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Is triple world champion Lewis Hamilton one of F1's all-time greats?
As Hamilton wins his third title, Jason Barlow investigates the Brit's career
In a wet and wild Texan race, Lewis Hamilton closed out the 2015 Formula One driver’s championship at the US GP, securing his third title.
Three is the magic number for Lewis. Yes, it’s less than Michael Schumacher managed, less also than Alain Prost or Sebastian Vettel, although time is still very much on Hamilton’s side. But three matters because three puts him on a par with his idol, Ayrton Senna.
Publicly, Lewis, like every driver, claims the statistics don’t bother him particularly, and the challenges presented by the different eras can make comparisons difficult, if not downright fatuous. But even so, compare them we must – especially when it comes to these two. Senna won 41 out of 161 race starts, while Lewis’s Autstin win took him to 43 victories out of… 164 starts. He currently has 49 pole positions, to Senna’s remarkable 65. Lewis has been on the podium 84 times – a fantastic hit rate – having matched Senna’s 80 back at Spa in August.
They made a film about Senna – arguably the best documentary about a sports star ever – such was the man’s magnetism, although there’s no better way of ensuring your canonisation than by dying. Will Lewis go on to inspire this sort of wider popular cultural idolatry? That the jury is still out is something of a mystery.
Some of Hamilton’s drives have bordered on the otherworldly
There’s certainly no shortage of brilliant drives, too many to cover here, some of which have bordered on the otherworldly. In fact, it would only be a tiny bit hyperbolic to suggest that Lewis may be the most naturally gifted F1 driver ever, in terms of pace, race-craft, and an ability to take a less-than-optimal car (to paraphrase his early mentor and patron Ron Dennis) and put it places it had no right to be. He’s a proper do-or-die racer – not all of F1’s drivers are, sadly – and there are times when he can have you leaping around the living room like a child on a sugar rush.
You can choose your own higlights, but his star quality was obvious from the off. He made his debut for McLaren in Australia in 2007, and sailed audaciously past double world champion and de facto team number one Fernando Alonso around the outside of the first corner. He was on the podium in his first nine races, scoring a brilliant debut win in Canada and backing it up immediately with a psychologically significant win in Indianapolis.
It was such a powerful performance that he destroyed Alonso that year, playing havoc with McLaren’s meticulously managed internal status quo, and only lost out on the title in his rookie year by a single point. Only a vast, once-in-a-generation talent can have an impact like that.
The first title came in 2008, but only in a last-gasp move on Timo Glock on the last lap of the Brazilian GP. For 15 seconds or so, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa thought he’d nailed it, but this time it was Hamilton’s turn to win by a solitary point. The Brazilian’s dignity and pride on the podium in the face of such a torturous denouement made up for his pitiful performance at a rain-lashed Silverstone earlier that year, the same race that Hamilton had dominated with supernatural ease.
Lewis was equally epic at Monaco that year, a race watched in person by this writer, who figured – like everyone else – that he was out of the running when he ran wide at Tabac on lap six and picked up a puncture. Instead, he won.
The first title came in 2008, a last-gasp move on Timo Glock on the last lap
There have been many other great drives – China and Germany in 2011, Canada in 2012, Hungary in 2013 – in the face of Red Bull’s aero-assisted domination. Meanwhile, his battle with Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg thoughout 2014 – 11 race victories – has morphed from a gripping intra-team grudge match into a Ferrari and Schumacher-circa-2002-style demolition.
When Niki Lauda began making overtures to Lewis to join Mercedes for the 2013 season, Lewis made the right call, and he made it in the face of widespread criticism. In F1, speed and talent are only two-thirds of the equation. Being in the right place at the right time matters as much. Just ask Alonso.
All of this, and he’s from Stevenage. Yet something’s in the way. Is it because he keeps skipping off to LA, where his alternative career as a Dr Dre-lite is currently taking shape? Is it his predilection for turning up in London, Paris, Milan or New York to take up his front row position alongside Anna Wintour, Cara Delevinge and Tinie Tempah during fashion week?
Personally, I love the fact that he can maintain this duality and still turn up on a race weekend and invariably blow everyone else into the weeds. Sometimes Lewis isn’t on it on Fridays, but he’s there when it really matters. In 2014, a slight frailty in qualifying put him under unnecessary duress on race day, something he ’fessed up to and admitted he needed to fix. Job done.
Something’s in the way. Is it because he keeps skipping off to LA?
You almost certainly will have your own view. What I can add to the debate is some personal experience of the man, gathered over the nine years I’ve interviewed Lewis and worked with him. At a sponsor event at the end of 2007, I sat down with him in front of an audience for a chat show-style inquisition. He was unfailingly brilliant – polite, self-effacing, focused.
“When did it dawn on you that you had a truly special ability?” I asked.
“I’ve never felt that. I’m not going to sit here and say that I’m special. [pause] For sure I’ve got a talent. Perhaps when I was 15 or 16 I realised I had a natural talent. I believe in God. I felt that it was important I didn’t waste the opportunity I’d been given. I really thought I should apply myself properly.”
No sense of entitlement there.
In 2008, he joined me at another event, alongside Damon Hill and Sir Stirling Moss. He was an hour late – not his fault, I should add – by which time the 500-strong audience was rather refreshed. He was visibly chuffed to be on a stage with two F1 greats, but hadn’t really done the prep he ought to have done. It was hard work.
Lewis seemed vulnerable, like he needed a hug
At the end of 2011, we drove the McLaren 12C through Dubai together, four days before the Abu Dhabi GP. He was in the middle of what remains his worst season – personally and professionally – and although McLaren’s notoriously strict PR had ruled out any questions outside of the car or racing, he seemed vulnerable, like he needed a hug. He wanted to open up, and even gave me a knowing look, as if to say, ‘man, you know what McLaren can be like.’
“It’s life,” he said. “The ups and downs. I hope people are able to benefit from some of my experiences, and the way that I do and don’t handle them.” He won the race that weekend.
Six months later, I interviewed him alongside Jenson Button, two weeks before the start of the season. He fiddled endlessly with his phone, seemed reluctant to even make eye contact. This time the PR actually told him off. We had 15 minutes to talk, but it seemed like the longest 15 minutes of his life.
In January this year, TopGear met him during a roundtable session with a handful of other British media. Superstar Lewis was in the house, now a double world champion. He was funny, quick-witted, and actually lost it with me when I expressed surprise that he kept a hand-written journal during every race weekend. “Because you probably don’t think we actually do any work!” he remonstrated. Er, not what I was getting at, Lewis…
On the way out, the subject switched to his Pagani Zonda, and in particular its manual gearbox. He lit up, and the inner fan boy came roaring to the surface. Somehow, the kid from Stevenage who couldn’t quite believe his luck had reappeared.
As Keith Richards used to say about Mick Jagger, ‘he’s a nice bunch of guys.’ But Lewis is also a worthy triple world champion. Of that there is no doubt at all.