Arise, Sir Lewis Hamilton: why he's the greatest F1 driver ever

Published: 31 December 2020

► Hamilton’s success is more than numbers
► F1 driver knighted and wins SPotY 2020
► Curtis explains why his success really matters

Lewis Hamilton has been knighted as part of the New Year Honours 2021 list, not long after winning the 2020 Sports Personality of the Year for the second time.

These two massive accolades come in a year of real achievement for the Brit after taking his seventh world title in Formula 1, matching that of Michael Schumacher.

In CAR’s January 2021 issue, our online editor Curtis Moldrich takes a look at Hamilton’s career so far, and why his greatness is no longer up for debate.

Still he rises

Hamilton 7 time win

The 2007 Australian Grand Prix wasn’t the most gripping F1 race. But in hindsight it was the first page in the story of the most successful F1 driver of all time. Lewis Hamilton lined up fourth on the grid in his McLaren, two places adrift of his illustrious team-mate, double world champion Fernando Alonso. In a front-running car, against the best driver of his generation, it’s hard to imagine the pressure Hamilton was under. He’d had a stunning GP2 career, sure, but now the rookie had to prove himself all over again.

But there was another, less obvious layer of pressure – and that came from people like me. As the first black F1 driver, Lewis was my first real representation in a sport I’ve always loved. I watched our old-fashioned CRT television nervously that morning, a knot in my stomach: ‘Please don’t screw this up.’

He didn’t, of course; great start, podium finish. (And we only had to wait until his sixth GP, Canada, for that first win.) My Nokia buzzed as soon as he crossed the line in Melbourne, a text from my friend: ‘Lewis is actually good!’ And before I knew it, I was a university fresher watching him pass Glock on the last lap to win his first championship, in 2008.

A master of oversteer with the ability to make the car dance, Hamilton consistently pulled off overtaking manoeuvres I’d think twice about on the PlayStation. It was clear he was talented, but winning one championship was a mighty achievement – two was unthinkable. And overcoming Schumacher’s imperious total? Never. That Hamilton might be the greatest of all time just didn’t register back then. Now, 13 years later, it’s self-evident.

For me, Hamilton is ahead of Schumacher. While I clearly remember Hamilton’s 2007 debut, my first F1 memory is hazier: the 1994 Australian GP, Adelaide. I can only really recall a burning sense of injustice as Schumacher’s cynical driving won him the title. That moment would dictate who I supported from then on.

hamilton autograph

I backed Williams initially. When Schumacher disgraced himself again at Jerez in ’97 I switched my allegiance to McLaren. Either way, from ’98 to 2007 I didn’t ever really notice how little anyone in my favourite sport had in common with me.

How the Mercedes-AMG F1 team is racing towards diversity

That all changed when Hamilton arrived. Suddenly F1’s lack of colour was clear for all to see, but it also felt much closer to home. Lewis won races while I looked for work experience, but I saw a lot of my own life played out every race weekend. Seeing Hamilton with other drivers reminded me of my own school photos, where it was pretty easy to pick me out. And his family stuck out in the paddock the same way mine did at the F1 races we used to go along to. Here was someone who drove how I wanted to drive, listened to the music I liked and looked more like me, winning in my favourite sport.

His more troubled – but never win-less – years were still entertaining and, as he began to rack up championship after championship, the idea of matching Schumacher’s tally grew to become a ghost of a possibility. The hate from the groups you’d expect grew, but the statistics and his performances on the track couldn’t be questioned. From his very first race corner in F1, in which he passed Alonso around the outside, to clinching his first championship with one corner to go (and, more recently, winning this year’s British GP with three tyres…), Lewis has always been box-office. And he has it all: superiority in wheel-to-wheel combat, surreal wet-weather speed, the cool head for qualifying.

hamilton 2020 f1 car

Now Hamilton has eclipsed Schumacher, and his career shines all the brighter for being free of the controversy that tarnished the German’s. Aside from a forgettable early incident in 2009 there’s been no Adelaide ’94, no Jerez ’97 and no Monaco ’06. Hamilton’s record is unblemished and, combined with his message and influence away from the track, there’s no F1 driver who has achieved more.

By Curtis Moldrich

CAR's online editor and racing-sim enthusiast

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