What makes Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher so great – and who really is the greatest?

Jack de Menezes
·5 min read
Lewis Hamilton surpassed Michael Schumacher’s record with his 92nd victory - but is he the greatest F1 driver in history (Reuters)
Lewis Hamilton surpassed Michael Schumacher’s record with his 92nd victory - but is he the greatest F1 driver in history (Reuters)

To silence the doubters, Lewis Hamilton will need to win two more Formula One world championships before his case to be the greatest in the sport’s history.

Sunday’s Portuguese Grand Prix triumph brought a 92nd career win for Hamilton, one more than Michael Schumacher’s tally as he finally broke the landmark that no one thought could ever be bettered when it was set 14 years ago. Schumacher’s dominance, combined with the rise of Ferrari as the unrivalled force in F1, sparked a period of one-sidedness that had never been seen before.

In hindsight, perhaps this was a warning sign. Schumacher’s era coincided with Formula One regulations shifting towards the big factory-backed teams, allowing Ferrari and more recently Mercedes to emerge as unrivalled de facto kings of the sport. But that is another argument for another time, for people with a lot more power to decide what direction the sport moves in.

This is an argument about two of the most supremely talented drivers to have ever featured in Formula One. After Hamilton eclipsed Schumacher’s record for the most wins in F1, he has just two major accolades to claim. A seventh world title will need to be followed by an eight if Hamilton is to win that argument hands down.

But the second is Schumacher’s simply astonishing number of fastest laps. Hamilton claimed the extra point on Sunday to record his 52nd fastest lap from his 262 starts, but he remains well short of Schumacher’s 77 that he delivered in 306 races. With Max Verstappen around, it’s no guarantee that Hamilton will definitely overhaul the record.

But there is something that they do so well that sets them out from the rest. They don’t just dominate the rest of the grid, but they more than anyone else they dominate the other side of the garage. There can be no denying that Eddie Irvine, Rubens Barichello and Felipe Massa were deployed not as genuine championship challengers but as rear-gunners for Schumacher, given the chance of a lifetime as long as they adhered to team orders when asked.

Hamilton, on the other hand, has never really had such a benefit. His first ever teammate in F1 cost him the world championship in 2007 when Fernando Alonso and Hamilton conspired against each other to hand the title to Kimi Raikkonen, while little needs to be said about the rivalry with Nico Rosberg. In 2016, Rosberg plunged himself into new depths of his character in order to find the right mindset to beat Hamilton over the course of a season, and though it worked he did not like what he became, resulting in retirement immediately after his moment of glory.

That allowed Valtteri Bottas to step into Rosberg’s shoes, but this will be the fourth consecutive season where Bottas has shown he is not quite able to get the same performance out of the Mercedes as his teammate. Bottas is not a No 2 driver like Irvine, Barichello and Massa were, that’s for sure, but there is only a slender difference between being asked to get out of the way and not being able to stop the man behind from passing at will.

Hamilton’s potential was clear, but not even he believed he would beat Schumacher’s recordPA
Hamilton’s potential was clear, but not even he believed he would beat Schumacher’s recordPA

That’s what Hamilton was able to do last weekend, and it’s what he has done so often in the five championships that he has won with Mercedes - which will surely soon become six. Why is this? It would be easy to credit a natural talent, but that downplays the work, effort and determination to be the best that Hamilton puts in, as his teammates can attest to.

"I think the important thing for Lewis through the years is that he was always willing to learn and that's why he is where he is now,” said Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion who partnered Hamilton at McLaren in 2010-12 and is one of only two men to have beaten him over the course of the season in the same car.

"He's always had the natural ability. That hasn't changed. But I think he's learned how to look after the car, the tyres, the fuel, the strategy; he's grown as a driver.

"He's had the best backing, he's been with Mercedes for many years and they've given him a car to achieve, but he's the guy who comes out on top.

"He's the guy that beats his teammate so he's done a fantastic job and I can't see him retiring any time soon. When you're in the best car, it's always difficult to walk away."

Schumacher only walked away from the sport once he knew his domination was overReuters
Schumacher only walked away from the sport once he knew his domination was overReuters

It is that ability to adapt to the situation in front of him, be it a new car or how a race unfolds, that sets Hamilton out from the rest, just like it did with Schumacher. And it is probably that trait that will keep him in the sport, for as long as Hamilton can continue to adapt to be better than 19 other drivers, there is no reason for him to walk away. It was only when Alonso and Renault adapted faster than Ferrari that Schumacher decided the time was right to go, and until Red Bull and Verstappen, or another unlikely partnership, manage the same, Hamilton and Mercedes will rule the roost.

But until Hamilton has every major F1 record under his name, he will not allow himself to ask the question that sparked this entire debate: who really is the greatest of all time?

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