Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 29 November 2020

The most successful? Sure, but is Lewis Hamilton really the greatest of all time?

His victory in Portugal took him to 92 F1 wins - the same amount as Senna and Prost combined

And so we are finally there. Lewis Hamilton’s gallop through the record books has finally taken him to the very head of one of the most exclusive lists in world sport.

Win number 92 is one more than the mighty Michael Schumacher – and close to five entire seasons of winning.

There is some perspective to be had when you consider he has won as many races as the men fourth and fifth on the all-time list, combined: Ayrton Senna (51) and Alain Prost (41).

Interestingly his 92 wins exactly equals the combined career tallies of Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Sir Jackie Stewart and Stirling Moss. Few would argue all of those names sit comfortably with the moniker of ‘legend’.

There are those who would argue one or other of them is the Greatest of All Time (GOAT). Hamilton has the same win total as the lot.

But how to compare Hamilton’s high-tech achievements with those of men racing 50 years before in open-faced helmets made of cork and shirt sleeves?

In those days there were less races in a season and the price of a mistake was usually far higher, if not fatal.

But for those who want to argue the case for Hamilton, the statistics are certainly there. He is only 10 wins short of the rest of the grid put together.

Barring disaster he will win this year’s championship to equal Schumacher’s seven and is favourite to be the first to make eight given car design is largely unchanged in 2021.

But ‘greatness’ is subjective. A win total is a matter of fact but what is ‘great’ to you may not be so to others.

I have long argued statistics are no automatic measure of greatness. Success, yes, but greatness? No.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton after his historic victory in Portugal on Sunday. PA
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton after his historic victory in Portugal on Sunday. PA

I have always refused to consider Schumacher for inclusion in my top five GOAT, or perhaps even top 10 because of the manner of his dominance.

He won in the best car, a car shared with one other driver who was contractually not given the same chance. And sometimes told to lose.

So Schumacher is champion of the ‘people called Michael Schumacher driving in a Ferrari’ championship. A one-man championship. Is that your measure of greatness?

There is a case to be put, though, that Schumacher is the best of all time He had remarkable skill and won races his cars should not have won.

Winning in the best car is certainly not one of my parameters of greatness.

Is Hamilton better than Schumacher? He has more wins, poles and championships but I doubt die-hard Schumacher fans would agree. Then again, he has less fastest race laps. So is he less of a race day technician? I doubt Hamilton’s legions would concede that.

But there are individual races that have the stamp of greatness. Schumacher finishing second at Spain in 1994 with only one gear was unquestionably one of them.

Hamilton’s victory in the rain from fourth at Silverstone in 2008, too. He lapped the entire field up to the two men on the podium. That it was done in lashing rain, the great equaliser, only amplifies the achievement.

Then there was his 2014 Bahrain duel with Nico Rosberg or another wet weather triumph from 14th in Germany two years ago.

But for me there are intangibles to being the greatest. There is no question about his talent but does that make him better than Stewart, racing in an era when at least nine of his colleagues died at the wheel? A man who put his own career on the line to improve the safety of the entire sport. Who got unsafe races cancelled, made the sport swap hay bales for crash barriers, insisted on ambulances at every race. And driven only by drivers who knew where the hospital was! Isn’t that greatness?

For most of his career Hamilton has avoided doing anything on safety unless cajoled by his peers but, like his hero Ayrton Senna, he must be admired for backing children’s charities, pushing the vegetarian and environment agendas.

I am far from convinced that beating Valtteri Bottas (the only man with the same equipment) weekend after weekend is any measure of greatness, but Hamilton outdoing Fernando Alonso in his very first season says mountains more.

For me, like Hamilton, the GOAT is Senna. His ability, his humanity, his work for charity, the causes he led with passion, his demands for better safety in F1. I worked with the man in 1987 and covered his his entire career and no-one in F1 comes close. The driver was great but the man even greater.

If you want me to be honest there is a Hamilton who deserves greatness but it’s not Lewis - it’s his father, Anthony. To finance his son’s racing career in karting he held down four jobs at the same time. For years he would get the train home from work after dark, walk miles, post ‘For Sale’ signs outside people’s houses for the local estate agents to earn the crumbs to afford one new tyre. Or the price of a tank of fuel.

To me, that’s greatness.

Updated: October 29, 2020 09:52 AM

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