One of the interesting things for me regarding F1’s newfound fame amongst an entirely new generation of American fans has been to read/listen to this new fan base try to get their head around Formula 1.
In all fairness to them, they come to F1 with their baggage of other sports in tow and when you speak of a driver like Lewis Hamilton, they immediately think of Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Lebron James and any other incredibly talented and successful athletes in the sports they know.
That’s natural and some parallels can be drawn across sport for sure but there are distinct differences the you try to compare Hamilton to other stars and certainly in their early years of development. None of these athletes enjoyed the financial support and backing of a professional F1 team at the age of 13 like Lewis did when McLaren took him under their wing to nurture and financially support his development. Lewis was the youngest driver to ever have a contract that led to a Formula 1 drive. A driving contract with an F1 team with a possible seat in F1 is quite different than a college scholarship.
The best way to make comparisons in F1 is by using F1 itself. In order to do that, you will need to invest time in researching its history and understanding the landscape of F1 when doing so.
There’s a lot to like about drivers such as Lando Norris, Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz and many others. When comparing them to NBA stars, for example, there is very little parallel to couch the comparison in apart of personality, role within a team or some of the talent and politics of a particular situation. Nothing wrong with that but perhaps the more direct comparison would drive a particular point home.
When considering the role of Valtteri Bottas while at Mercedes, you would be be better off reading about Rubens Barrichello, Eddie Irvine, David Coulthard, Felipe Massa, and other drivers who were in the difficult position of being teammates with very talented, and arguably number one drivers, within a team. How did Rubens manage that role? Did he leave? Did he ever reckon that it was better to be number one at a smaller team than number two at a title-winning team? These are the kinds of direct comparisons that make F1 more reachable and understandable to new fans.
I’ve read many comparisons as new fans try to localize and juxtapose Bottas’s role. I’ve read he was the McHale to Bird, Goose to Maverick, Pippen to Jordan, Gronkowski to Brady, Holiday to Earp, Chewie to Han and so on. All very fun and meant in an honest way but they also couldn’t be further from the truth.
Valtteri was in the unenviable position more akin to Ruberns than Eddie, More David than Felipe. When you read about David or Rubens, you start to get a clear picture of what it is like being in that position and you begin to understand how Valtteri might be feeling and why he made the choices he did and why Mercedes made the choice they did.
As I said a few years ago, George should have been moved to Mercedes at least a year ago, if not two years ago. I read recently that George commented about his three-year stint at Williams as being too long. I agree with him. Mercedes put him on ice. Can we draw comparison to that situation? In fact, we can.
Ferrari were in a similar position with Massa. Red Bull have been in that position a few times with their junior drivers.
My point in all of this is that modern F1 has been around for 50+ years and grand prix racing since the early 1900’s. There’s really no deed to strain to make a weak comparison of F1 to the NBA, NFL or other sports when there is such a rich history to pull from that is much more salient to the topic at hand.
When people talk of GOATS, they make comparisons of Lewis to Michael Jordan but a better comparison would be with Jim Clark. Both Jim and Lewis have a strike rate of around 34% and that’s an amazing stat. They’ve won nearly 35% of all the races they’ve entered. Schumacher slightly less but he changed teams twice and both those teams were not race-winning teams at the time of his move so you can dive into those nuances to discuss the comparisons.
Look, I know cross-sport comparisons are fun, I’ve made several myself. For those new to F1, a great way to learn about the sport is to dig deeper into its history and compare that to today’s situations. If you were writing or speaking about Bottas, you might be delighted to find out more about Rubens and what a wonderfully nice guy he is. Same for Massa.
Instead of spending time trying to re-write F1’s history or viewing F1 as a sport that began when you started watching it, take a deeper look into the sport. Take a look at the 60’s when there were 29 deaths or the 1970’s when there were another 18. What happened then? What safety measures were taken and who led those efforts? Which driver got his break in F1 because the main driver was arrested and in jail? There are so many good stories in F1 to draw comparisons to and I would recommend digging deeper without today’s lens to understand yesterday’s F1 and the lens in which it was viewed. Leave your soap-box preachers and jail tattoos at the door and embrace the visceral and sometimes brutal reality of the world’s greatest sport.