It will be the question in pub quizzes for years to come. Where did Lewis Hamilton overtake Michael Schumacher’s 91 race wins and become the all-time leader in Formula One Grand Prix victories?
History was made on Sunday at the Portimao Circuit in Portugal. A track which has never hosted a F1 race prior to this coronavirus-affected 2020 season, in a country where Hamilton had never raced an F1 car.
Both drivers are regarded as greats, racking up wins with Terminator-like ruthlessness, and Hamilton’s career statistics mirror Schumacher’s in a number of categories. So how to choose the greatest?
Off to a flying start
In an age where it seems only drivers from affluent backgrounds with heavy financial backing can make their way into F1, it is interesting that both Hamilton and Schumacher’s parents sacrificed much for their sons’ passions.
While Schumacher’s parents worked multiple jobs and relied on the kindness of a local businessman to fund his karting career, Hamilton’s father Anthony worked up to three jobs at one time and remortgaged his house.
Parental dedication paid off as both careers got off to a flying start.
Hamilton achieved his maiden F1 victory in only his sixth-ever race, aged 22.
The Englishman might even have won the championship in his debut season in 2007. He and teammate Fernando Alonso finished second and third respectively on 109 points each, with champion Kimi Raikkonen finishing just a point ahead.
Hamilton would have been the youngest F1 world champion at 22 years and 287 days — a record which would have still stood. Nevertheless, he won the title the following year, at 23 years and 300 days.
With Hamilton starting his career in the then dominant McLaren, Schumacher faced an arguably stiffer test starting out, driving a Benetton car that was competing with some of the all-time great McLaren, Williams and Ferrari cars.
In 1992, Williams’ Nigel Mansell won nine of the 16 races that year, with his teammate Riccardo Patrese winning one. McLaren’s Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger won five races between them, leaving one remaining: Schumacher’s maiden victory.
It came at the same track where he had made his debut just a year earlier: Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. His risk to turn to slick tires from wets earlier than his competitors was an inspired move, and summed up the all-or-nothing approach he took when chasing victory.
The 1993 season was the final year of the Alain Prost-Ayrton Senna rivalry, and in 1994 Schumacher earned his maiden F1 world championship.
Acrimony often followed the German throughout his career, and 1994 set the tone for that.
Despite not recording a point in four races because of race bans, Schumacher took the title — although it is still debated today as to whether his crash into rival Damon Hill in the final race was intentional or not.
The ultimate test
Some say you can best judge how good a driver is based on their teammates’ performances. And both Hamilton and Schumacher have stunning records against their teammates.
Schumacher finished with a better result than his teammate in 68 percent of races he started. Hamilton has a 61 percent record against teammates.
In terms of season finishes though, only twice in his 13 completed seasons has Hamilton been bettered by a teammate. If he continues his dominance in 2020, that record will be two in 14.
Prior to his comeback in 2010, between 1991 and 2006, Schumacher finished behind his teammates in only three of 16 seasons. One of those is arguably irrelevant as, in 1991, Schumacher raced only once for Jordan and five times for Benetton, with Andrea de Cesaris and Nelson Piquet driving in every race for those respective teams.
As an additional addendum, in 1997 Schumacher was disqualified from the drivers’ championship due to dangerous driving, while in 1999 he broke his leg at the British Grand Prix, forcing him to miss seven races that season.
When we take into account Schumacher’s three years at Mercedes alongside Nico Rosberg from 2010 to 2012 after his F1 comeback, that statistic becomes six in 19 seasons.
Hamilton’s blip for Mercedes came in 2016 when Rosberg beat him to win the title in one of the most intense seasons in living memory.
It is a testament to the greatness of both racers that they have finished races on the podium more often than they haven’t. And with over 40 fewer race starts, Hamilton has a ratio better than one win in every three races.
Only Juan Manuel Fangio (24 wins in 52 races) and Alberto Ascari (13 in 33) have a better win-to-race entry ratio than Hamilton.
For drivers to have entered over 100 races though, only Jackie Stewart, Prost and Senna come anywhere close to these two behemoths.
Hamilton has the edge over the course of a career, winning 35 percent of the races he started.
One anomaly sticks out, however.
The pair’s podiums and wins tally are very similar, but Hamilton is head and shoulders in front on pole positions achieved.
For many, this is a point to Hamilton. But, if anything, the deficit between number of poles and race wins is a testament to Schumacher’s determination to win. The man just never gave up.
The duo’s track history doesn’t help us differentiate between them much. Hamilton’s dominance at the Hungaroring in Hungary is seriously impressive, winning eight of the 14 times (57 percent) he has driven there. Schumacher is not far behind in his record at the Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours in France with eight wins in 15 entries (53 percent).
For Schumacher to have finished on the podium 12 times at not one but three separate tracks speaks to his consistency.
It remains to be seen whether Hamilton can match that level of dominance at a single track, let alone three.
Hamilton has won eight of the 12 races in this year’s world championship.
A victory in the next round at Imola will secure Hamilton a seventh world title, the one big record of Schumacher’s he has yet to equal or eclipse.
Schumacher was 37 when he retired for the first time in 2006 and, after his brief return to the sport, was 43 when he completed his final race.
The German has been the benchmark for years. After eclipsing Prost’s record of 51 Grand Prix victories in 2001, he had another five years at Ferrari where he continued to accumulate victories.
Hamilton is 35 now, and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Having beaten Schumacher’s record, it is within the realms of possibility that the Briton will continue to add to his tally, setting records for years to come.
“He deserves every victory he had. I am sure he will get 100. I don’t think you can praise him enough,” said Sebastian Vettel after Sunday’s race, himself a winner of four world titles and 53 races.
At his current rate, Hamilton will reach 100 wins next season, and maybe even reach eight world titles next year too.
Schumacher’s greatness is cemented in history. But Hamilton will march on to even greater acclaim for years to come.