Lewis Hamilton vs Ayrton Senna: who would win?

As Britain's F1 ace passes the Brazilian's victory count, TG compares the stats

Everyone loves a hypothetical battle. In theory, anyway. And when it comes to F1, a new conjectural face-off is looming at the end of the pit lane. At the Russian grand prix this weekend, Lewis Hamilton passed Ayrton Senna’s all-time win record, the Brit clocking his 42nd victory to take him one clear of the Brazilian. Which raises the intriguing question: who would come first in a race between Hamilton and Senna?

Words: Joe Holding

It’s not often an F1 driver passes a record held by the great Brazilian. Hamilton’s win in Russia made the Brit only the fourth man in history to collect more winner’s trophies than the very driver he idolised as a youngster.

The Eighties and Nineties belonged to Senna and Prost. The millennium was Schumacher’s. 2015 is Hammer Time.

That takes some doing. Yes, Hamilton has the fastest car on the grid today. Yes, he has the measure of his teammate. But why should those factors count against him in the public perception? If anything, manoeuvring into a winning position is the greatest skill that goes unnoticed in motorsport. It goes some way to explaining why someone of Fernando Alonso’s calibre hasn’t won the world championship for ten years.

Make no mistake, Hamilton will have earned the right to be considered among the very best, as and when he collects his third world title. The Eighties and Nineties belonged to Senna and Prost. The millennium was Schumacher’s. 2015 is Hammer Time.

Senna vs Hamilton: the stat battle

There’s only so much you can derive from the numbers when it comes to working out who might win in a head-to-head encounter on track. Nonetheless, pitting Hamilton’s stats against Senna’s offers some interesting insights.

After the Japanese GP, both drivers had recorded stats of 41 race wins from 162 entries. A direct points comparison is difficult for a number of reasons, because of changes to F1’s scoring system over the years. This means we’ll be relying on good old percentages to see how they match up.

Looking at the points they scored over the course of their F1 careers, Senna managed 614 from a possible 1491, giving him a maximum conversion rate of 41%. Hamilton on the other hand is better in this department, claiming 54% of the 3295 points he could have won since 2007.

Improved reliability is a big factor here, as is the extension of the points on offer in a single grand prix. Today the top ten will add to their championship tally. When Senna arrived in the mid-80s, seventh or lower scored you nothing.

More revealing is how their two drivers’ teammates fared in the same period. Hamilton’s fellow drivers logged 47 per cent of the maximum points up for grabs – just 7 per cent behind Lewis – whereas Senna’s managed just 28 per cent. That puts the Brazilian 13 per cent ahead, a gap nearly twice as big as Hamilton’s. Put simply, Senna outscored guys driving the same car more heavily than Hamilton has done to date.

There’s a similar theme when we analyse wins and top threes. During his career, Hamilton’s teammates have taken the chequered flag 14 per cent of the time, and made 43 per cent of the available podiums. Senna’s teammates, meanwhile, won only 12 per cent of the races he featured in, claiming third or better just 31 per cent of the time.

This suggests one of two things. Either Senna had worse teammates (unlikely given that he raced with the likes of Alain Prost and Gerhard Berger), or that he was slightly better at getting absolutely everything from a car.

The latter of these seems the likely explanation, given what we know about the three-time world champion’s legendary qualifying ability. Senna’s 65 poles include the infamous lap at Monaco in 1988, where the McLaren driver was an incredible 1.4 seconds faster than his teammate.

“That day, I suddenly realised that I was no longer driving conscious, and I was in a different dimension for me,” said Senna. “The circuit for me was a tunnel, which I was just going, going, going… And I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”

Hamilton’s one-lap pace is arguably the best of the current crop, but even on his most magnificent days, is it one-point-four-seconds-faster-than-a-four-time-champion-on-a-short-circuit quick? Good luck arguing that one.

Reputation

Senna remains perhaps the most venerated driver in the history of the sport, the likes of Jarno Trulli, Rubens Barrichello, Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher rating him as the greatest racer of all time.

Even now – approaching a third world championship – there aren’t many who yet talk about Hamilton in quite these terms. For the time being at least. Add a couple more championships into the equation, and that may begin to change.

However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there was a darker side to Senna; a threshold where ruthlessness became recklessness in the heat of wheel-to-wheel action.

As Alain Prost put it all those years ago: “Ayrton has a small problem. He thinks that he can’t kill himself.”

Such will to win was what propelled Senna to greatness, to the heights he reached during his career. But it also drove him to the worst of his lows.

Think back to Japan 1990. Going into the grand prix, a non-finish for Prost would hand Senna his second world title with a race to spare. And so, seconds after lights out, the championship leader made sure of his rival’s retirement by ploughing into the back of him, putting both their lives at risk in the process.

It would take the McLaren driver a year to admit that the move was deliberate.

True, Lewis Hamilton has had his fair share of collisions during his time – as Jenson Button, Felipe Massa and several others will attest – but have any of them been the result of such blatant foul play?

The 30-year-old has outgrown a certain recklessness of his early years, and it would be hard to imagine him running into Nico Rosberg on purpose to claim a championship a la Senna, a la Schumacher.

The fact that Hamilton’s two world titles to date weren’t won so contentiously must surely count in his favour, though the devilish streak remains, for many, part of the complex Senna magic.

The greatest racers, it seems, have the ability to shape their own storylines.

Memorable moments

It’s not mere victories that define the best drivers. The stories that unfolded along the way are equally important to the way racers are remembered. The greatest racers, it seems, have the ability to shape their own storylines.

For Hamilton, the first two years of his career were the most unforgettable, prior to a frustrating run of seasons at a declining McLaren outfit.

His triumph at Interlagos in 2008 – securing his first title on virtually the last corner of the season – ranks among the greatest dramas the sport has seen since its inception.

What made the narrative yet more special was Hamilton’s capitulation twelve months earlier, when a retirement and a seventh place handed the title to Kimi Raikkonen on a plate in the Brit’s debut season.

For Senna, two highlights remain seared on the memory, beyond his definitive successes in Monaco. The first was in Spa in 1992, when Senna leapt out of his car in the middle of a practice session to help fellow driver Erik Comas, who had been knocked unconscious in an accident.

As Martin Brundle told TGTV a while ago: “That’s the paradox of Ayrton Senna, isn’t it? In that he was clearly a fantastic human being. He cared about people in Brazil, he cared about racing drivers. I mean he was mortally hurt when Ratzenberger died the day before he died. But then he would crash Alain Prost off the race track and put both their lives at risk…”

The other was Senna’s maiden win in the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991. A failing transmission meant the Brazilian had to finish the race in sixth gear alone, requiring an immense physical effort as Riccardo Patrese closed him down in the final laps of the race.

Senna celebrated wildly as he crossed the line 2.9 seconds ahead of the Italian, but had to be lifted out of the car as exhaustion rendered him unable to move under his own strength. He had quite literally left everything out on the track.

Legacy

Such scenes are unlikely to be repeated nowadays, largely because F1 cars no longer represent the same physical challenge they did even a decade ago. Whether or not that’s a good thing is another debate altogether, but the truth is that today’s cars and conditions rarely give drivers the chance to demonstrate their athleticism in quite so obvious fashion.

In truth, such changes mean the greats of the sport can only truly be judged against their eras. Hamilton could win four, five, six world championships, but still never achieve the same feats of heroism as his idol in the eyes of those who are old enough remember both.

Nor might he match Senna’s reputation for eloquence and honesty. Today, F1 teams’ PR machines are as well-engineered as their cars, making drivers appear more sterile and repetitive than those of previous eras. Such airbrushed polish may not help Hamilton’s bid for sporting immortality.

The Briton is aware that comparisons will be drawn with Senna now he has passed his hero, in one statistical aspect at least.

“I am so proud to be in a position to emulate him,” said Lewis after the grand prix in Japan. “At the same time, though, I am also aware that if he had not passed away he would have continued and won so many more races and championships, because he was that good.

“Now I am at the stage where I am getting to the levels he was at, it feels a little like a relay race - that I will be picking the baton up for him and carrying it for the both of us from now on.”

Make of that what you will. The reality is that in this hypothetical race of ours – wheel to wheel, lap after lap on a track that exists only in our own heads – will only ever be a dream, albeit a rather compelling one.

So Senna vs Hamilton. Modern cars. Modern tracks. Who would your money be on?

What do you think?

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