Lewis Hamilton has joined Michael Schumacher on an astonishing 91 wins in Formula 1. And it inevitably started conversations about is he the greatest ever? Where does he sit among the greats of Formula 1? Is he really as good as Schumacher? When he breaks the win record, which is a win rather than an if, will Lewis then be the greatest of all time?
He’s almost certainly going to equal Michael on seven titles at the end of this season, he’s going to have more than probably 100 wins by the time he stops F1 or maybe even by the time we get to the end of the 2021 season so he’s going to be probably standing on his own as statistically the most successful driver all the time but people doubt whether he merits that because of the advantage that he has in the Mercedes.
I understand where that point of view comes from. It’s not something I subscribe to. Not because I think Lewis is the greatest ever, but because I think it’s very unfair to talk him down for the quality of his team, and his car. He plays a part in Mercedes being able to sustain this level of dominance. He is a serious driving force behind the scenes.
So, is Hamilton going to be the greatest ever? I don’t think so, because I don’t think there is a single-greatest ever.
It’s hard enough to make comparisons in any sport, even in ball sports like basketball or football or hockey, or in athletics, because generation by generation athletes improve. They have to, because understanding of everything becomes better, nutrition becomes better, training methods become better, and the standard as a whole becomes better.
If you were going to do a like-for-like comparison of racing drivers, simply comparing them from their eras, probably everyone on the current F1 grid is better than the world champions of the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc. And that isn’t meant to disrespect them because they achieved incredible, incredible things. But why should they be as good as the drivers are now? Drivers now are wholly dedicated to it, they spend their entire childhood and teenage years developing as drivers they have crazy levels of data and information to inform what they do. It’s impossible not to be better now than it was back then.
This is why I think comparing the generations is wrong. You can’t hold the circumstances of a driver’s specific era against them in a comparison that spans decades of development, you should only judge them within the era they competed. The other factors are too different.
So is Hamilton the best of his generation? There’s a very good argument that he is, he is an incredible all-round package, and probably only someone like Fernando Alonso is on that same level. But anyway, Hamilton’s place among the greats is a red herring when it comes to celebrating his achievement.
I understand why it’s boring to see the same person and the same team constantly win races. I grew up as a fan when Michael was winning, and I had enormous admiration for him initially because I was an aspiring racing driver as a kid in karts and everyone wanted to be like Michael, because this is the guy who’s winning all the time. But the more I watched F1, the more bored I was.
The first driver and probably the only driver I’ve ever really been a fan of is Jenson Button, partly because he was the top Brit in 2004 but mainly because he was the guy fighting the Ferrari. So I’d cheer for Button because I was fed up of seeing Schumacher win all the time.
But now when I look back on it, the more I’ve been able to understand the nuances of racing, the more I’ve just been able to just respect and admire what Schumacher could achieve. I really wish I’d been able to see that for what it was at the time, and enjoy it, rather than try to piece together some iffy memories and pretend I loved it and remember his last wins. Because what he did is phenomenal, and you can’t lose sight of that.
And I hope people take that into consideration and do the same for Hamilton now.
But don’t take my word for it. Here are some testimonies from people who have a much better understanding than I do!
Mika Hakkinen: “To win races and a World Championship requires many things, including a great car, strong team-mate and excellent team of people to support you, and Lewis has benefitted from all of those things at Mercedes. But you also have to perform yourself, because no matter how good your car is, you have to do the driving, operate the systems in the right way, execute the right strategy and, most importantly of all, be a really good racing driver.
“Lewis’s ability to deliver victories, and then to repeat them over time, starting at the age of 21 and continuing now that he is 35, is no easy task. I know how much energy it took to win the title twice, and when I stopped racing in Formula 1 I knew it was the right moment – at 33 – so no one should think that what Lewis has done is simply a question of having the best car. It requires ability, fitness, application and focus to keep on winning, and clearly Lewis has found the way to do that. “
Max Verstappen: “It’s an incredible achievement because I think 91 wins, everyone thought that was almost impossible to reach, right? To be there now, himself, it’s incredible and very impressive. And I’m pretty sure there will be some more victories coming his way – and probably also championships. It’s just very impressive. And hard to beat.”
Daniel Ricciardo: “91 wins, you’re talking nearly five years worth of races. That gives perspective, how much success Lewis has now had. Obviously Michael as well. To do it, week-in, week-out as well, and year-on. His career now has been well over a decade in the sport and to keep coming back and to show that level of consistency at the front, that’s also not easy.
“I think us up here I think we understand that. You can have a package and a car to do it, but it’s doing it every weekend when the lights go out. It’s easier said than done. Big respect.”
Ross Brawn: “Michael always said that records are there to be broken, but I admit I didn’t expect to see this one broken so soon. And I can’t imagine Lewis is going to stop here. The way he’s going, he will raise the bar in the next few years to a level that will be astonishing.
“Michael was a driver who was very dramatic on track in many ways and had a very quiet persona away from the track. Lewis is almost the opposite – quiet but lethal in terms of delivery on track but his flamboyance comes out away from the track. You couldn’t have two more different characters. Both have achieved an astonishing accomplishment.”