Tuesday , 23 July 2024
Scuderia Ferrari S.p.A

Craig’s Column: An impossible debate? Formula 1’s ‘Greatest of all Time’

After securing his sixth world championship crown, it is impossible to argue that Lewis Hamilton does not deserve to be regarded among Formula 1’s greatest. From the moment he began his grand prix career in 2007 – which featured daring passes from the off – it seemed likely that he would be a man who could secure many titles.

But few felt that the then recently retired Michael Schumacher could have his seemingly unbeatable records under threat. 91 wins, seven titles, and heaps more records that appeared to be there to stand the test of time were a long way away for Hamilton. It only looked to be the case more ahead before the current turbo hybrid generation came in. If anything, it appeared more likely that Schumacher’s countryman Sebastian Vettel was the one on course to achieve similar results.

Things swiftly changed, as the Mercedes winning monster came into the fore. Like with Schumacher and Ferrari, there have been times where Hamilton and Mercedes have felt totally invincible to the opposition, crushing all rivals as it took poles, wins and titles with apparent ease. With these similarities, it makes debating which driver is greater an even more difficult than it appears on the surface.

We are now at an intriguing point where Hamilton nears Schumacher’s achievements in approximately as many races (if his comeback is excluded). Six titles play seven, 83 wins play 91, and so forth. This is what makes this debate so fascinating, and it is important that every area that is explorable is done so thoroughly.

There are also a number of factors to also take into consideration which adds to the complexity: Hamilton is still very much active, Schumacher’s career included three very unsuccessful seasons in an ill-fated comeback, the pair have had to compete in very different eras of F1, and have had to face different political intra-team scenarios.

It is impossible to give an easy answer to this, and some wouldn’t even consider these two up for the ‘GOAT’ title. The definition of greatness varies between us all, so the idea of how much one aspect contributes to the level of greatness is likely to differ from one person to the next. Some may want to romanticise the idea that certain other drivers – the likes of Ayrton Senna, Jim Clark and Juan Manuel Fangio for three examples – were better merely on the idea that their cars were ‘less dominant’. That’s a dangerous stance to take. Naturally, the most successful drivers are ones who have had the machinery to perform such feats, and the impact that the drivers themselves have had to put the cars in a position to win shouldn’t be underestimated.

Both faced some fierce opposition during their time – Schumacher entered F1 and was up against the likes of Alain Prost, Senna, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet. He then became the star of F1 and fought Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. He found his greatest rival in Mika Hakkinen – a driver also fiercely quick over one lap but also prone to the occasional prang – before coming up against future champions Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso during his peak. Non-champions such as Gerhard Berger, Jean Alesi, David Coulthard, Felipe Massa, brother Ralf and Juan Pablo Montoya were also occasional threats for wins and sustained a few championship runs between them.

For Hamilton, he was immediately thrust against Raikkonen and Alonso and nearly came out on top in his rookie season. One of his most fierce team-mates was Jenson Button (during the short period he shared a grid with Schumacher), and then after that had an explosive conflict with long-time rival Nico Rosberg. He challenged Sebastian Vettel for the title in 2010 and 2012 but was unable to come out on top. He did get the better of him in 2017, ’18, and ’19 and with some style. The ‘changing of the guard’ as it was with Schumacher most prominently in 2003 seems to have hit Hamilton with Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen being more than just occasional victory threats right now. Hamilton too has had other non-champion rivals, such as Massa, Robert Kubica, Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo.

It is fair to say that both have faced off against some mighty opposition during their time and have had rivals that went onto huge things later on. The next 15-20 years will determine just how good the opposition Hamilton has faced was, while just one driver remains active from Schumacher’s time going into 2020 – Raikkonen.

Statistical comparison between Lewis Hamilton (2007-2019) and Michael Schumacher (1991-2012)

What F1 was in the 1990s and early-2000s was very different from the series in the 2010s. Hamilton did taste success in 2008 in an era not too dissimilar to the era Schumacher dominated in the early part of that decade. But Schumacher’s period featured cars that were much more dependent on driver aids, driving to the car’s limit much more frequently, durable grooved tyres and refuelling. Hamilton has had to manage sensitive slicks, cars at times 200kg heavier than those from 20 years back, ERS, turbo, and no traction control or anti-locking brakes.

On the face of it, Hamilton’s superior pole tally over Schumacher may make him appear the better one-lap specialist. There are some major caveats to take into consideration – namely the format of qualifying itself. While Hamilton had three seasons in which he qualified on race fuel, Schumacher had this for four seasons – and in some of his most competitive years. Schumacher also had the previous formats of two-day qualifying and the 12 lap limit formats come into play. All of Hamilton’s career has featured the three-segment knockout format in one form or another. For Schumacher, qualifying was often compromised in favour of starting heavier for the race and put him in a stronger position for victory.

Qualifying was perhaps not Schumacher’s strongest weapon, even if he was often clinical at it. Hakkinen was arguably faster in those situations – as hinted to by Martin Brundle, who was team-mate to both in their formative years as grand prix drivers. Where the German was so potent was by being asked to do something totally mad – such as driving every lap in a race like a qualifying lap or executing a totally unconventional four-stop strategy – and coming out on top. Race management in a period where it was so crucial was where he was an undisputed master.

Hamilton is simply one of the fastest over one lap ever, even if 2019 did not necessarily showcase that in its rawest form. His qualifying battles between himself and Vettel between 2010-12, Rosberg from ’14-’16, and then Vettel again between ’17-now have been absolutely sensational. It is little surprise that more often than not, either Hamilton or Vettel starts a race from pole position. He has harnessed his speed over time and has gradually become the totally complete driver. As he recently called it – ‘a masterpiece’.

It’s clear that both were giants of their respective eras and have had different weapons in their toolsets to come out on top against what is thrown at them. Both mighty in the wet, awesome over one qualifying lap, able to extract the ultimate pace from their respective machines at any given moment. Both have been sensational overtakers and have many drives that have been absolutely top-drawer. Others have been able to challenge them, but none so for a sustained period of time.

There are stark differences between the pair. Schumacher revolutionised what the idea of a F1 driver was by taking fitness and professionalism to drastic new heights. The professionalism he showed within a team and the ability to build marques around him has been very difficult to replicate with the same success. He became a household name and the sea of red in the grandstands was truly iconic at the time. He also took what was acceptable on the track to and beyond the absolute limit – and duly got himself in trouble a number of times. There are a few foul play instances that leave a blatant, unquestionable blotch on his exceptional records.

Hamilton has not had the same on-track effect as Schumacher – or even Verstappen – in this way. His on-track record is largely better, save for a few clumsy incidents – notably in 2011, 2009’s ‘Liegate’ and disobeying the occasional team order. He may not necessarily be the household name that Schumacher has been, but much of Hamilton’s winning has occurred behind paywalls and in a very different period when F1’s global appeal seemed inferior to what it was. His social media presence and his marketability shouldn’t be downplayed, however. The irony is that Schumacher was and remains a very private man.

Schumacher is also largely credited to the rebuilding of Ferrari which took him to those five successive titles. He was the final piece in Jean Todt’s and Luca di Montezemolo’s puzzle to take the Scuderia back to the top, and with a sizeable portion of his Benetton team, the project was in place. It arguably shouldn’t have taken Schumacher five years to achieve his goal, but his foul play in 1997, a near-miss to Hakkinen equipped with a superior McLaren in ’98 and a leg injury in ’99 made it the case.

Hamilton has made one team change through his whole career to date, but Niki Lauda convincing him to switch from McLaren to Mercedes was obviously the right one. Much of the foundations for future success was built by Schumacher and Rosberg, but Hamilton has helped carry that on through huge regulation shifts. He joined the team fully knowing that the car for 2014 was set to be one of the greats, but more recent success can largely be put down to Hamilton’s driving and his impact out of the car too. He is more of an asset to Mercedes than that purely from a driving standpoint. Like Schumacher, he is a great motivator for the team.

Two very contrasting characters and two very different ways of going about their business. Two extreme natural talents – showcased with wet-weather excellence in Spain 1996 and Britain 2008, two absolute measures of greatness. Both legends of F1 and of the wider motorsport, but which, if either, sits as the greatest ever is simply determined by an individual’s perception of what exactly makes someone so great.

About Craig Woollard

Motorsport historian and journalist Craig Woollard has had an unusual path to a career in motorsport. After graduating from the University of Essex with a degree in mathematics in 2013, he changed his career path immediately after discovering a talent for writing. After occasional freelance work in 2015 and 2016, he joined the Autosport Academy for 2017. In the same year, he became an archive digitiser at Motorsport Images - which is his full-time job to this date.

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