Lewis Hamilton’s addition of another legendary win — this time the British Grand Prix on just three tyres — has added another impressive notch to his F1 belt.

Predictably, his victory has reignited the debate about just who is the greatest F1 driver of all time.

There is no doubt unless something untoward happens, that Hamilton’s mastery should see him punching his domination on the sport by eclipsing Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world championships and 91 GP wins.

 This combo shows German driver Michael Schumacher holding his trophy after winnning several F1 Grand Prix. Image: AFP

Then he will undoubtedly be the greatest driver of his era, but the greatest ever?

Comparing apples and pears

The next question is that in Formula 1, where comparing drivers from different eras is like comparing apples and pears, should we even be debating the topic?

The are many reasons for not embarking on this exercise. These days drivers have more opportunities to score points. A record-breaking 22 races were set down for March to November — until COVID-19 came along, that is.  In 2015, there were 19, which was the record set in 2005.

In 2000, there were 17. But consider that in 1965, the era of Jim Clark, there were 10. I am sure you are getting the drift.

Incidentally, isn’t it outrageous that Jim Clark isn’t included in some lists of F1 greats? How can that happen? 

Miles apart: Hamilton’s ride vs bathtub on wheels

Then there are the cars. It’s one thing to be one of the world’s greats when you are lying in an aerodynamic, wind-tunnel-tested structure, surrounded by high-tech materials, and are anchored in place with a belt capable of holding down the Trump Towers.

Mercedes’ British driver Lewis Hamilton steers his car during the third practice session of the F1 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone on 8 August 2020 in Northampton. This weekend’s race will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the inaugural world championship race, held at Silverstone in 1950.
Ben STANSALL / POOL / AFP

It’s different to sitting with your head and shoulders barely concealed behind a half-moon ridge of perspex while wearing a crash helmet that the average Vespa pilot would scorn today. Then there is also fighting an aluminium (not so aerodynamic) car around the corners while bugs and the occasional gout of oil slams into your goggles.

Going into the technology and powerplants makes the apples versus pears debate stronger.

You can’t draw a straight line between a replica bathtub on spoked wheels and pram tyres and Hamilton’s ride and then decide one driver was better than the other. Really, in 1968, the F1 cars didn’t even have wing mirrors. 

Scottish driver Jim Clark gets out of his Lotus-Climax after it was hit by the Ferrari of German driver Wolfgang von Trips, during the Italian Formula One Grand Prix, on September 10, 1961 in Monza. Wolfgang von Trips died after being thrown out of his car which crashed into the crowd killing 15 spectators in one of the most tragic accidents in Formula One history. Image: AFP

Drivers across the decades place their stamps on the sport for different reasons. It makes sense, then, that we should be looking at “The Driver of the Decade” rather than trying to create a level playing field when it doesn’t exist.

Sure, you can use statistics to decide “who’s who” and draw up the definitive list of F1 greats.

The chances are, though, that when you proudly hand over the list to your first reader, he or she will look at you and ask with a straight face: “Why isn’t so-and-so on the list?”

Jackie Stewart: ‘Guys who were gladiators’

My vote goes to the oldies…the guys who were gladiators of the track rather than the technicians of the present.

One of them has to be Jackie Stewart, who drove when drivers were drivers, and safety standards fell far below those that rule today. 

Stewart, who was an advocate of safety, said in an interview:

“Death was something we all learnt to live with. We learnt things you couldn’t possibly have known before, like where the best international undertaker was in any country we raced in.

“A lot of airlines wouldn’t carry coffins on commercial flights. You ask me what it did to me as a man? It did…nothing…other than to give me the necessary chemistry to dilute the grief and continue to race, I suppose.”

Walking and driving the talk

Very dramatic, you may say, but then he had walked the talk. In 1966, Stewart crashed in heavy rain at 266km/h at Spa-Francorchamps. He hit a telephone pole and then a shed and ended his drive in a farmer’s outbuilding. His steering column pinned his leg, and fuel flooded into the cockpit.

There were no track crews to help and no tools available. Fellow drivers came to his rescue.

He lay in the bed of a truck until an ambulance arrived. He then lay on the dirty floor of the track’s first aid centre until another ambulance picked him up. Then the ambulance driver got lost on the way to a hospital.

Now that is a gladiator, a man who is a real great. It’s also a miracle that he was around to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2001. 

British Formula One driver Jackie Stewart, centre, wave to the crowd celebrating his win at the German’s Formula One Grand Prix, beside third-placed Belgian Jacky Ickx, left, and second-placed French François Cevert on the podium of the Nürburgring race-track on 5 August 1973. Image: AFP
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Author: Onlineautos