TRUE assessment of racing drivers, like the proper judgment of jockeys, is complicated by the nature of the beast beneath them. Neither driver nor jockey would win anything without solid horsepower. Lester Piggott, one of the greatest jockeys of all time, was often asked about the secret of his success. ‘Get on the best horse,’ was his deadpan reply. Piggott turned ‘getting on the best horse’ into a combat sport but he won nine Derbies and 11 jockeys titles in England, not always riding the best horses.
At the US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, this week (October 19th-21st), Lewis Hamilton should seal his fifth Formula One world title, which would bring him to level with the Argentine, Juan Manuel Fangio, widely acknowledged as the greatest of all time. Hamilton still has to win two more titles to match Michael Schumacher’s total of seven, yet the mantle of greatness has been surprisingly slow to settle on the slim shoulders of the 33-year-old British driver. Statistically, the case for Hamilton is overwhelming: most pole positions (80), most career points (2,941) and with 71 victories, 20 short of Schumacher’s record total of 91. At the current rate of progress that will take him just over a season.
Any debate on the merits of Formula One drivers will stall on the subject of the cars. Hamilton drives the best car so he wins the most. Put driver x or driver y in the same car and they would win just as much. It’s a hard argument to crack. Most jockeys will win if they are riding the best horse in the race. Ditto most F1 drivers. They are all very good. So you have to rely on more subjective measures. You must look for the moment that isolates true greatness. For Hamilton, that moment came in the final qualifying session of the Singapore Grand Prix last month and it lasted for all of 1minute 36.015 seconds.
More significant than the pole-winning time was the flicker of disbelief on the faces of Hamilton’s pit crew. These are seasoned professionals, clever, pragmatic, single-minded experts, hard-wired to monitor perfection. They knew the numbers and they knew that, on a tight street circuit like Singapore, their car was at a disadvantage against the better balanced Ferrari. What they did not know, what all the number-crunching in the world couldn’t reveal, was the hidden depths of Hamilton’s brilliance.
When the qualifying time flashed up on the screen, the numbers dumbfounded the data. It was not just the quickest time that Hamilton had clocked all weekend, by more than a second, it was half a second clear of Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari – the equivalent of a mile in F1 terms – and more than half a second quicker than Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, who is no slouch. One mechanic described the lap as ‘epic’; Toto Wolff, the urbane and unflappable boss of Mercedes, just shook his head. Not even Hamilton could truly explain where the lap had come from. “Magic,” he said simply.
The 2018 season has seen the full maturing of a talent that was first identified by McLaren two decades ago. Gone are the identity crises of recent seasons, including the particularly tiresome rapper phase, complete with pit bull terrier, fully accredited, and bling jewellery. Gone too are the unlovable sulks that followed defeats and the inexplicable lapses of concentration that could last whole weekends. Hamilton’s driving this season has been near flawless and his mentality rock solid. He has psychologically destroyed Vettel, a multiple world champion and his main rival, reduced Bottas, his talented teammate, to no more than a supporting role and pressurised Ferrari into a series of mistakes. Six wins in the last seven races have left a fifth world title within touching distance. “He seems happier with himself, more relaxed and more confident,” says Jon McEvoy, a long-standing F! writer but never one of Hamilton’s most ardent fans. “He seems utterly in control on and off the track.”
Quite where Hamilton now stands in the pantheon is a matter for further debate. As someone who can remember watching Formula One on a grainy black and white television, no one will knock Jimmy Clark, the Scottish Borders farmer, off the number one spot. Clark won 25 of his 75 Grand Prix and an Indy 500 for good measure. Like Hamilton, Ayrton Senna could conjure magic from a mediocre car and win consistently with a good one. Fangio’s record of a Grand Prix win every other race is untouchable but he was before my time. Hamilton is now third on my personal list – ahead of Schumacher - and he has the time denied to both Clark and Senna, who were killed on the track, to prove himself not just the best of a generation but the best of all time.
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