Is Lewis Hamilton the greatest Formula One driver of all time?

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“Records are there to be broken”, Mick Schumacher, the son of Michael Schumacher and the current leader of the F2 Championship tweeted, quoting his father on 11th October after presenting the six-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton with one of his father’s Mercedes helmets. Hamilton had equalled Michael Schumacher’s career record of 91 race wins.

It was a record that Hamilton was inevitably going to equal and go beyond in a 2020 season which has seen him and the Mercedes team more dominant than ever.

Indeed, Hamilton went on to exceed Schumacher’s win record at the Portuguese Grand Prix at Portimão, his eighth win in the 12 races so far. Portugal is a country in which Formula One had not previously raced since 1996, when Hamilton was only 11 years old.

Hamilton’s current 92-race win record is the same as two prior greats Ayrton Senna (41 wins) and Alan Prost (51 wins) combined, and amounts to almost five years’ worth of races.

Hamilton currently sits 77 points ahead of his teammate Valtteri Bottas and 94 ahead of Max Verstappen of Red Bull, the two drivers which can be arguably considered his only current competition and with only five races left in the shorter Covid-19 season it looks almost inevitable Hamilton will match Schumacher’s record of the number of World Championships held: seven. This would also be Hamilton’s fourth consecutive World Championship win, matching the record held by Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Juan Manuel Fangio.

This has led to discussion around if Hamilton can now be considered the best Formula One driver of all time, which to say the least is a controversial and difficult topic, especially across eras and in a sport in which so much more than the driver alone is relevant.

Hamilton himself has said such debate is “not important” to him, however it remains a rife discussion among fans and the media.

Hamilton can be said to have had the best car for the majority of the past seven seasons and debatably most of his career, which many attribute to his success and use to argue against his fan-appointed title as ‘the best driver’. Notably, F1 legend Sir Jackie Stewart recently said that “the car and the engine are now so superior that it’s almost unfair on the rest of the field”.

However, this is an argument which cannot really be used against Hamilton, considering the same could be said to be true for Schumacher who dominated at Ferrari from 2000 to 2005. Additionally, many other ‘greats’ of the sport such as Fangio also benefitted from having the best car on the grid for several seasons.

However, even when considering Hamilton’s Mercedes’ drive, his skill cannot be denied as seen through comparison between him and his teammates at Mercedes, Nico Rosberg and Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton won more races overall during his shared time at the team with Rosberg, beating Rosberg by 38 wins to 22, even despite Rosberg’s 2016 World Championship win.

A similar same gap in consistency and success is seen today with his current teammate Bottas, with Hamilton having well over four times the number of wins during their shared time at the team.

Therefore, Hamilton cannot be said to be solely successful because of the car. However, he can be said to have utilised it to his advantage.

Hamilton’s critics may also add the fact that the current Formula One calendar is much longer than in the eras of Schumacher, Senna, Fangio, Prost and many of the other greats, enabling Hamilton to make and break records much faster. Another part of the recent statement made by Sir Jackie Stewart echoed the sentiment – “I don’t think that you can account the sort of level of success, just because today there are 20, 22 races.” This increase in season length can however be argued to have made the season tougher for drivers.

With the ever-developing nature of the sport, the cars have changed immensely and become extremely different to the eras of Schumacher, Fangio and more, leaving them incomparable; with vast safety improvements and technological changes, such as the introduction of hybrid cars in 2014. There have also been regulation and circuit changes which add to the difficulties of comparison.

These developments evidently display the complexities of comparing between eras, which can easily spiral out to long and complex lists with no clear answers. This leaves the title of ‘greatest driver’ to a matter of opinion, not stats.

However, it is safe to say Hamilton is certainly a ‘great’ and one of the best, achieving these records during a Covid-19-disrupted year and all the while bringing important issues to the forefront of the sport. Hamilton has supported the Black Lives Matter movement, the #WeRaceAsOne campaign and The Hamilton Commission, which in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering aims “to explore how motorsport can be used as a vehicle to engage more young people from black backgrounds with STEM subjects and, ultimately, employ them on our teams or in other engineering sectors”.

Undoubtedly Hamilton is far from finished in F1 yet, with no one knowing how far he will extend his records. Only time will tell how his legacy is looked upon as with other ‘greats’ gone by.

Image: Axle Stand via Flickr

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