From this point onward, Lewis Hamilton is in virgin territory. Nobody in the history of Formula One has won more than 91 grands prix in a career, but right now there is no telling how far he might go.
For the past six years he has averaged more than 10 wins a season, so extend that average over another two or three years with a dominant Mercedes team and you’re already over 110 and knocking on 120.
But don’t fall into the trap of thinking such a milestone is in any way guaranteed.
Just as his 91 victories to date were a result of a serious dedication to his craft, continuing the winning streak beyond 100 will require new levels of performance to be unlocked. As the old saying goes: stand still in Formula One and you go backwards.
Far too often Hamilton’s win record is attributed to his car rather than his talent and work ethic. It’s a lazy assumption based on a lack of understanding about both the driver and his sport.
“I’ve read that and in my opinion, that’s not quite fair,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said when asked about the subject. “Winning races and winning championships in this sport is always a team exercise but you need to put yourself in a position that you end up in the best car.
“You can see lots of talents and skilled drivers took wrong decisions, or not well-advised decisions and in that respect it was him who joined Mercedes in 2013 and it is him that sits in the car and is able to execute on track with the tools that we provide to him, but it’s always the two that are part of this.
“We couldn’t achieve the records that we have [without him] and he probably couldn’t achieve the records without the right car and full stop.
“I don’t want to allow these voices that say ‘well he drives a Mercedes, it’s obvious that he wins these races’.
“The drivers who say that, they should try and analyse why they haven’t found their way into a Mercedes.”
Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin has worked with Hamilton since 2013 and sees first-hand what he has brought to it. He was also Michael Schumacher’s race engineer at Mercedes between 2010 and 2012, so he knows a thing or two about what how the very best drivers stand apart from the rest.
“Lewis’ rivals might like to think he is just fast in the car but doesn’t put the hours in, but he’s actually one of the hardest working guys we’ve ever known,” Shovlin said. “The more he understands about tyres, about how the car works and how to use all the available tools, the more he is able to take that information and build it into his driving.
“It’s just the relentless way he looks at every missed opportunity as something that needs fixing before the next race and he goes off and works on it with Bono [his race engineer Peter Bonington], Marcus [Dudley, Hamilton’s performance engineer] and the wider engineering team trying to understand any issues.
“It’s just the way he is constantly building his skillset, and he’s so long into a career that you might think a driver would top out their skillset, but Lewis keeps finding new and different things to do to get the best out of the car and the tyres.”
There’s a case to say that without Mercedes’ parent company Daimler investing heavily in its team ahead of 2014, Hamilton would not have enjoyed such a long period of sustained success and would not have matched Schumacher’s record on Sunday. But just as Schumacher was a crucial component in Jean Todt’s vision to rebuild Ferrari in the late 1990s, signing Hamilton was a critical part of Daimler’s investment.
As the team stands on the brink of a seventh consecutive title, it is impossible to measure how much of that period of success can be attributed to the engineering prowess at its factories, how much can be attributed to the money from Daimler and how much can be attributed to the talent in the cockpit. One or two of those factors alone without the others simply wouldn’t have been able to reach the same heights.
And just as the Mercedes team has improved with Hamilton in the cockpit, so has Hamilton with the Mercedes team around him.
“If you wound back to when he joined in 2013, he was a very different character in and out of the car,” Shovlin added. “Obviously, our team has evolved a lot and we have got better, but a lot of that is because we have evolved how we work with Lewis to get the best out of him and he has worked on how to get the best out of the team.
“When he started with us, he was instantly quick, he was brilliant at winning races and he has that ability to dig deep and deliver whatever he had to on a Sunday to keep the hopes alive of a win. Now he’s so much more tactical in how he views the air around that and how he works.
“He’s not just looking for the improvements in the way he can drive the car, it’s the whole way he is leading his life and approaching the business of being a professional racing driver.
“Year on year we come back in pre-season testing and he’s a slightly improved version of the guy we saw at the last race in Abu Dhabi. But the level he is at now is seriously impressive.
“It’s about consistency and the relentless way he is going about delivering up the points and the world championships.”
From his position in the cockpit, Hamilton echoes Shovlin’s viewpoint. He learned to stop listening to his detractors years ago and knows that those judging from the outside simply don’t have the full picture.
For him it has always been a collaboration with the team and both sides have needed to bring their A-game to keep Mercedes at the top. Viewed through that prism, you can start to understand why the records of both Hamilton and Schumacher are so far clear of the rest.
“When you hear some of those things [about winning because of the best car], it’s not always the nicest thing to hear, but I’m not mad at it,” he said on Sunday evening. “What I do know is those that often say those things or make those comments, they just don’t know.
“I think in general in life we can often give the wrong opinion when we don’t have the full facts or have the full knowledge of how it really is. But yes, having now been in the sport this long, I can see that years ago when they talked about Michael turning Ferrari around, the fact is that it is not one individual that can do that.
“I have not turned Mercedes around, Michael did not turn Ferrari around. As much as I love Michael and he is a legend, it wasn’t just him, there’s so many people around in the background. It is the collaboration.
“The thing with drivers like Michael and me, our job is to kind of be the rudder. You’ve got this huge powerful force behind you with such intelligence, but a computer and numbers can only tell you what the perfect car is in theory, it can’t apply the human element.
“When you apply that, which is myself or Michael — the driver — I think that’s something the computer can’t simulate and that’s feel, that’s yaw, the feeling of the car turning and pitching and all these different things.
“So our job is to point them in the right direction to move forward, and continue to elevate and hopefully inspire the guys you work with. That’s something I’ve been incredibly proud of.
“There are so many people in my team, and in the sport generally in these teams, that are remarkable people. We all have these tools, it is how we use and apply them and do you let your ego in the way?
“There are some people who just don’t listen as they don’t see the wood from the trees. But the great thing from this team is I’ve not faced that once.
“There is only maybe one example, and I’m not going to tell you who it is, but we hashed that out, we laughed about it, but we got to a place where we realised that we can both approach it better and it’s just made us better colleagues and you see some of the progression we’ve had has come from those open discussions.”
Comparing Hamilton with Schumacher
On a day when Hamilton matched Schumacher’s win record, the GOAT debate was always going to resurface. It’s now clear that Hamilton will surpass Schumacher’s 91 victories, but for many fans of the sport that statistic will mean next to nothing.
Any serious F1 GOAT discussion should also include Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna — to name but three — and comes with the caveat of comparing across eras.
But with Hamilton and Schumacher there is at least some crossover. Although their periods of dominance remain split by over a decade, they shared a race track between 2010 and 2012 and both raced for the same Mercedes team within a year of each other. But rather than arguing about what sets them apart, perhaps there’s more to learn from what makes them alike.
“The two characters couldn’t be more different, but if you look at how they drive there are similarities,” Shovlin said. “When Michael arrived at our team, the thing that stood out with him was the way he would always go after marginal gains, and it didn’t matter if it was 0.01s, he would try to get it and he would collect those up.
“Michael also had an ability to drive whatever [car] balance was quickest. If it was an understeering car, he would do it. If he needed to move the work onto the front tyres, he could. And so he was very adaptable in his driving style.
“Those are two characteristics that Lewis very much has. A lot of the good drivers don’t have any particular style, it’s just whatever they need to adapt to they will do it.
“It didn’t matter how many things you told Michael to do on a lap, he would do them. Whether it was moving brake bias to look after tyres or whatever he needed to do to get them in the right window, he would do it.
“Again that’s one trait that Lewis has, you can just keep layering one thing on top of another and he doesn’t forget it, and then you can give him more things to do and he just adds it on top.
“So the way they are in the car, they are actually more similar than you might think. It’s just out of the car they are two quite different people.”
Perhaps one of the keys to Hamilton’s success is that he isn’t hung up on comparisons. As much as he acknowledged the significance of equalling Schumacher’s record on Sunday, it was never a target or an end point in his career.
Even now he doesn’t have a target in mind or a number on which he will be satisfied enough to hang up his helmet on retire. Instead Hamilton is focused on the present. Focused on what he can achieve at the next race and how best to do it.
“There’s a lot of talk, in all sport, of greatest past and present, but I think it’s almost impossible to compare people like that,” he said. “I think it’s different times and we are evolving as human beings.
“If you could put all the top drivers that have been the most successful in the sport and put them in the same cars, wouldn’t that be something? But all the talk of who is and who’s not, that’s not important to me, what’s important is the journey in this time and while I’ve been here.
“I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do and how I’ve navigated through. I’ve definitely made lots of mistakes, but that’s life, we all do that.
“I think, yes, you can definitely be remembered for having the most wins and that will be something special to have, but as I said it’s the journey, it’s what we’ve done along the way, it’s obstacles you’ve faced, and everyone’s got a different journey and a different way of doing things.”
What comes next?
The next milestone on Hamilton’s journey will be a seventh world title. Given his championship lead of 69 points over Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in second place, it’s almost inconceivable that it won’t happen this year.
If he can extend that lead to 104 points when the chequered flag falls at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola, two races from now, he will secure the title there. But a more likely outcome is a lead in excess of 78 points following the Turkish Grand Prix in mid-November, securing the title with three races remaining.
It’s another record that will draw comparisons with Schumacher, but remarkably it’s one the German saw coming as long ago as 2008.
“I would say, absolutely, yes [he could win seven titles],” Schumacher said after Hamilton secured his first title 12 years ago. “Nobody thought, even me, that I could beat [five-time world champion Juan Manuel] Fangio. Then I did.
“Records are there to be beaten.”
Equally, wherever Hamilton leaves the new benchmark when he retires won’t be unbeatable. It’s easy to assume no one will match the Mercedes driver, but Max Verstappen, on nine wins, is already ten percent of the way to 91 at just over 23 years old.
At the same age, Hamilton had four wins to his name after just one year in F1, indicating how much of a head start Verstappen already has on Hamilton. Of course, to reach Hamilton’s heights, he needs to be able to be a part of a winning team in the same way that Hamilton has been at Mercedes — no mean feat, as mentioned above — but there’s little doubt the raw talent is there.
And so, just as Schumacher’s record seemed untouchable until Hamilton came along, Hamilton’s record will seem untouchable until the next great driver comes along and proves their worth.
“There’ll be someone else, whether it is Max or whoever it may be, who is going to be chasing the record that I eventually set,” Hamilton said. “It would be the wrong kind of characteristic and approach [from me] to be hoping he doesn’t break it.
“You should be encouraging it and hoping that they live to their full potential and if that means getting to that record, that’s amazing.”