Is Lewis Hamilton now one of the all-time greats in Formula One?
With his pole position at the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai yesterday, Lewis Hamilton went past Jim Clarke and Alain Prost to take 4th place on the list of all-time pole position winners. With his win today, Hamilton is now joint eighth along with Jim Clark and Niki Lauda on the list of all-time race winners. I am going to call it right now: Lewis Hamilton is not a “good” Formula One driver anymore. He has, in my opinion, officially transcended into the realm of “great” and is now a serious contender for the title of the best driver in Formula One’s post-Schumacher era, alongside Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.
This epiphany might seem premature to some while others might think it has taken me quite some time to come to a rather obvious conclusion. Unfortunately, the modern world plays rather fast and loose with epithets, and words like “great” and “genius” (along with words like “progress” and “development”) have, through repeated use for mundane matters, lost quite a bit of their meaning and gravitas. I therefore reserve the right to call someone a “great”, because in assigning that moniker to a driver, it underscores a tectonic shift in my view of him.
People who think I am jumping the gun might say, “Oh, he has the fastest car by a longshot, of course he’s going to win pole position and the Grand Prix, and most likely the Championship!”.
Nevertheless, I believe that his performance with a dominant car counts as one of the most important metrics of measuring driver greatness. Many people think the one true crucible that separates a good driver from a great one is their performance when they go from having the fastest car on the grid to one that is maybe third or fifth fastest. Formula One history resounds with examples of heroic drivers who took cars that deserved nothing more than to fester in mid-pack doldrums, and miraculously challenged or even defeated the reigning constructor czars of their day.
The most recent example of this phenomenon was Fernando Alonso’s second place finish in the 2012 F1 World Championship, where he defied Sebastian Vettel’s all-conquering Red Bull all the way to the final race of the season, losing the title by just 3 points. Alonso won 3 Grands Prix and 2 pole positions, in addition to 13 podium finishes, in a Ferrari that in the hands of his teammate – the not exactly slow Felipe Massa – came in 7th in the championship, stuck in a sort of no man’s land between the much quicker Red Bulls and McLarens above him and definitely slower Mercedes and Force Indias below him.
The definitive example of this sporting trope comes from Ayrton Senna’s 1993 season, where he challenged the much quicker and technologically enhanced Williams of Alain Prost in a far weaker McLaren. Many F1 fans regard this season as the moment when Senna went from being regarded as the best driver of his era to being hailed as possibly the greatest of all time.
But many of us fail to acknowledge that the reverse holds equally true; to gauge greatness we need to see what a driver can do when he has things working in his favour for once. Good drivers win a championship solely because they’re driving the fastest car on the track; great drivers make use of that fast car to look utterly invincible. Think of Jenson Button and the monstrous Brawn GP car of 2009; he won 6 of the first 7 races in the season, with 4 pole positions. Over the course of the season, the other constructors, particularly Red Bull Racing, caught up; however, those early wins gave Button enough of a points advantage in the championship that he took the title with a race to spare despite managing only 2 podium finishes in the next 10 Grands Prix.
Despite Button taking the title comfortably, by the end of the season, both Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel had managed to equal his number of pole positions. It was evident that Button’s win was thanks to the speed of the car, his skill while good enough to beat his teammate, was not such that it left the competition in the dust.
Compare that performance with how the truly great drivers won their championships while riding in the quickest contraption in the paddock: Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel won 13 races apiece in 2004 and 2013 respectively. In the 48 Grands Prix held between 1988 and 1990, Ayrton Senna won pole position an astounding 36 times, in addition to winning two World Championships. Great drivers, when presented with the opportunity to drive the quickest car on the grid don’t just win, they curb stomp their opponents. And that is what Lewis Hamilton is doing now.
In his rookie season in 2007, a single point cost Hamilton a title that he perhaps deserved to win. The following year, he won the championship by a single point, infamously ruining the premature celebrations in the Ferrari pits with a last-lap overtake. Since then, he has stared despondently at the back of dominant Brawn GP and Red Bull cars, while still racking up pole positions and wins every season. His move to Mercedes in 2013 revealed a startling amount of foresight; Hamilton was aware that the Mercedes GP team was better prepared for the 2014 regulations than anyone else on the paddock and by integrating himself into the team early, ensured he was in pole position (no pun intended) to capitalize on the opportunities this season would present him.
And capitalize he has; with 3 pole positions and 3 race wins in 4 races this year, Lewis Hamilton looks set to take the championship. Nico Rosberg’s consistent second place finishes see him keep a slender 4-point lead at the top of the championship, but one more win for Hamilton or a non-finish for Rosberg is all Lewis needs to ascend to the top of the leader board.
The question F1 fans ought to start seriously considering now is what manner of victory will Hamilton’s be, for if his form continues in the manner we have witnessed so far, Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher’s records for most pole position and race wins in a season look to be in some serious jeopardy.
Lewis Hamilton’s pole laps and race performances have been about more than just blistering pace; they are underscored by a consistency and maturity that was lacking in his early seasons. He now comes with the experiences of seven seasons in Formula One, seasons where he was the favourite to win the championship and lost, where he won a championship at the last possible moment, seasons of disappointing performances in cars that were well off the required pace, and where he spent more time in the steward’s office than on the track.
These trials have smelted and re-forged the character and approach of Lewis Hamilton, making him sharper, stronger, tougher, and more determined. It would require nothing short of a miracle to stop him from winning the 2014 Formula One World Drivers’ Championship and officially cementing his place as one of the greatest drivers of his generation.