Jolyon Palmer column: Lewis Hamilton's record - and plenty more to come

By Jolyon PalmerFormer Renault driver
Jolyon Palmer

Former F1 driver Jolyon Palmer, who left Renault during the 2017 season, is part of the BBC team and offers insight and analysis from the point of view of the competitors.

Lewis Hamilton broke Michael Schumacher's all-time Formula 1 win record in emphatic style at the Portuguese Grand Prix, with the biggest winning margin seen this season.

It was a fitting way to do it - Hamilton caught and passed team-mate Valtteri Bottas as if the Finn was a midfielder rather than in the same car, and pulled out more than 25 seconds by the flag.

This was no tactical play like we've seen in other races, when Hamilton has been managing gaps behind and nursing tyres. It was a flat-out demonstration of strength in which Hamilton breezed to a Portimao hat trick - pole, win and fastest lap.

Hamilton was in a different league from Bottas in Portugal - as he has been so often over most of his rivals in his career. It's this innate talent that has led to his success, and the question everybody inevitably has is 'what makes Hamilton so good?'.

A blinding natural talent

The first thing is clearly a natural talent that is relatively unrivalled through history.

The skill in driving an F1 car to the brink of its limit is all in the feel for grip, and this is what Hamilton has demonstrated in abundance through the years.

Some of Hamilton's early wins were extraordinary in this way, and he has shown his ability to beat the best in difficult circumstances right from his rookie year in 2007.

As the title battle was coming to a head that year, Hamilton and McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso went to the Japanese GP at Fuji closely matched at the top of the championship.

Alonso is someone who I - and pretty much everybody in the F1 paddock - would rate as one of the sport's great drivers. But in the same car, on the same day, in treacherous conditions, rookie Hamilton drove away from the Spaniard, strolling to a brilliant win, while Alonso crashed out of second place trying to keep pace.

It was the first of many mesmerising drives from Hamilton in the wet, where he outclassed all his rivals to win, when grip level is low and the stakes are high.

At Silverstone in 2008, there was another, as he took his first British GP win by well over a minute in the pouring rain. In Brazil in 2016, the wettest, most treacherous race I've ever driven in, Hamilton breezed away from his title challenger Nico Rosberg to win.

It has carried on throughout his career. Think of Singapore in 2017 when fighting with Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel for the title. And even more impressively Germany in 2018, winning in the damp, mixed conditions from 14th on the grid.

These races have shown how good Hamilton is at feeling out grip, driving the car absolutely on the limit of it, while dealing with the extremities of title-challenging pressure.

This is the basis for pace in general in a racing car.

In dry conditions, there is less of a spread between the best and the rest, as the variance in grip is so low.

But the innate feeling a driver has through his body to pick the optimum brake point and pressure, turn in at the perfect amount to keep the car balanced, and pick up the throttle to the limit of grip while avoiding wheel spinning on exits remain the same.

Ayrton Senna showed this level of skill to mark himself out as a great in times gone by, and Max Verstappen is showing it now, too, albeit without the pressures of being in a title battle. But the consistency with which Hamilton delivers is what is just so impressive. He barely ever gets it wrong, when everybody around falters.

Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton is 77 points ahead of Valtteri Bottas in the drivers' championship

And there could have been more

Hamilton should have won the title in 2007, but for getting stuck in the Shanghai gravel in the penultimate race after McLaren left him out too long on worn tyres.

The following year could have been simpler, too, had Hamilton not crashed into Kimi Raikkonen in the pit lane in Canada.

If he hadn't crashed into Felipe Massa in Monza or Mark Webber in Singapore in 2010, he could have been world champion then, too.

In reality, Hamilton already could have the eight titles that would break the other all-time record he is sure to beat this season.

But since his move to Mercedes Hamilton seems to have cut out mistakes almost entirely.

He will win that seventh title this year, meaning six of his seven have come with the German marque, in his most recent dominant years. While it speaks volumes of Mercedes' dominance as a team, it also shows how strong Hamilton has been.

When Hamilton embarked on his 2014 season, it was Vettel who was a four-time champion and was eyeing up most of Schumacher's records, having won his titles in a row and become the youngest race winner and champion in the process.

But since then Hamilton has turned the form book around, helped by a faster car for periods, but also far more chiselled performances.

Vettel could have won the title in 2017 and 2018 had it not been for mistakes, but Hamilton's pace and consistency meant he not only won them, but won them with races in hand, even when Ferrari had possibly a faster car and a multiple world champion at the wheel.

It's not just about his car

Of course, there will be doubters who say Hamilton's success is largely down to the car.

Undoubtedly Hamilton would not have broken Schumacher's record if he had been driving anything but a Mercedes since 2014, and he certainly would not be a six-going-on-seven-time champion in another car.

I do think, though, that he could have won titles for Ferrari where Vettel faltered, and, who knows, perhaps in a Red Bull this year he could be challenging as well. After all, Verstappen is only 17 points behind Bottas in the standings, despite having a few reliability woes this season.

But being in the best car is what F1 is all about. It's a team sport, which is focused almost entirely on the drivers, the lynchpins of the team.

For those saying Hamilton has only won in the best car, it is hard to deny, but think back to the other greats as well, because the same applies.

Senna's McLaren was a monster in the late 80s and early '90s, arguably more dominant than even Mercedes' 2020 masterpiece. Schumacher built up his enormous records, by driving in another of Formula 1's dominant eras - the Ferrari team of the early 2000s.

The best drivers find their way to the best cars and become dominant forces. It is what we have seen before and it is what we are seeing now.

Where will it end?

Hamilton will be 36 at the start of next season, but we are seeing drivers going longer and longer at the top of their game right now. Just look at Kimi Raikkonen still going strong at 41, and Alonso making a comeback next year, when he will turn 40.

Despite interests in music and fashion, as well as a growing interest in politics and world affairs, Hamilton is showing little sign of slowing down or stopping any time soon.

After Schumacher moved past the previous record holder Alain Prost in 2001, he added another 40 victories before he retired for the first time.

In the same way, Hamilton does not look even close to the end of his career.

Right now he is the most celebrated driver in history terms of Grand Prix wins on 92, but it's tough to imagine he won't breeze past 100 and beyond in the future.

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