Lewis Hamilton is the greatest of the current generation, but has he also gone past Michael Schumacher as the GOAT?
As soon as Lewis Hamilton sealed his fifth drivers' championship and cemented his place as the best driver of the current generation, tongues started wagging about whether Hamilton is the GOAT ("Greatest of all time"). Looking at the stats, Hamilton could arguably stake a claim to that title as well.
He has the record of the highest number of pole positions by some distance now. He has won the championship with two different teams. He is already a five-time WDC and in the near future can overtake Michael Schumacher in terms of number of race wins as well as titles.
In many ways, Hamilton can stake a solid claim to being the greatest in the history of the sport. But like always, the devil is in the detail, and there were many things other than mere stats that made Michael Schumacher the greatest in the history of the sport.
Always the gold standard
As soon as Schumacher stepped on to the grid, he had to fight with the best. In his formative years, he went up against the likes of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell, and in no way was he found lacking in front of them.
In his first full F1 season in 1992, Schumacher ended up beating Senna and finished third in the standings behind the rampaging Williams. By 1994, after Senna's tragic death, he was widely touted as the best driver on the grid and it stayed that way pretty much till the end of his career at Ferrari (his stint at Mercedes post-retirement notwithstanding, as he was nowhere near his prime at that stage).
Although it could arguably be said that Schumacher never had a Fernando Alonso or a Sebastian Vettel to compete with him all the time, what set him apart was the level he was able to establish and consistently perform at. Hamilton, on the other hand, can only now indisputably proclaim to be the best on the grid; before this year, his career had gone through many crests and troughs, and there were times when both Alonso and Vettel could easily have been touted as the best on the grid.
Winning with inferior cars
Taking a car and putting it in places where it doesn't belong - that's what Schumacher and in recent times Alonso tended to do with an uncanny regularity. During the 1997 season, with the margin that Williams had over Ferrari, Schumacher by no means should have been in position to fight for the championship. But in fact, he led the standings heading into the last race of the season.
Schumacher's drives in the wet were class personified. Hamilton to his credit has himself put in some amazing drives throughout his career, but his claim to the title of the best ever has come at a time when he's driving the best car and is part of the best environment possible.
Making Ferrari great again
Ferrari is the most successful team in the history of Formula One. But remove Michael Schumacher's reign, and the statistics go for a toss as both Williams and McLaren would have numbers which are much better.
That was the kind of impact that Schumacher had on Ferrari, and maybe that's why it is not that surprising that Ferrari has won just a single driver's championship since Schumacher left.
Joining Ferrari was a truly unprecedented decision. Very few drivers in the history of the sport, if any, had moved from a championship-winning team to a team which had not won a title for more than a decade.
When Schumacher joined Ferrari the team was nowhere near winning a title. Schumacher, realizing what needed to be done, brought in Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne from Benetton. And after toiling away for as many as five years, he was ultimately able to win the title - having built the team from the ground up.
Schumacher is even credited for laying down the groundwork for Mercedes' current dominance, by none other than Ross Brawn.
Hamilton too deserves praise for his move to Mercedes at a time when many thought it was foolhardy to do so. But the effort and the toil that Schumacher put in to make Ferrari what it is today is just too hard to emulate.
Never beaten by a teammate
Although debatable, there is a clear divergence in the quality of teammates Schumacher had as compared to Hamilton. But one of the parameters to judge how good a driver is, is how he has fared compared to his teammates.
Schumacher on his part never lost to his teammate (until 2006). Hamilton on the other hand has lost a title fight to Nico Rosberg, and he was beaten by Jenson Button in 2011.
In fact, during their time together, Button ended up outscoring Hamilton over their three seasons together. Although it could be argued that both Rosberg and Button ended up being world champions in their own right, when we debate about the GOAT, these things do count.
Statistically, it does seem likely that Hamilton will leapfrog Schumacher - at least in terms of wins. But the impact and consistency that Schumacher showed during his time in the sport is just too hard to rival.
Hamilton, for now, has cemented the claim to be the best driver of the current generation. But the greatest ever? That's a mountain he's yet to scale.