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MPH – Lewis Hamilton’s claim to be the greatest F1 driver of all time…… What Do You Think?

Lewis Hamilton’s staggering win count leaves him far in front of other F1 champions – but do his stats prove him to be the best?

Records are there to be broken – and in Formula 1 they are always being broken. Because there are more races than ever before and because longer careers are more feasible given the much greater survival odds for a driver in the modern era.

As we wait to see if Lewis Hamilton will return to reclaim the title taken from him by incorrect application of the sporting regulations in Abu Dhabi last year, it’s as good a time as any to take a look at his career stats and what they signify.

To at least take the length of career out of the equation, we can look at percentage of races entered won. In the table below are the top 10 averages of the F1 world championship.

Driver Wins / races competed in Win percentage Years active
1. Juan Manuel Fangio 24 / 51 47.06% 1950-58
2. Alberto Ascari 13 / 32 40.63% 1950-55
3. Lewis Hamilton 103 / 288 35.76% 2007-21
4. Jim Clark 25 / 72 34.72% 1960-68
5. Michael Schumacher* 91 / 306 29.74% 1991-2012
6. Jackie Stewart 27 / 99 27.27% 1965-73
7. Alain Prost 51 / 199 25.63% 1980-1993
8. Ayrton Senna 41/161 25.47% 1984-1994
9. Stirling Moss 16/66 24.24% 1950-1961
10. Damon Hill 22/115 19.13% 1992-1999
*Or Schumacher’s ‘first’ F1 career 91/248 36.69% 1991-2006

Hamilton critics often point out how so much of his career has been spent in the fastest car. Having so many seasons in a super-fast car has of course inflated Hamilton’s total career stats, but that’s rendered irrelevant in this comparison of percentage of victories. And in that measure, he is still the third-highest of all time.

Besides, being in the fastest car for a big percentage of their career applies to pretty much every driver on this list. They were recruited by the teams with the fastest cars because they’d marked themselves out as special. Once there, they delivered – often against searingly fast team-mates.

Another charge levelled at Hamilton is that the margin of advantage of his Mercedes over the next-best car has been outrageous. Let’s take a look at that claim from a historical perspective: the average percentage performance advantage (in qualifying) of Mercedes over the next fastest car in the eight seasons of the hybrid era to date is 0.46% (ranging from 0.02% behind in 2018 up to 0.9% faster in 2014). How does that compare to other dominant cars in F1 history? It doesn’t get close.

Year Car Performance percentage over next fastest car
1. 1950 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 2.04%
2. 1992 Williams FW14B 1.92%
3. 1993 Williams FW15C 1.82%
4. 1952 Ferrari 500 1.52%
5. 1988 McLaren MP4/4 1.47%
6. 1967 Lotus 49 1.37%
7. 1961 Ferrari 156 1.29%
8. 1955 Mercedes W196 1.27%
9. 1978 Lotus 79 1.17%

These were all more dominant than even the best of the hybrid Mercs. Some by a spectacular margin.

It’s true that modern reliability flatters Hamilton’s stats relative to those of any pre-’90s drivers. If, for example, we assigned to Jim Clark Hamilton’s reliability record, the great Scot’s win ratio would be well in excess of 50%. Fangio’s would be greater than it already is, Jackie Stewart’s would be comparable to Hamilton’s as probably would Stirling Moss’s.

Lewis Hamilton Fernando Alonso McLaren F1 car launch 2007
Hamilton’s numbers are comparable to Schumacher’s – but Brit has had far tougher team-mates

Grand Prix Photo
But Hamilton’s stats are directly comparable to Schumacher’s, for example. Schumacher was in the outright fastest car for five seasons (’95, ’01, ’02, ’03 and ’04) and in competitively fast cars for six (’94, 97, 98, 99, 2000 and 2006), cars which weren’t unquestionably the best but could enter each race as a contender for a win. Hamilton has been in unquestionably the fastest car for six seasons (in 2014, ’15, ’16, ’17, ’19 and ’20) and competitively fast cars for seven (2007, 08, 10, 11, 12, 18 and ’21). Thirteen seasons of top cars for Hamilton, 10 for Schumacher – and a very similar winning average during that time. Looking only at Schumacher’s ‘first’ career and not his three-year return in a mediocre Mercedes, his winning average is marginally better than Hamilton’s – but that was with subservient team mates in a support role, a luxury Hamilton has never had. Schumacher’s first career stats would have taken a knock had he had alongside him on equal terms the equivalent of Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg.

All of which is to underline that although winning more than any other driver in the championship’s history doesn’t automatically make him the greatest, there’s absolutely nothing about his performances which debars him from being considered as a contender for that accolade. That is true regardless of whether he is a seven or an eight-time world champion. His status is assured regardless of what his decision about 2022 will be.

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