FORMULA 1

Lewis Hamilton joins F1 legends by doing it his way and not by imitation | Richard Williams | Sport

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As Lewis Hamilton has just discovered, five is a magical number in motor racing. It means one thing and one thing only. It is the number of times Juan Manuel Fangio won the drivers’ world championship in Formula One between 1951 and 1957. For almost half a century, that feat looked as likely to be equalled as Don Bradman’s Test average. Like the Australian genius, the Argentinian maestro enjoyed an eminence setting him apart not just from his contemporaries but from those who preceded and those who followed his era.

Then along came Michael Schumacher, who rewrote every significant record – number of pole positions (68), number of race wins (91), number of championships (seven) – except one. Between 1991 and 2012, Schumacher started 306 grands prix, and won 29.74% of them. An impressive figure but it cannot compare with Fangio’s figure of 24 wins from 51 races, giving an average of 41.38%.

So statistics are fun but they do not tell the story. They do not describe the conditions in which Fangio raced, in death-trap cars on circuits lined with trees, ditches and houses, wearing highly flammable cotton shirts and trousers and eggshell helmets made of layers of linen soaked in shellac. In those days, racing drivers were like Spitfire pilots. Every time they went out, there was a good chance someone – probably one of their close friends, because that is the way drivers were then – would not come back.

Which is not to minimise anything Schumacher did in terms of his sheer brilliance as a driver. And that is the point. To see him taking his Ferrari through Silverstone’s Copse Corner flat out in top gear was just as thrilling an experience as anything to be seen in Fangio’s era. The conditions in which the drivers work today are very different but the job requirements – courage, naturally, but also skill, commitment and a freakish level of spatial and sensory awareness – are much the same. And whereas Fangio raced at a time when the season consisted only of seven or eight races, Schumacher was required to gear himself up for 20 races a year plus a schedule of endless development work.

So it is with Hamilton, whose fifth title, secured in Mexico City on Sunday, put him level with Fangio and two behind Schumacher. It was good to see the British driver acknowledge the statistical significance of his achievement by showing respect for the man with whom he shares the number five; his years with Mercedes-Benz, where Fangio won two of his titles, will not have left him in ignorance of the great Argentinian’s unique standing.


‘It doesn’t feel real’: Lewis Hamilton claims fifth F1 world title – video

Hamilton has 71 victories from 227 races, giving him a winning radio of 31.28%. He recently signed a new contract with Mercedes covering the next two seasons, by the end of which he will have had 42 chances to overtake Schumacher’s total of wins – another statistic that once seemed impregnable. But if he passed that mark, would it make him greater than Schumacher? Is he now as great as Fangio, greater than the other virtuosos like Senna or Clark, Stewart or Ascari, Prost or Moss (who won no championships at all)? Such arguments across the eras are fun. They are also nonsensical.

In my experience, your average armchair Formula One fan finds it hard to see the real Hamilton. Many of those with a much closer view, the people who populate the grand prix paddock, had a similar problem when he first appeared. His mixed-race background made him an object of curiosity but when he started wearing diamond ear studs and bringing his rapper friends into the pits there was a distinct feeling he was not, to put it crudely, One Of Us. The 2011 season, in which he let his emotional life undermine his concentration, left an impression of surliness.

But to have been the Jack Johnson (first black world heavyweight champ), the Althea Gibson (first black Wimbledon champion), the Frank Worrell (first black captain of West Indies) or the Viv Anderson (first black footballer to play for England) of what was previously a very white sport imposed its own pressures. In one sense that achievement is arguably more significant than whatever statistics end up next to his name.

It is equally important to recognise he did it by being himself. Rather than imitating the cultural norms of the world in which he has excelled, he has explored his interest in rap music and fashion design, forging ahead with plans that may lead him to a productive second career after racing, rather than ending up, as so many do, back in the paddock holding a TV microphone.

In another way, however, he is a throwback. As a child he idolised Ayrton Senna but without absorbing the sense of entitlement that trashed a code of etiquette formulated when the drivers had each other’s lives in their hands. Unlike some contemporaries who also fell under the Brazilian’s spell, he tends not to drive into other people when he fails to get his own way. He is a scrupulously clean driver as well as a superlatively fast one, the years having tempered his natural aggression with the maturity that lay behind his decision to let Max Verstappen take the lead into the first corner in Mexico, knowing a collision with the hot-headed young Dutchman would defer his chance of taking the title.

There are many things to dislike about modern Formula One, but – for this and other reasons – Lewis Hamilton is not among them. The greatest of all time? He is a champion of champions and that is quite enough.

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