stared at the yel­low hel­met like a child who had just opened his dream pre­sent on Christ­mas morn­ing. It was a gift from the fam­ily of Ayr­ton Senna, to mark the Mercedes driver equalling his child­hood idol’s record of 65 poles.

Hold­ing it in his hands, Lewis said he was “shak­ing, speech­less”. He was driven back to the pad­dock from Turn 2 at the Cir­cuit Gilles Vil­leneuve, where the pre­sen­ta­tion had been made, and sat on the open window of a car, cradling it. Now, in the ofcial news con­fer­ence, he could barely take his eyes off it. “For the Senna fam­ily to send me this,” he said, “this is the most spe­cial thing I have, above and be­yond all my tro­phies and ev­ery­thing.”

Ear­lier that week, a set of Cana­dian stamps was un­veiled to mark the 50th an­niver­sary of the coun­try’s grand prix. Lewis was among the driv­ers pic­tured on them, along with Senna, Gilles Vil­leneuve, Michael Schu­macher and Jackie Ste­wart. Lewis reg­u­larly talks about the “honour” he feels in be­ing con­sid­ered among “those great driv­ers, those pre­vi­ous leg­ends”. It’s not a hum­ble­brag. He means it. But he is go­ing to have to get used to it.

At the next race in Baku, Lewis sur­passed Senna’s record by set­ting his 66th pole po­si­tion, just two shy of Michael Schu­macher’s record of 68. With 56 race vic­to­ries un­der his belt, Hamil­ton has al­ready over­taken Alain Prost to claim sec­ond place in the list of winning driv­ers – although he still has some way to go to match Schu­macher’s record of 91 grand prix wins.

Like Senna, Lewis is a three-time world cham­pion and may well make it four by the end of this sea­son, so by any mea­sure he has to be con­sid­ered an all-time great. His on­ward sta­tis­ti­cal march has added cur­rency to the ques­tions any ob­server of F1 asks of all the best driv­ers – how do they com­pare with the ti­tans of other eras? And in Hamil­ton’s case, Senna, the driver he ad­mires above all oth­ers, is the most per­ti­nent bench­mark. So how, over the course of their ten-year careers, do they com­pare?


Senna’s pole record is the foun­da­tion of his leg­end. Some of his laps have passed into his­tory as the very deni­tion of raw speed and tal­ent in an F1 car, none more so than in Monaco 1988.

That one res­onates be­cause of the way Senna spoke about it in a fa­mous in­ter­view, de­tail­ing a kind of out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence, as if he were look­ing down on him­self driv­ing, and say­ing that he even­tu­ally chose to stop be­cause he re­alised he was putting him­self at risk. That day, he ended up 1.4s quicker than team-mate Alain Prost. But there were other times when his su­pe­ri­or­ity was even greater – such as in Ja­pan in 1989, when he took pole from Prost by 1.73s – an al­most in­con­ceiv­able mar­gin for one great driver over an­other in the same ma­chin­ery.

There were count­less other ex­am­ples, too. Like Jerez in 1990, when Senna ven­tured out af­ter the crash that left Martin Donnelly with horric in­juries – and went even faster. He didn’t need to: pole was al­ready in the bag. But he wanted to prove to him­self that he could.

And few of his pole laps can have been bet­ter than his nal three – when he put a difcult Wil­liams at the front through what seemed like sheer force of will alone.

Hamil­ton’s achieve­ments have not gen­er­ally been af­forded the same rev­er­ence, but per­haps they need to be re­con­sid­ered. Think of his rst pole, when he was 0.456s quicker than team­mate Fer­nando Alonso in Canada 2007, or the 0.668s mar­gin he held in China the same year, prompt­ing Alonso to chuck his hel­met at a door in anger, sus­pect­ing con­spir­acy in the wake of his fall-out with McLaren, and claim­ing that no one was that much faster than him any­where.

Or what about Korea 2011? A few days af­ter be­ing in the depths of de­spair fol­low­ing his break-up with Ni­cole Scherzinger, Lewis beat Se­bas­tian Vet­tel’s dom­i­nant Red Bull by 0.222s, the only time Vet­tel was out­qualied in the nal nine races of that year. Or China 2014, when Lewis beat team-mate Nico Ros­berg by 1.283s in the wet. Or Monza 2014, when he was 9.3mph quicker than Ros­berg through the rst Lesmo.

Very few peo­ple in mod­ern F1 have worked with both Senna and Hamil­ton, but some­one who has is Wil­liams tech­ni­cal chief Paddy Lowe. And he says Hamil­ton “un­doubt­edly” has Senna’s speed. “Those great driv­ers are able to pull out an ex­tra­or­di­nary lap,” Lowe says. “They can’t do it every Satur­day, but every now and again they just go out there and some­thing re­ally ex­tra­or­di­nary is re­quired and they pro­duce a lap where you go: ‘Wow. Where on earth did that come from?’ Lewis is cer­tainly one to do that, and so was Ayr­ton.” SCORES SENNA 5 HAMIL­TON 5


Senna was driven to prove that he was the best every sin­gle day of his life. It was what led him to some of the darker ac­tions of his ca­reer, but also what made him so difcult to beat.

It was Senna’s re­lent­less speed in qual­i­fy­ing that even­tu­ally led Prost to stop both­er­ing try­ing to beat him to pole – at least while they were at McLaren to­gether. In­stead, Prost switched his fo­cus to pre­par­ing his car for the race. Back then, these were two very dif­fer­ent things.

Like­wise, when in an in­fe­rior car, Senna’s con­sis­tency kept him in the game. Take, for ex­am­ple, 1991, when af­ter winning the sea­son’s rst four races, Senna found him­self ght­ing a rear-guard ac­tion against the much faster Wil­liams of Nigel Mansell. It was his metro­nomic de­liv­ery of his best that won him the ti­tle over the re­main­der of that year.

Like­wise, in 1993, when Senna was lack­ing both per­for­mance and power com­pared with the Wil­liams-Re­naults of Prost and Da­mon Hill, his re­sults in the rst six races were three wins, two sec­ond-place nishes and a re­tire­ment.

Hamil­ton, just as Senna did, also be­lieves him­self to be the best, and he achieves his peak more of­ten than most of his ri­vals. But equally, he dips be­low it more of­ten than some­one of his tal­ent per­haps ought to. Prime ex­am­ples of the lat­ter would be Rus­sia or Monaco this year, or Baku or Sin­ga­pore last year: week­ends when for what­ever rea­son – and of­ten the rea­sons are dif­fer­ent – Hamil­ton unks out. SCORES SENNA 5 HAMIL­TON 4


Back in the 1980s, driv­ers did not have the lux­ury of thou­sands of pages of data to go through, over­lays of laps to com­pare or real-time ad­vice from en­gi­neers. They had to go out and gure it out for them­selves. And the abil­ity of Senna and Prost in par­tic­u­lar to do that is the stuff of leg­end.

One story from Senna’s ca­reer sticks in the mind. There was a race where he in­sisted he could feel a prob­lem with the en­gine. None of the data tools at McLaren showed any­thing up, and the team were con­vinced noth­ing was wrong. But they changed the en­gine any­way, be­cause they knew bet­ter than to ig­nore his re­quest. When the old en­gine was later taken apart, a minute im­per­fec­tion was found on the crank­shaft that would have led to it fail­ing had it been left in the car. Senna had felt it.

We have to as­sume that the rea­son we don’t hear sto­ries like that about Hamil­ton is that they don’t ex­ist. Whether that mat­ters at all is a dif­fer­ent ques­tion.“Peo­ple of­ten talk about driv­ers and their tech­ni­cal in­put,” Lowe says. “I have ac­tu­ally never got that. For me, a driver is a guy who can go out and wring the car’s neck and has the ex­pe­ri­ence to get the best from it. You don’t want the driver to be an en­gi­neer. He isn’t an en­gi­neer. He’s a driver. I just want him to tell me stuff every now and again – if some­thing’s bet­ter or not; where he can go quicker. And then to go and de­liver. Lewis does a per­fect job of that, and so did Ayr­ton.”

Although these re­marks come from some­one who started work­ing in F1 in the late 1980s, they are set against the back­drop of the in­cred­i­ble ad­vance in sim­u­la­tion and data-anal­y­sis in 21st cen­tury F1. And there are clearly oc­ca­sional races where Hamil­ton gets lost on setup – or can­not tune him­self to the setup he needs to be quick at a given track. Sin­ga­pore 2016 and Rus­sia 2017 are two ex­am­ples.

But Lewis is also per­fectly ca­pa­ble of giv­ing the en­gi­neers ev­ery­thing that they need to pre­pare the car in the right way. SCORES SENNA 5 HAMIL­TON 3


Be­yond their blis­ter­ing speed, Senna and Hamil­ton also have ex­cep­tional skills when it comes to rac­ing other cars. Think of Senna’s ght­back af­ter drop­ping to 14th at the start of the 1988 Ja­panese Grand Prix, or Hamil­ton’s charge from last to third in Hun­gary in 2014.

Then there are the races in which they have had to over­take en route to a win: think Lewis on Vet­tel in Spain in 2017; Senna on Mansell into Eau Rouge on slicks in the wet in Bel­gium in ’85. And, of course, the races that demon­strate their abil­ity to de­fend with skill and fair­ness: think

Senna from Mansell in the clos­ing laps of Spain in 1986 or Hamil­ton against Ros­berg in their thrilling duel in the desert in Bahrain in 2014.

And nally, con­sider their skill and sheer speed in the rain. Senna has Es­to­ril ’85 and Don­ing­ton ’93 as his­toric demon­stra­tions of his peer­less wet-weather abil­ity. But Hamil­ton’s wins in Sil­ver­stone in 2008, Ja­pan in 2007 and Brazil in 2016, among oth­ers, were just as good. SCORES SENNA 5 HAMIL­TON 5 5| ETHICS Senna’s death has lent a soft-fo­cus sheen to his le­gacy: peo­ple re­mem­ber the good and tend to shut out the bad. For, in truth, he was in­tensely con­tro­ver­sial through­out his ca­reer. From the be­gin­ning, he in­curred the wrath of more ex­pe­ri­enced driv­ers be­cause of his ten­dency to cruise around on the rac­ing line on slow laps in qual­i­fy­ing, ig­nor­ing faster cars be­hind him.

He was ag­gres­sive in the ex­treme, of­ten push­ing be­yond the lim­its of ac­cept­abil­ity, and he could veer into out­ra­geous­ness. The most in­fa­mous ex­am­ple was his de­ci­sion to smash into the back of Alain Prost’s Fer­rari at the rst cor­ner in Ja­pan in 1990 be­cause his re­quest to have pole po­si­tion moved to the other side of the track had been re­jected.

Lowe says: “Char­ac­ter-wise, they are quite dif­fer­ent. Peo­ple crit­i­cise Lewis, but he is ac­tu­ally a real gen­tle­man and a very fair racer – hard but fair. Mostly I was play­ing against Ayr­ton. That’s why I strug­gle with per­spec­tive. I was at Wil­liams in those days and Ayr­ton was the guy we were strug­gling to beat and even­tu­ally did in 1992, but it seemed im­pos­si­ble in the years build­ing up to it. He was ruth­less. He had var­i­ous tac­tics to in­tim­i­date his op­po­si­tion. But that was the name of the game. It was a dif­fer­ent world and Ayr­ton played it as he had to.”

Per­haps, but not ev­ery­one played it the same way, and while Senna un­doubt­edly opened the door to some du­bi­ous tac­tics, and Michael Schu­macher for one then pos­i­tively ran through it, many driv­ers still es­chew the sort of driv­ing prac­tised by those two.

Hamil­ton is as tough as they come: just look at the num­ber of times he ran Ros­berg out of room on the exit of a cor­ner. And he hates los­ing. But the ev­i­dence so far is that he would rather ght fair and lose than win by cheat­ing. And ram­ming some­one off track to make a point? It’s hard to imag­ine the thought even en­ter­ing his head. SCORES SENNA 2 HAMIL­TON 5


Senna’s per­sonal mag­netism was leg­endary. He could qui­eten a room by walk­ing into it. His press con­fer­ences, in which he would speak of death, vul­ner­a­bil­ity, the hu­man spirit, the mean­ing of rac­ing and life, were com­pelling. He would hold a room­ful of jour­nal­ists rapt, the si­lence so deep you could hear a pin drop. The way he ex­pressed his spir­i­tu­al­ity was elo­quent and com­pelling.

Lewis, too, makes it clear that faith is an im­por­tant el­e­ment of his life, but in a far less overt way than Senna did. Senna leant heav­ily on his faith, some­times to the point of us­ing it to jus­tify some of his more ex­treme on-track ac­tions. The ip side was his charitable work and his ef­forts to use his wealth to as­sist pover­tys­tricken chil­dren in his home coun­try of Brazil.

Hamil­ton, too, qui­etly en­gages in a lot of char­ity work away from the cam­eras. He’s also the most fa­mous driver on the planet, liv­ing a peri­patetic life, jet­ting to the States to re­lax or party with lm stars and mu­si­cians. But his charisma and pres­ence fall short of those of his hero. Nor does he share Senna’s elo­quence or in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism. But that’s not to say Hamil­ton is not smart. For a start, his up­bring­ing and ed­u­ca­tion were nowhere near as priv­i­leged as Senna’s. One grew up in a coun­cil house; the other had a life of wealth and ad­van­tage.

Hamil­ton’s pur­suit of fame and celebrity is not to ev­ery­one’s taste, and dif­fers from Senna’s more sim­ple life­style. Hamil­ton shares Senna’s propen­sity to be difcult if the mood takes him, but does not share his sense of en­ti­tle­ment.

They are very dif­fer­ent men. But as sports­men they share one key fun­da­men­tal: each is about as fast as any rac­ing driver has ever been. SCORES SENNA 5 HAMIL­TON 3

Senna vs Hamil­ton: hard rac­ers, al­most level-peg­ging on poles, wins and ti­tles. And in terms of race­craft, there’s very lit­tle in it

Senna was renowned for his al­most in­tu­itive tech­ni­cal abil­ity in terms of setup and feedback

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