Online Sport Editor Harry Scott-Munro assesses whether Lewis Hamilton should be considered Formula 1’s greatest ever driver.
Victory at the Portuguese Grand Prix saw Lewis Hamilton secure his 92nd Grand Prix victory, surpassing the legendary Michael Schumacher’s previous mark of 91 that many thought would never be beaten. Such is his dominance this season that he also remains on course for a record-equalling 7th World Drivers Championship that would represent his sixth in seven seasons. But when compared to some of Formula 1’s other great’s, where does he stand in the pantheon of legendary drivers?
The Case For:
From a statistical standing, few can match Hamilton. At the time of writing, following the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, his 93 wins from 263 race starts, equates to a win percentage of 35.36%, only bettered by Alberto Ascari (39.39%) and Juan Manuel Fangio (46.15%.)
He sits behind only Michael Schumacher when looking at consecutive seasons with at least one Grand Prix victory, currently sitting on 14 consecutive seasons, one behind Schumacher’s record that he will expect to equal in 2021, such is the dominance of his Mercedes car.
Hamilton holds the most pole positions in Formula 1 history with a staggering 97, 29 ahead of nearest challenger Schumacher, underlining Hamilton’s blistering one-lap pace and ability to unlock the potential of the car at his disposal when it matters most.
He also sits second to Schumacher for the most fastest laps in the sports history with 53. He holds the record for most podium finishes in Formula 1 too, with 162 podiums, at a staggering percentage of 61.6% which is only bettered by Juan Manuel Fangio (67.31%) when looking at drivers that have completed 10 or more races.
Hamilton also sits atop the standings when it comes to total career points, amassing 3713, over 600 clear of nearest challenger Sebastian Vettel. He also holds the record for most races finishing in the points (226) and occupies first and second on most consecutive races finished in the points (46 and 33.) Hamilton also sits atop the tree when it comes to the percentage of races finished in the points with 85.93%. His pedigree in races also means he holds the record for the most average points per race started with 14.12.
Hamilton has led the most races from lights to flag in history with 22, 3 above his idol, the legendary Ayrton Senna. He has led at least one lap in 160 of the Grand Prix that he has competed in. Hamilton has secured pole position and victory in 57 races, 17 ahead of Schumacher.
As a rookie in 2007, he equalled Jacques Villeneuve’s record of 4 wins in a first championship season, all while competing against then double reigning World Champion Fernando Alonso as his teammate. In his debut season, he secured 9 consecutive podium finishes, an accolade that has never been matched. In 2008, he secured his first World Drivers Championship, in just his second season in Formula 1, matched only by Villeneuve. The final statistic of note is that Hamilton has won at more circuits (29) than any other driver and at the most different Grand Prix (28.)
Hamilton’s race craft is also undeniable. His ability behind the wheel nowadays sees him rarely matched by anybody in the current field. Notable performances include his stunning first British Grand Prix win in 2008 that saw him finish a remarkable 68 seconds ahead of second placed Nick Heidfeld and lap everybody in the field barring the other two podium places in treacherous conditions. If his dominance of the field in near-undriveable conditions showed Hamilton’s mastery of the car and the conditions, his 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix victory, now known as the ‘dual in the desert,’ between himself and teammate Nico Rosberg, showed his unrelenting speed and ability when it comes to wheel to wheel combat. After a safety car incident had condensed the pack, Hamilton faced the seemingly impossible task of keeping his teammate behind him, all whilst on tyres that were on average one second per lap slower than Rosberg’s. What followed was a dual for the ages, both drivers taking the lead before losing it again, in one of Formula 1’s greatest battles for a race victory. Hamilton’s mastery of the car and his ability in wheel to wheel combat eventually won out, securing him his 24th race victory of his career.
The Case Against:
Rather than purely critiquing Hamilton, instead, one must look at the fact that statistics don’t ever tell the full story. For all Hamilton’s success and ability, he has been someone who has at times struggled to get the best out of a car when it was underperforming. There was a gap of 6 seasons between Hamilton’s first and second World Drivers Championships, that saw him make the move from McLaren to Mercedes AMG in 2013. For all his ability, Hamilton, when faced with direct competition from talented teammates in equal machinery, has sometimes wilted. Against both Jenson Button in 2011 and Nico Rosberg in 2016, Hamilton struggled to live with the unrelenting consistency of his teammates, finishing behind them both in those championship years. When faced with a more skilful teammate, Hamilton has had a tendency to at times, lose his nerve.
Despite Hamilton’s dominance of the sport in recent years, it remains difficult to pick out many moments or victories that make you sit up and take notice. When Hamilton joined the Mercedes works team in 2013, he knew where their development was heading for the turbo-hybrid era. The same cannot be said of Michael Schumacher who, after two World Titles with Benneton joined a beleaguered Ferrari team and set about, alongside Ross Brawn, rebuilding the Scuderia, eventually winning an unmatched five consecutive World Drivers Championships. For all Hamilton’s ability, he has been unable to rebuild a team from the doldrums in the same way Schumacher did.
Another name that must surely be talked about in the greatest driver equation is Hamilton’s idol, the late Ayrton Senna. His three world titles and 44 race wins don’t match up to Hamilton’s statistics, but Senna is widely regarded to be one of the greatest drivers in the sport’s history due to his race craft, unrelenting desire to win, unmatched ability in the wet and pure genius when it came to setting up a race car. Modern day Formula 1 cars are complicated machines, set up by multiple mechanics and engineers. The cars of the 80s and 90s that were driven by the likes of Senna relied a lot more on the ‘feel’ of the driver, with the driver taking the lead on setup and car design, something Senna was a master of that few could match.
In terms of race craft and feel of the car beneath him, few can match the late, great Jim Clark. The British driver had a habit of jumping in any car, in any category and immediately competing for victories. He secured 25 victories from 73 race entries and two world titles in Formula 1. Clark’s love for the adrenaline of speed and racing though was unmatched. His ability to jump into any car in any category and immediately be competing at the front of the field was simply spellbinding. Sir Jackie Stewart said of Clark, after his tragic and untimely death in April 1962 at just 32 years of age, that his ability ‘was so delicate and so convincing,’ highlighting the regard Clark was in is still held in to this day.
Statistically, Juan Manuel Fangio secured five Drivers Titles in seven seasons with four different teams. The Argentine won 24 of the 52 races he was entered into, and was revered as one of the most consistently fast drivers in Formula 1 history, described by Hamilton himself on matching his five world titles at the ‘godfather of our sport.’
So, is Hamilton the greatest ever? In this writer’s opinion, he is not, despite certainly being a notable name in the pantheon of motor racing greats. It very much comes down to what you judge as the barometer of greatness. Even in this article alone, legendary names such as Nikki Lauda, Alain Prost and Fernando Alonso have been excluded where others may have included them. As a racing fanatic that revels in watching the classic races of the past, where the ability of the driver was worth so much more than the strength of the car, as in modern day Formula 1, it is very difficult to say Hamilton is the greatest ever. Indeed, it is incredibly difficult to reach a definitive conclusion across the many eras of the sport. Hamilton is certainly one of the most gifted and successful drivers Formula 1 has seen. But, when compared to the ability of the likes of Senna and Clark behind the wheel, in cars that were far less dominant than the one Hamilton currently finds himself in, it is very difficult to name him as the sport’s greatest ever.