Let me just be clear from the very start: Lewis Hamilton is an all-time Formula 1 great. Of that, there is absolutely no debate.
That’s not a statement that is any different today as it was when he woke up on Sunday morning, when he only had three world championships to his name. But Sunday’s title triumph in Mexico City is the perfect catalyst to stop and reflect on just what a talent Formula 1 has had on its grid over the past decade.
Records are the easy way to try and make an argument for how good a driver is, but in one sense records can be misleading. It is usually before those records are set that a driver shows what they are all about, and then if the timing is favorable they will find themselves in the right car at the right moment to rack up the pole positions and victories that stand out in the history books.
Of course, my opinion holds little weight. I’ve followed Hamilton closely for three of those four championships and seen him develop into a different character over that time, but I’m not a grand prix driver. Respect from your peers is another gauge of potential greatness, and on the track that’s something Hamilton has in abundance.
There is one man that is currently regarded as one of the best in the world – if not the best – who places Hamilton among the greatest in history, and he shared the same garage at the very start of the Briton’s Formula 1 career.
Before going wheel-to-wheel in battle on Sunday, when asked if he would rank Hamilton among the top five ever in Formula 1, Fernando Alonso replied: “Yes.
“He was able to win in the smaller series before Formula 1, arrive in Formula 1 with a good number of championship trophies in his pocket already, and then in every single F1 season perform very competitively, apart from one or two with Jenson when he had a few issues.
“But Lewis is one of the champions who was able to win with a dominant car like in the last three years, with a good car like in 2010 or 2012, and with bad cars like in 2009 [ED: including, Hungary, below] or 2011. Not all the champions can say that.”
Alonso’s praise is backed up by the fact that Hamilton has won a race in every single season of his Formula 1 career. The ratio has ramped up massively in the recent era of Mercedes domination, but he put himself in that position by being one of the most coveted drivers on the grid courtesy of his displays since his debut at the start of 2007.
In that time, he has not only won races but challenged for championships with the high-downforce cars of 2007 and 2008, with the lower downforce cars of 2009-2016, with a V8 engine, with a V6 power unit, with Bridgestone tires you could push hard on, with Pirellis you need to care for… Whatever the direction Formula 1 has taken, Hamilton has consistently been a frontrunner.
Of course, the 32-year-old has divided opinion on many occasions and continues to do so, often leading to heated debate among racing fans. His lifestyle – and how he displays it – doesn’t always endear him to all, but it allows him to reach far beyond those who closely follow Formula 1. Like all of the greats in any discipline, he transcends the sport.
While flying to the U.S. from Mexico on Monday morning, I got the usual quizzing from the customs agent about my job and reasons for my visit. The second I said I’m a Formula 1 journalist, a smile lit up across the agent’s face and he said: “Now, my man Lewis Hamilton getting it done yesterday, how about that?”
It’s Hamilton’s personality that gives him such a broad appeal around the globe, even if it often also proves more divisive than his performances on track, but this year has definitely seen him develop. He can still confuse or frustrate with sometimes ill-considered statements, but there’s an underlying calm that has come through in 2017 in the face of his title battle with Sebastian Vettel.
Nowhere was that maturity more evident than in Baku this year. Vettel’s red mist moment yielded a shocked reaction from Hamilton, but his statements on team radio remained poised, and he was in full control of his emotions after the race despite coming home fifth, behind his title rival.
It was perhaps a turning point this year, as Hamilton produced a solid drive in recovery from a gearbox penalty in Austria, then dominated his home race at Silverstone. In Hungary, despite still trailing Vettel, he was composed as he asked to be allowed to pass teammate Valtteri Bottas to attack the Ferraris for victory, and remained true to his word in riskily slowing on the final lap to return the position despite the close attentions of Max Verstappen.
At the time that decision was questioned, but after making that call Hamilton won five out of six races, delivered a brilliant second place in Malaysia, and eventually clinched the title in Mexico.
As those results put him in an ever-more commanding position as Ferrari imploded, Hamilton’s enjoyment became more and more obvious. The peak was, of course, Sunday evening in Mexico as he reflected on his achievements, when his child-like passion for racing and winning shone through as the man who often shuns excessive media interaction in the paddock – and does only what he is contractually obliged to – ended a lengthy press conference by hugging those who have reported on him all year.
One of the questions asked about his tally of four titles and if there will be a fifth, which included the response: “I want number five now.”
Greats don’t settle. Greats don’t rest. Greats are never satisfied. It’s why Vettel still believed he could be world champion until he crossed the line on Sunday, and was so dejected afterwards. It’s why Alonso fought tooth and nail for ninth place against Hamilton and then warned him he’ll make life even harder for him next season. It’s why Hamilton says he wants more titles.
Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Jim Clark – all regarded as greats, but all far from perfect. Every one of them made mistakes or had detractors. Genius is flawed.
You can never definitively name the greatest of all time. Debate it all you want, but you can’t leave Hamilton out of the conversation…