Charting the evolution of Lewis Hamilton the driver, and person with Sky F1’s Martin Brundle after Hamilton became a seven-time F1 champion; Hamilton is also now the sport’s most successful driver. Just how high could he set the bar on F1’s records?
Winning a Formula 1 race, let alone 95, would have been little more than a pipedream for a young Lewis Hamilton as he broke down barriers as a karter in Hertfordshire. Winning a Formula 1 title, let alone seven, would have been an incredible achievement for a 22-year-old Lewis Hamilton, even with all his promise upon entering the grid with McLaren.
We don’t know that he is the ‘GOAT’, and F1 is quite possibly more difficult to compare the elite from different eras than any other sport. We don’t know that he is the greatest British sportsman, and there are certainly plenty of contenders. But what we do now know is that Lewis Hamilton is, officially, the most successful driver in Formula 1 history, and one whose legacy will live long after his retirement.
“He’s got supreme skills and talent, and he’s applied them in the most impressive way. You can’t fault him. He’s had the talent, and he’s used it.”
Martin Brundle, with 36 years of F1 experience both as a driver alongside and against greats such as Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna, and as a commentator analysing Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel’s respective eras, has seen it all – and followed Hamilton’s career closely.
Lewis Hamilton’s seven titles: The stats
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“For me, what stands out through all of this time is that he’s not lost anything in terms of work rate, speed, fitness, race craft, bravery, through all these years,” the Sky Sports F1 expert states. “He’s just added experience, knowledge and guile to it all.”
From that headstrong youngster to F1’s winning, and often unstoppable, machine – it’s been quite the journey. And how long could it continue?
The road to F1
‘If anybody had any doubts, they were put to bed in race one’
You’ve probably heard the story. Hamilton, aged 10 and an aspiring karter, met the title-winning F1 team boss Ron Dennis and told him that he would drive one of his McLaren cars one day.
McLaren, and then engine suppliers Mercedes, duly backed Hamilton through a sparkling junior career from the age of 13 before handing their long-time protégé an F1 seat in 2007 after back-to-back championships in Formula 3 and then GP2.
“I’d heard from people I knew from McLaren that he’d got straight in the car and was quick,” recalls Brundle about Hamilton, who first tested the MP4-21 in September 2006. “But I think he was making mistakes. One or two people said they didn’t think he was ready for F1 yet.”
Partnered by Alonso, the reigning two-time champion and presumptive face of F1 following Schumacher’s retirement, this was nothing short of an acid test for the young Brit. But…
“If anybody had any doubts, they were put to bed in race one,” says Brundle of Hamilton’s debut in Australia 2007.
“A moment in my mind is the first corner of the first race, when he went around the outside of Alonso and just showed that he’d got all the confidence in the world.”
A record-breaking rookie season for Hamilton would follow, although he cruelly missed out on an incredible debut title to Kimi Raikkonen by just a single point – pivotally beaching his car in the gravel at the penultimate race after being left out far too long on old tyres.
“But for one bad decision in China he could have his eighth championship right now,” says Brundle. “I think the team were probably more to blame than he was in 2007.”
Perhaps we should have known this was not going to be your run-of-the-mill F1 career from those dramatic opening seasons of Hamilton. Not only did he so nearly become F1’s first-ever rookie champion, but his team-mate Alonso left in controversial circumstances (as Martin says, “Ron could only be absolutely besotted and in love with one driver at a time and it was quite clear who that was going to be quite early doors” – and 2008 then finished with F1’s most remarkable title finale.
Hamilton progressed into a McLaren leader in that season – his utter domination in the rain at Silverstone probably still ranks as his greatest-ever drive – but it was Felipe Massa who crossed the line at the season-ender in Brazil as a champion. “And it was a deserved championship,” says Martin.
But at the final corner, on the final lap, came that famous line on commentary from Martin that quickly became the soundbite to Hamilton’s first championship:
“Is that Glock?”
Brundle reflects: “Let’s be honest, any number of different things could have happened to stop that.
“You have to chalk that one up as quite a lucky one for Lewis. If he was unlucky in ’07, he was lucky in ’08.”
One title heartbreak, one title ecstasy. This was character-building – to the extreme. And the start of something special.
Wait for second title, and a ‘mad’ decision
It is often said that drivers learn the most about themselves, and improve, during their years in difficult circumstances and cars. And that can certainly be said for Hamilton in the period from his first championship to his eventual McLaren exit.
We saw some of the most exhilarating drives of Hamilton’s career, take his overtake-packed 2011 Chinese GP, but also plenty of errors and petulant Sundays – and he finished no higher than fourth in the championship in 2009, ’10, ’11 and 12.
“When I look back to those early years and look at Lewis now, I think he’s a more complete driver,” explains Brundle. “But is he any faster? I doubt it.
“It is just amazing how few mistakes he makes now.”
Something had to change. And a big decision was coming.
“McLaren to Mercedes, it looked a little bit mad right there and then,” says Brundle. Indeed, Mercedes had finished fourth, fourth and fifth in their first three seasons back in F1. In the same campaigns, McLaren were second, second and third.
“It looked a gamble, but I’m sure if you knew what was going on behind the scenes it was less of a gamble.
“What he would have known from Ross [Brawn] and Niki [Lauda] and co, is all about the hybrid engine. He would have bought into… ‘look, we are leagues ahead with this hybrid engine’. He would have known that.
“If you’re sold into that, and a big 2014 rules change, it makes it a more logical decision, and a great decision.”
Not just that – it is quite possibly the wisest decision any driver has ever made in F1.
Hamilton was ‘vulnerable’ vs Rosberg… ‘but still more than good enough to win’
After replacing Michael Schumacher – the man whose records were a distant dream for Hamilton upon arriving at Mercedes with 21 race wins and just one title – the 2013 campaign wasn’t significant for the Briton in terms of a title challenge (Vettel and Red Bull dominated), but this was the year he would have both seen that Mercedes potential, and that he had a worthy team-mate rival.
Nico Rosberg was Hamilton’s childhood friend, but wasn’t perhaps seen as a threat, nor an elite driver, when Lewis joined the Silver Arrows. But while he was just beaten in the final points standings, the qualifying head-to-heads by Hamilton in 2013 – he won two races in that season to his team-mate’s one.
In 2014, it quickly became clear that Mercedes had aced the new rules regulations with their hybrid engine, with Hamilton and Rosberg quickly thrust into an exclusive head-to-head battle for the championship, and an intense rivalry. The playful blows exchanged after the Bahrain GP – their first epic ding-dong battle, won by Hamilton – was about as jovial as this relationship got, with several controversial moments in their title fights.
Hamilton had matured, now had the car to suit his talents, and had shown he could control and dominate Grands Prix. But Rosberg seemed to have a strategy.
“I’m impressed with the way Nico went about it,” says Brundle. “He got a bit crafty and cheeky, and he did push him.
“He got up to a few tricks and he tried his best to destabilise and beat Lewis. I think Nico did a sterling job, I think his mentality and approach was a good approach to beat Lewis.
“Nico was quick enough, resilient enough, and wasn’t subservient at all. I think he challenged Lewis in some ways that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with.”
On Hamilton, he adds: “I think there was a phase where he was reinventing himself a bit, finding out who he was. I think there was possibly a lack of stability in Lewis’ life that showed up every so often, and he was possibly more vulnerable through that phase.
“But still more than good enough to win everything.”
And that last statement being the key point. Hamilton wasn’t always ahead of Rosberg, but always seemed to deliver when it mattered. His run of form – claiming five straight wins – towards the end of the 2014 campaign helped him on his way to a first crown with Mercedes in Abu Dhabi. In 2015, it was Hamilton’s consistent brilliance that appeared to be making his team-mate crack, rather than the other way around with Rosberg’s “psychological warfare”. His third championship was clinched with three races to spare.
“I think Lewis just turned up with his A-game more often,” says Brundle. “Lewis can somehow seem to deliver 97/98 per cent of his potential at all times.”
In 2016, however, Rosberg’s efforts finally paid off despite Hamilton winning 10 of the final 16 races. This is probably the lost championship – maybe even more so than 2007 – that the Englishman, beaten by five points, wants back.
“If you look back at 2016, take away the engine failure in Malaysia and it would have been a whole new ball game,” notes Brundle. Rosberg, delighted yet drained, retired straight after claiming his first title.
“He’d given it absolutely everything he’d got in an and out of the car. Fighting, let alone beating, Lewis was incredibly tough. I think that’s why he stopped just after he won the championship.”
Hamilton was stuck on three championships – but Rosberg’s departure lifted him on and off the track.
‘Nothing has been his match’ as records tumble
“For me, Lewis hasn’t really had a true rival since Rosberg retired.”
Considering Hamilton’s success after the German’s departure, it’s difficult to argue with Martin.
Valtteri Bottas, who was drafted in from Williams to replace Rosberg, has, despite pushing Hamilton hard in qualifying, as yet not quite been up to it – winning just nine races since joining the team in 2017. In that same time, Hamilton has claimed 42 victories, and four straight titles.
Vettel, now at Ferrari, proved a title threat in 2017 and 2018 – his and Hamilton’s first head-to-head championship fights – but both he and his team fell away in the second half of those seasons. The 2017 wheel banging in Baku and the 2018 crash into the gravel in Germany pointed to the pressure of finding yourself up against Hamilton, who not too long ago was chasing Vettel’s tally of four titles but is now three clear.
One driver who does seem to be a match for Hamilton – earning praise from the man himself – is Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, the fearless young Dutchman who has added consistency to immense speed in recent years.
“But Verstappen has never quite had the machinery,” says Brundle. “There’s not really been a combo to challenge Lewis since 2016. Either in his own team or any other team, nobody’s quite had all the stars aligned.”
Without as much internal pressure, and lacking a consistent external threat, Hamilton has been able to focus on his own performances – and somehow continued to improve with age. Pole position? You’d fancy him to then control the race. Fighting from behind? You can never rule him out. Horrendous wet conditions? He’s one of the best.
“I think what has stood out about Lewis over the years is how few mistakes he makes, how complete he is, and clean,” says Brundle. “He’s a clean racing driver which I think is a very important point.
“His work rate is also incredible, and that’s something you hear up and down the paddock. And his motivation. When you’ve got all of that success, money, and a trophy cabinet like that, to keep the motivation is super impressive.
“And he just never makes a mistake. In wheel-to-wheel combat, in qualifying… he’s 35, going on 25. He just doesn’t fade, mentally or physically.”
Records have quickly tumbled and, as Brundle says, there has been as yet no signs of deterioration.
“His eyesight, his reactions, nothing has fallen away.
“If you’re going to start fading, you’re on a gentle slope. And he doesn’t appear to have started that slope yet.
“Michael was in his 40s when he retired and he started making a lot of mistakes, and most of us did – you start having crashes at the end and you don’t know why that happened. That’s what it looks like Sebastian is to me, right now.
“Lewis has not got to that point, and nothing has been his match.”
His title-clinching victory at the Turkish GP in November was typical of the ‘new’ Lewis. Impossible to fluster. Composed in any conditions. Staggeringly fast, and error-free, with the pressure on. It was a fitting way to match Michael.
’10 championships and 150 race wins is entirely doable’
Hamilton appears to be at his peak. Hamilton certainly has the best car currently. He doesn’t officially have a Mercedes deal in place yet for 2021, but that is considered a formality even if discussions now do stretch into the New Year.
Brundle is predicting an astonishing benchmark for Hamilton’s records.
“Who do you think will have the most resource and the best package in 2022?” he says. “Or indeed in 2026?
“I think 10 championships and maybe 150 race victories is entirely doable.”
Ninety-five victories. Seven championships. “Not fading away in any area”. Hamilton is an ominous competitor now, and there’s no sign that he won’t be one in the future, too.
“My gut feeling is he’ll stop a year early rather than a year late,” says Brundle. “He’s not going to hang on until the bitter end for a few more dollars, or just to be a Formula 1 driver, and nor will he need to.
“He’s obviously got other ambitions in his life, but I can’t imagine why he would stop in the next five years, or certainly three. Why would he?”