Lewis Hamilton is equal with the iconic Michael Schumacher’s as Formula One’s most successful driver, but the question now is how far he’ll run with the baton.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
Lewis Hamilton wins races so often that they blend into each other, but his record-equalling 91st victory at the Eifel Grand Prix was one for the history books.
When Schumacher set the 91-win benchmark in 2006 at the end of his ultra-successful Ferrari it seemed other-worldly. Unattainable. A tribute to a run of dominance so complete it could never be repeated.
It was almost twice as many wins as four-time champion Alain Prost and a full 50 wins more than Ayrton Senna.
Unquestionably Schumacher is among the pantheon of the greats.
Only the very next year Hamilton made his McLaren debut. A rookie title contender and sophomore championship winner, the Briton marked himself out as a special talent.
But it wasn’t until he made the bold switch to Mercedes in 2013 that he began the transition from good to great.
From 2014 to date Hamilton has won 69 of 132 races — a strike rate of 52 per cent — and has grown his championship tally to six.
Averaging more than 10 wins a year in that time meant he was always likely to catch the uncatchable record, and with a 69-point advantage after his 91st win a Schumacher-equalling seventh title is all but guaranteed.
“I grew up watching Michael win all of those grands prix and I couldn’t have fathomed equalling him,” Hamilton said. “Michael was just so far ahead. It’s beyond my wildest dreams to think that I’m here today having equalled him.”
Indelible to the Hamilton legacy is his all-conquering Mercedes team, soon to claim a record eighth consecutive constructors championship. But to deride Hamilton’s achievements as being down to the car, as so many critics seek to do, is to fundamentally misunderstand the sport.
Formula One has always been a team pursuit. The best constructors seek the best drivers, the greats find their way into great cars. It’s never about driving ability alone; it’s what the driver can contribute to the whole.
Michael Schumacher benefitted enormously from Ferrari’s millennium dominance, but it’s impossible to separate his arrival and the Scuderia’s resurgence from its previous dire decade. His ability didn’t simply rally the troops; his presence attracted new personnel to Maranello, building the team into the unstoppable force it became.
Though Hamilton arrived at Mercedes in time to capitalise on its heavy investment into the 2014 regulations, what he gave back has enabled the team to continue thriving through several rules changes and defeat the equally well funded Ferrari and Red Bull Racing teams.
The presence of a naturally gifted driver, who extracts the maximum from the machine, motivates the team, and his underrated work ethic feeds back into the process.
“Winning races and winning championships is always in this sport a team exercise,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. “You need to put yourself in a position that you end up in the best car.
“We couldn’t achieve the records that we have [without him], and he probably couldn’t achieve the records without the right car.”
Hamilton is out of contract but has intimated another three-year deal is on the cards, taking him to the cusp of 39 years old.
Stable 2021 regulations will make him favourite for an eighth title, but new rules in 2022 offer him and the team one last challenge to prove, as if it needed to be proven again, the potency of their combination.
“I’ve got the best team behind me, who continuously inspire me,” he said. “I’ll continue to charge on and try to see what is possible.”
The only real question is how high he’ll set the bar before he bows out.