Mexican Grand Prix: Lewis Hamilton at home among the greats after world title win

The Brit joins Juan Manuel Fangio with five world crowns with Michael Schumacher now the only driver with more

David Tremayne
Mexico City
Monday 29 October 2018 10:05
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Formula 1: Official intro video

If the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio could offer a view on Lewis Hamilton, who equalled his five world titles with a frustrating, tyre-troubled drive to fourth place in the Mexican GP, well behind winner Max Verstappen and the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, what might he say?

Back in 1967, not quite 10 years since he had retired, the Argentine was asked at a party what he thought of Jim Clark, who had replaced Fangio’s former team-mate as the F1 yardstick.

A couple of days before the tifosi at Monza had clawed at the Scot’s overalls as he was lifted to the rostrum, and feted him as much as they did the victorious John Surtees after Clark had recovered a lap, and the lead, only to run short of fuel and drop back to third, Fangio had declared to a group of friends, ‘Jim Clark is outstandingly the greatest Grand Prix driver of all time.’

There is little doubt that Fangio would have great praise for Hamilton, now that the current F1 yardstick has equalled his tally of five championships. He had no problem according other drivers their due respect, for his mantra had always been “You must always try to be the best, but never believe that you are.”

There is zero doubt that Hamilton is the best driver of his era, with the caveat that life would have been more difficult had Fernando Alonso not rowed himself out of Ferrari.

Only on Friday, the Spaniard said of his great rival, “I’m happy for him because he showed the talent from day one. He was able to win races when the car was there to win it, but he was able to win races in some of the seasons when the car was not in the top of the form, like 2009.

He was still winning a couple of grands prix a year. That was impressive.” Hamilton spoke of being in a good head space prior to qualifying, which was interesting since he has been so strong all season during that series of showdowns that he has taken his record tally of pole positions to 81 – 16 more than his great idol Ayrton Senna.

And with nine more victories this year, he is closing more and more on Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 victories. With 71, and a contract with Mercedes until at least the end of 2020, it is no longer impossible to see that record being broken.

And yet… It took him until the fourth round of the championship to win a race, in fortuitous circumstances in Baku when Vettel made a mistake and then his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas sustained a puncture while leading. He followed that with his more usual strong performance in Spain, then went on to victories in France, Germany and Hungary. But if there was a real turning point, it came at Monza in September. After Vettel’s domination at Spa, everyone had expected Ferrari to dominate on their home ground. Instead, Hamilton took the fight to them in qualifying, forced Vettel into an early mistake on the opening lap, then bided his time before hunting down and picking off Kimi Raikkonen to humble the red cars.

Hamilton celebrated his victory in style 

Then he did it again after a blistering qualifying lap in Singapore as the rampage continued thereafter in Russia (courtesy of Bottas) and Japan.

Besides the manner of many of his victories, led from the start to the chequered flag, his recoveries have also been notable, most evidently his drive from the back of the field to a close second place on his home ground at Silverstone, or the way in which he pressured Vettel into a mistake in the rain in Germany while venturing nowhere near loss of control as he danced on the wet surface.

But we have become used to such displays. Indeed, right from his very first racing lap in Melbourne back in March 2007 when he passed team-mate Alonso into the first corner, Hamilton’s warrior spirit has been all too evident.

What is different this year is Hamilton’s general mien, though there were glimpses of it last year, too.

Hamilton sealed his fifth title in Mexico

Much has been made of his interests in music and fashion, of the regular between-races trips to Los Angeles. Those who don’t understand the need for a racer to have balance in his life see that as potentially debilitating, where it is clear that Hamilton draws strength and peace from such adventures. And they certainly have had no adverse effect on his driving.

The secret is that he is a man at peace these days. Gone is the boy within the man, who so often looked like a kicked dog when things weren’t going right in his relationship with Nicole Scherzinger. There’s a bit less heart on the colourful sleeve these days, a new calmness, while in his press conferences and post-race updates, a considered, eloquent and hugely insightful narrative has emerged that is natural and clearly what he thinks, rather than some sort of script that has been prepared for him. There’s a more worldly, philosophical side to him that is engaging and compelling, and confirmation of his global stature as a driver, like Senna, who has transcended his sport.

Those who watched his polished performance on Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show in New York recently, saw an urbane and amusing sportsman able to relax and communicate well outside of his genre. A statesman for a sport badly in need of a popular figure to rally the spectating troops, especially here in America.

Hamilton has cemented his place amongst the greats

“Lewis is in a good place right now,” a close friend observed this weekend. "Nothing fazes him any more.”

That much was evident in the manner in which he pushed hard internally during Mercedes’ difficult phase at the start of the season, without losing his cool externally, either off or on the track.

“And when he needs to,” the friend continued, “he can rise to the moment and raise his game to the next level. He is very laidback about everything.”

How long will it be before he admits to aiming for number six in 2019? Not long. As he told his crew after disobeying orders to go gently in practice, “I don’t do steady.”

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