When Schumacher dominated the sport, winning five straight titles for Ferrari between 2000 and 2004 and bringing his total to seven, no one was to come close to being equal, let alone surpassing him. Hamilton, now 35 and in his 14th birthdaye season, almost did. Schumacher’s greatest achievement, those seven titles, will surely be matched by Hamilton this year as well.
After his victory in the Grand Prix of Tuscany, the Englishman considered to equal the number of victories of Schumacher in the race. “It just doesn’t feel real,” he says. As always, he thanked his Mercedes team, but concluded with a sense of wonder at his own success. “I’m just one link in the chain. But I never thought I would be there, that’s for sure.Hamilton and Schumacher are from different eras, although they clashed. Schumacher first retired from the sport in 2006, and Hamilton made his debut in 2007. In 2008, Hamilton won his first title, while Schumacher made a comeback with Mercedes between 2010 and 2012. This did was not a big success for him and when he bowed out again, Hamilton took his place at Mercedes in 2013 and started the march towards the usurpation of the master.
He has since won five titles in six years. Those unrealistic tally of Schumacher’s fall in a relentless chase in which Hamilton only gets better. His raw talent now honed by judgment, the art of racing, maturity and a work ethic the German could recognize.
Indeed, a pilot admitted that he had the talent to do it in 2008. “I would say, absolutely, yes [Hamilton could win seven titles]Schumacher said. “No one thought, even I, that I could beat [Juan Manuel] Fangio. Then I did. Records are there to be broken.
Debates have raged over who is the best driver, Schumacher or Hamilton, since the duo began to share the rarefied air of F1 records. Yet, truly comparing drivers from different eras is next to impossible. The rules change, just like the machines and the competition, the venues, each challenge evolves.
A final verdict would be subjective at best. Both come from humble backgrounds; Schumacher’s father was a bricklayer, while Hamilton worked three IT jobs to support his son. Both entered the sport with a formidable thirst for success and both made vital but risky career moves. Schumacher moved to Ferrari in 1996, on a mission to rebuild the team into a championship-winning force. It took four years, but he did. Hamilton left a successful and race-winning team to McLaren to join the still unproven Mercedes.
Schumacher was praised for building this Ferrari team around him, working with engineers and mechanics and then having a beer with them afterwards. Hamilton often doesn’t have enough credit to do the same at Mercedes. He has grown in his role and Mercedes recognizes the time and effort he devotes to the development of the car and its team. The visceral disappointment through the Mercedes garage when he or they fail to deliver the relationship is clear.
Yet the two also diverge in one key area. The ruthless and determined Schumacher has been criticized for going too far. The Williams team still believe that he intentionally took Damon Hill off the track to complete his title challenge in Adelaide in 1994; he was punished for trying to do the same to Jacques Villeneuve in the title maker at Jerez in 1997 and in 2006 he stopped on the track in Monaco, preventing Fernando Alonso from completing his qualifying race.
This is not to downplay Schumacher’s accomplishments, but Hamilton’s career has been marked by his tough but scrupulously fair performances. He made mistakes and put his hands up. He was tested but did not resort to what Villeneuve pointedly called “dirty stuff”.
What sets Hamilton apart now is his personal development. Perhaps the greatest stimulus was to retire on his own, away from McLaren, the team that had nurtured him since he was 13, in 2012. It was the act of a young man who wanted to be make your own mark, in your own way. He did it on the track and this year has proven unequivocally that he can do it off the track too.
As his confidence grew and he embraced life beyond F1, fashion, music, he also engaged in broader issues. He has become a committed environmentalist, vegan, and this year his staunch support for anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter movement has made him important to the world, far beyond the fame he already enjoys as a driver. .
Time magazine recently named him to its list of the 100 most influential people in the world, surely in recognition of his insistence that racial injustice can no longer be ignored. He has been criticized for doing so, especially from those who think politics has no place in sport. The same critics who conveniently ignore the role that the sports boycott of South Africa played in ending apartheid. Hamilton rightly recognized that every aspect of life is political and chosen to participate in it.
Nor should it be seen as a mere gestural policy. F1 has already proven that an individual can make a difference. Sir Jackie Stewart has been criticized and even vilified by some for his drive to make the sport safer. Decades later, the impact of his pioneering efforts is testament to his beliefs.
Hamilton is unafraid to take action and while much of his confidence is fueled by the success he has enjoyed, he is still a standard bearer for change. His status on the track is no longer in doubt and when the numbers fall to him Hamilton will be the sport’s most successful and influential driver, which will set him apart from Schumacher and all the rest. No doubt, he might find it hard to believe too, but it’s a reality that may not sink until long after all records are broken.