As now-six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton has continued to obliterate the record books, it is becoming more and more difficult to exclude him from the ‘greatest ever’ conversations. The sheer volume of wins, pole positions and titles unquestionably rank him among the all-time greats, but where exactly he sits will be a debate in itself for generations to come. His sixth title, and his fifth in six years with the Mercedes juggernaut, has gone somewhat under the radar. But it’s perhaps this fact that ranks this title above his previous five.
Taking each race that Hamilton has contested in isolation results in very few flaws being found. As far as significant errors go, his brace of spins in the soaked German Grand Prix is among the most obvious. It’s not really an excuse, but that came in a race in which he was unwell and where many of his rivals did considerably worse. Other notable errors came from breaking his front wing on a kerb in Austria and locking up while battling for the lead in Italy. But as far as significant mistakes go, that’s about it. Even then, that’s clutching at straws.
Some of Hamilton’s victories have been absolutely top-drawer as well. He put himself in a position to pounce when Ferrari imploded in Bahrain, he superbly held off Max Verstappen in Monaco despite being on the wrong strategy, forced Sebastian Vettel into a mistake in Canada, was unstoppable in France, hounded and passed Verstappen in Hungary, picked up the pieces from the Ferrari squabble in Russia and managed his tyres to perfection in the third-fastest car on the day in Mexico.
For a driver who, early in his career – and even a handful of years ago, had so many flaws in his game while having the absolute raw speed, it now almost seems impossible to consistently beat him. His inconsistent starts, apparent lack of focus, occasional unnecessary prangs with other drivers, odd set-up direction, and overdoing of the tyres all seem like a total thing of the past. He has worked on all of these factors and his one weakness these days seems to be his rare off-day. That’s not something that is easy to get around.
Has he been the fastest driver over one lap this year? Arguably not. Team-mate Valtteri Bottas has really worked hard to be able to take it to Hamilton on a Saturday, while Ferrari starlet Charles Leclerc has been imperious on a Saturday almost every time since France. But that’s not the area Hamilton has worked on for 2019, it’s metronomically scoring strong results.
It’s almost the late-Niki Lauda approach to racing. Hamilton has always not focused on pole position; he has often compromised a Saturday to allow him to be in the perfect position to capitalise on a Sunday. On circuits where track position is king, he has compromised Sunday for Saturday. It’s why he has so often become a threat later in a race and then what seems certain to be a Ferrari or a Red Bull victory can swiftly become a triumph for Hamilton – even if the Mercedes W10 has not always appeared the fastest machine out there.
There are parallels to some of Michael Schumacher’s wins – a driver who also took so many wins in a car capable of crushing the opponents. Schumacher tended to still take victory on occasions where Ferrari didn’t have the outright one-lap pace. The situations Schumacher had to deal with vary from that of Hamilton, but the ‘how the hell did that happen!?’ moments for Schumacher came a decade and a half ago just as they are for Hamilton now.
Can he be beaten? Bottas, as strong as he is driving, can only occasionally do it. Nico Rosberg could only do it with a little bit of fortune and with mental warfare. Jenson Button outscored Hamilton as team-mates but it was obvious which driver was faster. Fernando Alonso also failed to beat Hamilton in their brief stint as team-mates. Sebastian Vettel was often driving better in his Red Bull peak than Hamilton was at the time, but it’s almost impossible to argue against Hamilton’s peak being higher.
It would, therefore, be great to see Hamilton fully lock horns with a Verstappen, an Esteban Ocon, a Leclerc or even one of 2019’s sensational rookies. These young, hungry, raw talents, all of whom have incredible speed, going toe-to-toe against one of, if not, the greatest ever could well complete the changing of the guard over to the next generation of greats. A pairing with Verstappen would be especially tasty given he is changing the way that Formula 1 is working singlehandedly in his early-20s. He is the only other driver within the top three teams who has had a season as impressive as Hamilton, albeit for different reasons.
The V6 turbo hybrid era has featured so many of Hamilton’s more than sixty wins in that time which have been put down to, simply, having a dominant car. That certainly holds true for the first three years but as Ferrari, and to a lesser degree Red Bull, have considerably closed the gap – or sometimes opened up a small margin itself, there’s always one driver there to pounce and pick up the win or a podium when the opportunity for it seems slim. That is Hamilton, and that is why he is seemingly invincible right now. It’s why he’s wrapped up the title for the past three years with multiple races to spare.
Hamilton has been at an incredibly high level for so many years now, and he almost seems to get better and better still. With each passing year comes the question of whether he can be stopped, and his on-track response is emphatically ‘no’. His sixth title may not be his most memorable, but that is arguably the reason for it being his greatest. He was always there. Always there picking up points, always there snatching podiums, and snatching victory from the clutches of defeat. That is why he has stealthily dominated this championship, and why he goes far beyond merely being a ‘great’.