We make a case for the greatest of all time.
At the recent Sochi Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton achieved what no other F1 driver in the sport's history could do. His total number of wins now stands at 100, making him the first triple-digit winner in the sport's history. There's no denying that Sir Lewis Hamilton is a dominant figure in the sport. He will be one of the all-time greats, along with Juan Manual Fangio, Ayrton Senna, and Michael Schumacher. Some people may not like his attitude or political views, but you simply can't argue with the figures.
Now that he has reached a triple-digit status, there are fanboys out there claiming he can now rightfully claim the greatest of all-time status. To use the awkward acronym, he's F1's official GOAT. Or is he? The problem with F1 GOAT status is that there are so many competitors for the title, and it is impossible to put them all on the same grid. Primarily because almost all of them have passed on to that great racetrack in the sky.
I want to make my point by comparing Sir Lewis Hamilton to the usual list of all-time greats.
Fangio is the go-to when it comes to early F1 racing. He entered his first Grand Prix in 1950 and retired at the end of 1958 with 24 wins under his belt. He won 46% of all the races he entered, placing him above Hamilton's 36%. But racing isn't just about maths. The reason it's not possible to decide between these two is both because of the difference between the cars and the driving style.
Modern F1 cars rely on downforce. Any new design is tested in a simulator and a wind tunnel. In Fangio's years, they didn't know much about aerodynamics. The cars were all cigar-shaped because the engineers simply assumed it cut a smooth line through the air.
In the 50s, they were racing on skinny tires with little grip. They had racing lines, but these were considered guidelines more than anything else. Quite often, the fastest way around a corner was sideways. If a modern F1 car is sideways, the driver is most likely Mazepin. (Sorry, Nikita. The joke was right there.)
Watch the documentary Senna, and you'll see several famous F1 faces agree that Ayrton was the GOAT. I have two problems with this. There's a lot of romance around Senna, primarily due to the way he died. And that documentary is now a few years old, and some of those famous faces might have changed their opinion since then.
Sir Lewis himself places Senna at the top, but of course he would. Naming yourself, the GOAT would be an epic PR nightmare. The cars from Senna's era were also very different. They made more power than the F1 cars of today, and the drivers had to row gears manually. Who can forget the epic footage of Senna driving the Monaco Grand Prix one-handed?
Modern F1 drivers are often criticized for being weak compared to the likes of Ayrton. I disagree. A current F1 car is a technological marvel, but it doesn't have ABS. Why not? Because keeping the wheels from locking up is a skill.
Netflix announced a documentary series focusing on Senna last year, but no release date has been set.
Considered by many to be the greatest of all time, Lewis Hamilton is currently tied with Schumacher. Before he retired for good, Schumacher won seven driver's championships. If Lewis wins this year, he'll be in the lead. Surely beating his most contemporary rival is proof that he's the GOAT? I don't think so. There are two significant differences between Schumacher and Hamilton.
First, Schumacher was unbeatable in the rain. You'll struggle to find a better wet-weather driver than the German. Thanks to the recent Schumacher documentary, we now know why (he always karted on slicks, rain or not). We also know that Schumacher had the opportunity to join a winning team, but instead, he joined a struggling Ferrari and worked extremely hard to get the team back on top. Sir Lewis Hamilton has always been a part of a competitive team.
This is not a criticism of his choices but another way of pointing out how impossible it is to name a GOAT. There are various routes to success, and this is best illustrated by comparing Hamilton to Schumacher.
Alonso only has two world championship titles behind his name, but at 40 years old, he remains a tough competitor. At the recent Sochi Grand Prix, most of the field let Max Verstappen pass without fighting. Not Alonso. He always seems to be on it, even in the underperforming Alpine-Renault F1 car.
What makes Alonso great is his adaptability. Yes, his most significant accomplishment to date is in F1, but he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Daytona. He also won the 2001 Race of Champions and finished 13th overall in the 2020 Dakar Rally. Alsonso is fast, no matter what he drives. Surely that also has to count when talking about GOAT status?
Max is the youngest winner of an F1 race. He was 18 years old when he won the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix. Every other winner on the top five list was either 21 or 22 years old. He was born talented. Still, Lewis Hamilton won his first world title at 23, something Verstappen has yet to do.
Realistically, Verstappen is the only person on the grid who can currently dethrone Hamilton. They both know this. This season, Hamilton has made various mistakes, and I reckon it's because his next world title is in the crosshairs. Verstappen has worked his way into his head. Though he's often criticized for being too aggressive and immature, his recent Sochi Grand Prix performance was epic. He started at the back of the grid and ended up second behind Hamilton.
Which driver is better? Hamilton has been at it for longer, so, once again, it's impossible to tell, looking only at the figures.
It would be stupid to try and take away from Hamilton's epic achievement. No other F1 driver has ever reached triple-digit wins. And he has been the dominating force in F1 for the last decade. I'm not a fan, but even I have to admit that there's a good case for naming him the greatest of all time. But all time includes the past and present, if not the future.
Looking at the past, it's impossible to make a comparison. The cars, tracks, and driving styles are too different. There were fewer races, so there's no way to do a mathematical analysis unless you look at the percentage of races won compared to races started. If that's the case, Fangio is the best. Senna was the best at wrestling the notoriously unsafe beasts of the late '80s and early 90s, while Schumacher was the best in the rain. And Alonso has the kind of adaptability we rarely see in racers.
Verstappen is undoubtedly the future, but soon a new batch of drivers will join highly competitive teams, and this whole argument will start again. Who knows what George Russel is capable of behind the wheel of the same car as Hamilton? Hamilton is not the GOAT because naming a true GOAT is impossible. Prove me wrong.