Motorsports can be tricky. They require vehicles designed to run at breakneck speeds and drivers who have the capabilities to tame such beasts. And this is where the confusion lies: there is no surefire way to tell which variable holds more power or does more work in determining performances. Yet, some of us make it seem like we do know for sure when we talk about Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton is arguably the biggest name in Formula 1 (F1) today. With six world championships, 88 Grand Prix wins, and 156 podium finishes under his belt, it should be easy to say that his career speaks for itself. Ironically, though, other people often prefer to speak on its behalf instead—admittedly, myself included.
Many F1 fans seem to believe that Hamilton isn’t all that great and that his car is the bigger reason for all his success. But it’s been six years since he started dominating the sport, and more often I find myself asking: is it really just the car?
What is it about Hamilton that makes people doubtful of his abilities in spite of the many feats he has accomplished in his 13 years in F1? Based on what I’ve seen in many forums, threads, and even the comment sections of F1’s social media pages, I think it really boils down to one thing: the rarity of his career.
Unlike many other drivers, Hamilton hit the ground running when he made his debut in 2007, already fighting for the drivers’ world championship. Driving for McLaren, a team that had a very competitive car, the rookie missed the championship title only by a single point.
The following season, he again found himself in second place in the championship standings behind Felipe Massa. But, on the final lap of the final Grand Prix, Hamilton overtook Timo Glock for fifth place for two extra points and put himself exactly where he needed to be in the standings. Edging Felipe Massa in extremely dramatic fashion, Hamilton won his first world championship just in his second season in F1.
After four more moderately successful seasons driving for McLaren, Hamilton made his career-defining move to Mercedes in 2013; with his new team, the two were a match made in motorsport heaven. The image of Hamilton at Mercedes joins the likes of Michael Schumacher with Ferrari, or Ayrton Senna with McLaren—iconic.
Mercedes have won the constructors’ championship six seasons in a row, with Hamilton winning the drivers’ championship in five of those seasons. On top of that, he is, yet again, currently leading the world championship standings in the ongoing season, and with just one more championship title, Hamilton would match Schumacher’s record of seven drivers’ world championships in F1.
It’s plain to see Hamilton has had an astounding career, and it has been a consistent career just as well. Ever since his debut, the British driver has never seen a single season without a pole position, a podium finish, or a race win, and he has never finished a season out of the top five in the championship standings. The man has always been competitive. But—and here is the million-dollar question—has it always been him, or has it been his cars?
This is the question many F1 fans have been asking for years, and we’ve been asking this because it is much easier to spot skills in a driver who has spent some years driving in slower cars. Take Senna in the Toleman in the 1984 Monte Carlo Grand Prix, for instance. The Toleman team’s car was one that nobody ever thought was going to win a race, but somehow, it became a competitive car with Senna’s hands on the wheel. He took that car from 13th to second place in a matter of 31 laps, and what’s more, he did it in the rain. Everyone knew it was Senna’s genius that put Toleman up into second that day.
But in opposite circumstances, when analyzing a driver in a good car—an extremely good car in Hamilton’s case—it is much harder to tell who does the dirty work in that scenario.
Hamilton is an anomaly. It is rare for a driver to consistently find himself in highly competitive cars throughout his entire career; because of this, the line that separates driver from car, as foggy as it already is in this sport, seems even hazier in Hamilton’s case.
In all of the years I’ve been following F1, I’ve noticed that one common phrase consistently comes up on the boards of discussions and debates on Hamilton’s skill: “If everyone had the same car as Lewis, he wouldn’t win.” In fact, he is pitted against other drivers on the track quite frequently—even world champion Nico Rosberg has openly expressed that he believes if Max Verstappen were in the same car as Hamilton, Verstappen would win.
A lot of people don’t seem convinced that Hamilton has the best skills on the grid, but gets the best results simply because of his car. These are arguments that I myself have defended, but they are also arguments that I’ve recently come to question.
It is no secret that Mercedes does indeed have the fastest cars on the track, and they have had the fastest cars consistently over the past seven seasons. Because of this, it’s easy to question whether Hamilton would perform well against other drivers even without a great car.
But what is a good car without a good driver? Yes, having a good car is a hugely important competitive factor, but it is just as easily a responsibility. Case-in-point: Pierre Gasly was given the chance to race for Red Bull last season, another team with a highly competitive car. But in the same car as Max Verstappen, Gasly wasn’t anywhere close to getting the same results as his teammate. Was the car to blame for his sub-standard results? It would appear not.
Due to Gasly’s underwhelming performance, halfway through the season, he was replaced by Alexander Albon, and in that same car, Albon produced better and more consistent results, steadily fighting for places within the top five, and even getting into a tussle with Hamilton for a potential podium finish in the Brazilian Grand Prix. This is something that some of us might ignore when we look at Hamilton taking trophies nearly every race weekend.
In this sport, it’s easy to say that the cars matter more than the driver; that the Mercedes car does more for Hamilton than he does for it—after all, over time, it has become even harder to discern which variable holds more power. With the engineering in the sport continuously advancing, there has been no way to know for sure.
But what we do know is that it is evidently not true that you could put any driver in the best car and expect that driver to get the best results. Hamilton himself has proven this by beating his teammates driving the same cars multiple times over, as he has only finished below a teammate in the championship standings twice in 13 years.
In F1, having a good car is not the end of the story. Beyond the car, many of the variables at play fall in the hands of the driver. Hamilton is a very reliable driver in this respect. He is one of the most consistent drivers in the sport, and ultimately, he gets the job done—a job no one else, not even his teammates, seems as capable of doing at the moment.
As a non-Hamilton fan, I admit, I have indulged in these debates many times over the last seven years. I enjoyed taking advantage of Mercedes’ dominance and using it as a reason to diminish Hamilton’s skills as a driver and to discredit his success. But truthfully, that’s just because I’d begrudge seeing him meet Schumacher’s world record, and I refused to admit that he could do so on his own accord.
I will admit this now, though: Hamilton is a good driver through and through, and he is currently one of, if not the best, on track. After all, one cannot become a six-time world champion without having some of the best skills in the sport, and those championships are just as much his as they are his cars’.
Perhaps Hamilton’s skills are not necessarily showcased by the same narratives that other drivers have told in their careers, and perhaps they cannot be explicitly confirmed by comparing him with other drivers that don’t have the same car. However, his many favorable moments on track since 2007, his unwavering consistency over the years, and even his old karting tapes—those things truly do speak for themselves and cannot be so readily ignored.
The man undoubtedly holds immense talent. And even if he doesn’t match Schumacher’s record of seven world championships, at the end of the day, Hamilton will still be considered one of the greatest F1 drivers in history—and we will credit Mercedes for that, of course, just as much as we should credit the driver himself.