“I don’t think you should knock anybody for the way they do things,” Lewis Hamilton said.
“I get knocked by many people, particularly older drivers. I don’t know why. Maybe one day they will get over it but I have so much respect for the past legends, even those who continue to talk negatively about me all the time. I still hold them in high regard. It was a different time in history. It was incredibly tough for them.
“There is always talk in sport about who is the greatest, past and present, but it is impossible to compare. It is not important to me.”
In 2008, Lewis Hamilton stormed onto the F1 world stage but it didn’t start there. It started when he was young and both he and his father worked hard to form a career out of karting and ultimately got what many young drivers wish they could get, a full endorsement and support from one of the biggest teams in Formula 1, McLaren.
Lewis continued to hone his skills winning in the junior categories and by the time he was elevated to McLaren’s F1 team, many fans and journalists who had been following his sprouting career were ascribing him as the man that will eclipse Michael Schumacher’s records.
The platitudes and praise were so thick you could cut it with a butter knife back in 2008-09. In fact, he hadn’t won one championship, let alone seven, and the headlines and press he received all but called him an 8-time champ in waiting.
That became difficult to stomach for anyone who was cautiously optimistic but preferred to take it one step at a time. I was one of those people. I preferred to let time and performance craft its own story, its own drama and its own titles. It was clear that Lewis was a rare talent but I reckoned we should start with one title before mentally gifting him 8 in his first year in F1.
That may have been a pretentious position to take in the face of such clear talent but I held true to it and, as is clearly evident, I was wrong to do so. I would have seemed much more astute and erudite had I also joined the chorus of fans and journalists who conceded eight titles for Lewis back in 2008. They were right, I was wrong.
Unfortunately I couldn’t because I didn’t see the level of domination needed from McLaren at the time and had no idea that Mercedes would get F1 to change the engine regulations to flatter their own hybrid for 7 years. Regardless, it doesn’t matter. I was wrong.
I wasn’t wrong about Michael Schumacher, however, and I wasn’t wrong about Fernando Alonso or Sebastian Vettel although I think I had Fernando down for more than two titles and Seb down for three, not four (I didn’t see that final race in Abu Dhabi and that single point coming).
What I am also convinced of is that it is difficult to compare champions across eras and regulations. I recall Schumacher eclipsing Ayrton Senna’s records and the blowback he received from those who said he may have the numbers but he would never be considered better than Senna. There are many who still say that.
I recall the divisive commentary around Vettel’s four titles and how he couldn’t pass anyone or race from midfield and that he had the best car—something that was also used to neuter Schumacher’s success to much aplomb—and how Red Bull had Adrian Newey and that was more important than having Vettel.
Newey is important. So was Rory Byrne and Ross Brawn. Regardless, it was often said that Schumacher should have an asterisk by his name and achievements because of his clash with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. That he should be viewed by the public as a champion of dubious merit and a patina of shame on his achievements.
As Lewis Hamilton edged closer and closer to six titles, in a car so dominant that it has remained 1.5s per lap quicker than it’s nearest competitor for over 6 years, fans began walking back the notion of a dominant car and a team being completely centered on a number one driver. Those became less relevant as the titles piled up for Lewis.
The very tools they used to marginalize Schumacher and Vettel became less prominent and less important as Lewis won more titles with one of, if not the, most dominant cars in the history of the sport. It was not safe to suggest that the best drivers will end up at the best teams and in the most dominant cars back in 2000-2004 or 2010-2014. That didn’t apply back then but it does now. That’s part of what make Lewis so great—that he ended up in the best team and car.
Those particular eras, 2000-2013, proved that the car was dominant and the achievements far less valuable. In the case of Schumacher, he joined Ferrari when it was at its lowest and spent several years rebuilding the team to glory. That didn’t matter, they only recall 2000-2004.
No one mentions the complete change in the points system and running 3-4 more races per season than in the recent past. Not many mention the four years of domination from Ferrari and Red Bull versus the seven years for Mercedes. Few discuss the money invested, number of races, points system and more when comparing Schumacher, Vettel and Hamilton to Jim Clark, Senna, Prost, Stewart or Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio.
Lewis may suggest that it doesn’t bother him when people don’t join the chorus of adulating fans with his recent 91st win and looming 7 or 8 titles. The fact that he is talking about it might suggest otherwise.
Lewis has often said that he has a “platform” and he posts these kinds of comments to a fawning crowd. What many folks his age may have missed is the original truism of human nature that begat the old saying, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”.
You can say all you like, you can sell all you want and you can tell all you can but the platform and act of using it doesn’t mean that those who digest your message on your platform will buy it, believe it or like it.
For me, I think what Lewis has achieved is amazing and he and his father were the architects of an amazing career that generated an even more amazing talent. Lewis is driving as well as he ever has and I can’t say enough about his race craft and ability.
“In 20 years’ time when I am looking back, I can promise you this, I will not be talking down any young driver who is coming through and succeeding,” Hamilton said. “Because a responsibility as an older driver is to shine the light as bright as possible and encourage those.”
The problem here is that Lewis has already cast shade on Schumacher in the past. He said that he wouldn’t want to be “tainted” like Schumacher and that racing with him “didn’t do anything for him” and it would have been “special” to drive with Senna.
What Lewis says in 20 years is one thing but what he said ten yeas ago is recorded history and not very complimentary or respectful of those who had achieved so much in F1. Schumacher wept when he beat Senna’s record. Vettel has always said that Schumacher was his hero and he very much respected Senna and Prost.
I think Lewis is an amazing talent and one of the all-time greats of F1. There’s no denying that. What I might also suggest is that Lewis has achieved more in the car than he has out of the car and perhaps that is why the older drivers aren’t lined up with praise for what he has achieved. Perhaps there are some who feel there should be an asterisk by Lewis’s name and that he is, after all these years, tainted. I’ve read both sides of the arguments.
The lesson here is that no matter how big your platform is, you can’t make the horse drink and you can break all the records and still find yourself being considered “in context”. That is how Lewis thought about Vettel (claiming the best car was his secret) and Schumacher (claiming he was tainted by his actions and had a dominant car). Context is king and that is one of the hardest lessons for any F1 champion. To know that their achievements are always being considered in context.