Michael Schumacher no longer holds the outright record for the most wins in Formula 1 history. I have to admit, those are words I never thought I’d write.
Aside from never thinking people would be stupid enough to hire me to write words, I honestly felt Schumacher’s benchmark would stand for so much longer. It’s not that it wouldn’t eventually be broken — all records are there to be beaten — but I felt it would see a lot of people start to get closer but fall short.
Take Sebastian Vettel, for example. The previous record that Schumacher beat was Alain Prost’s 51 wins. Prost’s 51st win came in 1993 (he’d held the record for most wins since passing Jackie Stewart’s previous mark of 28 wins in 1987) and it took Schumacher 10 years to surpass it. After another five years, Schumacher had raised the bar to 91.
Despite the Red Bull years, Vettel’s 52nd win to move ahead of Prost on the all-time list only came at Spa in 2018, some 11 years after his full-time entry into F1. Now 33, Vettel’s chances of adding another 40 to his tally to reach Schumacher’s levels looks extremely unlikely. And this is a driver who has had race-winning machinery for much of his career.
So for Lewis Hamilton to match the legendary German should not be understated. And to do it at Schumacher’s home venue of the Nurburgring of all places is particularly apt.
Fernando Alonso ended the Schumacher dominance in 2005 and by the time of his second championship a year later looked like he could well threaten the all-time record. He was just 25 at that point, with 15 wins under his belt already. But the next 14 years would yield just 17 further victories.
At the end of Hamilton’s 25th year, he had 14 wins and one title, one fewer than Alonso on both counts. Leaving McLaren, he had 21 victories, so the next 70 — that alone more than any other driver apart from Schumacher has achieved in F1 — came with Mercedes.
It’s understandably easy to get tired of the dominance of one team and driver. When I was watching Schumacher winning all the time for Ferrari I was frustrated by it. I wanted more people to be as excited by F1 as I was, but instead all of my friends (yes, I know it’s surprising but I do have some) deemed it boring because in their view Schumacher was always winning.
Vettel didn’t quite get the same level of dominance with Red Bull, and certainly not for as long a period of time as Schumacher or Hamilton, but the reaction was similar as he racked up four straight championships. And yet he’s still so far short of Schumacher’s mark.
But it’s clear that the best drivers get themselves in the best machinery and they keep it. Teams gravitate towards them, will be built around them and give them a greater chance of enjoying sustained success.
Schumacher and Hamilton stand side-by-side now because they are so similar in that sense. Schumacher had 19 wins and two titles leaving Benetton, and although he had to wait longer for Ferrari to pull forward into a class of its own than Hamilton did, a few years later the wins came thick and fast.
The dominant team can take its pick of drivers — everyone wants to drive for it and win races — so it’s not by luck that Hamilton and Schumacher were afforded the chance to exploit that machinery.
Granted, there was an element of luck to win number 91, as Valtteri Bottas showed fight at the start but made an error that handed Hamilton an early lead before the Finn was forced to retire, but it’s rarely Hamilton making such an error under pressure. In fact, it’s rarely Hamilton under pressure.
That leads to criticisms that Hamilton has it easy, but for many of his Ferrari wins Schumacher was also not under great pressure. He had sublime victories, but he had plenty of comfortable ones too. Make no mistake, we are witnessing greatness at work. We knew it with Schumacher — even when he wasn’t always making F1 exciting to watch – and it’s the same with Hamilton now.
You don’t have to enjoy it, but I hope you really do respect it.
From here, the question is how quickly he can pull clear to become the outright record holder. That seems inevitable, and Hamilton appears to have many more wins in him. That said, just like I was shocked at how soon Schumacher’s record was threatened, who knows when a new superstar will emerge to raise the bar even higher?
But for now, let’s just enjoy a moment when two of the greatest names in the sport sit side-by-side.