In 2004 Michael Schumacher claimed his seventh Formula 1 World Championship, and in doing so set a record many felt would not be beaten. The German had dominated F1 for several years, and his seventh title was his fifth in a row with Ferrari.
Schumacher would retire from the sport in 2006, and in 2007 a young Englishman from Stevenage by the name of Lewis Hamilton joined the sport. Racing for McLaren and partnered with reigning champion Fernando Alonso, Hamilton swiftly made his mark, surprising his more experienced teammate and narrowly missing out on the title in his maiden season. Hamilton would go one better in 2008, becoming (at the time) the youngest champion in F1 history. He’d go close in 2010, but after a promising 2012 campaign ended with McLaren falling away, Hamilton took the decision to leave the team that had guided him into F1 and signed for Mercedes.
Hamilton replaced none other than Schumacher, who had returned to the series in 2010. Some – including myself – questioned the move, for Mercedes were not especially competitive, and that remained the case in 2013, despite some indicators of good pace. However, in 2014, with the emergence of the new turbo-hybrid era, everything changed. Mercedes were untouchable, and Hamilton duelled with teammate and friend Nico Rosberg for the title. The battle ended in Hamilton’s favour, and he would add further titles in 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, equalling Schumacher’s tally.
Some would argue Hamilton’s success boiled down to only the car. My counterpoint? Show me a champion who won a title in anything other than the best or nearly-the-best machinery. The best drivers and best teams tend to be drawn to each other – Ayrton Senna would never have won a title for Lotus, yet when placed in the best car of the era (the McLaren) he was champion three times in four years. Schumacher himself had compliant teammates and Ferrari had virtually no equals during his own run of consecutive titles, yet his greatness is never questioned. Alain Prost enjoyed highly competitive cars in his title battles and successes. No one doubts Prost.
‘The others all had strong teammates to challenge them’. Schumacher didn’t. His teammate at Benetton was Jos Verstappen, who was nowhere near Schumacher’s ability. At Ferrari Schumacher was paired with Eddie Irvine, Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa. None of them were especially bad but none could match Schumacher and the team had strict rules about challenging him. Prost had a number of champions as teammates but on more than one occasion he was up against them as they entered the twilights of their careers, or he engineered favouritism. Senna’s best teammate was Prost, but aside from that no one was close to his ability. Meanwhile Hamilton’s first teammate was Alonso, who is widely regarded as one of the best drivers on the grid, and Hamilton was also paired with Jensen Button (another world champion) for three years at McLaren. Rosberg would go on to become a champion, proving his own worth – but none of these facts seem to matter when discussing Hamilton.
It feels as though there is a long train of excuses for why Hamilton’s accomplishments aren’t as good as they seem. The opposition gets played down, Hamilton himself gets played down, and none of it makes sense. Take for example, the 2021 season. At the time of writing this, Hamilton goes into the final race level on points with Red Bull driver Max Verstappen. Few doubt Verstappen’s skills (though his aggressive style has earned him a few criticisms), but people have played down the performance of the Red Bull to suggest Verstappen is over-performing, when in reality Red Bull have made great strides with the engine and the car, closing the gap to Mercedes. Very rarely do we see a significant difference in car performance offset by driver ability, least of all when it comes to winning titles. With all of that said, where are we? Hamilton could win an eighth world title on Sunday, and in doing so he would hold virtually every record worth holding in F1. He would have the most wins, most pole positions and most titles. I know people will continue to doubt his talent and pour scorn over his achievements, but I pay such people no mind. Hamilton’s record already speaks for itself, and does not require justification.
Hamilton has remained hungry for success, at a point where others might have settled for what they’d won. It would have been easy to win title number three or four and think ‘I’ve done enough’. For Hamilton, it’s not been enough. He has continued to want to win races and titles, and that insatiable desire for glory has kept him at the top of his game. He wants to be peerless, and he is very nearly there, at least in a statistical sense. Even I would hesitate to call him the greatest ever, but one of the greats? Absolutely.
The pretender to Hamilton’s throne (some might say heir) is Max Verstappen. The 24 year-old Dutchman is 12 years younger than Hamilton yet already has several years of F1 experience, having made his debut at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix for Red Bull ‘B’ team Toro Rosso. He became the youngest driver (at 17 years of age) to score points when he finished seventh in the second round of the 2015 season. In 2016 Verstappen replaced Daniil Kvyat at Red Bull from the 5th round onwards, and won on his senior debut at Spain after Hamilton and Rosberg crashed out on the first lap. Verstappen absorbed pressure from Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari throughout the race and his star had risen considerably.
Verstappen is noted for an aggressive racing style, something that has earned him praise and criticism alike. His defensive driving in Belgium in 2016 earned him a warning about his driving, though at Brazil in the same year he would produce an astonishing wet-weather comeback to go from 16th to 3rd in 15 laps. He would incur Vettel’s wrath in Mexico over further aggressive defending, and in 2017 he would be involved in several accidents (such as taking teammate Daniel Ricciardo out of the race at Hungary), as well as taking two more good wins.
2018 saw a continuation of this trend. Verstappen was involved in incidents at every one of the first six races of the season, the most noteworthy of which was another collision with his then-teammate Ricciardo whilst defending his position at Azerbaijan – the accident put both cars out of the race. He’d produce a win in Austria, and would claim win five at Mexico.
2019 brought more consistency, if not a car capable of fighting the Mercedes. Verstappen would take three wins, in Austria, Germany and Brazil, and in 2020 he’d claim the 9th and 10th wins of his career, at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone, and the finale at Abu Dhabi. 2021 has been a defining year, with Verstappen winning nine races and competing hard for the world championship for the first time in his career.
When Verstappen has finished a race in 2021, he has been first or second with but one exception (Hungary). Controversy – never far away where Verstappen is concerned – has erupted more than once in a tightly contested championship, and questions have once again been raised about his aggressive style. However it was Verstappen who was on the receiving end of a hard punt at Silverstone in an early collision with title rival Hamilton, who made a clumsy move at speed on the first lap. Verstappen made his own clumsy move at Monza, where his rear right tyre ended up bouncing off the halo device protecting Hamilton’s head, and the two would be involved in fierce on-track battles in Brazil and Saudi Arabia, the latter of which proving to be crucial in levelling the pair on points. Hamilton has won the last three races to overturn a 19-point deficit. He is the more experienced driver, and he knows what it’s like to go into the final race on the verge of winning the title. Verstappen is undeniably quick and eager to prove he has what it takes to be a champion. Their cars are fairly evenly-matched and everything is finely poised.
This will be tense.