Lewis Hamilton’s impressive victory at Sunday’s United States Grand Prix was significant for two reasons. Firstly, the Mercedes driver managed to extend his championship lead over Nico Rosberg to 24 points, which many now believe will be unassailable. Secondly, Hamilton broke Nigel Mansell’s longstanding record as the most successful British Formula 1 driver in history by picking up his 32nd career win. Following what was quite possibly the perfect weekend for Hamilton, many Formula 1 fans have suggested that he is the best British driver ever to compete in the sport. The numbers suggest so, but can he really be considered the greatest?
Over the last sixty-odd years the United Kingdom has boasted some of Formula 1’s most successful drivers. In fact, just over a quarter of all Formula 1 races (including the Indianapolis 500) have been won by British drivers. In the early days there was Moss, Clark, Surtees and Hawthorn. In the decades that followed names like Stewart, Hunt, Watson and Mansell came to prominence. More recently, the British media have basked in the successes of the latest generation of drivers which includes Damon Hill, Jenson Button and, of course, Hamilton.
As most Formula 1 fans would note, it is highly difficult to compare the driving ability of different drivers when the technological advances of the sport have been so rapid.For example, Stirling Moss may have struggled to comprehend the hybrid systems of modern grand prix cars, while similarly Hamilton may have found it difficult to adjust to slimmer tyres and front-engined machinery if he were to step back to the 1950s. Therefore, the technical evolution of Formula 1 means that we will always struggle to define ‘the greatest’.
Nevertheless, the numbers give Hamilton plenty of evidence to back up his cause. He took just 146 races to achieve his 32 wins, while Nigel Mansell participated in 189 before he reached victory number 31. Even though there are three more races this year than there were in the 1992 season (when Mansell secured his final win), Hamilton is managing to outperform the former Williams and Ferrari driver on statistics alone. It’s clear that Hamilton has an extraordinary record, and that for many qualifies him as Britain’s finest.
However, the argument swings both ways. Sir Stirling Moss, eternally referred to as the greatest driver never to win a world championship, may have won half the number of races that Hamilton has, but ‘The Boy’ only took part in 66 grands prix. Therefore, Moss won almost a quarter of the races that he entered, while Hamilton has won 20%. In addition, DRS was non-existent in the early days of Formula 1, and it can be argued that it would require far more skill to drive and overtake without the electronic implements drivers have at their disposal today. Several of Hamilton’s recent wins have been helped by DRS (including his latest triumph at Austin), so perhaps the development of new technology has allowed him to win more races than he would have done had he been in the sport several decades ago.
Statistically speaking, however, the introduction of DRS in 2011 has only given Hamilton’s success rate a minor boost; from his debut season in 2007 to the end of 2010 he won 19.7% of the races he entered. The figure from 2011 until now is 24%. His strike rate has increased, but not by much. Therefore, perhaps Hamilton’s driving ability should not be put into question because of the introduction of aided overtaking, since he has achieved a similar success rate either side of the DRS era. Throughout his career he has produced some outstanding performances, and has thus far won a race in every season of Formula 1 in which he has competed.
But, referring back to Moss, there is another major reason why Hamilton might not yet be considered to be the greatest British driver of all time. Moss was a versatile driver. He won Grands Prix, the Mille Miglia, the Sebring 12 Hours and even broke records at Bonneville. Other British champions have proven themselves in other categories, too: Jim Clark won the Indy 500 and Mike Hawthorn won Le Mans, while Graham Hill won both! Hamilton, on the other hand, has followed the strict single seater path that so many of today’s Formula 1 grid have also taken. He hasn’t raced at Le Mans, or in IndyCar, or even in touring cars. Perhaps once his open wheel career has reached its conclusion he will pursue a different path and venture into another category of motor racing. This is where the truly great Formula 1 drivers stand out; in a form of racing far away from the norm. Therefore, it’s arguably too early to consider Hamilton as Britain’s greatest if he hasn’t been successful in more than one category. The best drivers will win in anything, and while Hamilton hasn’t done this yet he is more than capable of doing so.
Despite spending the entirety of his competitive career in open wheel racing, Hamilton has still managed to demonstrate his supreme driving ability. If we were to rate British drivers on the qualitative basis of performances then Hamilton would still be one of the best. His British Grand Prix victory at a drenched Silverstone in 2008 will stand as one of the finest examples of driving for years to come. His aggressive driving style has helped him to win a world championship, and his current form suggests that it will only be a matter of time before he makes it two.
Lewis Hamilton is teetering on the edge of legendary status. To his adoring fans, he’s already there. However, I’m not convinced that a record alone is enough to justify him as the best of British. At 29 he still has so much to offer, with at least three years left in his Formula 1 career. He is undoubtedly the brightest talent that the United Kingdom has to offer right now, but until he wins world title number three or four it will be difficult to definitively mark him as the greatest.
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