On Sunday Lewis Hamilton became just the third man in history to win a half-century of Grands Prix when he won the United States GP for the fifth time in just six starts at the event. So that got me wondering; is Hamilton the best British driver of all time? Or is he overrated as some seem to be suggesting?
For those who say his playboy antics or his Snapchatting in press conferences bring the sport into disrepute you may well have a point but for the sake of this article only the driving matters. I’m taking the John Surtees stance of “I love him in the car.”
I’m sorry in advance if this is a bit stat heavy for you but they’re a great yardstick when comparing drivers.
Let’s lay down some facts to start with, Lewis Hamilton is the most successful British F1 driver ever in terms of achievements, that cannot be argued. He has the most wins for a British driver (50 compared with Mansell’s 31), the most poles (58 compared with Clark’s 33), the most podiums (101 compared with Coulthard’s 62), the most fastest laps (31 compared to Mansell’s 30) and he ties with Stewart for the most drivers’ championsips for a Brit with 3. So in this respect he is the best Britain has ever produced already and he’s only 31-years-old, it’s somewhat scary to think all of those numbers will inevitably rise in the years to come.
Despite that however, Lewis has some serious competition on his hands for this unofficial title. The UK has produced 19 Grand Prix winners and 10 of them have won at least one world championship which is far more than any other country (Brazil and Finland are next with 3). So for the sake of this article those 19 are the only ones that will be considered, sorry Martin Brundle.
Now that the facts are out of the way let’s get onto some opinions, the phrase “you’ve got to beat the best to be the best” springs to mind:
Sir Sterling Moss is widely regarded as the best ever man to never win a world championship, not just in Formula 1, but sport in general. In 1955 he had an all-conquering Mercedes underneath him for (sound familiar?) but what stopped him winning a F1 title was a combination of an overweight Argentine and sportsmanship that you’d never, ever see nowadays.
That last sentence was a bit ambiguous wasn’t it, allow me to elaborate. Juan Manuel Fangio, the afore-mentioned South American, won five world titles in four different cars in the nineteen-fifties and was one of Moss’ teammates when the two were at Mercedes in 1955. Fangio won the title that year with Moss in second but the pair were miles ahead of everybody else. That same year tragedy struck at Le Mans and the German manufacturer pulled out of motor sport.
That was the first of four consecutive second places in the standings, culminating in 1958 where he lost the championship by just a point to Mike Hawthorn’s Ferrari. Hawthorn clinched the title at the final race in Morocco (Yes, F1 actually raced there) but the decisive moment occurred a few races ago in Portugal. Hawthorn was finished second behind Moss’ Vanwall but the Ferrari driver was disqualified for reversing on the track. Moss defended Hawthorn’s actions and the latter had his second place reinstated. If he had never gone to the stewards Moss would’ve won the championship that season. There’s far too much money in the sport now for anything like that to occur again.
But I think the fact that Hamilton has got the job done in terms of winning a championship on multiple occasions gives him a slight edge over Moss, but not by much. However, I can see why the fact that he was second on three occasions to one of the sport’s best ever, would cause some to disagree with me.
Surtees enjoyed a very successful career as a GP motorcycle rider before joining F1 in the early sixties. Photo credits: suzuki-gt.co.uk (left) and printrest.com (right).
In terms of F1 Hamilton beats Surtees hands down but as a driver I honestly believe that what Surtees achieved was simply incredible and I seriously doubt that we’ll see it again. His record on motorcycles is fantastic, winning both the 350cc and 500cc three years in a row from 1958 to 1960. By 1964 he had also won the F1 world championship with Ferrari meaning that he had won the highest titles on both two wheels and four, a feat that nobody else has ever achieved before or since. So as an overall driver you could argue that Surtees was better than Hamilton.
It’s a similar story with Hill, not Damon (although he was a great driver too) but Dick Dastardly lookalike, Graham. Hamilton probably edges the contest as a F1 driver but, like Surtees, G. Hill achieved something nobody else has, past or present, he has the Motorsports triple crown. Some say the triple crown is the greatest goal a driver can achieve and I agree. The triple crown is unofficial awarded to any driver who wins three of motorsport’s most illustrious races; the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and the 24 hours of Le Mans, and Hill is the only man to ever achieve it.
Speaking of Monaco, Hill also won the race, which is often seen as the greatest challenge in F1, an incredible 5 times (only Senna has more) and was rightfully known as “Mr. Monaco” for his achievements in the principality.
A special mention also has to go to the 1968 season where Hill overcame the despair of losing his teammate to win the championship that season which took incredible courage on his part. So in F1 terms I think Hamilton edges this but as a driver on the whole I’d probably give it to Hill but it’s very close.
I’m going to say it straight away; Jim Clark is one of the fastest drivers of all time. For me, there’s no doubt about it. As previously outlined Hamilton beats all four of these drivers in F1 accolades but careers were much shorter back in the sixties, sometimes by choice but sadly, more often than not, through a serious accident. That was the sad reality of motor racing back then and tragically this ended the career of Jim Clark in 1968 when he crashed at the Hockenheimring in a F2 race (F1 drivers often drove in these races back then).
If we play the percentage game Clark’s advantage is clear:
Hamilton – Clark
Win Percentage 27.0% – 34.3%
Pole Percentage 31.4% – 45.2%
Fastest lap Percentage 16.8% – 38.9%
And that’s before you factor in that the cars back then were notoriously unreliable and dangerous half a century ago. If you went off the road at high-speed chances were that you wouldn’t make it to the next race.
Now, you could argue that drivers back then were less professional and that the competition wasn’t as good as it is today. While I do agree with this I don’t completely. Yes, the training regimes of today for racing drivers is much more intense therefore they are a lot fitter than those of fifty years ago. But if the teams of the sixties had the same level of sports science and money to play with do you really believe they’d just choose to ignore those techniques? I didn’t think so.
Had he not died on that fateful day in Germany I believe that he would’ve gone on to win many more races and championships. At 32 he was at the peak of his powers and with Colin Chapman behind the drawing board I can only see that success continuing.
The swinging sixties really did produce some great British drivers and last but not least is Sir Jackie, the only Briton so far to match Hamilton’s three titles. The king of the ring (named as such because of his amazing drives around the gruelling Nurburgring) racked up 27 wins in just 99 starts over a nine-year career in F1. Somewhat like Clark, but not to the same extent, his talent can be communicated better through percentages and not raw numbers. Afterall, Hamilton has already started almost double the races that Stewart did and he’s not retiring anytime soon. Lewis matches Sir Jackie in achieving 3 championships in 9 seasons (so far) with a possibility for 4 in 10 seasons come Abu Dhabi and both very much hit the ground running when they joined the sport.
On the driving front I think the two of them are very evenly matched, Stewart having the edge in some respects and Hamilton in others. But perhaps Jackie Stewart’s greatest legacy is his work for campaigning for greater safety in the sport, which unbelievably were laughed off at first. Many drivers today owe their lives to the issues that Stewart raised in the sixties, without him there wouldn’t have been safer barriers, safer cars and probably no Professor. Sid Watkins. It’s a reality I have trouble imagining. Yes, safety would’ve become a priority eventually but because of Stewart it came into the sport a lot sooner that it potentially could’ve.
Our Nige, Il leono or just Mansell. Whatever you call the moustached Brummie you can’t deny that he was a great driver in a very competitive era for F1. On the surface one championship doesn’t seem that impressive when compared to some of the others on this list but when you look at his teammates over the years; Piquet, Prost, Rosberg etc… you start to see why he struggled to get top spot at the end of the season.
The thing that Mansell had in abundance was determination, he never, ever gave up. He definitely drove with his heart and not his head which did help him overall but sometimes cost him at crucial times. Yes, Mansell had some great tactical drives like in Italy in 1991 but these came much later in his career than most of the finest F1 had witnessed.
So is Hamilton better than Mansell ever was? Yes, but not by much. I believe that fact that Hamilton has beaten some of his world champion teammates such as Alonso and Button gives him the edge over Mansell who won his championship while being partnered by Riccardo Patrese, who was a great driver, but never champion material.
Yes, Mansell was unlucky in his career, his tyre blowout in Adelaide in 1986 often springs to mind. But Hamilton has also been unlucky in his career, at times, remember the car failure in Brazil in 2007 that sent him spiraling down the grid? Or the stupid penalty in Belgium in 2008 that could’ve cost him the title?
To summarise, I don’t believe that Hamilton is the best driver we’ve ever produced as a nation but he’s not far off. In F1 I believe that Jim Clark is the best British driver ever and as driver in general it could well be John Surtees or Graham Hill. In terms of their impact on the sport as whole Stewart is unopposed in this regard.
But it’s impossible to definitively compare drivers of completely different eras because the conditions that the two were racing in are totally unique. Nobody can say for sure if Hamilton is better or worse than those who raced in the sixties or the seventies or even the eighties. He can only be compared to those that he’s raced against and truth be told those who he shared a garage with for races. And on the whole he’s beaten all of his teammates.
The common arguments against Hamilton’s status as a great of F1 are largely void. Some say that he’s only won three titles because his car’s been the best but you can say that about every single champion, none of them won races by themselves they all had a good team behind them. Others say that his antics out of the car are disrespectful but that’s irrelevant when it comes to driving ability. When Hamilton retires he will be remembered as one of Britain’s and F1’s greatest ever.
If you disagree with me please feel free to discuss (Tweet me @GeorgeyHowson95) this is the sort of thing us F1 buffs can debate about for hours on end.
But who is the greatest of all time? Well, that’s an article for another day.