Lewis Hamilton is champion of the world again and inevitably the chorus of acclaim floating his way is stirred by the numbers that attest to his greatness.
The numeral ‘6’ leads the way – the sixth title that puts him ahead of Juan Manuel Fangio and behind only Michael Schumacher in the all-time reckoning.
There are also all those poles, an unsurpassed 87 of them, and wins, the 83 that leave him only eight adrift of Schumacher again at the summit of achievement.
Lewis Hamilton secured his sixth world championship after finishing second at the US GP
Hamilton salutes the crowd from parc ferme while standing on top of his Mercedes car
As fireworks go off on top of the stand in the paddock, Hamilton crosses the line to win the title
Yes, the numbers are mountains and they tell us a lot about Hamilton. About his long and relentless dedication to his craft. About a pathological determination to win. About his shrewd alliance with the right team at the right time. And, of course, of a talent so deep it cannot be denied the great prizes.
But beyond all the numbers, and all his ability, there is a characteristic that even now – with his body of work yet to be completed - marks him out as better than Schumacher, the German whose seven titles he hopes to match and eclipse.
It is the fact of his sportsmanship on track.
Michael Schumacher (left) and Lewis Hamilton are the two most successful F1 drivers ever
Schumacher (left) celebrates winning his first world title in 1994 with?Flavio Briatore
Schumacher (centre in jeans) celebrates his final title in 2004 - but will Hamilton overtake him?
Incidents such as his clash with Damon Hill in 1994 (above) showed his lack of sportsmanship
Schumacher ruthlessly clashed with?Jacques Villeneuve in 97 in a failed attempt to win the title
There is barely a moment across 248 races when Hamilton has sought to play dirty.
He has fought hard, compellingly so, but it is not his natural instinct to ram a rival off the road.
Schumacher, for all his brilliance, has a long crime list. For example, his collisions with Damon Hill in Adelaide in 1994 and Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez in 1997, as well as the low cunning that led him to park his car at Rascasse during qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix in 2006.
Yes, it takes more than mere numbers to make you the greatest. It is why the late Formula One journalist Alan Henry, in a book ranking the top 100 drivers of all time, placed Stirling Moss – a gentleman as well as the finest all-car racer ever but never a world champion – at No 1. Schumacher was down in 11th place.
Sterling Moss (above, 1957) has been hailed by some as the greatest driver of all time
Hamilton has surpassed Juan Manuel Fangio (above) to win his sixth world championship
F1 debut:? 1991,?Belgian Grand Prix
Pole positions: 68?
Race wins: 91
F1 debut:? 2007, Australian Grand Prix
Pole positions: 87?
Race wins: 83
That is too low in my estimation, farcically so. In this instance, the figures do tell us that.
Schumacher, it should be noted in passing, also had the distinction, unlike Hamilton, of having reignited Ferrari in part through his own character and attention to detail. He was loved by his team as totally as he was feted in Germany.
Hamilton was spotted at a young age and earmarked for success from his early karting days
Hamilton won his first title in 2008 and has avoided? the controversy that dogged Schumacher
So is Hamilton already the greatest driver in history? Would he stand No 1 on my list?
Well, it is impossible to compare adequately Fangio, the Argentine legend from the Fifties, with Hamilton now. Different eras, one much safer than the other. We can only confidently salute them for what they did in their own times. The rest is conjecture.
But there remains a chance that Hamilton can conclusively settle the issue before he is done. That is by equaling the record total then winning an eighth world title at another team.
Fangio’s titles came at four teams. Hamilton’s, like Schumacher’s, have come at two: McLaren and Mercedes.
Hamilton has been linked with Ferrari but Charles Leclerc's emergence could be an issue
There will be plenty of talk over the next year linking Hamilton with Ferrari from 2021 onwards, in what would be the perfect coda to his career. Imagine passing Schumacher’s record seven titles there.
Will he go? There is a pull, of course. He has spoken of it for years. It cannot be ruled out.
But the path is partly blocked now that Charles Leclerc has so impressed that he may be the man around whom the Scuderia plot their future.
HAMILTON'S RISE TO SUCCESS?
Hamilton burst onto the scene in 2007 while making his debut for McLaren, finishing third in his first race after being groomed for success from a young age by the team's former head, Ron Dennis.?
He came close to winning the title in his first year, only to miss out in dramatic fashion.?
He would not be denied in 2008, however, and became the first British world champion since Damon Hill in 1996.?
He has now won six world titles after a switch to Mercedes in 2013 and is second on the all-time list, behind Michael Schumacher.?
Would there be space for Hamilton and the change of focus that would entail?
He would be 36 by the start of the 2021 season, in the autumn of his days as a driver. But as John Watson, the former McLaren racer, told me the other day: ‘Lewis is driving well within himself. It is so easy for him. He has plenty in the tank.’
Schumacher left Ferrari at 37 and retained his powers, if only very fractionally dimmed, until the end. His rampages through the field at Monaco in 2006 and in his final outing at Brazil were wonders to behold. So Hamilton should still be able to bring vast resources to Ferrari if he were to go there.
Some people point smugly to the fact Hamilton has spoken of his loyalty to Mercedes as though that settles the matter. I would say to them, what did his loyalty to McLaren mean when he upped sticks to join his current team in 2013? McLaren had reared him from childhood karter to world champion but he, rightly, moved to match his agenda of sustained domination.
The Briton had pulled level with the great Fangio by winning his fifth world title in 2018
The 34 year-old could still get even better and would crown a wonderful career by passing Schumacher's world championship tally by driving for Ferrari in 2021??
As then, he will make an evaluation of where success is most likely to be had. He will not unduly be held back by loyalty or drawn away by romance.
My hope is that he will go to Ferrari, a gamble that if it delivered an eighth title would lift Hamilton to the top of the pile beyond dispute. By numbers, by longevity, by sportsmanship, he would stand more securely supreme than even now on the day of his sixth wonder of the world.
BEST F1 DRIVERS OF ALL TIME
1st Juan Manuel Fangio
No less distinguished judges than Sir Jackie Stewart and Sir Stirling Moss argue the Argentine’s case as F1’s supreme racer of all time. Hamilton added his voice to the chorus, calling Fangio the ‘OG’ — the Original Godfather. His achievements in the perilous Fifties of claiming titles across four teams remain a unique distinction. He was victorious a ludicrous 24 times from 51 starts.
2nd Lewis Hamilton
Clearly the best of his generation and with the bulging records to prove it. He has not needed the fastest car to prevail — he certainly did not in 2008 when he took his first title and arguably in the last three years. Lightning fast over one lap — 87 poles — and still insatiable aged 34. Winning a championship at another team — Ferrari? — may see him retire as the undisputed best.
3rd Michael Schumacher
The most decorated driver in terms of championships and race wins — seven and 91. His focus relit Ferrari’s fire at the start of the century. The German would rank a place higher on the list but for his bouts of dirty driving and the fact the Scuderia never let a team-mate take him on.?
4th Stirling Moss
A gentleman who beat sport at its own game: he did not need a world title to validate him. Moss largely refused to drive non-British cars and so never collected the championships he would have done. Still, between Fangio’s retirement in 1958 and his own crash at Goodwood in 1962, he was as far ahead of his contemporaries as anyone ever.
5th Ayrton Senna
The brooding mystic’s funeral brought his home city of Sao Paulo to a standstill after his death at Imola in 1994. The three-time world champion produced a qualifying lap for the ages at Monaco in 1988 and a dazzling race in the wet at Donington in 1993. He thought he was taking on the world, as well as Alain Prost, and often won.
6th Jim Clark
The quiet Scottish farmer is hailed by some as the greatest driver in history and certainly the best of his era. His instinctive skills and late braking took him to wins in 25 of his 73 grands prix — a 34.25 per cent strike rate, better than both Schumacher and Hamilton. Clark’s death during a Formula Two race at Hockenheim in 1968 meant he was unable to add to his two world titles.
By Jonathan McEvoy