In the paddock: Edd Straw
It’s no longer wild conjecture to ask whether Lewis Hamilton will match the records achieved by Michael Schumacher. Setting the bar higher is a whole other matter
Can Lewis Hamilton match Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world championships and 91 wins? It’s a question that’s been asked before, and not just of Hamilton, but the closer the now five-time world champion gets, the less fatuous it seems.
It’s possible, and now he’s so close it’s more likely than not that he will match Schumacher – although for various reasons eclipsing F1’s benchmark is a much longer shot.
Hamilton is under contract to the end of 2020, which guarantees him two more seasons. So based on the past two campaigns, this could mean two more world championships to draw level with Schumacher. He has managed nine victories per season in each of ’17 and ’18, which would take him to 89 by the end of ’20 on top of whatever he does in the final two races of this year.
So you could argue that Hamilton could end 2020 and his current contract dead level with Schumacher on titles and wins, with the potential to eclipse him in the years to come. But the more interesting question is, what disruptive forces could prevent that?
One potential factor is the most unpleasant – death or injury. Modern safety standards mean this is unlikely, but it would be naive to put the chances at zero. Of the 16 multiple champions, four have been denied the opportunity of further success by this. Ayrton Senna, Jim Clark and Alberto Ascari all died at the wheel of racing cars when further titles were still possible, and Graham Hill was never a victory contender after his Watkins Glen crash in 1969.
Then there is the question of age and decline. Five-time title winner Juan Manuel Fangio is perhaps the most famous example of this, retiring during a piecemeal 1958 season as the reigning world champion and expressing the desire not to hang on and fade.
You could also include Hill in this broad category, as well as Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda and Jack Brabham – not to mention Schumacher himself (second time round particularly). But all were older than Hamilton is now. Fangio and Hill were 46, Piquet 39, Prost 38, Lauda 36, Brabham 44 and Schumacher 37 and then 43 when they quit.
At 33, Hamilton is still a few years off drifting into that zone, and there’s certainly no sign of any obvious decline. This brings us to another consideration – motivation. Mika Hakkinen admitted after his first title that his slow start to 1999 was partly influenced by the struggle to pick himself up again having climbed the mountain once. After regrouping and winning again that season, he had one more run at the title in 2000, then retired at the age of 33, initially on a sabbatical, after an ’01 campaign during which he only occasionally delivered the old magic.
It’s also been suggested that the intensity of fighting for titles led to two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi’s willingness to join brother Wilson’s Copersucar-backed team, although there were other factors. But Hamilton’s motivation remains undimmed.
There’s usually a point where a star driver has to face the challenge from an upstart. Hamilton has done so, taking on a driver surely destined to win multiple titles in Max Verstappen – but the Dutchman has yet to get into a title-winning car. Or perhaps it could be Charles Leclerc at Ferrari.
Lauda, Prost and Piquet were among those who faced challenges from the next generation and were eventually unwilling or unable to take them on. This is perhaps the one challenge that’s inevitable – either this or age will inevitably catch up with Hamilton one day.
There’s also the danger of a driver’s team slipping down the pecking order. We have a great example in Sebastian Vettel, whose run of four championships was ended by Red Bull slipping back.
Mercedes is a mighty team, but there are challenges at various points on the horizon that can cause problems, including next year’s aerodynamic rule changes. Beyond that, there are possible new engines and promised major rule changes that could have a big technical impact, and even the threat of cost cutting. Every empire crumbles eventually, and Mercedes will fall one day.
If that happens, Hamilton may face the question of where to move to, running the risk of an ill-judged transfer such as Fittipaldi’s, or those of Fernando Alonso’s career.
Then there are unforeseen factors, for example politics. Ferrari’s signing of Kimi Raikkonen, combined with Schumacher’s desire to see Felipe Massa continue at Ferrari, played a part in Schumacher’s first retirement. Brabham didn’t think he was past it, but felt pressured into quitting by family concerns.
The one multiple champion not yet mentioned is Jackie Stewart. He quit on his own terms at the end of 1973 in a move planned long before the death of team-mate Francois Cevert while still at the top of his game. Concerns about safety certainly played their part given he’d seen so many friends and rivals killed, but the decision was his.
As for whether Hamilton will match Schumacher, we can only say‘ probably’ because there are so many ways to be knocked off your perch. As for eclipsing him? Maybe. The next step is world championship number six and, if Ferrari raises its game again, that could be the toughest yet.
“EVERY EMPIRE CRUMBLES EVENTUALLY, AND MERCEDES WILL FALL ONE DAY”