There have been amazing drivers in Formula 1 history, and its dedicated fans have been good at recognizing their greatness. Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher represent some of the all-time great drivers of the sport. But there is a current driver who is beloved by many, disrespected by some, but feared by everyone: Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton, the reigning Formula 1 World Champion, is a Top 5 driver of all-time.
Why Lewis Hamilton is a Top 5 driver of all-time and it isn’t exactly the reason you think
Last season (2017) was a great year for Lewis Hamilton. The 33 year-old British driver became the first Briton to be crowned as four-time champion in F1 and earned a lot of respect from most of the people who know the sport. Hamilton showed in the hard-fought battle with Sebastian Vettel that he is at the prime of his career and beating him would be a tall task.
The German, a four-time champ himself, couldn’t match the consistency and speed the Englishman was able to carry through the 20 race-long season. Psychologically, Hamilton had the edge too, his cold-blooded approach at every event was one of the great abilities shown by the Mercedes driver.
Hamilton is a Top 5 driver of all time and there should not even be any doubt. Can you think of a sport where an individual is Top 3 in the most important statistic (championships in this case), Top 2 in the second most important statistic (race wins), record-holder for the third most important statistic (pole positions) and Top 2 in the fourth most important number (podiums) and not be considered, at least, as a Top 5 all-time performer? Surely, there is no other answer to this, Lewis Hamilton is a Top 5 driver in the 68-year old history of Formula 1. Here is the main reason that helped the Stevenage-born driver to reach that level of greatness.
Hamilton’s years at McLaren tell us most of his F1 story. Of course championships are ultra important, but they don’t speak for themselves. Not every champion is a great champion, nor the amount of titles always dictates a driver’s quality.
Here’s why Hamilton was already a top driver of all-time and his present at Mercedes only confirms that statement.
The McLaren years:
The Debut Season
Hamilton’s first season at the pinnacle of motorsport was in 2007 with McLaren-Mercedes and his teammate was Fernando Alonso. Alonso won his two championships (2005, 2006) with Renault and was going to be McLaren’s top card for the 2007 championship, but the young Hamilton had other plans.
At the end of the year, Hamilton could not beat Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to the title and lost it by 1 point, with the last two races in China and Brazil being a disaster for the British driver. A mismanagement of the tires in China and a gearbox problem in Brazil ended his title hopes. But his year was far from a bad one.
Hamilton was the greatest debutant in history, he tied the record for the most wins in a first season (4 wins) and scored 6 pole positions, dismantling Alonso on Saturdays. The Spaniard had only two poles and lost to Hamilton 10-7 overall in qualifying. Since then, Alonso just lost a Saturday battle with one of his teammates, Jenson Button in 2015. That season his McLaren-Honda was a real disaster and, really, couldn’t even run a few laps.
Hamilton’s first year showed his skills and his race craft, which were both top notch. He tied with Alonso on points, but had the advantage because of the amount of second places he achieved.
The First Championship
In 2008, the Englishman won his first championship in a close fight with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. The Brazilian pushed Hamilton to the limit in Brazil, where Hamilton overtook Timo Glock’s Toyota at the last corner of the last lap of the last Grand Prix to seal his title by one point.
Hamilton’s 2008 McLaren-Mercedes, the MP4-23, was nowhere near Ferrari’s performance. A testament to that is Heikki Kovalainen‘s (Hamilton’s teammate) position in the championship. The Finnish driver ended in seventh place overall, This was the fourth time since 1981 (and the first since 1985) where a driver wins the championship and his teammate ends up seventh or lower.
Nelson Piquet was the champion in 1981 and 1983 and in both seasons finished with his teammate in ninth place. Mexico’s Héctor Rebaque was ninth in 1981 (15 starts and 9 DNF, 5 car failures included) and Ricardo Patrese ended ninth in 1983 (15 starts and 10 retirements).
It occurred again in 1985 when Alain Prost won his first championship and Niki Lauda suffered with the McLaren and was tenth in the standings. Considering Lauda started 14 races and had 11 DNFs (9 for mechanical failures), one has to assume it wasn’t a typical year in F1 history. Those years differ a lot with 2008. Kovalainen only had three retirements in 18 races, but was just overwhelmed by his teammate’s driving skills.
Also, Hamilton’s 2008 championship year hasn’t been dissected like other champions seasons has been. The Englishman won the drivers’ crown and his team fell short of Ferrari in the constructors’ championship. This has only happened 9 other times since 1958 (the year the constructors’ championship was introduced) and, to date, is the only time in the 21st century. Again, Top 5 performer of all-time.
Struggles at McLaren? Think again
From 2009 to 2012, McLaren wasn’t able to be in the title fight, 2009 and 2011 because of pace differential with the top teams, and 2010 and 2012 because of reliability issues. In those years, Hamilton won 12 races and was on pole 13 times. Those numbers were beaten only by drivers who were able to win championships in that span, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button. Another example of Hamilton’s ability is the qualifying pace, as he scored 13 poles in those years. His teammates (Kovalainen in 2009 and Button from 2010 to 2012) sat at the front just once, Button in Spa 2012.
When people talk about Lewis Hamilton’s greatness, they talk about his Mercedes present, but his story began at McLaren-Mercedes, where he also performed at a high level and cemented a part of his legacy. This has only got enhanced by his five seasons spent at Mercedes. As a Mercedes driver, he has won three championships with 41 wins and 46 poles in 98 races.
At Mercedes, Lewis’ success has been recognized and praised by every person related to motorsport, mainly, because of the winner take all mentality, which is a big, and bad, part of the sport. People tend to love the guy who’s winning and demolish those who aren’t able to compete because of circumstances. That is exactly the reason most of the people recognize Hamilton’s F1 career now, but there’s more than that.
His constant winning with the Silver Arrows, the highlights and the championships will normally be the story of a book which includes many more accomplishments. But were those achievements reached when the circumstances were far from perfect, the ones that turn a good Formula 1 career into a legendary story.
Don’t get it wrong, the Mercedes’ years are mega important for the reigning champion’s story in Formula 1, but they don’t tell the full fairytale. That fairytale started at McLaren and has been burnished at Mercedes.
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