Last Sunday, Nov. 3, Lewis Hamilton finished second in the United States Grand Prix to seal the 2019 Formula 1 World Championship. The championship is Hamilton’s sixth, five of which have come in the last six years, and he is now just one short of the great Michael Schumacher’s seven, a record most thought unbeatable only a few years ago. At 34 years of age, Hamilton still has enough time left to catch up to or even surpass Schumacher’s record. The time has come to ask the question: Is Lewis Hamilton the greatest racing driver of all time?
Everyone knew Hamilton was talented when he entered Formula 1 in 2007, but even his strongest proponents couldn’t have imagined what he would go on to accomplish. In his rookie season, paired with the reigning double world champion Fernando Alonso (the man who ended Shumacher’s historic run of five consecutive titles), Hamilton began the year with nine straight podiums, beat Alonso and finished second, missing the title by just one point. Hamilton would win his first-ever title just the following year, but after a few slightly less successful years in a subpar car, though he still never finished lower than fifth, he switched teams to Mercedes in 2013.
The move turned out to be a stroke of genius, as Formula 1 transitioned to its turbo-hybrid engine era in 2014 and Mercedes found themselves with the fastest car on the grid. With his Mercedes teammate as his only serious challenger, Hamilton won the 2014 and 2015 championships easily, and after another rules change in 2017, he has yet to be beaten again.
Hamilton already holds the record for most pole positions, and he has won over half of all races since the 2014 hybrid era. With 83 career victories, he should easily pass Schumacher’s record of 91 before his career is over. Whether he wins more championships remains to be seen, but most numbers already point to him as the greatest of all time. So is he?
Despite Hamilton’s success, there are other factors to consider, primarily his car. His Mercedes has undoubtedly been the best car since 2014, and although Ferrari has been much closer of late, Mercedes has still won the constructor’s championship each year. Essentially, more often than not the only real competition Hamilton has to contend with is his teammate, whom he failed to beat when Nico Rosberg took the 2016 championship in Hamilton’s sister car. Beyond Rosberg beating him to the title in 2016, Hamilton’s teammates have finished directly behind him in the standings for three of his six championships. In contrast, Schumacher’s teammates only finished directly behind him twice in his seven championships, and no driver ever won a championship as his teammate. Essentially, it is impossible to argue that Hamilton’s dominant Mercedes car has not played a monumental role in his success.
But it is not just Schumacher people point to as Hamilton’s GOAT competition. Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian legend, has three titles to his name, and it was his record of pole positions that Hamilton recently surpassed. However, while both Hamilton and Schumacher had time on their side, Senna’s career was cut short after a fatal accident at San Marino in 1994, at the same 34 years of age that Hamilton is now. Senna was a humanitarian and charitable ambassador of the sport and his country, and was already a legend before his passing. Those who watched him claimed he possessed car control like no other. He drove with the ruthless passion that God himself had placed him on the earth to win, something he firmly believed. There is no stat to sway any Senna supporters from their belief in his GOAT status. In contrast, Hamilton’s dedication has often been questioned as he travels around the world promoting his fashion line or hanging with celebrities, though his hobbies have seemingly had no effect on his racing results. His tendency to question strategies or race developments over the radio has also led many to label him as a whiner.
But any athlete with historic success, from Brady to Lebron to Serena, is divisive within their sport, and finds themself hated by a multitude of fans for different reasons. Hamilton is no different, and as long as he continues winning at his current clip, how could anyone question his dedication or care that he has a passion for fashion? Perhaps Schumacher never had as dominant a car as Hamilton, and Mercedes really is exceptionally good, but nobody plays down Brady’s super bowls because he happens to play for the greatest coach. Hamilton may not inspire the way Senna did, but Hamilton now has six titles to his name at the same point Senna had three, and the best per-race winning percentage since the 1960s, when the sport was markedly different.
With Ferrari strong in the second half of 2019, and another big rules change looming in 2021, Mercedes’ days of dominance are surely numbered, and Hamilton’s greatest challenges are likely yet to come if he wants all to call him the GOAT. But he doesn’t have to do much more to get my vote.