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Hamilton destined for greatness

By Andrew Benson

Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the world title
Hamilton is on course to secure a place in F1's pantheon

Lewis Hamilton has got a bit of a thing about Ayrton Senna.

The Brazilian, considered by many to be the greatest racing driver of all time, was a hero to the new world champion when he was a child.

Hamilton chose to follow Senna in painting his helmet a distinctive bright yellow, and has modelled his aggressive, uncompromising approach to racing on him, too.

The 23-year-old Englishman's detractors - and he has a fair few in Formula One - might also say Hamilton shares Senna's arrogance, and belief that he is on a separate level from his competitors.

The thing is, it is beginning to look as if he is right.

"He's a cut above the rest, isn't he?" says Damon Hill, the last Briton to win the title, in 1996.

Privately, even some of Hamilton's fellow drivers are beginning to admit that he is "that 2-3% above everyone else", as one driver who preferred not to be named put it.

Already the youngest world champion in history, a mantle he has taken from his former team-mate Fernando Alonso, the question now is how good Hamilton can become.


Hill believes Hamilton is well on the way to a position where he will ultimately be judged as one of the greatest racing drivers in history.

"Lewis has passed base camp for that ascent and in terms of raw talent I don't think there is any question," the 1996 world champion says.

John Watson
In certain circumstances - especially in the rain - he is matching Senna

John Watson

John Watson, third in the world championship in 1982, also believes Hamilton can reach a point where he will be talked of in the same breath as Senna and the like - but not yet.

"I think he can get there," Watson says. "He's outstanding - his natural speed is fantastic, and he can achieve it in both dry and wet conditions.

"The thing that Ayrton did was he took it onto a different plateau from everyone. Lewis hasn't done that within his own peer group.

"He's doing a great job. But if you think back to the qualifying days with turbo cars, to watch Senna on a qualifying lap was one of the most unbelievable visual experiences anyone could see.

Lewis Hamilton's Mclaren during the British Grand Prix
Hamilton has been majestic whenever it has rained this season

"It was just mesmerising - here was a man who is on a different level from anyone. Nobody was doing what Ayrton was doing in a car.

"Lewis may get there. In certain circumstances - especially in the rain - he is matching Senna. But overall he's got another couple of years to find that purple period of his career."


At times this year, Hamilton has looked already as good as Senna, particularly during his stunning drive to victory in the wet British Grand Prix.

But there have been other times this season when he has looked less special.

His driving this season has been punctuated by a quite remarkable number of errors.

He messed up the start in Bahrain and then proceeded to crash into the back of Alonso; he crashed into Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari in the pits in Canada; and he wrecked his race in Japan with an over-ambitious move at the first corner, among several others.

He has made so many mistakes that had Ferrari's drivers been able to put up a more consistent challenge, or had someone like Schumacher or Alonso been in the red car, it is hard to imagine that Hamilton would have ended the year as champion.

Damon Hill
As Lewis looks back on this season, he might think this full-on attack has risks attached to it

Damon Hill

For Hill, though, that is all part of the learning experience.

"When he's got it right, he's got it very right," Hill says. "Alonso cut his teeth and got rid of all his mistakes in an uncompetitive car.

"Lewis has arrived in F1 in the most competitive car, the same as Ferrari, so he's not only always been in the limelight, but he's always been in contention for the world championship.

"Jackie Stewart has always said it takes three years to mature as a driver. He's won the title in his second year, so he's broken the record [for youngest champion] anyway.

"So what you're seeing is a guy in the formative stage of his career and it's right there under your nose, right there in your face - you can't miss it.

"Now, he might take the view as he looks back on this season, and think, 'Do you know what, this full-on attack has risks attached to it.'

"And I think he's the sort of driver who will do that, who will look at F1 and think this is not like karting, you don't have to take every risk that comes up because you've only got a 10-lap race to get to the front and it's win or bust.

"I would expect him to learn. He's just very bright, he's got a good guide in his dad and he's got a great team."


Watson echoes Hill's view that Hamilton's mistakes should be put into the context of a man achieving remarkable things after being thrust into the limelight at the very beginning of his career.

But he adds that Hamilton has to learn in other areas, too.

The 23-year-old has a very aggressive driving style, both in how he treats other drivers, and in what he demands of the car.

He's set out his stall that he's never going to give up position - one day, you may not get away with it

John Watson

This has huge benefits - he is the best overtaker in F1, and his acrobatic style generates heat in his tyres quicker than other drivers, which, according to Watson, contributes to his speed in the rain.

It also, Watson says, makes him a dream for an engineer.

Hamilton "makes the car move around quite a lot more than other drivers do," as Watson puts it - he is at ease with the rear of the car being unstable, confident that he can control it before it pitches him into a spin.

And because he is happy with an inherently unstable car, the team are never in a position where they have to reduce the amount of downforce generated by the car - and therefore its grip and ultimate speed - to make it more comfortable to drive.

But his unique style also has downsides, as Watson explains.

"I've picked up occasions when he over-drives," the Northern Irishman says. "We've seen it where he just destroys the tyres.

"If you take Turkey this year as an example, he had to do a three-stop race because in the long, high-speed corners he generated too much energy in the tyre. He screws the tyres, basically.

"The other thing I think he has to rein in is he doesn't have to be so emphatic in his overtaking. He doesn't have to make it so blatantly obvious, and put people into awkward situations, which he has done this year on a couple of occasions.

"[He will get there], assuming he doesn't hurt himself or have a massive accident, which is always the thing when you're driving in that totally freestyle fashion.

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton's all-action driving style has both positives and negatives

"You take a risk [when you drive] such as [Hamilton did] in Japan, diving down the inside and locking up.

"Fortunately for him, everyone dived out of the way but that could have been a serious accident which resulted in a wheel coming into the cockpit and giving him a serious neck or head injury.

"Even Ayrton was guilty of the same thing. You sometimes overestimate the ability of other people around you to adjust to your commitment.

"That's one thing Lewis needs to understand. Sometimes you put people into a compromising position which can then in itself affect you.

"You want to retain control all the time. He's set out his stall that he's never going to compromise or give up position. Yes, you may get away with it, but one day you may not."


"In terms of out-and-out speed, he's probably the quickest guy out there," Watson says. "He's got the basic ingredients, all the qualities. He ticks all the boxes from a racing driver perspective.

"His skill level is exceptional. He has unbelievable natural ability, sheer speed, fantastic car control. It's only those little areas he needs to refine."

Hamilton, who already has nine wins under his belt, has started so young that even Schumacher's seemingly impregnable record of seven titles and 91 wins looks like it might be within reach.

But, for Hill, that is not the point.

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton's yellow helmet carries echoes of his hero Ayrton Senna

"It's not just about how many championships you win," Hill says. "Jim Clark didn't win that many world championships but he was a phenomenal talent.

"Stirling Moss never won the world championship and he was a phenomenal talent.

"[Juan Manuel] Fangio won five. Was Schumacher better than Fangio?

"You have to bring in all the factors before you make an assessment of someone's success in the sport. Yes, it's important to have the statistics, but when you assess the whole career it isn't the whole story.

"Lewis annihilated everyone at the British Grand Prix, he's won Monaco. The talent is really not the issue.

"The issue is the maturing process and awareness of what it all means and I think he's got that already. That's what's so impressive about him."

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see also
Feeling the tension at Interlagos
03 Nov 08 |  Formula One
Last-gasp Hamilton takes F1 crown
02 Nov 08 |  Formula One
Ecstatic Hamilton revels in glory
02 Nov 08 |  Formula One
Rollercoaster race to the F1 crown
02 Nov 08 |  Motorsport
As it happened: Brazilian Grand Prix
02 Nov 08 |  Formula One
Brazilian Grand Prix photos
02 Nov 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton 'feels Senna connection'
31 Oct 08 |  Formula One
F1's new star - and it's not the champ
21 Oct 07 |  Formula One

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