If you’re a fan of Formula One racing, you know Lewis Hamilton. Even if you’re not a fan, you probably know him. If you’ve shown any loose interests in sports in general, chances are you’ve heard or read his name, somewhere, at some point. He has been that dominant, lording over the Formula One field for more than a decade.
To that end, debating where he stands relative to his current competitors has officially become pointless. It has been for a while. Everyone just assumes he’s going to win the championship each and every year, not by the skin of his teeth, but in a landslide.
Presently 35, Hamilton’s reign isn’t expected to end anytime soon. Even sportsbooks are hedging against his dominance. He was the odds-on favorite to win the 2020 F1 Championship by one of the widest margins in history.
This cannot be taken lightly. Charles Leclerc, a driver for Ferrari, is widely considered the closest thing Hamilton has to a peer right now—and even he isn’t considered to have a practical shot at the F1 title so long as Hamilton remains at or near his peak.
But while Hamilton’s place among his fellow F1 drivers is an open-and-shut case, his historical profile is less of a sure thing. That’s not an insult, by the way. Rather, it speaks to the profound, complex questions that are being asked about his still-ongoing legacy: Is he the best Formula One driver of all time?
Hamilton’s feats as a member of the Mercedes team speak for themselves. He debuted in 2007. Since then, he’s amassed 84 wins and 151 podium finishes. That’s absolutely mind-melting. Think of it this way: Hamilton has 250 career stars under his belt. He effectively wins races in which he participates 34 percent of the time. And he secures a top-three finish or better more than 60 percent of the time. He has also recorded 47 fastest laps during his time on the circuit—a ridiculously high number, for those who may not know.
And then there’s Hamilton’s coup de grace: His F1 World Championship victories. He has six to his name, including each of the past three and five of the past six: 2008, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Those anticipating a seventh—and fourth consecutive—championship aren’t alone. They’re in the majority. They’ll also have to wait and see when Hamilton gets back on the track. The coronavirus pandemic has impacted live sports action pretty much anywhere, and no one quite knows when motorsports, including F1, are going to return.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t much matter to Hamilton’s legacy. He could never drive another race, and he would still be in the greatest-of-all-time discourse. Granted, it would still help if he could break the record for career F1 victories. His 84 wins leave him seven shy of Michael Schumacher’s watermark of 91 (and seven world titles)—a touchstone Hamilton, who already owns the F1 all-time record for podium finishes, is almost destined to beat if he continues racing for the foreseeable future.
Again, though, Hamilton’s greatest-of-all-time stock is no longer tightly tethered to his outcomes on the track. The one-man dynasty he’s built says all it can. Any other statistical bumps are merely cherries atop the ice cream sundae that is his highly decorated career.
What really separates Hamilton in the best-ever discussion is the extent to which he has transcended the sport he dominates. He is a cultural icon in one of the most difficult periods for professional athletes.
Social media has lent itself to an always-on culture, which is at once a gift and a curse. Every athlete, including Hamilton, is a brand. This helps the best of the best get seriously paid—Hamilton has made nearly $500 million for his career as of February 2019, according to Forbes—but it also opens them to relentless, constant criticism. And this scrutiny isn’t specific to their profession. It spills into their personal lives. Everything they do is a headline. Every mistake they make is a misstep not only to be learned from, but to be publicized and politicized and used as a catch-all verdict on their value as both an athlete and human being.
Hamilton has navigated this part of his job description masterfully. And while numbers enthusiasts are quick to throw away more subjective arguments, his character has to be part of his resume. He has invited, maybe even created, a whole new subset of Formula One fans, in large part because they can relate to his background, and because he’s been willing to speak out on issues that journey beyond his sport.
That burden he carries, as both a cultural and racing icon, cannot be dismissed or downplayed. It is one so few athletes have had to bear, and it is one even fewer have embraced. Michael Jordan, widely considered one of the five most famous athletes of all time, was definitively apolitical during the prime of his basketball career. He was at once accessible—to fans, to media members—and wore a cloak of armor. He was candid without always revealing anything.
This doesn’t make MJ any less of an icon. Hamilton is just a different sort of icon, at a time when it’s much harder to be a universally revered one.
Between that and the list of on-track accomplishments that so obviously, so loudly, so decidedly speak for themselves, the question of whether Hamilton is Formula One’s greatest of all time isn’t really a question. He is.