MEDLAND: Changing the question: From great to the greatest?

Image by Hone/LAT

MEDLAND: Changing the question: From great to the greatest?

Formula 1

MEDLAND: Changing the question: From great to the greatest?


Lewis Hamilton is a five-time world champion.

There are only two men in the history of Formula 1 who can replace Hamilton’s name with their own in that sentence. Juan Manuel Fangio — who Hamilton has now equaled — and Michael Schumacher.

Greatness is not defined simply in the number of titles or wins, but there is no debating that Hamilton is a great of this sport. What you have to ask now is, is he the greatest ever?

I’m not going to try and answer that question directly, because I’m one of those who believes it is unfair to judge drivers of different eras against each other. It’s difficult enough in any sport, but one that involves so much technology and development — where the cars have advanced to a huge extent and are massively different to those of the past — makes accurate comparisons even harder to achieve.

Hamilton reigns supreme. (Image by Daimler AG)

There’s a massive sense of déjà vu to what has just happened in Mexico City. It was at this exact venue 12 months ago that Hamilton pulled level with Sebastian Vettel with four world championships. Again it was Max Verstappen who comfortably won and again it wasn’t a smooth race for Hamilton as he missed out on the podium.

I could almost copy and paste the same comment piece I filed a year ago, because it was all about Hamilton unquestionably being one of the sport’s greats. But I want to pick up on a line I also referenced at this point in 2017:

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.”

It is the manner in which Hamilton has gone about securing that fifth championship that stands out, and places him above all others in F1 right now.

It has seemed inevitable since the Japanese Grand Prix that Hamilton would win the title, such was the margin he enjoyed in the standings. But the way he has somewhat limped over the line is completely out of keeping with the rest of his season.

There was one moment of weakness from Hamilton, and it came at the very start of the year. After letting his level drop once becoming champion in 2017 — seeing Vettel and Valtteri Bottas win the final two races — Hamilton started this season with a dominant pole position, but things didn’t go his way in either Australia or Bahrain.

If he needed any sort of wake-up call, Hamilton got it.

Ferrari looked a more formidable opponent than in 2017 and Red Bull also had a car capable of winning multiple races. By the time we left the Monaco Grand Prix, all three teams had two wins to their name.

Early promise for Vettel faded. (Image by Dunbar/LAT)

Canada saw Vettel ease to victory with Hamilton struggling to fifth place. But far from balking at the challenge he faced, Hamilton rose to it. His performances since have been nothing short of stunning.

Dominant in France, a DNF in Austria would be the last time Hamilton failed to stand on the podium until the day the title was won. And on only three occasions was that anything other than on the top step.

Pole in Silverstone only translated into second place due to first-lap contact with Kimi Raikkonen, while in Belgium finishing second to a quicker Vettel was the maximum possible. In Germany, Hungary and Monza, Hamilton took wins he wasn’t really entitled to.

The 33-year-old has always been an emotional character, but he has found a way of harnessing so much of that energy — regardless of his mood — and turning it into performance on track. His judgment in wheel-to-wheel combat has been nigh-on perfect, and he has risen to another level that I don’t believe many people saw coming midway through this season.

Hamilton rarely failed to maximize his advantage. (Image by Mauger/LAT)

Mercedes of course deserves huge credit for getting the best out of Hamilton. From a driver who many expected to retire early to pursue other interests in life, he is now actively taking on other challenges at the same time as setting records in F1. If anything, it seems to energize him to be designing a clothing line or working on music, because it means he is not all-consumed by racing and arrives at each grand prix with a freshness and enthusiasm that allows him to excel.

Vettel remains one of the most successful drivers F1 has ever seen, and when he performs at his best is a true rival to Hamilton. But what sets Hamilton apart is how often he accesses his best. Think of Vettel, Fernando Alonso or even Max Verstappen. Immense talents all, at different stages of their careers. But now think of how many incidents they have been involved in or times you can argue they made a mistake this year. Now do the same for Hamilton.

Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen crash during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. (Image by Tee/LAT)

It’s all too easy to focus on what Vettel and Ferrari got wrong this year, but it’s important to reflect on how much Hamilton has done right.

There’s another line I want to copy and paste from a year ago: Greats don’t settle. Greats don’t rest. Greats are never satisfied.

Hamilton’s mind when I wrote that was on title number five. Today, he couldn’t even bring himself to celebrate properly because he hadn’t won the race. And his mind is not just on winning the ultimate prize again next year; it’s on two weeks from now in Brazil.

“It’s a weird one — there will be a point this year when we can celebrate, but I don’t even feel like today’s the one,” Hamilton said. “I’ve still got races I want to win and I’ve still got things I want to achieve this year so it’s on to the next one, basically.”

Celebration, but still hunger for more. (Image by Dunbar/LAT)

In that one answer is all you need to know about Hamilton’s mindset: He is addicted to winning. Maybe he thought he would tire of it the more he won and the older he got, but such is his psyche he is simply craving more and more.

That drive could well take him beyond Schumacher’s tally of seven world championships and 91 race victories — the latter is 20 wins away — but what it is also doing is adding ammunition to the argument that Hamilton is the greatest ever, because he keeps getting better.

From a year ago to now, you can’t deny Hamilton has strengthened his case in the conversation.