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Senna, Schumacher, Lauda. These are the names that come up in any GOAT conversations among Formula 1 fans. But ever since Lewis Hamilton won his 7th title, his name has become a prominent addition to this elite group, albeit begrudgingly in some circles.

So, what makes an athlete or driver the greatest of his generation? Is it sheer dominance over their peers? Is it charisma and impact away from the sport?

This is the case for Lewis Hamilton as the GOAT of Formula 1.

Lewis Hamilton in the early days

Born and raised in Stevenage, Hamilton joined the McLaren Young Drivers Programme in 1998. By 1993, Hamilton was regularly winning cadet kart races, leading to him winning the 1995 British Cadet Championship titles. 

Young Lewis Hamilton at a karting competition

Progressing to Super One class, his continued success attracted the attention of McLaren F1 team manager Ron Dennis, whom three years earlier Hamilton had approached at the Autosport Awards to declare he’d one day race for him. 

At 13, McLaren signed Hamilton to the McLaren Young Driver Programme in a deal with clauses for a future F1 spot. This deal made Hamilton the youngest driver to hold a de facto F1 deal. 

Hamilton made his open-wheel racing debut in 2001 in the Formula Renault Winter Series with Manor Racing, which preceded two full seasons in the main Formula Renault UK Championship, winning the title in 2003. 

Young Lewis Hamilton in race car

This achievement earned him a seat in Manor’s Formula 3 Euro Series team for 2004, Hamilton scoring a win at the Norisring en route to fifth overall. A switch to ASM the following season, however, led to Hamilton dominating with 15 victories in 20 races. 

It was the manner of Hamilton’s performances in a handful of races that especially captured attention, including his win at the Nurburgring despite serving a penalty for speeding in the pitlane and his recovery to second place in Istanbul after a spin that dropped him to 18th. 

Lewis Hamilton takes Formula 1 by storm

His efforts convinced McLaren to make good on its promise and break with tradition by promoting a young rookie into a race seat alongside Fernando Alonso for the 2007 season. 

After just missing out on a sensational title win in his inaugural season, Hamilton went on to clinch the 2008 F1 World Championship with a breath-taking pass against Timo Glock in the last corner of the Brazilian Grand Prix. 

Lewis Hamilton celebrating first F1 championship with Union Jack
Source: Planet F1

Narrowly edging Felipe Massa on home turf, this win made Lewis Hamilton the youngest F1 world champion at the time, aged 23 years and 300 days. 

But after that championship followed a long dry spell of top finishes without landing the big one. It was time to change things.

A high-profile switch to Mercedes in 2013 put Hamilton in a privileged position from 2014 after the German manufacturer emerged with an unbeatable car, thanks to the new V6 turbo hybrid engine era. 

Behind the wheel of what would become F1’s most superior package for much of the next decade, Hamilton clinched six titles in the seven seasons spanning 2014-2020. 

Why fans claim Lewis Hamilton is not the GOAT

Looking back at Lewis Hamilton’s career, he has 7 championship wins to his name. The runners-up in all those title wins were Felipe Massa, Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel, and Valtteri Bottas. Excluding Vettel, who suffered from a deficit in performance with the Ferrari, neither of the other drivers were what anyone would call the elites of the grid.

Lewis Hamilton with Fernando Alonso
Source: Formula Nerds

When Hamilton beat Felipe Messa, drivers like Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, and Robert Kubica were not competitive because they had inferior cars. When he beat Rosberg and Bottas, Mercedes was in a league of its own. And even at that, he lost to Rosberg in 2016 despite being the number 1 driver at Mercedes.

Contrast that with Michael Schumacher beating Damon Hill in 1995 in a Benetton that was slower than the Williams, or Ayrton Senna beating Alain Prost and vice-versa. The difference in the caliber of the opposition becomes apparent.

There is clear evidence of Lewis Hamilton making a massive difference to Mercedes when he joined the team and even at times when the team was in the dumps. 

That, however, pales in comparison to the impact Michael Schumacher had on Ferrari, a team that had not won a title in close to two decades. Or Niki Lauda‘s impact on both Ferrari and McLaren. Or what Alain Prost was able to do with McLaren by guiding the team through multiple regulatory changes. 

“He couldn’t do it without Mercedes.”

For Lewis Hamilton, the greatest decision of his career was to move from McLaren to Mercedes. The move gave the British driver six more world titles to add to the one he already had and, in the eyes of many, elevated him to “GOAT” status. Before the rise of Mercedes, however, Hamilton did not enjoy the accolades of being considered the best driver on the grid.

Lewis Hamilton with Vettel
Source: Eurosport

From 2010 to 2013, Hamilton could not beat either Vettel or Alonso (despite the Spaniard having arguably the inferior car) in the championship standings. During that time, Hamilton even lost to Jenson Button in 2011.

Hamilton was considered an elite driver even before he joined Mercedes. It is, however, fair to say that he was not the gold standard of racing before jumping into a rocketship called Mercedes.

Why Lewis Hamilton should be the GOAT

The first – and to date only – black driver to compete in F1, Hamilton’s record-breaking success on the track makes him one of the world’s best-known and highest-paid athletes. 

Statistically, the Brit is the most successful driver ever, narrowly ahead of Michael Schumacher. The debate has naturally been rife about which of the two was the better driver. 

Lewis Hamilton with Michael Schumacher
Source: Driven

Equalling Michael Schumacher’s record for F1 world championships upon clinching his seventh title in 2020, Hamilton has surpassed the legendary German in several other rankings. 

The 38-year-old has won 103 races, more than anyone in the sport’s history. He also holds the record for most pole positions, most podium finishes, and most laps led. 

These numbers back him as the best of all time — but the numbers don’t tell the full story. Other drivers like Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, and even Sebastian Vettel had a more dominant impact on the sport. But Lewis Hamilton’s impact transcends culture. He is at the forefront of change and advocacy in a sport that frowns on social justice.

His frequent raging against the system has alienated him from fans while endearing him to a vast section of the public that wouldn’t have even cared about car racing.

Lewis Hamilton celebrating with Max Verstappen
Source: The Economic Times

From Alonso, Schumacher, Vettel, and now a new generation of drivers like Verstappen, Hamilton has spent 15 years going against the fiercest of competitors. 

This kind of longevity is at such a high level, year in and year out, is unheard of in Formula 1. Fernando Alonso comes close, but he doesn’t have the accolades to match. Only Schumacher can match Lewis Hamilton in terms of impact, talent, and accomplishments.

Struggling to fit in

But here is where Lewis Hamilton edges every other athlete in the GOAT debate. He had to fight for acceptance from fans.

Despite facing the challenges of a poor black kid living in Stevenage while making his way to the sport, Lewis Hamilton has achieved immense success in F1. What makes his success in this sport significant is that it is, even in its latest iteration, a rich kid’s sport.

There is a reason why F1 still does not have another established black driver on the grid right now, despite Hamilton being there for the last 15 years. It could be racism, a lack of interest, a lack of opportunities, or a combination of all these factors. 

Debunking the Mercedes argument

Another argument against Lewis Hamilton is that he benefited from the rules change and Mercedes’ dominant era. 

Lewis Hamilton holding his head
Source: Motorsport Week

This is a strange argument because no one ever uses it against Vettel for his amazing run for Red Bull Racing. And let’s not forget that Lewis won with McLaren, who weren’t the dominant team at the time. 

Apart from that, Lewis Hamilton has had standout wins multiple times in his career. These were races where he found himself on the back foot, and with the enormity of his talent, he was able to dig himself out of that giant hole and succeed.

Let’s not forget he was teammates with Fernando Alonso and was expected to play second fiddle to the experienced pro. Not even Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, or Michael Schumacher were capable of accomplishing such feats.

Having examined two sides to the coin, it’s hard to deny that the seven-time world champion will surely go down as one of the best to ever do it. By the time he retires, and if he grabs one more championship, Hamilton — Sir Lewis Hamilton — could become the undisputed Formula 1 GOAT.

Who wrote this?

Okpanku has been involved in several disputes that have been brought before the FIFA Tribunal. Additionally, he actively engages in grassroots coaching and strongly advocate for the dynamic nature of football.

Okpanku Chijioke
Okpanku has been involved in several disputes that have been brought before the FIFA Tribunal. Additionally, he actively engages in grassroots coaching and strongly advocate for the dynamic nature of football.

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