Formula 1's greatest drivers. Number 15: Lewis Hamilton

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F1's greatest drivers - Number 15, Lewis Hamilton

BBC Sport is profiling 20 of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time. The BBC F1 team were asked to provide their own personal top 20s, which were combined to produce a BBC list.

Chief F1 writer Andrew Benson profiles number 15 - Lewis Hamilton - while Murray Walker gives his own recollections in the video above.

When Lewis Hamilton burst onto the Formula 1 scene in 2007, taking on and often beating the reigning world champion Fernando Alonso in equal cars, in Italy they gave him the nickname 'Il Phenomeno' - the Phenomenon.

As a description of his naked talent, that remains as accurate as ever. But an altogether more complex picture of this fascinating, thrillingly brilliant racing driver has emerged since.

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Lewis Hamilton's classic F1 - Monaco Grand Prix 2008

In terms of raw ability, very few in the history of F1 can compare with Hamilton. He can do with a racing car things of which most can only dream. As his current team-mate at McLaren Jenson Button put it: "Lewis is one of the fastest drivers ever to race in F1."

Coupled with that breathtaking pace is an ability to overtake that is just as rare, just as dazzling.

Both were on display from the very start of his F1 career, when he passed Alonso around the outside of the first corner in Australia in 2007 and proceeded to lead the Spaniard for much of the grand prix, before being passed during a pit-stop period.

What Hamilton achieved in that debut year still beggars belief; he finished on the podium for his first nine races, winning two of them, and led the championship for much of the season.

In doing so, Alonso was destabilised to the point that his relationship with McLaren completely imploded - and the pressure created by two such towering talents in one organisation almost brought the team to its knees, too.

The intensity of the battle led also to the world title slipping through Hamilton's fingers - and with it the chance to win the championship in his rookie year, a record that would almost certainly have stood for ever.

He - and Alonso, for that matter - ended up missing out by a single point. It was nevertheless clear that a unique talent had arrived.

Even the very best drivers have weaknesses, though, and Hamilton is no exception.

In Hamilton's case, his natural talent is so great that he can drive almost any car; perhaps this is partly behind what appears to be less of an aptitude for the engineering side of his job than some of his team-mates have had.

There were in 2007, for example, times when he failed to get the set-up of his car right and Alonso's greater ability in that area enabled him to leave Hamilton trailing. Likewise, McLaren have tended to lean more on Button in recent years for an engineering direction than on his team-mate.

There have also been noticeable occasions when Hamilton's results were compromised by an apparent need sometimes to lean on the team for decisions a driver of his greatness should have been able to make himself.

The most striking of these - although there have been others - was in the penultimate race of 2007 in China. Hamilton needed only to finish third to clinch the title, but McLaren allowed themselves to be distracted by the unnecessary task of getting him to finish ahead of Alonso.

They left him out too long on over-worn tyres, Hamilton did not overrule them, and he ended up sliding off into retirement on his way into the pits. It was an error that put Kimi Raikkonen in a position to snatch the title for Ferrari at the final race.

Hamilton did win the championship the following year, but only by the skin of his teeth after making far too many mistakes in a battle with Ferrari's Felipe Massa.

He followed that with two outstanding seasons in which his driving was of the highest calibre, but his machinery did not match it.

In 2009, which McLaren started with their worst car for 14 years, he stuck with it and took two brilliant victories as his machinery improved in the second half of the season.

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Classic F1 - Brazilian Grand Prix 2008

The following year he was even better, in serious contention for the championship in what was generally the third fastest car until errors in two consecutive races in Italy and Singapore took him out of the running.

But then came 2011, when the combination of starting another year without a car capable of battling for the title coupled with ructions in his personal life brought him close to meltdown.

There were three victories - the ones in China and Germany particularly outstanding - but also far too many basic mistakes.

Hamilton ended the year talking about it being his "worst season" and admitting a need to reset his approach over the winter and try to get back to being in "a good place" mentally.

As those remarks attest, Hamilton tended through the first five years of his career to wear his heart on his sleeve.

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Classic F1 - Canadian Grand Prix 2007

Just as his daring and combative approach on the track lost him races as well as won them, his willingness to say what was on his mind attracted admiration and trouble in equal measure.

In 2012, he has so far taken a more measured approach - both on the track and with the media.

After finishing third in Malaysia following a comparatively subdued drive in mixed conditions one might have thought were made for him, Hamilton made a remark that was very revealing of his new attitude.

"I can't for the life of me understand how I did it in 2007," he said, explaining his ambition to finish on the podium in every race this year, "so I'm trying to repeat that."

The difference is that in 2012 he is trying to recreate with deliberation something that came naturally in 2007.

It remains to be seen whether that conscious conservatism can be married successfully with the unique off-the-cuff improvisational approach that makes him so exciting and, at his best, so effective.

As he told this writer this year: "I never plan to have those kinds of races, they just evolve unexpectedly."

When they do, when he is at his best, it unlocks something truly exceptional - Hamilton has produced drives that stand comparison with any in the history of the sport.

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Classic F1 - British Grand Prix 2008

His wet-weather wins in Fuji 2007, Silverstone 2008 and Spa 2010 were as good as any by Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher; his swashbuckling victories in Canada 2010 and China and the Nurburgring last year are comparable with those of other great fighters such as Gilles Villeneuve or Nigel Mansell.

Asked in Canada last year whether he compared himself to Schumacher, he responded by saying he hoped by the end of his career he would be likened more to Senna and Villeneuve.

In many ways, the comparison is already valid. Hamilton's natural ability is so huge that, if he can find a way to channel it to best effect, there are virtually no limits to what he can achieve.

Number 16 - Nelson Piquet

Number 17 - Emerson Fittipaldi

Number 18 - Jack Brabham

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