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.


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