’t at the height of his powers.
Where Schumacher has the upper hand over Hamilton is in championships won (7). Hamilton is currently on 5 but is still young enough to beat this record before he retires. If things continue to go his way with regards to the cars and team around him, it is likely that we will see Hamilton win many more titles and break Schumacher’s record in the process.
Hamilton has certainly got some catching up to do when it comes to Schumacher’s has 91 wins, 155 podiums, and 77 fastest laps. He has already outperformed Schumacher in pole positions, however, with 83 to the German’s 68.
Let’s say that Hamilton and Senna were to race in the cars of today on the tracks of today. Who would win? For Hamilton, the hypothetical idea of racing his idol is certainly one that must have passed his mind at least once. The Briton has frequently talked about how, if Senna would not have tragically passed away in May 1994, his record would have likely had more wins and championships on it.
You can see why Hamilton – or any driver for that matter – would idolize Senna. He is, quite possibly, the greatest of all time. His mental attributes were incredible and his hunger to win was legendary. The Brazilian, perhaps unlike Hamilton, was known for his fiery temperament and this led to some bending (and breaking) of the rules, from time to time. Hamilton is certainly a cooler head, despite his feuds and tendency to react a little strongly to pressure (these now seem to be a thing of the past).
Senna’s move to Williams in 1994 coincided with the removal of in-car electrics and further regulatory changes. Unfortunately, we would not get to see the best of him as he died that year. It is difficult, however, to compare both men for a number of reasons other than the most blatant one: Hamilton has yet to finish his career and Senna’s ended prematurely. Given the changes to the F1 points system and the cars, it is impossible.
In comparing two drivers from different eras, it becomes a hypothetical exercise. As with Fangio and Schumacher, even, there are so many things that have changed that it would be anyone’s guess what might have happened if all four men lined up on the grid to race each other, in some parallel universe, perhaps. For F1 fans, the future might see a more frequent “Senna vs. Hamilton: who wins?” debate rage on.
Statistically, Senna is behind Hamilton in terms of what he achieved in his career that ended prematurely. Three World Championships, 41 wins, 80 podiums, 65 pole positions, and 19 fastest laps, however, only tells part of the story of F1’s most celebrated driver.
Formula 1 is a completely different sport today than it was even 20 years ago. Everything from cars, mechanics, regulations, tracks and the points system have evolved. As such, declaring any driver as the greatest of all time is something that is easy to say, but more difficult to substantiate. While Ayrton Senna’s talents see him consistently named as the best driver to do it, he did not achieve as much as others, like Hamilton.
Lewis Hamilton is undoubtedly one of the greatest drivers to have ever graced the sport. Like Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Ayrton Senna, Jim Clarke, he has reached a level that sees him enter the pantheon the truly superb competitors. There is no doubt that the first ever black F1 champion is set to deliver even more over the next few years. Statistically, he is levels above many other drivers in the history of the sport.
Even with Hamilton’s ridiculously good stats and performance levels, how can we measure him against other drivers for the title of the greatest driver in the sport?
A case for any driver being better than those on the same level of greatness will fall apart when statistics are introduced. Such stats are simply non-comparable unless we are putting two drivers of the same era and career span next to one another.
Hamilton is the greatest driver of his era, that is for sure. Unlike trying to ascertain the which drivers of years gone by he was better than, we can use stats and numbers to compare him with his modern-day peers. This is achievable as everyone is, for the most part, on the same level and racing the same cars, on the same tracks, and for the same points.
You’d think so, right? Unfortunately, there is no way of proving who the greatest F1 driver of all time is. As previously mentioned, it is purely a matter of subjectivity. You can certainly nominate who the greatest drivers of their eras were, as you can do this by looking at championships, race wins, and head-to-heads against their rivals. You cannot do the same with drivers of varying eras.
On a personal level, I believe that Ayrton Senna was the most talented driver in the history of the sport. However, if he lined up against other greats, he could have been beaten on a Saturday but win on a Sunday. Can I honestly say that he was the greatest to have ever done it? No. This is because I have no way of proving my claim with evidence and fact. As such, it is an opinion.
Sports fans love debates. Muhammad Ali or Tyson? Michael Jordan or LeBron James? Tom Brady or Joe Montana? Such hypothetical arguments over who would have had the upper hand are fun, but are not something that can ever be proven.
The same must apply to the growing debate of Lewis Hamilton being the greatest driver in the history of the sport. How can we logically arrive at that conclusion with comparing him to other legends? In order to introduce comparisons, we must use metrics. There is no way of putting two F1 drivers from two eras against each other and comparing their achievements, as they are, effectively, two different sports being measured against one another.
Is Lewis Hamilton one of the greatest drivers of all time? Absolutely. The Brit looks set to create a legendary legacy that will see him up there with the absolute cream of the crop. Anyone who says he is better than the likes of Senna, Schumacher, or Clarke are simply stating their opinion, not the facts. Still, it’s harmless fun, right?
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