Feature: Champion Hamilton proves his greatness
Lewis Hamilton is now a five-time Formula 1 World Champion.
He joins Juan Manuel Fangio, the “godfather” of the 1950s, and Michael Schumacher, who matched the Argentine great in 2002 before raising the benchmark across the following two years.
Hamilton last year elevated himself to a new level to fend off a renewed threat from Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel, facilitated by a heightened sense of togetherness inside the Mercedes camp, after three years of worsening intra-team relations.
Hamilton operated on a platform that his rivals could not consistently match and off-track explored new interests and approaches, with Mercedes giving its driver the freedom that has allowed him to (continue to) flourish.
Hamilton and Mercedes spoke pre-season this year about not resting on its laurels, of searching for improvements, and for the insatiable desire for self-learning. It would be easy to relax, to take the foot off the pedal, and to trot out such clichés about improving in order to create a smokescreen.
And yet Hamilton and Mercedes have managed to build on 2017, unearth an enhanced working relationship, and crush the dreams of Ferrari and Vettel for another year. In a closely-matched championship battle it was Hamilton who, once again, soaked up the pressure and thrived, as his rival nosedived.
Much has been made of how Ferrari and Vettel threw away its 2018 title challenge with a litany of mistakes and setbacks. It is impossible not to also view Hamilton’s title success within this narrative, but it is not the only reason. It would be a mistake to suggest that Hamilton merely picked up the shattered scarlet pieces and sculpted them into his fifth world title.
It hasn’t been perfect – nothing ever is. Hamilton was slightly off the boil in China and Azerbaijan, while mechanical glitches hurt prospects in Canada, and a strategic blunder and fuel pressure issue wrecked his hopes in Austria, in a race in which he was passed impressively by Vettel.
It has therefore not been a campaign without blemish, but in the midst of a high-pressure environment they are minor setbacks when viewed within the prism of an entire year. Elsewhere he has been largely immaculate, has executed some awe-inspiring laps, and pounced on his opponents when they showed a sign of weakness.
Weekends in Spain, France and Japan were a throwback to the dominance of the early hybrid years, topping qualifying and cruising to victories with such consummate ease that it belies the professionalism and endeavour that goes on behind-the-scenes and in the cockpit. Singapore should also be added to that list, with the competitiveness between the top three teams showing how much the driver made the difference when it counted. That pole lap was as close to spotless as it was unexpected. It is not often that Toto Wolff appears on the radio. He felt moved to do so. A shaken Hamilton surprised even himself with that one.
In Azerbaijan he humbly accepted he was far from on form after collecting the win in the wake of Valtteri Bottas’ heart-breaking puncture, while in Russia praised his team-mate for selflessly handing over the win – but in order to be in such a position Hamilton had superbly muscled his way past title rival Vettel, after his strategy dropped him behind the Ferrari driver. That relationship with Bottas has also been pivotal, a convivial partnership that has freed Hamilton from the angst that occasionally crept in while battling Nico Rosberg.
There was Hungary, a weekend defined by Hamilton’s supreme pole lap in wet conditions, while similarly tricky weather in Belgium resulted in another Q3 stunner, even if Vettel turned the tables on race day. That defeat also acted as another turning point, for Mercedes recognised its slow-speed/traction weaknesses at the Bus Stop and La Source complexes, and worked around the clock to rectify that problem. It did so emphatically. In Italy Hamilton and Mercedes hit back, the Briton’s first-lap racecraft provoking Vettel into a spin, and tactics thereafter pushing Kimi Raikkonen into blistering his tyres, leaving the Finn easy prey. It was a sweet victory for Hamilton and Mercedes in the late summer sun on Ferrari’s home turf.
Just as vital was staying out of trouble and collecting the points on those days when a victory was not feasible. Accepting the lowest step on the podium in Bahrain, Monaco and the United States, and taking fourth in China and Mexico, and fifth in Canada, all added points to the tally. And when he did find problems – such as in Britain – they were overcome, rising from last to second. It was an effort that left him completely spent, and even then he was distraught at not delivering victory on home soil. Titles can be won by minimising bad days as much as maximising the good ones.
But perhaps the defining race of the campaign was the German Grand Prix. Vettel threw away victory when the pressure was ramped up while Hamilton rose from 14th to triumph, a win achieved through clinical early progress, supreme pace in tricky conditions and a little bit of luck. The sight of the rain drenching Hamilton, arms outstretched on the podium, trophy clutched in one hand, as he celebrated the success, is one for the ages. That it came 24 hours after he fruitlessly tried pushing his stricken car back to the pit lane only enhanced the extraordinary narrative.
Hamilton must also be commended for not only his use of social media – bringing fans closer to the action – but the personality he cultivates in public, with his greater maturity allowing him to flourish as much off-track as it has helped him on-track. With the media he is increasingly open, erudite and aware that his words carry a greater weight than anyone else in the paddock. Liberty Media is desperate to expand Formula 1’s reach and Hamilton is the ideal World Champion for its intentions. He is the only driver on the grid capable of breezing onto late night talk shows anywhere in the world, and is a global citizen and global brand, transcending his own sport in the manner in which Cristiano Ronaldo or Roger Federer have done in their respective environments. Part of that has been achieved through Hamilton being allowed, and feeling comfortable enough, to pursue his interests in music and most recently fashion, launching his own clothing range in association with Tommy Hilfiger. That lifestyle has enabled him to find the correct balance between total focus in competition – when essential – and being able to switch off. Those extra activities do not distract Hamilton, as some continue to erroneously claim, in the wake of some past examples, but enable him to compartmentalise his life and arrive at Formula 1 weekends fully focused. People do naturally tend to gravitate towards either supporting or conveying interest in the most successful athletes, but he is, easily, the biggest superstar in Formula 1 history.
Hamilton is comfortably the best Formula 1 driver in the current era, possessing all of the required qualities and having ironed out – or been freed from – the majority of the chinks that previously held him back.
He already entered 2018 as an all-time great. With each passing year, and nearly each passing race, he is staking his claim to be regarded as the greatest of them all.