OPINION: Why 2018 title was Hamilton's best
Much has been written since the Mexican Grand Prix on the now five-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton and where his achievements place him in the pantheon of the all-time greats of this sport. His numbers are well known and need no repeating here. He stands on the verge of toppling figures that even a decade ago, when he took his first world title, seemed unsurpassable. And yet here we are, with his achievements causing people to ask not only if he is the best of his generation but, perhaps, the best of all time.
It’s an impossible question to answer. Deep down, we all know that. The cars, the tracks, the technology, the rules, the racecraft… creating a list of the all-time greats is so difficult because there is often more to contrast than to compare between the challenges the racers of different generations faced.
There is also no method for an equation that does not exist, for the metric of comparison goes beyond simple maths. There’s feel and soul. And, for the few, the ability to seemingly go beyond what we know to be physically possible. The innate ability to conjure the fantastical. It is what sets these athletes apart. And it is unquantifiable.
Perhaps then, rather than judge Lewis Hamilton against those with whom it is impossible to compare, we should judge him against a far more reasonable barometer: himself. How does his fifth world championship stack up against his first four? How does he, as a racer and a man, compare to the Lewis Hamilton who achieved so much before 2018?
Some would argue that that, too, is an almost impossible distinction to make, for many of the same reasons. The level of competition, the car, the tracks, the length of the season, the rules… those same contrasts that make comparing a Hamilton to a [Juan Manuel] Fangio, a [Michael] Schumacher to a [Jackie] Stewart or a [Ayrton] Senna to a [Jim] Clark make comparing a 2008 Hamilton to a 2018 Hamilton equally as challenging.
I can tell you what I believe, though. I think this was the best version of Hamilton I’ve ever seen.
For the second year in a row, this was the season in which it was all supposed to come good for Ferrari. If there are still those who disbelieve that the scarlet cars were at an early advantage in 2017, there can be next to none who hold that not to be the case in 2018.
From the outset it became clear that if Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton wanted to add another drivers’ title to their haul, it would take possibly the greatest effort of their racing relationship to turn the tide and emerge victorious. And they achieved it, while learning more about themselves in the process than I believe they ever did while trying to manage the civil war between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
The years of championship battles between those two left their scars on both the team and their drivers. Rosberg was so burnt that he left racing altogether. For Hamilton, there was a period of deep reflection. I don’t believe he found it easy to be beaten by Rosberg and that’s because, to my mind, he never saw the German as his equal. All things being level, there was no way that Lewis Hamilton felt that he should or could have been beaten by Nico Rosberg. And when he was, I think it hurt not just his pride but his soul.
He would, I think, go into funks: whole weekends thrown onto the fire because Rosberg had bested him in qualifying or somehow emerged ahead in the race thanks to a strategic play that had seemingly favoured one side of the garage over another.
Those moments seemed to affect him, perhaps in part because of the experiences he’d amassed in his early years in Formula 1, in particular his first season at McLaren. That 2007 season taught him many things, but one of the key traits it embedded in his racing brain, he's suggested, was to trust no one.
Learning to believe and trust in other people again, in particular since Rosberg’s departure, has to my mind been one of the greatest keys in allowing Hamilton to unlock his potential.
His trusted team, both around him personally and within Mercedes, have given him the confidence that, on occasion, seemed to be lacking before. When in 2018, it appeared as though he might fall back into one of his funks, they’ve been there to pull him out. To hold up a mirror and show him what is there.
Lately, it’s something I feel he’s been able to do increasingly for himself.
At about mid-season, we sat down with him at Mercedes’ base in Brackley to record an interview that would become Lewis’ ‘A Letter To My Younger Self’. I had never seen such a level of introspection from him, and it spoke tremendous volumes of the person that he had not only become, but of the one he recognised he once was, and had left behind.
“Pull your shoulders back,” he ordered his decade-younger self. “Have confidence that you deserve to be here.”
That one line, seemingly so innocuous, spoke of an insecurity that had apparently long haunted him, of not feeling connected to the sport he loved. Of feeling like an outsider who did not belong. Despite his success, despite his talent and the adulation that went along with it, his words spoke of the pain with which he had wrestled and, finally, with which he had made his peace.
“You can’t change the past. All you can do is change the future.”
Those low moments, those times of self-doubt and questioning. The weekends when he’d disappeared. Here, for perhaps the first time, was a recognition that what’s done is done. The moment it’s happened is the moment it's over. Both positive and negative, there is no going back. So turn the page. A lesson he showed time and again in 2018.
“Make sure you find time for yourself,” he grinned.
Early on in 2018, Lewis Hamilton’s commitment to Formula 1 was questioned. He was spending too much time in LA with his celebrity friends. Was that him on the new Christina Aguilera single? And what kind of a racing driver has time to launch his own fashion line? He’s either committed or he isn’t. You can’t do all those things and still dedicate yourself to being a racing driver.
Except, as it turns out, you can.
“There’s so much potential in you. More than in anyone else you’re racing against.”
Self-belief like you’ve never seen. It would seem loftily arrogant if there wasn’t at least something to back it up. But again, we’re back to that unquantifiable of comparing racers. Something we never like to do.
Yet when the chips were down and all seemed lost, he seemed to find that something special. That fantastical moment drawn from that place between the possible and the impossible that only the greatest can find.
The pole position laps that left him terrified and shaking, unable to truly grasp how he’d done what he’d done. They’re what I’ll remember the most. The raw emotion and dampness in his eyes as he relived each turn of the wheel, his hands still trembling and his nerves on edge.
The weekends when he was untouchable. The weekends where he turned things round and defied the odds. The weekends when he knew he could have done better. The weekends where he was given something he knew he didn’t deserve.
Through it all, what he wanted more than anything was a fight. A great battle to define what increasingly started to appear to be his season and his title. When his rival Sebastian Vettel was handed a grid penalty in Austin, his reaction on hearing the news wasn’t to celebrate but to be genuinely disappointed that the contest and the scrap he’d been anticipating would not come to pass.
He lives for that fight. He wants it still.
As one of the fortunate few who gets to look into Hamilton’s eyes at moments of defeat and glory, I can say with absolute clarity I don’t think I’ve ever seen him better or stronger. I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed him as calm or as measured, as mature or as masterful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so complete.
And yet, I don’t think he’s anywhere near the finished article. I don’t think he does either.
While this may be the best Lewis Hamilton I’ve ever seen, as someone who has proved himself to have the ability to improve himself at every turn week in, week out, I don’t believe we’ve seen him at his peak.
Not yet. Not even close.