A comparison of the talents of legends from two very different eras
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 official 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?
1 | SPEED
Senna’s pole record is the foundation of his legend. Some of his laps have passed into history as the very definition 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 horrific 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 final three – when he put a difficult 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 first 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 outqualified in the final 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 first 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
2 | CONSISTENCY
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 difficult 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 first four races, Senna found himself fighting 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 first six races were three wins, two second-place finishes 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 flunks out. SCORES SENNA 5 HAMILTON 4
3 | TECHNICAL PROWESS
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 figure 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
4 | RACECRAFT
Beyond their blistering speed, Senna and Hamilton also have exceptional skills when it comes to racing other cars. Think of Senna’s fightback 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 finally, 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 first 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 fight 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
6 | CHARISMA
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 flip 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 film 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 difficult 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