Even before his Formula One debut in 2007 there was a palpable air of something special about Lewis Hamilton. The talent was there, unpolished but impossible to ignore, as was his fierce desire to prove himself. Just how far he has come, however, has exceeded every expectation, including those of that determined young man from Stevenage.
Hamilton has delivered with such relentless excellence that even former rivals suggest his performances have transcended what any driver might expect to achieve. With his future in the sport still uncertain, this season may be the last chance to enjoy one of its greatest drivers. Better still, it might become the toe-to-toe fight the champion has always desired.
Hamilton is attempting to take his eighth title this year, beginning with the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday. Already the most successful driver of all time with 95 wins and 98 poles, should he take the title he will have surpassed Michael Schumacher’s previous record of seven and would stand alone at the pinnacle of the sport.
Now 36, Hamilton won his first title for McLaren in 2008 and then after switching to Mercedes in 2013 claimed his second in 2014. He has won five since then and his then Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg is the only driver to have beaten him in that time, winning the title in 2016 before immediately retiring.
Rosberg’s opinion is instructive since, although the pair had been friends as teenagers, their highly competitive natures proved impossible to contain when paired at Mercedes and their relationship became intensely fractious. Yet Rosberg now pays tribute to his old rival, stressing that Hamilton’s achievements have perhaps not been fully appreciated.
“Lewis has been at his best for many years now, he is statistically the best of all time, it’s an unbelievable level at which he is driving,” said Rosberg. “Achieving it once is one thing but remaining at that level year in, year out, over and over again, that is so hard in any sport. To be there, to keep the motivation going, while the pressure only builds and everybody is just waiting for you to fail. That’s so impressive.”
Hamilton’s consistency since 2016 to secure four titles in a row, including defeating a resurgent Ferrari, who enjoyed the better car for long parts of several seasons, places him among the greats of the sport. At his best these are performances that should be celebrated and savoured, especially as 2021 may be his swansong.
He has signed only a one-year contract with Mercedes and will not be drawn on whether he yet intends to race on in 2022 when new regulations are poised to reset F1, but he has nothing left to prove. His legacy on and increasingly off track, is already forged.
Hamilton has always been much more than a one-dimensional character and the sport will desperately miss him when he does hang up his helmet. He pursues interests in fashion and music and last season threw himself into making a difference to racial equality and diversity after the killing of George Floyd.
He has already said pursuing that cause is his driving force this season, greater even than another title. Last year he created a commission to investigate engaging young black people in the Stem subjects and encourage them into motor racing and engineering. He is hands-on in its operation, a commitment of time and energy that is a firm rebuttal to accusations of empty rhetoric.
The former driver Martin Brundle, who has followed Hamilton’s career closely, has described the one-year contract as “confusing”, adding: “Lewis doesn’t seem entirely happy, with some aspects of it.” Hamilton has been adamant that winning that eighth title or not will not be a factor in any decision on his future, but that it will be whether he still derives pleasure from competing.
In Bahrain he has insisted he was “excited by the challenge” presented by a resurgent Red Bull this season but still left his future open. “I don’t feel like I’m at the end,” he said. “But over the next eight months I’ll find out whether I’m ready to stop or not. I don’t think I will, but you never know.”
One factor that may well play a key part in that process is how this season shapes up. As things stand Red Bull appear to have the edge over Mercedes for the first time since 2013. They were quickest in testing and on top in practice in Bahrain on Friday. While Mercedes have admitted they had issues with their car being unstable, the Red Bull in contrast appears as good a ride out of the blocks as they have had in eight years.
This will be a long season if it makes the planned 23 races but if they and Max Verstappen in particular mount a sustained challenge it may prove an invigorating tonic for Hamilton. The world champion has always insisted he wants a fight and this year there is hope he will have his wish.
Verstappen, at 23, is heir apparent and a contest between the new and the old guard would be something to treasure.
“Lewis has a lot of things in his life that are important to him but he loves racing,” said Brundle. “He would love to have a wheel‑to‑wheel season with the likes of Max Verstappen.”
The experience, the carefully tuned psychological strength, and that finely honed talent all give Hamilton the advantage, with Verstappen still yet to have been in a fight for the title; indeed Damon Hill has described Hamilton when he is on top as “pretty indestructible”. But as Brundle observed this season there may yet be a fracture in the edifice.
“Two things can beat Lewis this season. One is a very on-form Red Bull with Max Verstappen – on form on a season-long basis,” he said, before citing the potential complications of that contract looming in the background. “The other that can beat Lewis and Mercedes is Lewis and Mercedes. Will they trip over themselves together?”
Hamilton came into the sport smiling and can leave with a sense of satisfaction but whenever that is, he will surely want to go out on a high. While making the call of when to stop is a momentous time in any sportsperson’s career, for the moment Hamilton may just have to remain singularly focused on the job he has been doing so well, for so long. He intends to enjoy that ride and we should too, just in case it is his last.