Lewis Hamilton says it is hard to grasp the special place he now occupies in the sport’s history having equalled Michael Schumacher as being the most successful driver in terms of wins.
Speaking to media at the Nurburgring after his record-equalling victory, Hamilton reflected on his achievement and discussed what it means to him in a year when he has used his rising profile to challenge racism and promote diversity.
“Rewriting history, that’s a very, very hard idea for me, personally,” he said. “I can only speak from my experience, but it’s really hard to compute that and put that into reality and meaning.
“Of course, I’ve looked at and I still watch other people who are cool legends in other sports who are chasing historic moments and titles and records that were broken by great legends in the past. And it’s different watching it from the outside than to be in it.
“But what I can say is I’m not done yet. I still feel that I’m able to improve. I still feel like I’m driving at a really good level.”
Hamilton already had one world championship and 21 wins to his name when he arrived at Mercedes as a 27-year-old in the winter of 2012. At that point he had never failed to win a race in every season he raced, but his progress accelerated once Mercedes provided him with the first in a series of highly competitive V6 hybrid turbo cars in 2014.
He has now taken 70 wins with Mercedes, becoming F1’s most successful driver of all time alongside his predecessor at the team, Michael Schumacher.
“I was still a youngster and still very much learning about myself,” said Hamilton of his decision to leave McLaren for Mercedes eight years ago. “With the team, what I’m really proud of and really happy with is when someone takes a chance on you, which Mercedes did when I was 13.
“And then Ron [Dennis] did, with Norbert Haug and Dieter [Zetsche], when they decided to put me in a car when I was 22. I was working as hard as I could to make sure that they didn’t regret the decision.
“Moving to this team, I don’t know how I knew it so well, but I knew was the right thing for me. I didn’t know how long it was going to take us to win but I loved the idea of working with the guys.”
Mercedes were almost unbeatable the first three years of the V6 hybrid turbo era. That was followed by three years of closer competition with Ferrari and Red Bull, but in 2020 they have resumed a position of dominance. This has led some to dismiss Hamilton’s success as being more a product of the car than the driver.
Team principal Toto Wolff rejects this view. Hamilton admits such arguments as “not the nicest thing to hear” and says they come from a position of ignorance.
“I’m not mad at it. What I do know is that those that often say those things or make those comments, they just don’t know. I think in general, in life, we often can sometimes give the wrong opinion on something when we don’t have the full facts or we don’t have the full knowledge of how it really is.”
Schumacher is often held up as an example of a driver who turned a team into a championship-winning force – in his case, Ferrari. But Hamilton says that is no more true of the seven-times champion than it is of himself at Mercedes.
“Having now been in the sport this long, years ago I remember when they talked about Michael turning Ferrari around, the fact is it’s not one individual,” said Hamilton.
“I have not turned Mercedes around. Michael did not turn Ferrari around. As much as I love Michael and he was a legend, it wasn’t just him. There’s so many people in the background.
“What they did is the collaboration. The thing with a driver like Michael and our job is to be the rudder. You’ve got this huge, powerful force behind you with such intelligence. But on a computer, in numbers, it will tell you that the optimum, the perfect car is so-and-so. But when you apply the human element, which is myself or Michael, drivers, our job is to steer it.
“There’s some things the computer can’t simulate and that’s feel. That’s the feeling of the car turning and pitching and all these different things. Our job is to steer the team in the right direction to progress forwards. And our job is to continue to elevate and push and hopefully inspire those guys that you work with. So that’s something I’ve been incredibly proud of.”
Equalling Schumacher’s record has long seemed inevitabile for Hamilton. He has faced questions about it for several years, but largely declined to engage with the subject until the milestone result was reached.
Hamilton admitted it was an emotional moment to become the second driver in F1 history to win his 91st race last weekend. He called his father Anthony, who poured years of effort into getting his son’s racing career off the ground, and stepmother Linda afterwards.
“My dad and I have never been so close,” said Hamilton, whose career was managed by his father until 2010. “We’ve never been as close as we are now. Which is, for me, remarkable. It brings me so much happiness.
“We talk a lot which I never, ever thought me and my dad would do. We speak often and whenever we do we spend time we were together last weekend before the last race, also. And we have grown-up conversations about all sorts: Politics, food training, relationships. I never thought that I’d be in that place with him.”
The pair reminisced about Hamilton’s beginnings in motorsport when they spoke after the race. “He’s like ‘remember when we were sitting having that bacon sarnie on the Sunday watching the race?’, or ‘do you remember that time when we won the championship and the guy that you’re racing who had millions his wheel fell off and we sang we are the champions driving home?’
“We reminisce a lot because it’s been an emotional rollercoaster and it was so hard. So hard for my dad. I can only try to imagine at his age how it was mentally, how it was the struggle with work. I can only try to comprehend how difficult that was.
“I never fully understand it because I’ve not been in the exact same position. But we talk about it a lot. We were there together through it all and so he was just proud of me.
“[On Saturday] he texted me and he said ‘you know what to do tomorrow, I know you’re going to do it’. And that’s how he’s been from day one. Family is everything. I feel really fortunate to have a dad who’s been there from the start, supporting me through thick and thin all the way.”
In recent years Hamilton has spoken more candidly about the challenges he faced as a young black racer competing in largely white sport. As he draws closer to becoming the outright most successful driver ever in the history of Formula 1, Hamilton says he no longer feels negativity towards those he feels tried to hold him back.
“I do remember very, very clearly those who threw abuse at me. Horrible words. I remember teachers who tried to stop me and get in the way. But I don’t feel any negativity towards them.
“I don’t know if today bugs them, that I am successful or maybe they’re grown – I’m sure they have, because that’s how we are in life. I’m sure they’ve grown through their past experiences and hopefully they’re better people and I hope they’re proud that they knew me or could say that they were part of it, if they want to.”
Throughout 2020 Hamilton has been more vocal than ever in promoting diversity in F1 and challenging racism. He has previously said this means more to him than equalling Schumacher’s records.
“What’s been really clear to me is, yes, it’s so great having these wins. But I think the more important things are what you do out of car. That’s really where I think the impact can be made.
“I’ve never, ever really wanted to be remembered other than to my family. But obviously, having these results, this journey that I’ve had with my fans, hopefully they will remember me. I would imagine all of you want to be remembered for being a good human being and someone that actually cared about the world and did what they did with great intentions.
“It’s not the most important thing for me to be remembered as the best or the greatest, as I said, because I have so much respect for those drivers in the past. I don’t feel like I need to compare myself to them because I’m different. And we all are different and unique.”
2020 F1 season