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Flat Spot On – Hamilton Grows Better with Age

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 30 2021

Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton is not slowing down. (Photo courtesy of Pirelli Tires)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Do his undeniably great statistics of 100 victories and 101 poles make Lewis Hamilton F1’s greatest driver?

Well, let’s not go there. Different eras produce different opportunities. So, comparing records is not the way to go.

Comparing personalities, well, that’s another errand that often goes knight errant. Hamilton falls somewhere between Ayrton Senna, whose charisma was unmatched all the way back to Juan Manuel Fangio, and Michael Schumacher, whose aloofness made him one of the more boring champions. Given those outposts, there are a lot of champion drivers who fall in between when it comes to personality.

 What does Hamilton bring that makes him unique? 

The British driver born to a father from the West Indies has driven for two of F1’s best teams throughout his career from a young age. Having been signed by McLaren at age 13, Hamilton was the sport’s first to go through a formal young driver development program in addition to being the first black driver. (His early opportunity with McLaren is a fact his critics sometimes like to point out, as if his talent leading to good career choices is an unfair advantage.)

No doubt, the dominance of Mercedes in the hybrid engine era at times has given Hamilton an unbeatable edge. Had Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg decided to stick around instead of retiring after defeating Hamilton for the title in 2016, perhaps the story line would be different. Maybe there would be fewer titles and victories by Hamilton instead of the current seven championships and 100 wins. If ever there was a dividing line for fans, it would be the choice between Rosberg’s more palatable approach to racing, as if it should be a fraternity, and Hamilton’s attitude of owning the track until someone proves otherwise.

All the great champions of the modern era, of course, have the latter attitude. As has been said about champion boxers, the choice to enter the ring carries an element of cruelty toward any opponent. In F1, that means no quarter given – best exemplified by the incident in the first chicane at Monza this year where Max Verstappen came close to running over Hamilton’s helmeted head.   

One can’t argue that Hamilton has grown and matured over time. In his earlier days, he has been less than stellar out of the car and his complaints from behind the wheel when races were not going his way became legendary. But as his race victories and championships have piled up, Hamilton has grown into the role of champion outside the car without relinquishing a fierce aggressiveness along with his incredible passing ability behind the wheel. He’s become graceful in defeat and far less whiny on the radio. (It now appears Hamilton may use radio communication to sometimes bluff opponents about the condition of his tires.)

It is only in the current era that someone so young would have to figure out how to behave like a champion after winning his first Grand Prix race at 21 and his first title the following year in 2008 with McLaren. It seems to me Hamilton did his earnest best to be politically correct early in his career, a typical safe harbor for any famous athlete. In Hamilton’s case, he sometimes came across as insincere. To complicate matters, he had notable failures in and out of the car when things didn’t go his way. His disputes at McLaren with Fernando Alonso come to mind, although the Spaniard, it must be said, is of a similar disposition as Hamilton.

These days, Hamilton no doubt is more comfortable with himself inside the car and out. When communicating with his team during races, Hamilton asserts himself and, as events in Russia demonstrated that resulted in his capstone victory, reciprocates when his team makes its decisions. His political correctness is still there out of the car. He’s just more easy-going and sincere about saying the right things such as complimenting his opponents or fans. He genuinely appears to enjoy his role of being a champion, so it’s not like he’s trying to fake everybody out.

Hamilton’s role as a leader in the FIA’s “We Race As One,” a campaign designed to defeat racism in motorsports, appears to be galvanizing for him. It says a lot about Hamilton and his personal equilibrium that the first black driver in what has previously been a white man’s sport has also become the first to win 100 races. It says even more that he has taken a leadership role in the effort to bring more diversity to racing, which can only boost the entire sport. This includes a new organization to promote STEM programs to a more diverse group of students that Hamilton is funding in conjunction with Mercedes.

Will anybody ever match the statistics of Hamilton, currently in a battle for a record eighth title and showing no signs of slowing down in this year’s contest with Verstappen or in the future.

The other two stars of the race at Sochi, hard luck Lando Norris and runner-up Verstappen, demonstrated they will continue to be the class of F1 long after Hamilton has retired. Both Norris and Verstappen, like Hamilton, started in young driver programs before quickly advancing to F1. Verstappen won his first race in 2016 with the Scuderia Toro Rosso at age 18, the youngest winner ever. 

But neither driver is currently on a trajectory to win 100 races. Assuming a similar number of starts and 100 victories as the goal, Verstappen would have to win nearly one of two starts for the next nine seasons. Norris already has 53 starts with McLaren at age 21. After rain caught him out while leading within sight of the checkers in Russia, and after rain denied him a possible race-winning pole in Spa, Norris’ first victory surely will come soon.  But not likely soon enough to get to 100 career wins in the same number of starts as Hamilton.

Hamilton’s record underscores more than longevity and winning percentage. (It bears pointing out that Rosberg and Damon Hill chose to retire after winning their first titles such is the pressure at the sharp end of the crucible known as F1.) I would suggest Hamilton is the best at overtaking the sport has ever seen, which not incidentally recalls the day he won his first title in Brazil in 2008 by making a pass in the last corner of the last lap of the season.

Sunday’s come-from-behind win in Russia demonstrated the fire still burns for Hamilton. That fire may have gotten the best of him at times in his earlier days both in and out of the car. But it’s the combination of an extraordinary will and talent that makes Hamilton such an extraordinary racer.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the 2021 release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning In Reverse.”  Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” is a comprehensive account of racing’s safety revolution. Both books are available on Amazon.) 


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 30 2021
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