Lewis Hamilton is right when he says “it is impossible to compare” the greats of Formula One’s origins to those of the last 20 years. When the landscape of F1 has changed so much, along with the dangers posed, the drivers of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are vastly different to those of today.
Sunday’s Eifel Grand Prix winner was prompted into the admission after being offered Sir Jackie Stewart’s latest claim that the six-time world champion does not feature in his top-three drivers of all time, despite equalling Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 Grand Prix victories at the weekend.
Hamilton will almost certainly match the German’s seven world titles by the end of the 2020 season too, which will leave him few records left to break in the sport. He has six races left this season to move on the record number of victories that Schumacher has held since 2006, while he has already eclipsed Ayrton Senna’s record of pole positions. He still has some way to go before catching Schumacher’s 77 fastest laps (Hamilton sits second with 51), but not even the toughest critic would leave the 35-year-old out of the conversation when discussing the great F1 drivers.
However, when it comes to the best of the best, three-time world champion Stewart is adamant that Hamilton isn’t a patch on the drivers who blazed the trail for those that followed.
“I don’t think that you can account (for) the sort of level of success. Just because today there are 20, 22 races,” Stewart said last week, to some controversy.
“Juan Manuel Fangio, in my mind, is the greatest driver that’s ever lived, with Jim Clark as the second greatest, even ahead of (Ayrton) Senna. Those people only raced maybe sometimes six to eight or nine races a year in Formula One.
“They were driving sports cars, GT cars etc. But the world championship now, Lewis or any of the other top contenders today, are doing 22 races or 21 races, but only in Formula One, not in touring cars, not in GT cars, not in IndyCars nor in Can-Am cars, so therefore, you can’t really compare.”
Stewart has a point when it comes to Fangio. The Argentine is regularly forgotten from modern-day discussion, but not so long ago it was his world championship tally that Schumacher was aiming for. His five titles came in eight years between 1951 and 1957, considerably shorter than it took Hamilton or Schumacher, in a sport that did not come to exist until Fangio himself was 39 years old. To this day, Fangio holds the best win ratio for races entered, with his record of 46.15 per cent considerably more than Hamilton’s 34.87 per cent that puts him third behind Alberto Ascari (39.39 per cent).
Those days were very different – fewer races, fewer drivers, and fewer winners – but the risks were much more real, with four drivers killed in the 1950s that highlighted the risks posed even before F1’s ‘killer years’ arrived in the next two decades.
But Hamilton clearly took exception to Stewart’s jibe, which followed recent criticism from another former world champion in Mario Andretti for his current fight against racism within the sport. “I get knocked by many people, particularly by older drivers,” responded Hamilton. “They have a bee in their bonnet and I don’t know why. Who knows, one day they may get over it.
“I have so much respect for the past legends, even though they do continue to speak negatively about me all the time.”
Stewart’s comments did not appear to be personally motivated, although Hamilton appears to be running out of patience with being put down by past champions, but when it comes to discussing the greatest the sport has ever seen, the lines will always be blurred.
It is impossible to compare drivers from different generations, but it should not be the case that the drivers of today cannot be mentioned in that conversation simply because the sport is safer, or teams have moved to protect their investments by preventing them from competing in other categories. Stewart’s point that drivers back in the 1950s and 1960s had fewer chances to win also works in the opposite direction, that for today’s world champions they have to be better, for longer. Of course they have more wins, but they also have more chance of being beaten, and in Hamilton’s case it still doesn’t happen very often.