Already established as Britain’s greatest Formula One driver, Lewis Hamilton has ascended another peak in his sport. Victory at the Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in Germany on Sunday means Hamilton has equalled Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 race wins, an achievement that would not even have registered as fantasy when Hamilton began his career in 2007.
Hamilton’s march to this remarkable achievement has been impossible to ignore. The 35-year-old remains the only black driver in F1 and is by some distance its most recognisable global star. He has pursued success with a relentless dedication that has seen him hone a virtuoso, natural talent into a precision tool he now wields without parallel in the sport.
In amassing the 91 wins over 14 seasons in F1, Hamilton has developed as perhaps the complete F1 driver. He was 22 when he made his debut for McLaren, and his impact was immediate. Teamed with double world champion Fernando Alonso, the boy from Stevenage issued a statement of intent on which he would go on to deliver. He took five podium places in succession that year before securing his first win at the Canadian GP, beginning the journey that has placed him alongside Schumacher.
“I grew up watching Michael win all those grands prix and I couldn’t even fathom equalling him,” Hamilton said following victory on Sunday. “Getting to F1 was the first step of the dream but Michael was just so far ahead, it’s beyond my wildest dreams to be here today having equalled him. I feel really humbled by the moment.”
Schumacher is still in recovery from the skiing accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury in 2013 and in a touching moment post race, the passing of the mantle was marked by his son Mick, himself a driver hoping to enter F1 next season, presenting Hamilton with one of his father’s race helmets.
Hamilton’s determination and commitment had been clear since he was a child. Aged 10 he approached the then McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis, and told him he wanted to drive for him. Three years later Dennis signed him to the McLaren young driver programme when he was 13.
What followed was a display of mercurial talent. He almost took his first championship in that debut season and duly did so a year later. Despite McLaren not boasting the quickest car in the ensuing years Hamilton repeatedly delivered. Alongside the records he already holds, that of most pole positions and most podium places scored, Hamilton is the only driver to have taken a win in every season in which he has competed.
Perhaps the most crucial moment came when he struck out from McLaren to join Mercedes in 2013. The team were unproven and his decision was widely criticised. It proved inspired. Mercedes have gone on to dominate the sport since 2014, during which time Hamilton has won five of six championships. He has taken 70 wins with Mercedes and the one year he was beaten, by his teammate Nico Rosberg, mechanical failure played a key part in his defeat.
At the Nurburgring the sheer scale of his achievement was hard to take in, even for the Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, who has been alongside Hamilton at the team since 2013. “It is unbelievable that Lewis has reached those 91 wins,” he said. “For me Michael is an icon and equalling that record is almost surreal.”
He has benefitted from Mercedes having such a strong car but it would be simplistic and belittling to dismiss his success as a product merely of machinery. He has raced in the same cars across his career with three world champions, Alonso, Jenson Button and Rosberg and beaten all of them. Recently he took two titles in a straight fight with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, a four-time championship winner who had the quicker car for much of both seasons.
Hamilton has taken these cars and allied them to a relentless pursuit of improvement and an ability to repeatedly deliver flawless performances. Schumacher’s greatest record, that of seven titles, is now within his grasp and he will close it out in the forthcoming races.
Crucially, Hamilton represents more than just record numbers in F1. He has achieved the feat with a rigorous adherence to driving fairly, exhibiting a tough but fair sportsmanship praised by other drivers. He has also risen to hold great influence. This season his strident commitment to anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter movement has made him a figurehead in and outside the sport and a role model bringing a new generation to follow and compete in F1.