Lewis Hamilton: the driver debates

Lewis Hamilton is hyped to the hilt but just how good is he?

Lewis Hamilton is hyped to the hilt but just how good is he?

Lewis Hamilton is the new Michael Schumacher.

I don’t necessarily mean he’s as complete an F1 driver – but he’s already as controversial. No other active F1 driver excites such polar opposites of emotions and opinions.

A glance at some of the biggest debates we?ve had on this site makes that clear (have a look under the ‘all time’ top posts tab at the top right of the page).

Having already written about why so many people don?t like Hamilton earlier this year, I?d now like to tackle the question of how good he is at driving a Formula 1 car.

Inevitably that?s going to lead of cries from some quarters that he only did so well last year because McLaren gave him preferential treatment over Fernando Alonso. I’m not convinced by this point of view, and in the absence of any proof to support it I?m going to stick to judging Hamilton on the facts.

Preamble over. So, how good is Hamilton?

One of the most startling things about his rookie season was his astonishing consistency in the first half of the year. McLaren gave him a car that was usually capable of being in the top four, and Hamilton was never out of the top three in the first nine races. No other driver in the same period managed that.

At the Nurburgring he had a messy weekend ?ǣ the likes of which we?ve seen more of this year. It started with a wheel failure in qualifying that caused a big crash, but a wrong call on tyres during the race made matters worse.

His mistakes in the final two races ?ǣ failing to pit early enough for tyres at Shanghai, and running wide trying to pass Alonso at Interlagos ?ǣ looked like unforced errors borne of championship pressure. But Alonso and Raikkonen made mistakes that were every bit as bad during the season and, even putting his rookie status to one side, I thought Hamilton drove the better championship campaign.

This year did not begin smoothly for Hamilton: at Sepang he picked up a needless grid penalty and at Bahrain he made a series of mistakes.

Canada should have marked a turn-around as he took pole position by a substantial margin and pulled away at the start. But then came the notorious pit lane crash with Kimi Raikkonen and subsequent penalty for the next round ?ǣ where Hamilton ruined his race before the first lap was over.

But there?s been inspiration as well as desperation. Hamilton has scored the best wins we?ve this year. At a wet Silverstone, even taking Kimi Raikkonen?s strategic error into account, his pace on the soaked circuit was stunning. He dominated in Germany and even a tactical blunder by McLaren couldn?t knock him off course.

If, early in the season, it seemed Hamilton?s approach had become ??win or bust?, he now seems to be tempering his approach as the championship end game approaches. As he admitted recently:

Clearly, I want to win all the time, but I’ve learned that sometimes it’s more advantageous to score as many points as possible and live to fight another day.

My aim is still to win the world championship and you don’t do that by ending up in the barriers after making an opportunistic move.

The lessons of 2007 ?ǣ and, perhaps, Bahrain and Magny-Cours this year ?ǣ have been heeded.

Hamilton has shown himself to be an excellent overtaker ?ǣ at least, in the brief windows of opportunity modern F1 offers for drivers to show their race craft. And his Silverstone win, along with the triumphs at Monaco and Fuji in the last 12 months, mark him out as one of F1?s best wet weather drivers at the moment ?ǣ perhaps the best outright.

At the start of the season many voiced concerns about how McLaren could develop their car quickly enough ?ǣ the feeling being that Alonso had led the team on set-up last year. But Hamilton (and, of course, Heikki Kovalainen) have handled those challenges well.

So just how good is Lewis Hamilton? Ron Dennis reckons that, given Hamilton has only been in F1 a year and a half, he’s the best driver in F1 today:

It amuses me to see these evaluations of drivers because for me you have to take into consideration how long a driver has been in Formula One when you evaluate his performance. For no other reason that puts him top of the heap, he is the best in Formula One at the moment. Take into account how little experience he has had, that’s the bit that gives him the edge.

But putting his lack of experience compared to Raikkonen and Alonso to one side, how well is Hamilton doing?

There is clearly room for improvement in some areas. He has struggled under the kind of pressure drivers like Alonso seem to thrive on and he?s been caught out by the rules at least once too often this year.

But what I think is most telling about Hamilton is this: there are very rarely, if ever, days when he just doesn’t figure. Yes, he’s had crashes and penalties and the like, but we rarely see him qualifying below the top two rows and then toiling around to fourth or fifth – the kind of rut Raikkonen is in at the moment, for example.

In the final reckoning, Hamilton matched a world champion on points last year and edged him on results overall. This year he?s usually been well ahead of Kovalainen. I can understand people not liking him, but I think you have to give him his due: he?s a very good F1 driver. And he?s getting better.

Lewis Hamilton is leading the F1 championship with four wins this year

Lewis Hamilton is leading the F1 championship with four wins this year

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106 comments on Lewis Hamilton: the driver debates

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  1. Journeyer said on 2nd September 2008, 7:52

    Wow! I’ll be the first of possibly a hundred (or more) comments on this thread!

    I’d compare him to how Murray Walker described 1985-spec Ayrton Senna: he makes mistakes from time to time, but at this point, he’s already VERY good. Murray also said something to the effect that it would be scary to see just how good Senna can become at his peak, and the same can be said of Lewis.

    But will he beat Michael’s records? Probably not. He’s not on that level of work ethic – not yet, anyway. But it’ll take Michael-like determination as much as his own God-given talent to become this era’s greatest.

  2. Many drivers started in F1 with a bang: Mika, Michael, Senna, but also Button, Fissi, Webber. The difference is obvious – some continue with the bang, others settle in and dissipate in the mid-pack.

    Only time will tell where is Hamilton. One thing is clear – he’s got what it needs to be a champion, let’s see if he can carry it. I’d say it’s too early to judge.

  3. Skova said on 2nd September 2008, 8:24

    Think Hamilton will probablly brake lots of record’s, but i reckon not Schumachers probablly because Mclaren wont be able to give him such a great car as Michael had for all those years.
    I would sure like it if Hamilton scored the WDC this year but will se because Massa is obviously rasing his game. If Alonso comes to Ferrari and Massa dosen’t have a WDC he will become Barichello.

  4. MarathonMan801 said on 2nd September 2008, 8:27

    Well, he’s either Good, Very Goood or Fantastic.
    Doesn’t matter what you think of his personality or maturity, we’re talking about driving here.
    The second half or this season will help us decide if he’s G or VG. The next two or three seasons will decide if he’s F.
    Ukk’s right. Many drivers start with a bang, but it’s the ability to sustain that effort – perhaps in a season when the car is going against you – that elevates the F from the VG.

  5. Jonesracing82 said on 2nd September 2008, 8:39

    his detractors are from the amount of hype the british press gives him!
    he is good however, just how good? time will tell.
    braking Schumachers records will b tough as he’ll need a top car every year for as long as schumi had, also he most likely wont get #1 status in a team from the start of the season! as schumi had.
    he seems set for a stellar career tho.
    P.S i think if he wins the next wet race you could say he’s the new Reignmeister!

  6. diseased rat said on 2nd September 2008, 8:47

    Many drivers may well start with a bang and then fail to sustain the initial burst but Hamilton is quite clearly not in that group. To compare the “bang” of the arrival of Button or Webber with that of Hamilton borders on the intentionally blind.

    Hamiltons incredible poise under pressure and excellent racecraft put him a cut above all the other drivers on the grid at the moment – with the possible exception of Alonso. I’ve been watching F1 since ’80 and Alonso is the best *driver* I’ve ever seen and Hamilton matched him in his rookie season!

    Raikkonen is a great driver no doubt but he can’t seem to overtake lately (where is the Raikkonen of Suzuka 2005?). Kovalienen is really not performing at the same level considering the equipment he has. Massa is the one who is threatening right now, with Schumachers coaching (and of course Massas own ability) he may well win the WDC.

    Anyway it seems crazy to say lets figure out if he’s good or very good! He is quite self evidently a fantastic driver who has proven himself a master of racecraft if not a master of strategy and the long view. Those latter things will come with experience though.

  7. Rob R. said on 2nd September 2008, 8:57

    “Incredible poise under pressure”?

    Did you forget Interlagos?

  8. Scott Joslin said on 2nd September 2008, 9:00

    I think the Schumacher comparisons are fair. If we look back at Michael’s career he was erratic in his first 2 seasons at Benetton.

    Lewis’s is a stunning driver, I do not care what nationality he is, if he was from out of space I would still be a fan, he gives his maximum every time and that is what I really appreciate and he tries to overtake when ever he can so he is a crowd pleaser too – just what the sport needs.

    His potential downfall could be his life distracting his focus – I hope his new friends Puff Daddy and the Pussy Cat Dolls do not take his focus elsewhere.

    I was at Silverstone this year and witnessed his drive first hand, it looked like he was in a class of his own, even Kimi on the same tyres as Lewis could not match him.

    Consistency is the key for him now to bring home the Championship and you never quiet know if Lewis is in control of a situation, however he has looked better since his troubles at France.

    So what is the biggest threat to Lewis becoming as successful at Schumacher, Prost or Senna?

    Kubica joining Ferrari!!

  9. diseased rat said on 2nd September 2008, 9:01

    Sure, everyone makes mistakes though. Even MS. I stand by that statement given his Rookie season and general racecraft and results.

  10. 02ch36 said on 2nd September 2008, 9:47

    The first line ”Lewis Hamilton is the new Michael Schumacher” itself is not true.How can u compare a legend with one who is just two two years old in F1 without any records to his name?we will get answer to this only when time passes on….I hope even schumi was compared to senna only after a substantial period…

  11. Oliver said on 2nd September 2008, 9:52

    A lot of readers, just want to believe Hamilton has to be the perfect driver to be good. He is human like anyone else and subject the the odd goof. Having said that, he has already shown a great level of confidence and ability that defy his experience at this level of competition.
    I am not one of those who believe he beat Alonso, but under the circumstance in which he found himself, rookie, to be able to match a much more illustrious teammate, someone known for having that extra extra tenth, is worthy of praise indeed.

  12. 02ch36 said on 2nd September 2008, 9:54

    added to the above comment,he is damn lucky to get a super quick car in his rookie season.Can he do it with FORCE INDIA which schumacher did with JORDON..?no way…
    And schumi joined ferrai when it was in a very bad state.He build the team from nowhere to champions ..I dont think so lewis made a contribution to development of Maclaren for its 2007 campaign.Mclaren came from nowhere to close champions.An I hope it is because of a good contribution from alonso…I am sorry if I am wrong..

  13. The Man said on 2nd September 2008, 10:17

    02ch36

    Hamilton and Alonso both came into Mclaren in 2007, unless I’m wrong the teams start building and TESTING cars at least 6 months before the following season and Alonso was still at Renault and Hamilton in GP2.

    Alonso claimed he brought 5 tenths to Mclaren (which might or might not be true) but the fact remains that they got into the car at the same time and had more or less equal time to make the car work for them.

    The ultimate test for any driver in Formula 1 is TIME and in this case as in any other time will tell just how good Hamilton is (and I believe he’s better than the current crop with the possoble exception of Raikkonen and Alonso).

    Someone will break Schumacher’s records at some point and I believe that Hamilton stands an above average chance of doing that, TIME will tell though and in the meantime I am looking forward to some amazing driving.

  14. Journeyer said on 2nd September 2008, 10:24

    02ch36,

    I hope you read the paragraph after the first line. Keith said, “I don’t necessarily mean he’s as complete an F1 driver – but he’s already as controversial. No other active F1 driver excites such polar opposites of emotions and opinions.”

    And that’s a fact we can’t really dispute.

    Just a thought, though: the most controversial drivers were always some of the most successful ones. Look at Schumacher, Senna, and Prost for starters. Niki Lauda, too, was controversial in his time, albeit nowhere near the level of Senna’s or Schumi’s.

  15. yeah i have to agree with #12 here, hamilton is no schumacher… schumi lived and breathed formula 1.

    he knew that car inside out, and pushed the team to get their **** together, when he joined they were a losing outfit and several years later they were an unstoppable championship creating machine.

    he wasn’t always the fastest driver, alonso is just as quick, if not quicker and aggressive like you need to be when he needs to be, schumi was very technical, provided extremely detailed feedback to the team and mastered the car setup.

    in f1 just like karting and most other motorsport, the setup decides how fast your going to be on the day, you could have a great engine, fast driver etc but if you just have a bad balance your not going to be able to use it.

    just look at kubica, good car – can win races, but he cant get the car setup to his driving style, kimi apparently has a similar issue, cant communicate to the team how to set the car up with his driving style and how he wants the car to feel.

    hamilton has been dropped into a very powerful car from day one. every driver in f1 is a great talent, thats why they are in f1, they are all capable of winning races, the car makes lots of difference – alonso is driving the **** out of that renault, making it look faster than it actually is.

    i think the main issue is that hamilton is over-hyped, he’s made lots of mistakes this year already and his car has been perfect, where as ferrari have had reliability and team problems and less driver errors.

    kubica who’s had little driver errors and no team issues is sitting right behind them in the points, 2 behind kimi, if he was behind the wheel of the mclaren this championship would be over already.

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