Lewis Hamilton’s 91st Formula 1 victory, coming in the Eifel Grand Prix on a chilly autumn Sunday at the Nürburgring in Germany, was hard work for the British driver.
Hamilton drove with his usual assurance, made no mistakes, while others got things wrong, and he held off Max Verstappen all the way, despite constant pressure. It was the kind of victory that we have seen many times from Hamilton, but it is never as easy as it looks.
Even for the all-time greats.
“It is hard for people to understand how hard it was to achieve and deliver year after year,” he said, talking of Michael. “It doesn’t get easier from your first win to your 91st. It has been a long hard run. It doesn’t feel like a relief. I was just thinking about the people who have helped me. That is what really counts.”
Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, who finished third on Sunday, put the achievement into perspective.
“Ninety-one races,” Ricciardo said. “That is nearly five years of races.”
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, runner-up in No. 91 for Hamilton, also tried to put it into perspective.
“It’s an incredible achievement,” Verstappen said. “Everyone thought that was almost impossible to reach. To be there now is incredible and very impressive. I’m pretty sure there will be some more victories coming his way—and championships.”
Taking it one step further. No one is catching Hamilton and Schumacher any time soon. Sebastian Vettel, on the backstretch of his career, is next on the active list with 53 wins. Next on the active list is Kimi Raikkonen, who may or may not be done after the 2020 season, with 21. Then, it’s Verstappen and Bottas following on the list of active winners with nine apiece.
Can one compare Hamilton and Schumacher? Can one put the two into perspective with other great champions? Both drivers reached 91 at age 35. Hamilton did it in his 261st start. Schumacher noted his 91st win in start No. 246.
In the days leading up the Eifel Grand Prix, Sir Jackie Stewart and Jody Scheckter, World Champions both, disagreed on whether Hamilton was the best of all time. Stewart said no. Scheckter said yes.
Schumacher was a driver who achieved so much, but he also a divisive character. Some love him, some hate him. In part it comes down to how he won the races and the titles. There were question marks on several occasions and in some cases no question marks at all.
In 1994 at Adelaide, Schumacher crashed into Damon Hill to secure the World Championship. Hill had pressured him into making a mistake and he deliberately took Hill off, in order to stop the him winning the title. Schumacher said it was an accident, of course, but very few believed him.
Three years later, he crashed into Jacques Villeneuve trying to stop the Canadian winning the title. The FIA Stewards ruled that it was a racing incident. The F1 media booed when the announcement was made that day in Jerez. It was an almost unprecedented reaction.
The FIA took note and Schumacher was summoned to a hearing and was disqualified from the World Championship—although his race victories were allowed to stand.
“Lewis has the same sort of talent, but Michael was maybe a bit more aggressive,” Hill says today. “They have very different styles, not in terms of the driving but rather in what they feel was acceptable. Lewis is just incredibly quick. If you look at Michael’s qualifying record it wasn’t as good, but he was very good in the races and having seen Michael up close, racing in the rain, he was just amazing.”
Jacques Villeneuve, F1 champion in 1997, will take Hamilton over Schumacher in F1’s great debate.
“There were too many question marks on how some of the races and championships were won,” Villeneuve says. “And being a great champion is more than just winning races. You don’t have to like how Lewis is in life, but there is nothing negative or nasty. There are no question marks about how he won his titles. That is how it should be with every World Champion.”
Eddie Irvine was another man who was able to study Schumacher closely. They were team-mates at Ferrari from 1996-99.
“Hamilton’s probably the best racer there’s ever been,” Irvine says. “As a racer, one-on-one with another guy, I think he’s the best. Much better than Michael was, much better than Ayrton Senna. He very seldom gets involved in accidents because he’s so focused on driving his car to get ahead. He’s probably the cleanest driver we’ve had in a long, long time.”
Jenson Button, the 2009 World Champion and Hamilton’s teammate at McLaren for three seasons, also speaks in the same awed terms.
“Whether or not you’re a fan of Lewis as a person, you should definitely be a fan of him as a driver,” Button says. “He is exceptionally talented, and he does not play games. He will never play dirty. In fact, I think he’s the cleanest guy I ever raced against.”
When you have people like this—people who have achieved great things—speaking in such terms, you have to listen. They are all just opinions, but they all speak with the same voice.
When it comes to putting himself into historical perspective, Hamilton seems always a little bemused. He talks of being a boy, watching Schumacher winning race after race.
“It was beyond my wildest dreams to think that I’d be here today,” Hamilton said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet. It will definitely take some for it to sink in, to realize what it means.
“But,” he adds, almost as an aside. “Hopefully we have more records to break.”
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