Formula 1 has a rich history, full of vibrant personalities, incredible rivalries, and more than enough tragedy.
Within the annals of F1 there are many legends, from Juan Manuel Fangio to James Hunt and Niki Lauda, all the way to Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton today.
Sunday’s wild race ended with perhaps the next F1 legend, Max Verstappen, on the top step of the podium, but it was the newly crowned champion Lewis Hamilton who was doing donuts in front of the fans in Mexico.
Hamilton’s fourth championship makes him the most successful British driver in Formula 1, a mark that many pegged him to hit when he was in the junior formulae, never mind when he passed double world champion and teammate Fernando Alonso at the first corner of his first race.
With that title come questions though, questions about just how great Hamilton is in the grand scheme of F1. Where is his place in the pantheon of racing drivers?
The talents of Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton’s raw pace has never been in question. In perfect conditions he has always been incredibly tough to beat. He is a dynamic overtaker who often makes passes at unusual spots and is not unaccustomed to setting up dummies and feints or simply barging his way through. Just ask Felipe Massa.
Hamilton has never taken prisoners, that much has obvious in his intra-team battles with both Alonso and Nico Rosberg, but it is something he has in common with the likes of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
In 2017 Hamilton became the leader in career pole positions with 72, a number that is only going to rise over the years, proof of his incredible pace. Or is it?
Car & driver as one
The hybrid era of Formula 1 has been extremely kind to Mercedes. In the 77 races since the start of the 2014 season, the Silver Arrows have taken 69 poles, won 62 races, and claimed 41 fastest laps of a possible 77. Those numbers are incredible, far exceeding even Red Bull's record from 2010-13 when they won four drivers' and constructors' championships.
The kind of advantage that the Mercedes power units have provided since 2014 is staggering. It pushed Williams back up the constructors' ranks and has fueled the rise of Force India. Of course, the team has also developed hugely competitive aero packages and a wonderful chassis, but the power unit, with it's fabled "quali mode", has been a huge part of Mercedes', and Hamilton's, success.
That is not to say that I think Hamilton's success is entirely down to the brilliance of the car he is sitting in. He has dominated both Rosberg and Valtteri Bottas when they lined up next to him, and his performances with McLaren also speak to his genius, but there is no doubt that having one of the biggest car advantages in F1 history has played its part in Hamilton's championships.
How the numbers stack up
Hamilton's record number of pole positions is the easiest thing to point at when saying that he is one of the very best, but rather than raw numbers, let's look at how the percentages match up.
|Pole %||Podium %||Win %||Fastest Lap %|
I picked Senna, Prost, and Michael Schumacher because when thinking of all-time greats, these are the three names that immediately spring to mind.
The numbers show some interesting results though. While they do not account for mechanical failures, crashes, or rain hitting at just the wrong time, what they do show is the rate of success each driver had. Hamilton's pole percentage is staggering, and yet Ayrton Senna's is even more so. His win percentage would put him on pace to pass Schumacher's race win total of 91, though the German's numbers are deflated by his "second career" with Mercedes from 2010-2012. When you remove the 58 grands prix he drove for Mercedes, his numbers take a considerable jump.
|Pole %||Podium %||Win %||Fastest Lap %|
Hamilton's pole percentage still outstrips Michael's thanks to him taking more than half of the poles available in the Hybrid era. Of course, a good number of Schumacher's poles came when Ferrari were the only show in town at the time.
It is impossible to truly separate car and driver, but to not take into account the relative performance of the machinery drivers are working with would be foolish. It's part of the reason Fernando Alonso has been so lauded during his career - he has never been in what was unquestionably the fastest car on the grid. His 2005/6 Renaults were good, but they were not considerably better than the competition, and yet he broke Schumacher's grip on F1.
He was the only man to consistently go toe-to-toe with Red Bull at the start of the decade. Lewis won 11 races and 18 other podiums during Red Bull's dominance; Fernando won 11 races too but claimed 30 other podium finishes and was just seven points away from adding two more championships to his own count.
Hamilton's recent success has been remarkable, but it doesn't separate him from either Vettel or Alonso in his generation. He has certainly entered the realm of the all-time greats by adding a fourth World Championship, but the pinnacle is still Michael Schumacher and that staggering win percentage. The true mark of one-lap brilliance is still Ayrton Senna.
Hamilton is firmly in the pantheon, but he is yet to reach the top step.
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