Image Description: “Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF90, holds off Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W10, 2019 Italian Grand Prix, Monza, 8th September”
The 2020 Formula One season made history from the very start when the opening round in Melbourne was cancelled mere hours before Friday practice due to the coronavirus, which would go on to shorten the season and relocate many of the races. But it has also been a historic year for one driver in particular, as Lewis Hamilton has equalled or beaten the two records that are most often held up as indicative of a driver’s greatness – Michael Schumacher’s 91 wins and 7 world championships. This has further fuelled the eternal debate of who is the greatest driver of all time – and indeed, how many of the achievements of those heralded as legends are down to the car as opposed to the driver, which continues to create bitter acrimony among fans.
From a purely statistical viewpoint, it is hard to argue against Hamilton as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Formula One drivers of all time. Over the past decade, Michael Schumacher has been regarded as such through holding these two records that Hamilton has now exceeded, which were widely considered unbeatable when he retired for the first time in 2007. Hamilton also holds the third-highest win percentage in history, at 35.6%, behind only Fangio and Ascari who drove in the 1950s, when races were far fewer, and the whole approach to Formula One was so different that comparison is difficult.
The statistics also tell a tale of supreme consistency, winning a race every season since he joined the series (putting him just one-off Schumacher’s record for consecutive seasons winning a race), and from 2014 onwards he has won at least 9 Grands Prix every year (out of around 20), a level of sustained dominance no one else has achieved before or since.
But it has also been a historic year for one driver in particular, as Lewis Hamilton has equalled or beaten the two records that are most often held up as indicative of a driver’s greatness – Michael Schumacher’s 91 wins and 7 world championships
Another factor used to consider who is the greatest is the calibre of the teammates a driver has had, and Hamilton has had no shortage of quality on the other side of the garage. Out of the five teammates he’s had, three have themselves been World Champions, and it was his rookie season with McLaren that arguably made this most plain, as he went toe-to-toe with the formidable reigning double world champion, Fernando Alonso. Hamilton and Alsono, also often considered one of the greatest racing talents of all time, scored the same number of points that season, both just missing out on the championship.
Schumacher, indeed, had an easier ride overall – though he faced Nelson Piquet in his debut season, the only other World Champion he faced was Nico Rosberg, who comprehensively beat him in his comeback seasons at Mercedes. His teammates during his Ferrari years were the likes of Irvine, Barrichello, and Massa, all in the designated Number Two position which meant they’d give way to Schumacher if asked to. Most controversially, this took place at the 2002 Austrian GP, when Barrichello let Schumacher past on the finish line, to make it clear he deserved the win himself.
Out of the five teammates he’s had, three have themselves been World Champions, and it was his rookie season with McLaren that arguably made this most plain, as he went toe-to-toe with the formidable reigning double world champion, Fernando Alonso
This stands in contrast with recent years at Mercedes when the teammates have been encouraged to fight each other, sometimes even to disastrous consequences for one or even both. One of the most lauded teammate pairings is that of Senna and Prost at McLaren during 1998-9, which was incredibly confrontational and tense; they each won one championship, with Senna winning 14 races to Prost’s 11. However, those achievements are overshadowed by the manner of their respective victories, as each crashed into his championship rival to claim his title, considered an absolute faux pas of sportsmanship, even now.
The most polarised aspect of the debate, however, is how heavily these successes rest on the driver as opposed to the car. Certainly, Mercedes have had one of, if not the most, dominant cars for the past few seasons, but in 2017 and 2018 Ferrari had equally good cars and it was the mistakes of Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas and, most notably, Sebastian Vettel that cost the pair the championship – Vettel certainly had a good chance that year. Schumacher won his five world titles in a row in a car that was arguably the best in the field too though, especially in 2004 where it demolished the competition and can be held to the same standard.
The further you go back to the past, though, the more complicated things get with regard to cars as reliability and crashes played much more of a role – crashes, from the quotidian to the life-threatening (as with Jochen Rindt), and teams certainly seemed more equal. Jim Clark certainly can’t claim to have had the best car, and his achievements are said to be all the more impressive because of it. It is Fernando Alonso, though, who is probably held up as the greatest example of this, having dragged a mediocre Ferrari into championship contention in 2010 and 2013. As such, he has become known, more than any other driver, for wringing everything he could from his cars for years, despite their lack of competitiveness. Interestingly, however, his career choices have been as poor as Hamilton’s have been inspired, though the acrimony he has created at Mclaren, Renault, and Ferrari, as well as the scandals happening at the same time, have contributed to results that do not seem to match his raw talent.
As he’s said after his 7th title at the weekend, he reminds the world that “nothing is impossible”, especially given where he’s come from – the five year old Lewis couldn’t possibly have imagined the heights his adult self has reached.
However you look at it, Hamilton has to be considered one of the greats, even though comparing drivers and cars between eras is so difficult. The immense respect in which talented drivers of past and present, from Niki Lauda to Sebastian Vettel, hold him is surely a testament to this. But what makes Hamilton stand out beyond all of these is what he has done beyond the track, as the first black driver in an extremely white and racist sport as well as being upfront about his difficult financial situation as a child and the struggles he went through coming up to Formula One.
In 2020, in particular, he has forced the sport to confront its lack of diversity and inclusivity, leading many other drivers to speak up in support, even wearing t-shirts bearing Breonna Taylor’s name and drawing attention to the SARS crisis in Nigeria. He has spoken up about the racism endemic in the US, where protests were most widespread, as well as in the rest of the world, and is an advocate of gender equality and trans rights. Though numerous drivers still don’t stand in support of Black Lives Matter, due to it “not being their culture” or other excuses, Lewis Hamilton’s effect on the sport this year and over his career has been so much greater than what he’s done on the track. As he’s said after his 7th title at the weekend, he reminds the world that “nothing is impossible”, especially given where he’s come from – the five-year-old Lewis couldn’t possibly have imagined the heights his adult self has reached.