Lewis Hamilton is one of our finest sporting stars and will go down as a legend of F1, yet he remains a divisive character. We examine the enigma
23 November 2019

The greatest British sports star? There are plenty of contenders. Four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome. Four-time Olympic champion distance runner Mo Farah.

Swimmer Adam Peaty, an Olympic champion, eight-time world champion and double world record holder. Gymnast Max Whitlock is a double Olympic champion and three-time world champion.

Snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan is a five-time world champion. Andy Murray is a three-time tennis Grand Slam winner and double Olympic champion.

There’s world heptathlon champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson. England rugby captain Owen Farrell – one of the best players in the world; Raheem Sterling is one of the best footballers. Golfer Rory McIlroy and many more.

And then there is Lewis Hamilton. Six-time Formula 1 world champion and winner of 83 grands prix, behind only Michael Schumacher on both, and 87 pole positions – an all-time record. The fastest racing driver in the world for 13 years and counting.

For some, Hamilton might not seem a fitting candidate for this particular accolade. But those achievements demand his consideration.

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Pure ability

Few British sports stars made such an instant impact or have performed so consistently for such a long time as Hamilton.

Novice F1 drivers aren’t supposed to be able to fight for world titles or compete consistently against world champions. And yet that’s exactly what Hamilton did from the moment he made his debut in 2007, for McLaren, with two-time champion Fernando Alonso as his team-mate.

Hamilton was competitive from the very start of his debut season. He won his sixth race – and very nearly the title.

It was the greatest debut season in F1 history, and Hamilton has gone on to produce consistently masterful performances, occasionally touching genius, for the subsequent decade and more. He is the only driver in history to win a race in every season in which he has competed.

James Allison, technical director at Hamilton’s Mercedes team, is in a unique position to judge his qualities. Allison has worked closely with not only Hamilton but also Schumacher, Alonso and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel.

“If they all had to be in a super-team fighting it out every year,” Allison says, “my guess is that Lewis would end up on top. Maybe not every season, but if they kept coming back every year to do battle in some sort of Valhalla-type confrontation, more often than not it would be Lewis wearing the crown at the end of the year.

“Of that cluster, I think he is the quickest, at his best, and he shows us his best extremely frequently. It’s not by accident that he is the all-time pole record holder. He just has a better turn of speed than the others.”

Work ethic

Hamilton’s lifestyle outside F1 – the fashion line, the constant trips to the US, the backing vocals on R&B singles, the Hollywood friends – gives some the impression that he does not work that hard. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mercedes’ record-breaking run of six drivers’ and constructors’ championship doubles is founded on a relentless quest for better, and constant, reinvention. Hamilton is at the heart of it.

Back in August, Hamilton ended the first part of the season with possibly his best win of the year, a brilliant fightback to pass Red Bull’s Max Verstappen for victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix.

It was Hamilton’s eighth win in 12 races and it gave him a 62-point championship lead. The sixth title was in effect already in the bag. But in the post-race debrief with his engineers, Hamilton asked everyone to send him an email, in which he wanted them to “be completely straight with me if they think there is anything we can improve on”.

Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff says: “He never stops pushing for performance. He is very self-critical. He is the only driver I have ever seen coming into a debrief saying: ‘Don’t look at my data because my driving was not good enough.’ And that from a six-time world champion.

“This relentless pursuit of being a better you tomorrow than you have been today and brutal honesty to yourself, transparency within the organisation to overcome mistakes and shortcomings, is something that is a very big part of Lewis’s character.”

Competitive attitude

Like all great sports people, Hamilton hates to lose. It’s what enables him to produce some of his greatest victories.

Take that race in Hungary. When Mercedes called him in for a second pit stop, while Verstappen stayed out in the lead, Hamilton was 20 seconds behind with 22 laps to go. “I was definitely not thinking: ‘Genius’,” Hamilton said afterwards. Nineteen laps later, he was in the lead.

Or Bahrain earlier in the year. While Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc raced off into the distance out front, Hamilton took the race to his team-mate Vettel on a day the Ferraris were demonstrably faster. Hamilton passed Vettel and pressured him into the latest of a series of mistakes. Had he not done that, it would have been Vettel, not Hamilton, who inherited the win when Leclerc’s engine hit trouble in the closing laps.

It’s this competitiveness that can come across to some as a kind of sulkiness on the team radio during races. But asking how he has lost so much time, what has gone wrong with the strategy, demanding the team get him into a position to win the race, isn’t Hamilton being spoilt. It’s a refusal to accept second best.

Sporting intelligence

F1 cars take drivers to their physical limits, having to deal with forces of six times gravity in every braking zone and 5g in fast corners for 90 minutes or more at a time.

But F1 is a mental exercise, too. Drivers have to control the world’s most demanding cars on the limit of adhesion and make them lap faster than anyone while competing for the same piece of track as everyone else. This is the racing bit of race-car driving, and Hamilton is unsurpassed at it.

As Allison puts it: “He has a record of finding clean but improbable overtakes that surpasses the others.

“Something I have come to appreciate more is just how cleverly and cleanly he races a car. He makes other people make mistakes by placing his car on the road where they have no choice but to hit him, back down or make a mistake, while he doesn’t.”

Quite often in the past two or three seasons, the victim in these circumstances has been Vettel. Take Monza last year, when Hamilton got alongside the Ferrari driver on the outside into the second chicane on the first lap and Vettel slid into him and spun. The German lost the race – and control of the championship – there and then.

“Lewis just put his car on the road,” Allison says, “not in a way that was easy to do, but where it left Sebastian with nowhere to go. That was magnificent and utterly clean. It wasn’t like he didn’t leave room or anything like that, just brilliant driving.”

It's just the car, right?

Wrong. Those who undervalue Hamilton’s achievements point to the dominance of Mercedes since turbo-hybrid engines were introduced in 2014. But it’s an over-simplification to say Hamilton is winning only because he has the best car.

For one thing, in 2007, and when he won his first title in 2008, he didn’t – the Ferrari was a better car than the McLaren in both those seasons. That’s obvious from the subsequent careers of Hamilton and Alonso and the Ferrari drivers Kimi Räikkönen and Felipe Massa, both of whom Alonso wiped the floor with as team-mates.

For the remainder of Hamilton’s McLaren career, until the end of 2012, the car was rarely the best either. And yet Hamilton left the team with 21 victories under his belt.

When he joined Mercedes in 2013, they were a long way from the dominance they would soon show. Hamilton won a race; team-mate Nico Rosberg did not.

From 2014 to 2016, as Mercedes dominated, Hamilton out-scored Rosberg at a rate of two victories to one. And he lost the title in 2016 only because of much worse reliability than his team-mate.

In 2017 and 2018, Ferrari had the best car for the first two-thirds of each season, and yet through the quality and consistency of his performances Hamilton kept himself in the game, until Ferrari and Vettel imploded under the pressure.

And, of course, there is not only one Mercedes. Since he joined the team in 2013, Hamilton has won 62 grands prix; his team-mates have won 30. Out of the 30 wins he has had since Valtteri Bottas joined the team in 2017, the Finn has not been second in 16 of those races, only three of which were because of reliability issues.

“In terms of performance, there is a lot put on the car and less concerned with the driver,” Hamilton says. “Some of the races we come to, there are two of my cars and sometimes there is a car in between us, or maybe more than one. So it is not necessarily who has the fastest car.

“Some races in the past, I have been able to do more with the car than it has particularly wanted to and that’s what I enjoy. So I just approach it the same, trying to out-drive the car if and when I can and put it in close range of the car that is fastest.”

The likeability question

Does the way Hamilton sometimes comes across affect the way people view his abilities as an athlete? It would appear to.

He has developed a reputation as a divisive character: people either love him or they hate him.

In recent times, Hamilton has gone vegan and taken to talking about the threat of the climate crisis. But to his detractors, being lectured on green issues is a bit rich from a guy who drives an F1 car and flies around the world for a living.

Some resent the fact that he lives as a tax exile in Monaco (although for some reason seem less bothered about all the other sports stars who do the same). Some feel he seems like he doesn’t know who he is – coming across one moment like a perfectly normal person brought up in the home counties, and the next like a globetrotting superstar. (The fact he is both might have something to do with this.)

Back in the 1970s, some people didn’t like the fact that Jackie Stewart had long hair. Now, in the early 21st century, some don’t like Hamilton’s hairstyle, or his tattoos, or his occasionally mid-Atlantic accent, or his ‘blingy’ taste in jewellery.

He can be distant. He can sometimes seem a bit unaware of reality. He keeps a barrier between himself and the media – understandably, perhaps, given the way some parts of it have treated him in the past.

But none of that has anything to do with his abilities as a sportsman. Whether people think Hamilton might be a fun guy to have a beer with is completely irrelevant to whether or not he’s a great Formula 1 driver. And that he clearly is. One of the greatest ever. Perhaps even the greatest.

He has just won his sixth world title. He’s favourite to win a seventh. He’s on course to become the most successful F1 driver of all time.

Greatest British sports star? Hamilton would take some beating.

Andrew Benson

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Comments
17

23 November 2019

Hamilton is probably the ultimate Marmite F1 champ. You either like him or loathe him, and this often colours arguments about his good fortune to be driving the best car on the grid in recent years. At his core I think he is a kind and deeply religious man, but whose lifestyle and tendency towards wearing his heart on his sleeve can alienate many. When the time comes for him to retire from F1 it will be interesting to see where life takes him. More conventionally personable drivers have gone on to work in the media, for example, but will Hamilton try something completely different? He certainly makes the sport interesting.

23 November 2019

Steve Redgrave won 5 Olympic Gold Medals at rowing, possibly the most gruelling sport of the lot. I'm sorry, but in terms of sporting achievement, going out for a drive on a few Sundays each year doesn't really come close...

23 November 2019
Broughster wrote:

Steve Redgrave won 5 Olympic Gold Medals at rowing, possibly the most gruelling sport of the lot. I'm sorry, but in terms of sporting achievement, going out for a drive on a few Sundays each year doesn't really come close...

 

Your ignorance on the physical requirments of an F1 driver is truely astounding. As you were...

23 November 2019
Broughster wrote:

Steve Redgrave won 5 Olympic Gold Medals at rowing, possibly the most gruelling sport of the lot. I'm sorry, but in terms of sporting achievement, going out for a drive on a few Sundays each year doesn't really come close...

Rowing, now there is an elitist sport. Anyone for Henley dear boy.

p.s. how many of those 5 did Redgrave win by rowing on his own? 

24 November 2019
Broughster wrote:

Steve Redgrave won 5 Olympic Gold Medals at rowing, possibly the most gruelling sport of the lot. I'm sorry, but in terms of sporting achievement, going out for a drive on a few Sundays each year doesn't really come close...

Exactly.  Greatest sportsperson of all time?  He drives a car round in circles.

Conider the fiitness and strengh of cyclists, rowers, runners...  Consider the skill and coordination of tennis players, footballers, gymnasts...  Consider the balls required to get in a ring or the octagon...

Driving cars may be entertainimng for a small minority of geeks but it isn't a real sport.

23 November 2019

The elephant in the room... Hamilton is a young man of mixed heritage who is not reverred like Mansel or Clark because his mould does not fit the typical image of a British racing driver. He is the best racing driver I have ever seen and I started watching F1 during the Prost/Senna era. If Hamilton was white and British he would already be a Sir. He is a monumental talent who we should all embrace as our own.

23 November 2019

I'd like to think you are wrong about the racism issue, yet I have to wonder why Daley Thompson, one of our greatest athletes, was never knighted as he deserved.

23 November 2019

You should have included Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Jason Kenny and Mo Farah on the list of recent great sporting champions.

What about all the women and handicapped world and olympic winners? Surely they too are all great champions.

Yes, Lewis is one of those great champions and shows the determination and hard work that all world and olympic champions have to show.

For me though, the fact that he produces near faultless performances pretty much week in week out for 9 months or more of every year for the last 12 years, under tremendous pressure and showing great sportsmanship, while travelling all round the world and with so many other interests and commitments, makes him the truly remarkable race driver and human being he is.

I hope he retires with all the records and then goes on to give back to the sport that has given him so much. 

I also wish he paid his due taxes in the UK, since he is so keen to wave the flag.

289

23 November 2019

Ah Bimfan  ...... you mean like Dame Kelly Holmes, Dame Ellen MacArthur, Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Sir Ben Ainslie, Sir Andy Murray, Sir Mathew Pinsent, Sir Tony McCoy, Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, Baron Coe, etc.etc.

Soooo, Lewis given his achievements is a clear and glaring omission....maybe his face just doesnt fit? - I hope thats not the case !

23 November 2019
289 wrote:

Ah Bimfan  ...... you mean like Dame Kelly Holmes, Dame Ellen MacArthur, Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Bradley Wiggins, Sir Ben Ainslie, Sir Andy Murray, Sir Mathew Pinsent, Sir Tony McCoy, Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, Baron Coe, etc.etc.

Soooo, Lewis given his achievements is a clear and glaring omission....maybe his face just doesnt fit? - I hope thats not the case !

Maybe he's turned down a "Sir" ?, who knows maybe a couple of times, John Lennon for one did, and I'm sure you'll know a few more than me, it's not as if it's going to make his life complete, is it?

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