It feels far longer ago than 2007 when the newly crowned seven-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton began his career. But for a heartbreaking trip into the gravel on pit-entry at the Chinese Grand Prix, he would have walked away the first driver in history to claim the world title in his rookie season.
The next season, in arguably the greatest single moment in Formula 1 history, Hamilton forever cemented his place in the sport’s history. “Is that Glock!?”, Martin Brundle cried, and indeed it was. The last corner, the last lap, the last race of the 2008 season in Rio. Hamilton cruised past Timo Glock to claim the points needed to win his first world championship.
Of course, nobody expected it to be the last for a driver of such obvious talent. It’s easy to overlook Hamilton’s record in the stretch between his first and second world titles, managing 13 wins, 18 pole positions, and 32 podium finishes across five seasons, most in spite of McLaren cars which were too often plagued by technical unreliability. In 2010 he was even outscored by his teammate, reigning world champion Jenson Button.
Hamilton seemed to be struggling in the shadow of both his first two seasons and perhaps also the new kid on the block in the form of Vettel, who quickly snapped up Hamilton’s record for youngest world champion in 2010 and went on to win three more titles consecutively. Forgotten was the fact that Hamilton himself remained a driver in the opening seasons of his career.
To take the next step, all he needed was the right team. By joining Mercedes before the start of the 2013 season, a growing force equipped with healthy investment and arguably the best team principle of all time in Toto Wolff, he found his home.
Formula 1 after 2012 is easily summarised. Hamilton has won all but one of the championships since, losing out only in 2016 to his teammate, Nico Rosberg. Even then, had it not been for a spectacular engine failure at that year’s Malaysian Grand Prix, Hamilton would likely now be celebrating a record-breaking eighth world title. With this seventh championship win Hamilton is nevertheless the most succesful driver of all time, having also recently overtaken Michael Schumacher’s record for grand prix wins.
Inevitably, we must qualify these achievements. Hamilton, for most of his career, has been driving a very competitive, if not outright superior, car which gave him an advantage. However, it remains the fact that nobody has ever won the world championship in an uncompetitive car. In only eight of the seasons since 1958 has the champion driver not driven for the constructors champion, with Hamilton’s 2008 triumph ironically providing the most recent example. This argument is too simplistic.
Is Hamilton the best ever? Simply put, we can never know. There will always be a counter-argument, someone who raced harder, a desperate wish to be able to line up drivers at their peak from different eras alongside one another on the grid. You cannot solve this question on accolades alone.
What does the future hold? With regulations remaining largely unchanged for 2021, Hamilton is the favourite to win what would be his eighth world title. If he chooses to stay in the sport, the seasons after will be the ones to watch, with the rule changes set for the 2022 season designed to bring more competitive racing and narrow the gap between the top teams and the chasing pack.
Additionally, F1 now enjoys a lineup awash with young talent such as Charles Leclerc, Max Vestappen, and George Russell. Hamilton has stated that one of his key motivations is to prove himself against the sport’s emerging young talent, and with no mechanical superiority to hide behind, the new era should provide a tremendous opportunity for Hamilton to do just that.
If Hamilton succeeds in winning a world title in this new era, then his argument for being the best ever will be perhaps the strongest of anyone. The story of Lewis Hamilton is already a remarkable one, but it is far from over.
Image: E.Bagge via Wikimedia Commons