Everyone concedes Lewis Hamilton is great, but is the British Formula 1 superstar the greatest ever?
On Oct 11, Hamilton tied Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 91 career victories in the Eifel showcase at Germany’s Nurburgring－almost 14 years to the day after Schumacher won his last F1 race, the 2006 Shanghai Grand Prix.
Hamilton, 35, is a six-time F1 world champion, having won five of the past six seasons, and is now poised to equal the record of seven championships held by Schumacher, whom he replaced at Mercedes for the 2013 season. In December of that year the German legend sustained a severe brain injury while skiing and has been out of the public eye ever since.
Regardless of what Hamilton accomplishes, British business magnate Bernie Ecclestone, the former F1 Group chief executive who orchestrated its transformation into a global multibillion-dollar enterprise, believes Schumacher, who made his F1 debut in 1991, will go down as the sport’s all-time greatest driver because he raced in a different era.
“Schumi was driving on his own when he was racing,” Ecclestone said in a weekend interview with AFP from his home in Switzerland. “Hamilton has got God knows who helping him, telling him what his tire pressure is, his speed through corners. In the old days Schumacher and Alain Prost, who I also have great admiration for, when the flag went to start the race they were on their own. It ain’t like that any more.”
Ecclestone, who will celebrate his 90th birthday on Oct 28, made it clear he was not trying to undermine Hamilton’s achievements.
“You cannot say anything bad about Lewis, you cannot say he is not good, that is not the point,” he said. “How good he is compared to somebody else, well he is super, super talented and would be amongst the top five drivers for the last 30 years. But is he better than Michael? Would Michael have been better in that car (Mercedes)? You can’t say.”
Meanwhile, Jackie Stewart says Hamilton is “the best of his generation”, but the 81-year-old Scottish legend, a triple world champion, likewise stops short of naming him F1’s GOAT (greatest of all time).
“I am not trying to diminish Lewis, and I hold his performances with incredible respect. He is the best driver of the present time.”
Stewart said in an interview with the PA news agency. “I was asked what did I think about him becoming the most winning driver of all time and if that made him the greatest ever. I said it is very difficult to say that. The greatest I believe there has been is Juan Manuel Fangio, followed by Jim Clark. But even then, is it correct to say someone is the best?
“Is Lionel Messi better than Pele or Sir Stanley Matthews, who was the greatest of all time when I was a child? Is Roger Federer better than Rod Laver? They are from different eras. You can say Lewis is the best of his time and that is not in any way demeaning towards him. He is doing one hell of a job, and he is his own man.”
Referring to the reigning F1 champion’s predecessors, Ecclestone said: “Their life was what they did, which was racing and for Lewis racing is not just racing, which is probably an easier way of trying to explain it. It’s a different way of living.”
Ecclestone said the closest comparison to Hamilton might be the late Ayrton Senna of Brazil.
“Senna would most resemble Lewis from the older generation due to his religious beliefs, I suppose, as he was very firm about them,” he said. “The other guys I don’t think there was anything they would lay down and die for.”
With his victory at Nurburgring, just 50 miles from Schumacher’s hometown of Kerpen, Hamilton now holds the record for career points (3,661), pole positions (96) podium finishes (160) and the most championship points in a single season (413). He leads this season’s driver standings with 230 points, ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas (161) and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen (147).
The next stop on the F1 circuit is the Oct 30-Nov 1 Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix at Imola, Italy, where Senna and Austria’s Roland Ratzenberger were killed in separate crashes during the 1994 race.