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Formula 1

How Hamilton sees ‘impossible’ F1 greatest driver debate

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
6 min read

The scale of Lewis Hamilton’s most recent Formula 1 success, matching Michael Schumacher’s win record, revived the age-old debate of who the greatest driver is. Hamilton as a driver is undeniably a core part of that discussion. But he will not be a participant in the debate because he does not want to be compared with “the legends of the past”, and views himself as a “different” driver rather than one who is better or worse.

As the spearhead of Mercedes’ dominance of this era of F1, Hamilton has attracted more critics than ever as he bounces from one achievement to the next. He will almost certainly match Schumacher’s record of seven titles this year, and likely make the outright win record his own very soon after equalling Schumacher’s tally of 91 victories last weekend.

“There’s a lot of talk in all sports about the greatest, past and present,” Hamilton says.

“I think it’s almost impossible to compare people. I just think it’s different times we are evolving as human beings. If you put all the top drivers that have been the most successful in the sport and put them in the same season, and in the same cars, wouldn’t that be something?

Lewis Hamilton Michael Schumacher

“There’s all this talk of who is and who is not [the greatest]. It’s not important to me. What’s important is the journey in this time and while I’ve been here.

“I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do, how I have navigated through it. I’ve definitely made lots of mistakes. But that’s life, we all do that.”

In the aftermath of that milestone at the Nurburgring last week – not to mention the days and weeks leading up to it – Hamilton was bombarded with questions about how much it mattered, what it means, how he’d celebrate, what legacy he wants to leave.

Before the Eifel Grand Prix he seemed indifferent to the point of disinterest. Immediately afterwards it became clear that was just a mechanism to avoid distraction: he was on the crest of a wave and the significance of matching Schumacher was etched on his face and clear in his words.

Most Sunday evenings, Hamilton has a separate call with written media. Whether it follows a good or a bad race, he is normally in better form once the adrenaline of the session fades (whereas after being beaten in qualifying, we often only see a gloomy Hamilton).

In these evening sessions Hamilton is at his most reflective, thoughtful and illuminating. Sometimes that does not come across well afterwards – a quote taken out of context or words that fall more harshly on a page than they did on the ears.

Perhaps the best example on this occasion was Hamilton’s sentiment that achievements like his and those of other great drivers simply deserve respect.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Singapore Grand Prix Race Day Singapore, Singapore

Within his answer, he indirectly addressed recent comments from Sir Jackie Stewart that the likes of Hamilton are not on the same level of older-generation drivers because those drivers faced bigger dangers and didn’t have the car advantage Hamilton has enjoyed.

“Yes, you can definitely be remembered for having the most,” Hamilton says. “And that will definitely be something special to have.

“But it’s the journey, it’s what we’ve done along the way. It’s the obstacles you faced, and everyone’s got a different journey and a different way of doing things and I don’t think you should knock anybody for the way they do things.

“I get knocked by many people, particularly older drivers. They still have a bee in their bonnet I think, I don’t know why.

“Maybe one day they’ll get over it. But I have so much respect for the past legends, even those that do continue to talk negatively about me all the time.

“I still hold them in high regard because I know it was so difficult, in a different time in history, it was incredibly tough for them. And they remain the legends that they were there then.

“In 20 years time, whatever it is, when I’m looking back, I can promise you this, I will not be talking down any young driver that’s coming through and succeeding.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Tuscan Grand Prix Qualifying Day Mugello, Italy

“Because a responsibility I think, as an older driver, is to shine the light as bright as possible and encourage those. There’s gonna be someone else, whether it’s Max [Verstappen] or whoever it may be, who’s gonna be chasing the record that I eventually set and it’s the wrong kind of characteristic and approach to be hoping he doesn’t break it.

“You should be encouraging them hoping they live to their full potential. And if that means them getting to that record, that’s amazing.”

Take the spikiest parts of that monologue – “they still have a bee in their bonnet… maybe one day, they’ll get over it” – in isolation and it comes across very defensive. Read it in full and consider that it was softly spoken rather than spat out as a direct retort to Stewart’s comments, it’s rather different.

There was ample opportunity across a long spell of media engagements for Hamilton to puff out his chest, make a load of noise, argue his own case to be the greatest. Hamilton covered almost every facet of his latest record-equalling success, even the awkward (but valid) question of how he gets his head around rewriting history, without doing that.

He says that is a “very, very hard to compute that idea and put that into reality and meaning”, adding that being at the heart of it feels different to watching other sports where top competitors are breaking records, and insisting he is “not done yet – I still feel that I’m able to improve, I still feel like I’m driving at a really good level”.

Hamilton is expected to extend his blockbuster F1 career, so who knows where the record will stand when he finally walks away. His place in history is assured, but the debate over how Hamilton measures up against those he shares the pantheon with will rage long after he’s gone.

“What’s been really clear to me is yes, it’s great having these wins, [but] I think the more important things are what you do out of the car,” he says.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Spanish Grand Prix Race Day Barcelona, Spain

“I think that’s really where the impact can be made, in terms of wanting to be remembered. I’ve never really wanted to be remembered other than to my family. But obviously having these results, this journey that I’ve had with my fans, hopefully they will remember me.

“I would imagine all of you want to be remembered for being a good human being, and someone that actually cared about the world and did what they did with great intentions.

“And that’s all. I don’t think of any other way. It’s not the most important thing for me to be remembered as the best or the greatest, because I have so much respect for those drivers in the past, and I don’t feel like I need to compare myself to them because I’m different.

“We all are different, and I’m unique in my own way.”

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