It may have been ugly, but Lewis Hamilton’s success in claiming his fourth world championship last week has moved him within range of becoming the most successful Formula One racing driver of all time.
His ninth-place finish at the Mexican Grand Prix was not the way in which he had hoped to seal his triumphant season, but his racing peers and most paddock observers believed that mattered little.
Not only did the 32-year-old Briton deserve this year’s championship but, many have suggested, he also proved he is capable of scaling even greater heights.
His age, the consistency of his Mercedes team and the maturing of his extraordinary raw talent for speed have combined to give him a unique platform for more record-breaking achievements.
Mercedes resisted a spirited challenge from a revived Ferrari to dominate the 2017 season and reel off a fourth consecutive world constructors’ championship.
That level of performance, coupled with Hamilton’s talents and experience, means he has good reason to believe he can go on to win not only a fifth title, to equal the record of Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, but rise beyond it to match German Michael Schumacher’s seven championship wins.
“Michael is still the greatest when you look at the outright results, but if Lewis stays and if Mercedes stay as competitive, you could see him getting close to winning seven,” said former McLaren teammate and fellow Briton Jenson Button.
Schumacher’s record of seven titles and 91 career victories remains unchallenged, but Hamilton, on 62 wins, has already passed his pole positions record — with 72 poles — and, at 32, is the same age as the German was when he won his fourth title.
And, since 2014, he has won 40 races with Mercedes, at an average 10 a season — justifying belief in his potential to deliver more titles.
“He has made big decisions, including leaving McLaren, which was a surprise to a lot of people, including me,” said Jackie Stewart, the man he has surpassed as Britain’s most successful Formula One driver.
“It was a big decision and the right one. He has learned so much there and has learned a lot, too, from Niki Lauda, including managing his emotions. I think the best is yet to come from Lewis,” said Stewart.
“For me, the halcyon years for a driver are in your mid-30s. You have maturity, you still have strength and you are still learning. But you have collected a lot of knowledge and you are still vibrant and hungry.”
Austrian Lauda, a three-time Formula One champion who is the nonexecutive chairperson of the Mercedes team, said: “Lewis has driven like a god this season. He has proved he is the best on the grid and deserves his success. He is possibly the best ever — he is certainly up there with the best we’ve ever seen.”
Hamilton was quick to dismiss any idea that he was considering following his erstwhile teammate, 2016 champion Nico Rosberg, into a prompt retirement.
“Four is a great number, but I want number five now!” he said during Mercedes’s post-race paddock celebrations.
“I want to go out at the top. I could do the easy thing, like Nico, but I think there’s more in me,” he said. There’s more to come, more of a challenge … There’s harder times ahead — and I love that. That’s challenging and it would be so boring without it.”
And, in keeping with his high-speed lifestyle, he took a private jet from Mexico to Miami for a nightclub party with friends and family.
“I’ve got to keep pushing it, keep on, be an inspiration and keep pushing for wins and championships. I am ready for the battle,” he said.
His individuality and willingness to be different has proved to be a strength, according to another former champion, Briton Damon Hill.
“I think he’s got an artistic temperament — he’s not a heavyweight slugger. He’s someone who, when he feels good, knows his talent can come out,” Hill explained.
“He has work-life balance … so he can come to the sport and do his job and it doesn’t consume him.”
But the newly crowned four-time world champion has made it clear that he relishes the challenges to come. Hamilton finished ninth in the Mexican Grand Prix in his Mercedes, as Sebastian Vettel’s title challenge ended with him finishing fourth for Ferrari despite starting from the 50th pole of his career.
Talking to reporters after the race, Hamilton said he was motivated by his battle with Vettel.
“It’s kind of cool to be in this battle with him,” said Hamilton.
“He got 50 poles and I don’t want to give him any more poles because he gets closer to me. That’s inspiration to keep pushing it — the same with wins, same with championships.
“When I see him sign for another three years with Ferrari, I’m like: ‘Ferrari are not going to like me for the next couple of years.’ We’re going to make it as hard as it can possibly be for them to win championships, but I really am looking forward to that battle with them.”
He added that he anticipated a similar scrap with Max Verstappen, a rising star of the sport who dominated Sunday’s race.
“He’s really the brightest young star that we’ve seen for some time,” said Hamilton. “I hope that in his early era that I can be a good force and a good battle for him.”
The Briton added that he expected and hoped to be rejoining battle with his one-time McLaren teammate, Spain’s two-time former champion Fernando Alonso.
The pair had a dramatic tussle in the closing laps on Sunday as Hamilton fought to pass him.
“Just wait until this guy gets a good engine, because the car was great through other sections and I really hope for McLaren, who have a special place in my heart, that next year is a better year for them,” Hamilton said.
“I hope they have a stronger engine, a stronger car. Fernando’s a tough cookie. I enjoyed the little battle I had with him and I hope we get to have many more like that.”
He defended his seemingly lavish lifestyle and said his 2017 title had been much tougher to win than many observers believed.
“I’m different,” said Hamilton. “People talk about Michael’s [Schumacher] single-mindedness about his job, but to stand out in the world today is a lot harder because it’s all been done before. Doing something different that helps you stand out, that really highlights your individuality.
“I think it’s really important and that’s really something I’m working on,” he added.
Reflecting on his latest championship win, he said: “It felt challenging on a personal level. This year is a championship which I’ve been hoping for — a little bit like 2008, where you’re fighting another team, fighting this historic team, which Michael raced for and won championships in.
“I’m really proud of that and to be able to battle someone else who is a four-time world champion, a proven world champion, who’s got great skill and a team also that knows how to win a championship.
“That’s how every championship needs to be, and I hope there’s more championships like this one where we have this tough battle.”
He dismissed the theory that he won because Mercedes had given him the best car.
“People have written that we’ve had the best car, but I don’t believe we’ve had the best car. I think we’ve been the best team. We’ve done the best job, but there have been times when we’ve not had the best car,” said Hamilton. — AFP