INSIGHT: Divisive? Sure. Best ever? Quite possibly

Image by Andre/LAT

INSIGHT: Divisive? Sure. Best ever? Quite possibly

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Divisive? Sure. Best ever? Quite possibly

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Lewis Hamilton is a divisive figure. That much is obvious.

You only need to look at reader comments or social media replies – probably to this very article – to see how polarizing he can be. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been called a Hamilton fanboy or a Hamilton hater for something I’ve written or said. It’s not unusual to receive both accusations in reply to the same piece.

Last year I wrote how Hamilton had moved from being one of the greats to being a firm candidate for the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time. The reason I did so was because there were still plenty who doubt his credentials. But it feels like those doubts are receding, and that people are starting to appreciate just what they are witnessing right now.

Hamilton has been at the top of his game for so long it has almost become expected that he would win more championships. In the face of stern Ferrari opposition in 2017 and 2018 he eased to titles after the summer break, but this year was different.

Fresh from a tough pre-season, a chastening defeat by teammate Valtteri Bottas in Australia meant Hamilton was stung into action much earlier than in the past, and built a commanding lead in the championship before the halfway point of the year.

It proved crucial, because Mercedes has certainly not had everything go its own way in the second part of the year. Whatever the reasons, it has found itself firmly challenged in terms of outright pace by both Red Bull and Ferrari, with Max Verstappen’s pole position in Hungary kicking off a run of seven straight races without a pole position for Mercedes. That drought only came to an end by the smallest of margins in Austin on Saturday.

And yet Hamilton fought back to win in Hungary, nearly did so again in Belgium next time out and has been a threat for victory in every race bar Singapore, where the Mercedes strategy was as much to blame as anything else.

OK, Bottas beat him to the win on Sunday so it wasn’t the perfect crowning. But it was an impressive drive to secure the championship regardless, and delivered more drama than the last couple of title-deciders.

It’s at times like these that I like to take a step back and look at the way the world reacts, rather than delivering an initial reaction myself. And it’s quite clear there is a growing momentum behind him as a G.O.A.T. candidate.

There are so many different aspects to performance and success in F1 across different eras that I subscribe to the theory that you’ll never be able to objectively compare drivers through the ages, but what I will say is that I never thought I’d be privileged enough to witness any driver getting close to Michael Schumacher’s records.

Their careers only overlapped for a few years, but Hamilton stands poised to overtake what previously seemed like unassailable records set by Schumacher. Image by Ferraro/LAT

What Schumacher achieved was stunning, and a big part of it was the Ferrari juggernaut that Jean Todt, Ross Brawn et al created. It wasn’t always thrilling to watch – as a fan at that time, I’ll admit to having been anti-Schumacher just for the sake of supporting the underdog. But it was ruthlessly effective.

And then Hamilton came along, nearly won his first title in his rookie season, and then became world champion for the first time a year later. At that point, as far off as it was, he did look capable of threatening Schumacher’s records, but there were so many potential roadblocks ahead.

You don’t win one championship through luck, but you might through ideal circumstances. While you need those circumstances to add more titles, you certainly don’t win six without being one of the best that has ever lived.

In 2013, you’d have given Hamilton no hope of challenging Schumacher. A second title hadn’t immediately followed, he’d left McLaren for Mercedes and only picked up one victory – remarkably, he’s won in every season he’s competed in F1 – and Vettel was the man about to notch up a fourth straight championship.

Any vague underdog credentials he might have had were shrugged off once Mercedes got into its stride though. Its dominance in the early part of the V6 turbo era was enormous, and naturally that meant fans were less impressed with titles won in competition with only his teammate.

So it was somewhat understandable when, after Nico Rosberg’s triumph in 2016, there was still plenty of skepticism about Hamilton. But it feels like with each passing title that doubt has faded, and he has convinced more and more people to believe he could be the greatest ever.

The relentlessness of Hamilton’s performances are what make him stand out. Other drivers clearly feel the pressure when fighting him. Vettel is the perfect example of someone who’s prone to overextending himself, because Hamilton’s aura makes him feel that is what is needed to get the better of the Briton. When driving on the edge, such an approach can be costly.

Vettel – himself a multiple world champion – has occasionally overextended himself in his efforts to keep Hamilton in check. Image by Dunbar/LAT

It is far more rare to see Hamilton make a major mistake than his rivals, especially in battle. At the moments when direct driver skill against each other is highlighted, Hamilton so often pushes close to the limit but not over it, keeps it clean and comes out on top. The amount of times it has happened is no coincidence, and it has happened with increasing regularity.

His dips in performance are few and far between, and are so often followed by a strong response. Take Germany, where Hamilton really did have a bad race. One week later in Hungary, he pulled out a stunning drive – aided by strategy this time – to overhaul Verstappen.

While Verstappen and Charles Leclerc signify a new generation that are trying to dethrone Hamilton, so far they only appear to have energized him. He has continued to improve and become more consistent, to the extent that now it feels like a matter of time before he overhauls Schumacher’s records for world championships and race wins.

And Hamilton has done it all while transcending the sport. Whether you’re an F1 fan or not, you know the name Lewis Hamilton. He might not be your cup of tea, but he attracts Hollywood A-listers to want to be in his celebration photos, at the same time as preaching about climate change and the environment, and getting the wider sporting world paying attention.

They’re two examples that highlight exactly why he’s a polarizing figure, but they do not detract from his driving ability. And it’s on that alone that he’s making an argument that is impossible to ignore.

With each win, with each title, with each wheel-to-wheel battle with tenacious young talents or four-time world champions, he cements his legacy that little bit more.

“I’m working on a masterpiece and I haven’t quite finished it yet,” Hamilton said on Sunday night. “So I’m trying to understand… it takes a long time to master a craft, and whilst I feel like I am mastering it, there’s still more to master. There’s still more to add to it. There’s still more pieces to the puzzle to add.”

We really are witnessing a master at work, and have the exciting prospect of being able to watch him search for more of those pieces.

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