Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 November 2019

Lewis Hamilton: Unquenchable desire, a six-time champion, best of his time, but not yet the greatest

This is the era of the Mercedes driver, but he still trails Fangio, Senna and Schumacher in the list of legends

Lewis Hamilton secured his sixth F1 drivers' title with a second-place finish at the US Grand Prix. AFP
Lewis Hamilton secured his sixth F1 drivers' title with a second-place finish at the US Grand Prix. AFP

There can be no question now: this is The Era of Lewis Hamilton.

With a scream on the radio and tears of joy in Austin on Sunday, a man from humble beginnings in a small town not far from London put every racer bar one in his rear view mirror.

It wasn’t the race victory he wanted but it was a typically Hamilton-esque battling performance, forcing his own teammate off the circuit, in the seemingly unquenchable desire to wrap it all up with a win when all he needed was eighth.

With a sixth world title he finally left the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio in his wake. Statistically at least.

He has won twice as many titles as the next best British driver and closing in on the same tally as the iconic Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost put together.

He stands head and shoulders above the current crop in F1. This confirms Sebastian Vettel, for all the early claims for inclusion on the List of Legends, will become a mere footnote to a story of an era belonging to another man.

Like all those who have a genuine claim to greatness Hamilton’s must be based on not just statistics but his feats of daring do. His utter speed.

Perhaps the greatest victory of his career was winning by more than a minute in the lashing rain in Silverstone in 2008, stamping an indelible mark on the minds of everyone, like me, there that day. Performing as Senna had done in similar conditions in Donnington in 1993.

After he climbed out of the car on Sunday Hamilton talked of an unfinished “masterpiece”. And being around as a “pioneer” when the new era of more competitive racing begins in 2021.

But the 34-year-old who has become synonymous with split second decisions knows this greatness owes much to the one decision he had to think long and hard about – the switch from a winning McLaren to an uncompetitive Mercedes.

Under the fading force that was Michael Schumacher, the season before, they had come to nothing.

But Hamilton saw the prevailing wind, a motoring leviathan with a bottomless wallet and German efficiency, staffed by the right people like legendary designer Ross Brawn.

With hindsight it wouldn’t have taken a genius to join that train but it was certainly a gamble Hamilton was brave enough to make.

No-one could have known it was going to pay off so spectacularly. Five titles in six years for Hamilton and a domination for the German marque unrivalled in the sport’s history.

But does the Himalayan pile of winning statistics that has mounted since make the man from Stevenage (well Monaco and LA these days) the greatest of all time?

In an era of insipid regulations how can you stack him up against the mighty Fangio who won nearly half the races he contested? A ruthless racer but a gentle man in an era when drivers regularly lost their lives.

He changed teams four times but the result was the same.

Or Senna, a legend who inspired a messianic following, who bested his teammate, Alain Prost (one of the greatest himself) at Monaco by a clear second in qualifying on the most unforgiving track on the calendar.

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Lewis Hamilton's 2019 season in pictures

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Prost talked to me in Abu Dhabi a few years back about his fears as he left his kit bag before every race, unsure if he would return.

Senna’s legend is not only written in his performances on the track but in his humanity, the genuine caring, the tears for others, his investment in his sport, his world.

I sat with him after his second championship in his hotel room as he pointed to the television and footage of starving children and spoke, in tears, of his difficultly celebrating his lavish gifts and his life in the face of such suffering.

The way the grid lines up in Abu Dhabi in a few weeks' time will bear Senna’s mark because he forced organisers to improve safety and even changed the placing on the pole man to the outside of the first bend.

Hamilton remains a Marmite figure: loved and adored my a legion but disliked by just as many. His relations with the media is brittle and distant.

Hamilton can certainly claim a place among the most famous drivers the sport has ever seen.

His globe-trotting exploits, a string of high profile girlfriends, the dabbling in a life in music and his willingness to share on Instagram have taken the Hamilton message, the Hamilton brand, across the world in a way Senna and Fangio could never have dreamed.

Hamilton unquestionably has a claim to a place among the best known ever.

Can he surpass Schumacher’s seven championships? Almost certainly. At 34 his career has several years to run. Ten titles is not out of the question.

But fans of Senna, Schumacher and Fangio are yet to be swayed.

Hamilton is without doubt the best of his era, and a true great. But the greatest? He has some way to go – and it will not be determined just by what he does on the circuit.

But you can be sure, that race – like every other one he enters – Hamilton will surely be doing his damnedest to win.

Updated: November 11, 2019 03:04 PM

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