Now can Lewis Hamilton be the greatest?
In all the inevitable hoopla that surrounded Lewis Hamilton’s dramatic World Championship success in one of the greatest showdowns in Formula One history at Interlagos on Sunday, when he became the 30th and youngest-ever title holder, there is one fascinating little statistic that demonstrates just how stratospheric his career can become.
He might share with Jacques Villeneuve the distinction of winning the World Championship in only his second season, but he is the only man ever to miss a title by a single point and then win the next by the same margin in his first two seasons of competition. And he will only get better.
Compare that, for a moment, with some of the other giants of the game.
Stirling Moss, who was arguably the greatest driver never to win the title, finished only 31st and unclassified in the first two seasons in which he first appeared in Formula One, 1951 and 1952, though a fairer comparison, given his machinery and circumstances, would be 1954 and 1955, when he finished 13th and second driving a private Maserati and then a works Mercedes-Benz alongside the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio.
Jim Clark was 10th in 1960 and seventh in 1962 for Lotus, before losing the 1962 and 1964 titles through mechanical failure in the deciding races and winning the crown in 1963 and 1965.
Jackie Stewart won a race in his debut season with BRM in 1965 and finished an impressive third overall, but fell to seventh in 1966 before narrowly losing out through injury in 1968 with Ken Tyrrell’s team and then winning his three titles in 1969, 1971 and 1973.
Ayrton Senna burst into Formula One in 1984 and should have won the rain-spoilt Monaco Grand Prix in only his fourth appearance, but finished the season only ninth overall with Toleman, before climbing to fourth with Lotus in 1985.
It is Senna to whom Hamilton is most readily compared, partly because the Brazilian legend was his
boyhood hero and partly because he eventually drove for McLaren and went on to win three world championship titles (in 1988, 1990 and 1991) and 41 grands prix prior to his death in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
In many ways Hamilton’s uncompromising style is reminiscent of Senna’s, with one crucial difference. Other drivers, notably Jarno Trulli, Mark Webber and Robert Kubica, have criticised his tactics recently, but that can largely be taken with a pinch of salt as the words of men who know he has sauntered into their domain and started to dominate. True, he does not give an inch, and some of his overtaking moves have taken lesser lights by surprise with their audacity, but he is not an intimidator in the way that Senna was, and his driving has never deliberately crossed the line between genius and aggression in the manner that Senna’s did as his heart overruled his head in heated battles against rivals such as Alain Prost or Michele Alboreto. Certainly, Senna’s tally of three titles is within reach. Possibly he will even go on to challenge Michael Schumacher’s record of seven.
He dismissed such discussions, however. “I don’t ever plan on trying to reach any of his records,” he said of Schumacher. “It’s not something that appeals to me. Records don’t mean a huge amount to me. I love racing, I love getting in the car and winning championships. That’s always been something I’ve loved doing, and the feeling you have after all that work from the people around you.”
A year ago, Hamilton looked wrecked after losing the title by a single point and then spending the night drowning his sorrows. Yesterday, he was up bright and early with a spring in his step. He said he had drunk mostly water the previous evening, just enjoying watching the team party around him.
Fame and fortune await Hamilton, but he is content. “I’m comfortable in life,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling to know that you’ve made some money, considering that I never had £100 to go and buy myself some trainers when I was younger. To think that we can do that now is great. But I would have done it for free. It just so happens that I get paid to do my hobby, the thing I love, and it’s nice to be able to take care of my family. That’s all that really matters.”
While Hamilton shunned comparisons with Schumacher, Britain’s previous champion, Damon Hill, believes the young Brit could take the German’s record. “Maybe he will challenge Michael’s tally. At 23 he is certainly young enough. Mind you, I think circumstances today are different so that may be more difficult. But
if anyone can do it, Lewis can, and that will be the unfolding story with him, won’t it?”
The truth is that Hamilton has demonstrated at different times these past two seasons all of the character traits that marked out men such as Moss, Clark, Stewart and Senna and is already regarded as the best man out there.