Lewis Hamilton: here’s why he can become the best ever in Formula 1

Lewis Hamilton: here’s why he can become the best ever in Formula 1

In Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton is the man of the year. Or even the man of the decade, given that he’s claimed six of the 12 titles that have been up for grabs between 2008 and the recently-concluded 2019 season. Now he embarks on the pursuit of a record-breaking seventh title, which would propel him to the top of the all-time standings together with Michael Schumacher. Will he become the ‘#GOAT’, as he puts it on social media – the Greatest Of All Time – or is he the GOAT already?

These are typical questions asked during every sporting era: whether you’re talking about Pele or Eddy Merckx, Fangio or Carl Lewis, Maradona, the late great Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, or whoever. Are they great, universal champions to go down in history, or simply the number one practitioners of their respective chosen disciplines? So now, the year of truth comes for Hamilton as he steps onto the threshold of history. Here are five reasons why he is on course to become the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time.

Achievements

Lewis has six world titles, the last one claimed in 2019. The next one? Who knows. But there are many elements that point to only one conclusion: another title will inevitably come, probably very soon. And so Hamilton will join Michael Schumacher at the very top of the all-time rankings, an achievement that Schumacher himself first accomplished when he brought home his fifth world title in 2002, equalling the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio in the history books – who for nearly half a century had been considered to be unbeatable.

There’s only one tiny blot on the landscape: if Hamilton claims his seventh title in 2020, he will have taken 14 seasons to achieve this, following his F1 debut in 2007. Schumacher took less time: he made his F1 debut in August 1991 and clinched his seventh title in August 2004, exactly 13 years later. But these are mere details. Lewis already has the most pole positions of any driver: 88. And his race wins currently total 84. Schumacher is still ahead of him with 91 wins, but it’s hard to see the German’s benchmark remaining intact for much longer.

Speed

Lewis is blessed with natural speed. That’s always been his hallmark: right from karting, when he first captured the attention of McLaren’s former boss Ron Dennis. In 1998, when Lewis was barely 13 years old, Dennis brought him into the McLaren driver development programme, escalating the youngster’s career through Formula Renault 2.0 and the F3 Euroseries, before graduating to GP2 (now called F2) where he was placed on the fast track to a McLaren F1 race drive, at the start of 2007. All the rest is recent history. He’s taken at least one race win and pole position in all the 13 championships he’s contested up to now – which nobody else has ever managed. And that’s all thanks to his mesmerising turn of speed: whether in qualifying, the race, defending or attacking, in the wet or in the dry, on street circuits such as Monaco or Singapore, or on rapid and unforgiving tracks such as Silverstone or Spa-Francorchamps. He’s fast everywhere, all the time.

Attention to detail

There have, of course, been some small mistakes – made in the heat of particularly tense moments – which have occasionally been seen during his career. In 2007, the year of his Formula 1 debut, he was fighting for the title until a significant upset in China, the penultimate race of the season. Hamilton started from pole position and led for 24 laps but made an agonising  mistake coming into the pits on worn tyres and ended up beached in the gravel trap, within sight of his garage. The result: zero points. In the following title-deciding race, he ended up seventh at the finish – thanks also to a bit of confusion from McLaren – while Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen won the Brazilian Grand Prix to claim another world title by just one point, having also won in China.

Another notable mishap was Spain in 2016. Once again Hamilton set off from pole position but was passed by his teammate Nico Rosberg at the first corner. Incensed, he tried to fight back almost immediately, but four corners later the two Mercedes clashed and both retired on the spot. Looking back at it now, there’s no doubt that Hamilton was the quicker driver in Spain, so the lead would have come to him sooner rather than later, perhaps with the use of some strategy as well. Once more, if things had been just a little bit different, he may not have lost another title at the end of the year (which was eventually won by Rosberg with a five-point margin). However, what really cost Lewis the title that year was probably his engine going up in smoke in Malaysia (with five more races to go before the season finish) after leading imperiously for 33 laps. What if…

Leadership

Lewis is a natural leader. Not because he wants to be anybody’s boss, but because he doesn’t accept orders from anyone. His instinctive speed and his results give him a certain untouchability from Mercedes as well as from his immediate team boss Toto Wolff, not to mention the much-missed Niki Lauda, who was constantly teasing him about his clothing or jewellery or diamond piercings. But in the end there wasn’t a lot they could say, because there was no team mate who ever had the consistent upper hand over Lewis. There were a couple of exceptions: Alonso in 2007, when Lewis was a rookie and the Spaniard was already a two-time world champion. And  of course there was the 2016 finale, when Rosberg got the better of him. But that was after an intense season where Rosberg put everything together perfectly, using tactics and commitment that bordered on the fanatical. Nico adopted a strict diet and monk-like existence focussed solely on one goal, while Lewis was out partying and starring at fashion shows all over the world. By the end of 2016, Rosberg had retired.

Mental and physical energy

Lewis’s mental energy seems almost unstoppable. Many years ago the legendary Enzo Ferrari coined a truism that has become part of motorsport folklore: with every son or daughter you lose about a second per lap. Marriage, too, often has a similar effect. And a crazy, whirlwind life can throw even the most talented of world champions off track. But that’s not actually true when it comes to Lewis Hamilton. He breaks all the rules. His life is a hectic merry-go-round of races and overnight flights between Europe and the United States, going from one jet set party to the other, while making VIP appearances in all sorts of unlikely places all over the world.

The Monday after he won the Chinese Grand Prix in April 2019, he was spotted dressed up to the nines at an exclusive party in California, where he seemed as fresh as a daisy after taking advantage of the 14-hour time difference from China to the west coast of the United States, effectively gaining a day thanks to the international date line.

And that’s a metaphor for his whole career. Pulling time from out of nowhere is absolutely his speciality. He answers to no one on the race track and in his private life, which he nonetheless shares in intimate detail on his social channels, propelling him to a level of global recognition that is right up there with the world’s biggest celebrities.

That’s how Lewis has always been up to now, and that’s how he’s set to be into the future – if it’s true that he's currently discussing a five-year extension to his Mercedes contract, involving the sort of astronomical sums that will allow him to continue doing exactly what he wants to do. Both at the world’s race circuits and away from them.

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