By winning his seventh Formula 1 world championship, Lewis Hamilton has equalled the record for most world championships won by any driver in the history of the sport.
He stands together with Michael Schumacher, the only other driver to have claimed seven drivers’ titles. Here’s how the two titans of the sport set the ultimate benchmark of F1 success.
#1: Schumacher 1994, Hamilton 2008
But for a disastrously late pit call on a drying track in Shanghai, and a mysterious gearbox glitch at Interlagos, Hamilton could have won the world championship as a rookie in 2007.
He delivered the title the second time of asking, aged 23, after a campaign which included some sublime wins – notably his victory by over a minute in a sodden home race – but also a few calamities, such as when he rear-ended Kimi Raikkonen in the pits in Canada. The pair scrapped furiously in Spa where Hamilton, the winner on the road, was controversially penalised, handing victory to Felipe Massa. The latter proved his closest title rival, and would have taken the crown had Hamilton not overtaken a struggling Timo Glock at the very last corner in a heart-stopping season finale.
Schumacher was two years older than Hamilton when he won his first crown in season which began with tragedy and was mired throughout by bitter acrimony. He was already 20 points ahead of Ayrton Senna when his rival crashed and died at Imola. Aside from Nigel Mansell’s occasional reappearances in Senna’s seat, the championship was now without any champions. Two disqualifications and a two-race ban for a variety of infringements meant Schumacher arrived at the season finale just one point ahead of Senna’s team mate Damon Hill. After Schumacher skidded wide and hit a barrier, he turned in on Hill at the next corner, taking the Williams driver out and clinching the title.
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#2: Schumacher 1995, Hamilton 2014
If the controversies of 1994 overshadowed some of Schumacher’s genius moments – such as his second place in Spain despite being stuck in fifth gear – his second title the following year was a more consistent showcase of driving brilliance. His Benetton was now equipped with the same Renault power as Hill’s Williams, and as the season wore on Schumacher ground his adversary down. He won from 16th at Spa, mastered tricky conditions at the Nurburgring, and passed Hill brilliantly at Estoril. With title number two in the bag, he accepted a big-money move to Ferrari.
Hamilton had to wait six years for his second title, by which time he’d turned 29. He’d come close to the 2010, and a season of superb driving in 2012 was under-rewarded by an unreliable McLaren, which prompted a fateful move to Mercedes. In 2014 the team produced a gem of a car with his V6 hybrid turbo W05, and Hamilton won 11 of 19 races, though his consistent team mate Nico Rosberg kept him honest until the (one-off) double-points finale. Hamilton’s car had let him down in the season opener, Rosberg’s did in the finale, and that settled the title fight.
#3: Schumacher 2000, Hamilton 2015
By the time Hamilton clinched his third championship – Mercedes again little troubled by rival teams – Rosberg increasingly looked like a spent force. Hamilton’s title-clinching win at the Circuit of the Americas was his 10th from 16 races. Rosberg, who blamed his defeat that day on an inconvenient gust of wind, had won three, as many as Sebastian Vettel had mustered in a far less competitive Ferrari.
But those who wrote Rosberg off proved too hasty. He won the next seven races in a row, including the first four of 2016. From there Hamilton fought back to regain the points lead, but a combination of too many poor starts and an untimely power unit failure in Malaysia gave Rosberg the whip hand. He needed only to follow Hamilton home in the remaining four races, which he did, despite Hamilton ignoring the protestations of the Mercedes pit wall at Yas Marina and reversing his team mate back towards their rivals. It wasn’t enough; Rosberg took the crown, and promptly quit the sport.
Schumacher endured three near-misses before finally delivering his third title, and the first for a Ferrari driver in 21 years. In 1997 he tried to repeat his Adelaide 1994 move on Jacques Villeneuve, but failed, and was disqualified from second in the championship. He stalled at the start of the 1998 season finale, handing Mika Hakkinen the championship. In 1999 he broke his leg at mid-season when a brake failure sent him into a barrier at Silverstone.
Early in 2000 a third title finally seemed to be coming Schumacher’s way, as he won the opening three races while Hakkinen retired twice. But the McLaren driver fought back, aided by two consecutive first-lap retirements for Schumacher. Like Hamilton and his Finnish rival eight years later, the pair scrapped memorably over victory at Spa, but on that occasion Hakkinen prevailed. The next race proved a turning point, however: Schumacher scored the first of four wins in a Ferrari which was now the fastest car over a single lap. Engine failure for Hakkinen at Indianapolis gave Schumacher the chance to clinch the title at Suzuka, which he did, jumping ahead of his rival through the pits.
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#4: Schumacher 2001, Hamilton 2017
Both drivers won their fourth championships as 32-year-olds, and also coincided in ages when they took their subsequent three titles. By this point in their careers both drivers had very competitive cars underneath them, but while Schumacher’s Ferrari team were increasingly drawing ahead of their rivals, Hamilton and Mercedes’ dominance was finally facing credible opposition.
Hamilton’s competition came from a driver who had joined Ferrari with aspirations of emulating the success his hero enjoyed before him. Vettel’s win in the season-opening race of 2017, and further victories over the opening rounds, indicated Hamilton finally had to go up against someone in a different car. He patiently chipped away at Vettel’s lead, but past the halfway point in the season the Ferrari driver still lay ahead. Vettel should have drawn further ahead in Singapore, where he took pole and the Red Bulls relegated Hamilton to fifth on the grid, but a disastrous first-lap collision with his team mate and Max Verstappen wiped out all three and handed the Mercedes driver a precious win. Vettel’s title hopes never recovered.
Schumacher put a lock on his fourth title earlier in the 2001 campaign. Hakkinen, who had begun the previous season out of sorts, was on his way out of the sport and seldom figured; team mate Coulthard took up the fight against Schumacher, but by the time the title was decided at the Hungaroring in August he’d won just two races to Schumacher’s seven, and lagged even further in the qualifying fight, underlining Ferrari’s growing dominance of F1.
#5: Schumacher 2002, Hamilton 2018
Schumacher’s dominance of Formula 1 soared to new heights in 2002. The return of tyre supplier Michelin to F1 as a rival to Bridgestone increasingly shaped the competition: Ferrari and Schumacher led the development of Bridgestone’s rubber, and their partnership gave them a distinct upper hand over rivals on Michelins. There was no prospect of Schumacher facing any worthwhile competition within his own team: As early as round six Ferrari ordered Rubens Barrichello to hand him a win in Austria, to jeers of derision from the crowd.
BMW’s potent V10 helped Juan Pablo Montoya to a string of pole positions for Williams, but the car usually chewed its tyres in the race. Schumacher equalled Juan Manuel Fangio’s record of five world championships in July, an achievement which prompted one of F1’s knee-jerk rules changes: From 2003 the points system was reworked to make second place and lower positions more valuable. This would obviously extend the duration of title fights and was a clear indication that those running the show felt someone was doing too much winning.
Remarkably, it took Hamilton until the fourth races of 2018 to score his first win. Vettel began his latest title bid with two victories on the bounce, and while the first was somewhat fortunate, it meant Hamilton again had to come from behind in the title fight. Arriving at the mid-point in the season Vettel lay ahead and had pole for his home race in Hockenheim, Hamilton only 14th after a hydraulic problem. But on race day rain fell, Hamilton edged towards the front – and Vettel skidded into a barrier. It was the first of six wins in seven races for Hamilton which put a seal on title number five.
#6: Schumacher 2003, Hamilton 2019
Schumacher’s bid to do something no one had ever done before – win a sixth Formula 1 world championship – immediately proved a more challenging proposition than his last two titles. Michelin made strides with their tyres and McLaren won the first two races on them – one each for Coulthard and new team mate Raikkonen. Having won 15 of 17 races the year before, Ferrari began the season with their old car: Schumacher won round four in the F2002, then the next two with its replacement. Williams proved a stronger challenge, though his brother Ralf and team mate Juan Pablo Montoya often took points off each other.
The season swung on a controversial FIA decision, following lobbying from Ferrari and Bridgestone, to outlaw Michelin’s tyre specification following the Hungarian Grand Prix. There Fernando Alonso had scored a breakthrough win for Renault, Schumacher a lap in arrears. The consequences were seismic: Having won just five of the previous 13 races, Bridgestone won 15 of the next 16, all bar one of which went to Schumacher. Barrichello’s sole win during that spell, in the Suzuka finale, assured Schumacher’s of his record-breaking sixth title on a curious off-day for the driver who was now quantifiably the greatest in the sport’s history.
Hamilton’s rivals should have made him work harder for his 2019 title. Ferrari had a very fast car – dubiously so, it later emerged – and helped themselves to nine pole positions. Valtteri Bottas, in his third year as Hamilton’s team mate, matched his team mate pole for pole. Yet Hamilton piled up win after win as he pleased, and though he had to follow Bottas home at Circuit of the Americas, it was enough for his sixth title.
#7: Schumacher 2004, Hamilton 2020
For both drivers, their seventh titles were arguably the most dominant. By 2004 not only was the Ferrari-Bridgestone combination a formidable winning machine, but their rivals had lost the plot. McLaren’s MP4-19, based on a temperamental and unraced development car from the year before, was a disaster. Williams began the season with a radical nose which proved as competitive as it was attractive. Renault also struggled to build on their 2003 breakthrough, and all three Michelin-shod teams took a single win apiece. By the time Schumacher arrived at Spa, to clinch his final title at the scene of his first win 13 years earlier, he had won 12 of the 13 races.
In much the same way Hamilton has been able to dominate 2020 partly because Mercedes’ rivals have fallen short. Ferrari were required to make changes to their power unit during the off-season and are presently enduring their worst campaign for four decades. Red Bull also fell away from Mercedes during the winter, and have been slowly regaining their lost ground ever since. In a season heavily disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, Hamilton won with regularity, and beat Schumacher’s career record of 91 wins in Portugal. By the time he clinched the crown – with a sublime drive at a wet, grip-less Istanbul Park – he was on 94.
The near misses
Both drivers won seven championships, but both could also point to opportunities missed and claim they could have won more – and potentially even reached double-digits.
In addition to his near-misses in 1997 and 1998, Schumacher almost regained the title in 2006. But a blown engine in the penultimate race at Suzuka all-but ended his chances. At a stretch, his leg-breaking crash in 1999 might be considered another example. But there was still more than half of the season to go at that point in the year, and Schumacher was trailling Hakkinen in the championship when he crashed at Stowe. Nonetheless, 10 titles were clearly possible for Schumacher.
The same cannot be said quite as confidently about Hamilton – yet. Undoubtedly 2007 was an opportunity missed: Raikkonen produced arguably the greatest championship upset in F1 history to wrest the title from the rookie. But 2010 and 2012 are more cases of titles he ‘could have’ rather than ‘should have’ won. Hamilton was very much the fourth driver in F1’s only four-way title-decider in 2010, but ended the year just 16 points off the crown. Race-ending collisions in consecutive races at Monza and Singapore cost him dearly. In 2012 he was much further away from taking the title, but repeatedly let down by an unreliable car.
The crucial difference is that for Hamilton, a record-breaking eighth, ninth or even 10th world championship may yet lie ahead of him.
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