Lewis Hamilton touched down here in Sochi newly named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.
And, on Sunday in the Russian Grand Prix, the 35-year-old Briton will take a tilt at history, aiming to match the once seemingly unassailable peak of Michael Schumacher’s 91 race wins.
As such, much talk at the Black Sea coast resort centres on who is the greater of the two Formula One giants.
Lewis Hamilton arrived in Sochi named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people
The 35-year-old British driver is aiming to match Michael Schumacher’s (pictured) 91 race wins
It is my contention that Hamilton, on 90 victories and counting, trumps Schumacher for the primary reason that his career is unblemished by dark deeds on the track. Not once, at least to any serious degree, has the six-time world champion acted in an unsporting manner.
He has raced hard. He has given no quarter. But never has he sullied his reputation in the act of desperate destruction of a rival, a claim that cannot be made for the brilliant German who, so sadly, is still convalescing from the terrible skiing accident he suffered in the French Alps nearly seven years ago.
Schumacher, of course, is revered across the world and was much loved by his team-mates at Ferrari’s one-horse town of Maranello especially, but also at Benetton, where he won the first two of his seven titles, and then at Mercedes on his ill-fated return from his first retirement.
He is a family man. Behind his austere exterior, he is a sensitive soul and the caring private individual who was the leading benefactor to the original tsunami appeal. He was also lightning quick, a master in the wet. But the litany of his racing crimes counts against him even as we acknowledge that he was the best of his time.
The black marks are well documented. He won the first of his World Championships in 1994 by punting into Damon Hill’s Williams during the closing race in Adelaide. I asked Hill about that on Friday.
‘Adelaide,’ he mused. Is the memory painful? ‘Remind me again, Adelaide, have I ever been there?’ he said, jokingly, hiding away the lingering bitter doubts of his feelings.
Then, in 1997, Schumacher tried unsuccessfully to drive Jacques Villeneuve off the track in Jerez, Spain. He was disqualified from the championship — the first and only time this has happened — and lost second place in the standings as an embarrassing outcome.
And I shall never forget that febrile evening at Monaco in 2006 when he was sent to the back of the grid for deliberately stalling on the racing line to deprive Fernando Alonso, again ultimately without success, of pole position.
‘A cheap cheat,’ opined Keke Rosberg, 1982 world champion.
Hamilton is not, of course, entirely robed in the clothes of virtue. Young and under pressure from a McLaren team feeling picked upon by the FIA in the wake of the Spygate scandal of the previous years, he lied to the stewards in Melbourne in 2009 about handing back a place.
And, in perhaps his lowest moment, he tweeted the telemetry of his then McLaren team-mate Jenson Button in a fit of pique. Paranoia tugged at him then as it has at other turns. But, ironically, given that Hamilton’s boyhood hero was Ayrton Senna, it was Schumacher who emulated the Brazilian’s frenzied win-at-all-cost knee-cappings. Not Lewis.
Schumacher, of course, is revered across the world and was much loved by his team-mates
Of course, you could almost cut in half the history of F1 and danger. Carbon fibre chassis in the mid-Eighties brought something of an end to the ‘lethal era’.
Those who went before risked too much to trivialise their conduct by risking their lives and those of others by stooping low.
There were exceptions and Nino Farina, the first world champion, was one, most notably before the Second World War. ‘He could play very dirty,’ said Sir Stirling Moss, that most imperishable of sportsmen. Most of the others, many very fine racers and a few true greats, such as John Surtees, Graham Hill, Sir Jackie Stewart, Denny Hulme, Emerson Fittipaldi and Niki Lauda wore code-of- honour laurels. Sir Jack Brabham was a fraction less pure, being prone to throw up a few stones in the faces of his rivals.
‘Michael and Lewis could not be more different as personalities and in their approach to racing,’ Damon Hill told me. ‘They are not the same creatures at all, except in that they were or are incredibly competitive. Their approaches to everything are different.
Schumacher won the first of his World Championships in 1994 by punting into Damon Hill
‘Yes, they have the same talents — reflexes, the things they are adapted for. But in terms of creativity, Lewis is more of an artist. He is more instinctive.
‘Michael was quite austere in his persona, quite icy. When he entered the paddock it was the look of a man who meant business. Lewis is a much warmer person and shows his vulnerability as well. When it came to racing those traits are or were borne out. I am struggling to bring to mind an aggressive move Lewis has made. I can’t think of many.
‘He’s a tough racer. There were a few punch-ups with Nico Rosberg. But you don’t get the impression that he is cut-throat.
‘But with Michael, you would be wary of him, more so than with Lewis. They are cut from different cloths. I never thought I’d see anyone reach Michael’s tally of Grand Prix wins. I don’t think anybody did. I don’t think it is comprehensible.
Hamilton (left) lied to the stewards in Melbourne in 2009 about handing back a place
‘Lewis acts as if he is unaware of Michael’s records but I don’t buy that for a minute. He has held the records in his mind for a long time and now we are seeing the last pages of this story.’
Hamilton has attracted criticism — sometimes here — for spreading himself thinly and, as we feared, jeopardising his career.
He is into fashion, music, the red carpet. But we now have to accept he has protected his talent by the breadth of his ‘distractions’. They have given him a release and extended his longevity.
In contrast, Schumacher was worn out by 2006, when Ferrari, unable to get a quick and unequivocal answer as to whether he wanted to sign a new deal, paid the earth to Kimi Raikkonen instead and announced their greatest champion’s departure on the day he celebrated the penultimate of his 91 glories, at Monza.
Hamilton’s ‘distractions’ have given him a release and extended his longevity in Formula One
‘Lewis has nurtured and nursed his talent,’ added Hill. ‘He has a clear understanding of how he works and he can deliver more than anyone else I have seen.
‘Senna pushed himself to extremes and beyond, possibly. Others put too much pressure on themselves. Lewis hasn’t. He has measured himself out. He’s kept the enjoyment and the motivation factor. There have been difficult times but he has not made it any harder than it needed to be.
‘He still seems fresh. His performances recently have been mind-blowing. Look at his qualifying lap in Mugello a couple of weeks ago. And his performance in Spa — turning that great track into a car park.’ In a book ranking the greatest Formula One drivers, the journalist and sage Alan Henry put Schumacher 11th.
It was published just after Hamilton’s emergence.
In contrast, Schumacher was worn out by 2006, when Ferrari signed Kimi Raikkonen
The young Englishman was ranked 31st — a bold claim at the time. Henry chided Schumacher for demanding outright No 1 status in the team and pointed at his aberrations. Yet 11th was too harsh.
Also, Henry worked out that Schumacher ran off track over a race weekend more than any other of the greats — in one season, at every grand prix weekend. It was another mark down.
Lewis’s mistakes are rare indeed. He is an artist, as Hill says. So by inches, he stands above the stricken legend he will equal soon, possibly as early as Sunday.
Russian Grand Prix practice and qualifying, on Saturday from 9.45am LIVE on Sky Sports F1; race on Sunday from 12.05pm.
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