Divisive, determined, unquestionably gifted, and just maybe the greatest ever? In a famously complicated sport, Lewis Hamilton might be the perfect complicated modern champion. Here’s why…
The 34-year-old racer is now within tantalising reach of a sixth Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship. An astonishing feat which would put him further in a stratospheric league of his own; eclipsed solely by Michael Schumacher’s seven world titles.
Sealing the deal
Having secured an impressive 15 podiums from 17 Grand Prix - including ten wins - Hamilton now leads his Mercedes team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, his only remaining championship rival, by 74 points.
To give that some relevance, even if Bottas takes the win and the maximum 26 points available in Austin, Hamilton would only need to score four points to seal the deal - meaning an eight-placed finish would be enough.
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Certainly, if Hamilton continues his current form - by finishing on the podium again - the chances of him being crowned champion in the USA, or at the successive races in Brazil or Abu Dhabi only increase exponentially.
Make no mistake though; Hamilton might make this near unparalleled speed look easy on track, but the Midas touch didn't happen overnight. Ever since he burst onto the F1 scene in 2007, his aggressive driving style coupled with an uncanny ability to exploit the machinery underneath him has put him in contention for almost every performance-related F1 record going.
First on the all-time pole position scorers list; most championship points scored in a season; most points scored out of any F1 driver ever; youngest world championship leader; most pole positions at a specific Grand Prix; second only to Michael Schumacher in the all-time race winner’s list… much like Lewis’ trophy cabinet, the accolades go on and on.
It’s understandable in some sense that a lot has been made of Hamilton’s natural ability behind the wheel then. In fact, it is something that has stuck with him throughout his career and formed the basis for almost all of his eminence as a driver.
However, also as a result of that, there’s an unfair preconceived notion that he is just a seat-of-the-pants driver, who can throttle every last bit of performance from a car like few others, but also who lacks any real ability to use his brain. It is a sentiment that could not be further from the truth.
Image: Clive Mason/Getty Images
Dig deeper than the surface media persona, and you will find an athlete that has had to evolve under the most intense scrutiny and spotlight - since his career effectively began aged eight.
Hamilton is the kind of driver that sits with the team engineers studying data to find improvements well after-hours, and a businessman that has found marked success in fashion. Not just someone that turns up to race at the weekend, and then disappears into the party scene come pack-up time on Sunday evening.
"There’s a lot of growth that has gone on within our team, especially with Valtteri and I. Understanding that you need to be comfortable in your own skin and being less susceptible to other people’s opinions. It’s been a big factor in achieving goals in life and F1," explains Lewis.
"For example, I remember getting my first tattoo on my back, and getting my ears pierced. I did those things because they were things I wanted to do. But I remember people’s comments and how they thought it would negatively impact my career. Now I can pretty much do what I want with my style. It’s amazing how you can shift people’s perception."
"I’m always in discovery mode when I’m away from the race track now, whether that’s fashion, music, travel, or pushing myself physically. You have to enjoy life, and I think to be successful at something as high-pressure as F1 you need to be able to let go in other ways. It’s the best way to keep growing."
Indeed that mental strength, grind, and a need to discover and grow is perhaps the best weapon against the competition Lewis has in his arsenal; far outweighing his natural gift.
"I think that’s one of the most important things we can do as human beings; keep learning about yourself, keep improving and be proud of who you are. There was a long long time in my life where there was a yearning to want to blend in. But in actual fact, the best thing is that you don’t blend in. That you look different; and you are different - and to see that as a positive rather than a negative," continues Lewis.
"It’s not handed to you though. I get my head down and work - my schedule is pretty crazy and I have a lot of targets. And I know the only way to achieve them is to work towards them.
"I want to be the best I can be - I love working with my team, I love racing, I love competing… the strive for perfection is where it's at. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning," Hamilton says.
Image: AFP / Andrej Isakovic
Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport team boss Toto Wolff recognises this trait too, and gives Hamilton the kind of freedom rarely afforded to racing drivers in the buttoned-down world of F1.
"Most important is to acknowledge that we are all different individuals and we need different frameworks in order to perform well," reveals Wolff. "Lewis is somebody who needs to be able to pursue his other ambitions and interests.
"Rather than putting somebody in a box and saying, 'This is how a racing driver needs to behave - you need to be on time, you need to avoid jet lag before the race, or don't record music overnight when you are jet-lagged but try to sleep,' I realised very early on that giving him the freedom of pursuing his interests, we were able to extract more performance on track.
Image: AFP / Andrej Isakovic
"I have the feeling that he needs to get his mind off motor racing. If he's able to do a fashion show that excites him, or record some music, or do some snowboarding with his friends, he forgets about the racing side, and he can come back stronger and more energised.
"Lewis never stops pushing for performance. He is very self-critical. He is the only driver I have ever seen coming into a debrief and saying: 'Don't look at my data because my driving was not good enough.' And that from a five-time world champion.
"This relentless pursuit of being a better you tomorrow than you have been today, and brutal honesty with yourself, transparency within the organisation to overcome mistakes and shortcomings, is something that is a very big part of Lewis' character."
Image: Peter J Fox / Contributor
As for the championship and the prospect of being the greatest ever? It’s no coincidence that the odds are now stacked in Hamilton’s favour. Ever the pragmatist, however, Hamilton downplays things even at this stage of the season.
"My gap in the championship could disappear. The title hasn’t been won yet! At every Grand Prix, we need to push as hard as we can. We can squeeze more out of this car, and individually we can always do better.
"Of course records and legacy matter to everyone, but it can’t be the only thing that drives us. What Michael [Schumacher] achieved during his career set the standard in so many ways. His wins and championships are from a different era in the sport, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for his achievements. I don’t go racing to chase down other drivers records. I just want to be the very best I can be during my time in F1…"