Is Lewis Hamilton the greatest of all time?

Lewis Hamilton driving his Mercedes

Having won his sixth world championship, Lewis Hamilton has only Michael Schumacher to surpass in terms of statistics. It’s time to seriously consider if Lewis Hamilton is the greatest driver ever.

It is famously difficult to compare drivers of different eras. For instance, how could we compare Hamilton to Juan Manuel Fangio, whose five world championships he has just bettered.

We also shouldn’t pay attention just to the stats. Ayrton Senna, for instance, is an all-time legend whose career was tragically cut short. His stature in the sport is far greater than his three championships would otherwise suggest.

But the most successful driver of all time, Michael Schumacher, is someone we can more directly compare with Hamilton. Schumacher may have raced in the generation before Hamilton, but F1 was not so different back then. And in fact, Hamilton and Schumacher did race together for three yeas up to 2012, when Hamilton was already in his fifth F1 season.

In terms of the statistics, their careers bear an uncanny resemblance.

For now, the numbers are unquestionably (slightly) better for Schumacher. But for me, there is always a very big asterisk next to many of Schumacher’s championships, if not all of them.

Schumacher’s first title, in 1994, came in a year littered with controversy for his Benetton team. Rumours continue to this day around whether that car was fully legal.

Hamilton, like Schumacher, has often benefited from having the best car. But bear in mind that Hamilton took a risk to move to Mercedes, at a time when many observers felt that staying at McLaren would have been the sensible option. In fact, his move came at the perfect time.

On this, Schumacher at least can be compared favourably to Hamilton. Not only did Schumacher take a risk when he moved to Ferrari, but he had to wait patiently for years while the team was built around him.

While Schumacher’s cars at Ferrari were not quite as controversial as the 1994 Benetton, his five titles with the Scuderia came in the golden era of “Ferrari International Assistance”. Take, for instance, a well-timed intervention in the tyre rules during 2003. This handed the Bridgestone-shod Ferraris an advantage just in time for the final races of the season.

The Bridgestone tyres that Ferrari used were more-or-less bespoke for Ferrari and Schumacher, whose main rivals all used Michelins.

Compare this to today, where not only is there no longer a tyre war, but all drivers have to race with wholly inadequate (often inconsistent and unpredictable) Pirelli products.

Also, Schumacher always — always — had compliant team-mates. If you were Eddie Irvine, Rubens Barrichello or Felipe Massa in the number two Ferrari, your job was to help Schumacher win — no ifs, no buts.

Meanwhile, Hamilton has always had team mates who were racing him for the title. In his first season, he held his own against Fernando Alonso. At Mercedes, his team mate Nico Rosberg was allowed fight as hard as he wanted to — as is Valtteri Bottas.

And Schumacher didn’t get an easy ride from his team mates. The sad fact is that Schumacher’s time in F1 coincided with an unusual dearth of driver talent. A possible rivalry with Ayrton Senna tragically never came to be, leaving the door open for Schumacher domination.

Before Alonso arrived on the scene, Schumacher’s only true rival was Mika Häkkinen. And even the flying Finn only had the motivation to take that rivalry so far.

Beyond that, Schumacher’s closest contenders were people like Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya. They were all decent drivers, but never destined to be thought of as all-time greats.

Meanwhile, for much of Hamilton’s career, he has raced against some truly special competition. He’s seen off Fernando Alonso. He’s bettered Jenson Button and Kimi Räikkönen. He’s endured four years of Sebastian Vettel domination (and has effectively destroyed his reputation over the past two years).

Not to forget that Hamilton also raced against Schumacher himself, albeit when the German was in the twilight of his career.

When Hamilton won his first three world championships, he did so against five other (past or future) world champions on the grid — Alonso, Button, Räikkönen, Rosberg and Vettel. Schumacher never faced this sort of competition.

This all only scratches the surface of why I think Hamilton is clearly a better driver than Schumacher. We have not even touched on Schumacher’s terrible character flaw.

When under pressure, Schumacher’s instinctive reaction was to put other drivers in danger. Whether it was deliberately crashing into rivals Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve in title-deciding races; parking his car to create a roadblock at Rascasse when a qualifying session wasn’t going his way; or barging Barrichello towards a wall at Budapest because he was being threatened for a poxy 10th place.

2002 Austrian GP

There are a host of other “minor” controversies that dogged Schumacher’s career. Be it ignoring penalties, finishing the race in the pitlane to exploit a grey area in the rules, or the embarrassing events of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, and the payback that backfired, the “manufactured dead heat” in the US Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton may not be the most likeable driver (at least in my eyes). But he is at least a clean driver. He knows where the limit is, and he rarely — if ever — goes beyond it.

I haven’t even mentioned Schumacher’s questionable abilities in wheel-to-wheel combat. More often than not, Schumacher found his skills lacking if he ever found himself in the middle of the grid rather than out in front for whatever reason.

Meanwhile, Hamilton’s racecraft is sublime. He knows when to press an issue and when to leave a fight for another day. He is perhaps not the best at preserving his tyres, but he certainly knows how to maximise his strategy opportunities and drive accordingly.

Even on a slightly off weekend like the one he had in Austin this week, he showed a fighting spirit that marks spectacular drivers out. He may have failed to win the race, but he still clinched the title in style.

Is Lewis Hamilton the greatest of all time? It’s difficult to say. But I’m confident in my view that he is definitely better than Michael Schumacher.

Original header photo by Michał Obrochta [CC BY-SA 4.0]

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2 responses to “Is Lewis Hamilton the greatest of all time?”

  1. Clive Allen avatar
    Clive Allen

    You left out perhaps the most telling statistic of all, that Hamilton has won a GP in every year he has been in F1. Many of those years he was in cars that were not really capable of winning races and yet Lewis somehow managed to squeeze at least one victory out of them. No other driver has done that.

    In my humble opinion, Hamilton is, at the very least, the equal of Senna, the driver I previously considered the best.

  2. Thanks for the comment Clive. I think you’re absolutely right. I wrote this post pretty quickly, and truth be told there are lots of other positive things I could have said about Hamilton — like his consistency, his low number of driver error DNFs, and his ability to squeeze results out of poor cars.

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