Fate isn’t really something that I believe in. Then again, if I didn’t know better, sometimes it almost seems that things do happen for a reason.
Had Lewis Hamilton equalled Michael Schumacher’s all-time Formula 1 win record in Russia, there’s a chance that it might have been a little underwhelming, much like the Sochi track itself. Instead, he did so at the Nürburgring, in Schumacher’s homeland and at a track where the great man scored five of his 91 victories. That was much more fitting, especially when Mick Schumacher surprised Lewis by presenting one of his father’s helmets to him. What a lovely moment. It doesn’t happen often these days, but every now and then F1 reminds us that it’s still a sport with soul.
Hamilton’s achievement in matching Schumacher’s tally of 91 victories, which surely soon he will surpass, was reached on the same day that Rafael Nadal won his 13th French Open tennis title – his 20th major. Such numbers boggle the brain, not least for those who make them. When he lined up on an F1 grid for the first time at the start of 2007, Hamilton could never have dared to dream of matching a record set only a few months earlier, when Schumacher scored his final victory in Shanghai. Yet here we are 13 years later. It’s a remarkable story.
Who is the GOAT?
In recent weeks, Hamilton’s rising tally has inevitably sparked talk of that old chestnut: the greatest of all time, or GOAT. A recent interview with Sir Jackie Stewart added fuel, with the 81-year-old saying he would find it “difficult to justify” Hamilton in such terms, whatever the numbers say, especially as his Mercedes is “so superior” that it’s “almost unfair” to the rest. More significantly, the triple F1 champion also said that it’s impossible to compare era to era, given how much the world (and motor racing) has changed through the decades. Whereas top drivers once raced not only in F1 but also in sports cars, GTs, Can-Am, Indycars and even saloons, today’s biggest stars can only specialise. But he still couldn’t resist naming Juan Manuel Fangio and Jim Clark as his choices, above Ayrton Senna. It’s so easy to get drawn in.
Stewart’s comments were taken by some as a bit of dig at Hamilton, and perhaps they were. These great champions certainly haven’t always seen eye to eye. But his point that comparisons are impossible is really the key. GOAT talk is fatuous when it comes to motor racing, as far as I’m concerned – in fact, I would argue so for any sport. Context and technology – even with tennis rackets! – change so dramatically through the decades, all too obviously in the case of F1. All you can really do is pinpoint the greatest of each generation and leave it there.
For what it’s worth, in the World Championship era from 1950, my chronological F1 list would read: Fangio, Sir Stirling Moss, Clark, Stewart, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Senna, Schumacher… and now Hamilton. Lewis absolutely deserves his place among such company.