Even though he wasn’t yet a Formula One driver, the legend of Lewis Hamilton—who surpassed Michael Schumacher’s long-standing record of 91 race wins on Sunday—begins at Interlagos 2006.
When the final race weekend of the season ended in Brazil, Renault’s Fernando Alonso had become world champion. But the focus and the chatter in the paddock had little to do with the Spaniard’s second successive title. It perhaps would have been, had the moment not coincided with the retirement of possibly the greatest driver to sit in an F1 cockpit—Schumacher. And all anyone could talk about was whether the German’s ‘impossible’ records—91 wins, 68 pole positions and seven world championships—would ever be matched.
Officially, the Hamilton story opens in the very next race, albeit the following year in Melbourne. It was the first race of 2007 and the first one post Schumacher’s retirement. And debutant Hamilton finished on the third step of the podium, just behind his McLaren teammate Alonso. Thus, the 22-year-old had signalled his intentions, to Alonso and the wider F1 world.
That rookie season saw F1’s first (and to date, only) Black driver missing out on the world championship by a single point. This determined his hunger to make amends the following season, which he did by winning his maiden championship. And then, just when that title looked to be a one-off, Hamilton ended up winning five between 2014 and 2019, taking his tally to one less than Schumacher.
Unless something dramatic happens, the record-equalling seventh title will be won this year itself. But what Hamilton has already ensured after Portimao, Portugal, is that the conversation about him has now moved from ‘great’ to ‘greatest’.
Thirteen years is a long time. The young boy from Stevenage, England, who appeared on the F1 horizon in 2007 with a crew cut and long sideburns has transformed into a man with dreadlocks and mature stubble. But some things simply haven’t changed—like his race-craft and ability to outdrive any opponent.
Pure speed and consistency have together pushed his car and ambitions beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Even Hamilton’s. “Seeing his dominance for so long, I don’t think anyone, and especially me, didn’t imagine I’d be anywhere near Michael in terms of records,” said Hamilton after Schumacher’s son Mick presented the Briton with the German’s famous race worn red helmet to honour him equalling the record for most wins at the last Grand Prix in Nurburgring.
Few did. To put his 92 race wins in perspective, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel is second on the list among active drivers, and he has 53. It doesn’t stop there. The Briton already has more pole positions (97), podiums (161) and points (3687) than any other driver in history. Still grander records are bound to fall, leaving his peers and rivals in a state of shock and awe. “I never thought he would be this dominant,” says former F1 driver Timo Glock from Germany. “For sure he was a driver you could see who would win championships but I never thought as many.”
Glock raced against the era’s best for five seasons and was famously overtaken by Hamilton in the final corner of the last lap of the last race in 2008. It clinched Hamilton’s maiden title in the most dramatic fashion. “He impressed a lot of people, including me. I never really saw him make mistakes, not big mistakes at least,” says Glock. “And the odd mistake, he never repeated it. That makes him stand out from all the others. He just manages to deliver and turn things around over and over again.”
Even the best of the past have typically committed errors when it comes to tyre management. A tiny miscalculation vis-à-vis the rubber and a driver could go from hero to zero in less than a lap’s length. But Hamilton has proved to be slightly better than the best. Just ask a man who understands tyres better than anyone else, Pirelli F1 chief Mario Isola.
“Lewis is excellent at managing tyres and in the end his results speak for themselves,” he says from Italy. “Drivers have a very instinctive feeling with tyres. They operate at an exceptionally high technical level, so we see some excellent skills across the board—as Lewis himself has proved many times.”
Here’s another marker of being an all-time great—the competition simply grows weary of the intensity of the battle, week-in and week-out. Hamilton’s relentless pursuit of greatness possibly drove former teammate Nico Rosberg into retirement. Having outperformed the Briton by the thinnest of margins to win the 2016 title, Rosberg simply could not deal with yet another year of mental exhaustion, something he has admitted.
Black Lives Matter
They say a sportsperson cannot be bigger than the sport itself. But the few who have pushed those boundaries stand for something more than just a phenomenal set of skills or records. Hamilton, like his idol Muhammad Ali before him—whose image is tattooed on the back of the F1 star’s right leg—has come to stand for his race.
Having experienced racism in his formative years, the six-time world champion is outspoken in his criticism of racial politics. And once the F1 season restarted after the coronavirus pandemic enforced lockdown, the 35-year-old became one of the loudest advocates of the Black Lives Matter movement.
After his win in Mugello in September, Hamilton took the podium in a T-shirt that didn’t mince words: “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor”—it read in large capital letters, referring to the African-American woman who was shot dead by US police in March.
That made F1’s governing body FIA to set new rules for on-track protest. But Hamilton remains defiant. “People do talk about sport not being a place for politics. Ultimately these are human rights issues and in my opinion that is something we should be pushing towards,” he said.
Off the track, too, Hamilton is on a quest to make F1 more diverse. The Hamilton Commission, set up in June with UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering, has pledged to help Black people follow in his footsteps. All this ensured that he made it to Time magazine’s Influential 100 this year.
Fame, money, designer labels named after him, tattoos and bling—Hamilton has achieved everything that a modern day sportsperson could possibly hope for.
But Hamilton’s dreams have always bordered on achieving the impossible. One of them coming true in the form of win No.92—breaking a record that Schumacher held for 19 years, once again coming from behind to outrace every opponent and stamping his authority on yet another track. “It’s his absolute passion, energy, everything that he puts into the sport. The talent, ability… he just stands out,” said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff following the victory.
Now, only championship No.7 remains.