Lewis Hamilton's Success: The Man or the Car?

Paul BoltonCorrespondent IMarch 28, 2009

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 27:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and McLaren Mercedes drives during practice for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at the Albert Park Circuit on March 27, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Winning the title is an amazing achievement. And winning it in the best and fastest car is great. But winning it despite your own car is even better.

I have always had more respect for the drivers that, purposefully, choose to drive for a lesser team and aim to win races and the championship by beating the best car rather than sitting in it, clocking off laps like taxi drivers, and collecting easy points.

Between 1980 and 1993, all of the titles except for two were won by drivers for either McLaren or Williams. Then Michael Schumacher. He had an impressive debut race with Jordan in 1991 before moving to Benetton for the next race.

After an astonishing wet/dry race in Spa 1992 where he collected his first win, he would go on to win the title in 1994 and again a year later. The first title being even the more impressive after being disqualified from two races and excluded from a further two. 

Seeing that Benetton had won a mere six races between 1986 and 1992, it was such a great achievement to win back to back titles against better opponents. This was a shock to McLaren and Williams, seeing their duopoly broken by the competitive young German.

Indeed, after Schumacher moved in 1996 to Ferrari, Benetton would only win one more race before morphing into Renault.

His move to Ferrari was again one to a lesser team, in that the Italians had only won two races since 1991, but Michael thought that winning the title with Ferrari and getting this historic team great again would be a far better achievement than if he had joined Williams. Doubtless he would had cruised to both the 96 and 97 titles.

He then had an opportunity to join McLaren in 1998, and for more money than Ferrari were offering, but he choose once again to stay.

This determination of winning the championship againstthe best car would result with his five titles. He indeed said "if you are in the best car, anything other than first place is losing and winning is standard. Where's the motivation in that?"

And this was backed up by his clear unhappiness with his Indy win in the farcical 2005 race. I think that was the only race he did not do his trademark jump! For Schumacher, the challenge was proving himself to be the winning factor and not his car.

In the first three Ferrari seasons he brought the team back up the championship tables with a third place and a second place (and another second place points wise in 1997 although officially he was excluded).

But this success was achieved with just nine poles and 10 fastest laps in those 49 races, meaning his car was by no means the fastest on the grid. To have scored so many points and gained wins but having such a slower car was down to Michael's ability. Triumph against the best.

So whatever views people have about Michael he didn't want to just cruise around to easy wins. His four pit-stop race adds to this in his victory in France in 2004. He was prepared to try something different to win and let it be known that he, the man, was the key to winning, not the car.

We now come to Fernando Alonso, who began in 2001 with Minardi, the perennial underachievers. He finished in eight of the 17 races and considering his car's (lack of) speed, had a successful season.

Alonso returned to racing in 2003 with Renault and after a string of good points finishes including three podiums, he won in Hungary, beating Michael fair and square despite having a vastly inferior car.

In 2005, Alonso had six out of 19 poles and two two fastest laps whilst the next year he score another six poles and five fastest laps. This backs up that whilst he had a good car it was not the best nor fastest overall.

So Alonso's double title win in 2005 and 2006 was once again a triumph of the smaller team outwitting, outpacing and outscoring the "big boys". Alonso showed that, like Michael, the difference was himself, the man, and not his sometimes slow Renault.

This is bringing us now onto Lewis Hamilton and the first race of the 2009 season. Testing suggested the McLarens would struggle for pace and this proved to be the case during qualifying, with the front row being locked out by the debutant Brawn GP. Lewis was 15th after retiring from Q2.

Now after having had fast and competitive cars for nearly his entire racing career and certainly for his F1 career, he now needs to rethink his steps. I have been impressed with what Lewis had done since he joined F1, and if not for a fiercely debated tactical call in Monaco in 2007, he would be double world champion, but I want more from him...

If he had joined a smaller team and then moved onto McLaren then that would be down to his ability to drive a slow car really well and achieve despite his equipment and machinery.

But I was saddened to learn that he wanted stay with the Woking team for his entire career...Until now it has been unclear whether his fantastic set of results has been down to him or down to his McLaren-Mercedes. Until now..

Whenever a team goes on a decline or is clearly off the pace for the first few races, as we expect the Silver Arrows to be, their drivers are more under the spotlight. It will be really interesting to see if Lewis can show that he can win despite his own car—that he can win in a slower car.

That he has the temperament, the tactics, the nous, to achieve success with little help from the machine beneath him.

Drivers such as Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve both won impressive titles for Williams but achieved very little once leaving. Only one good race for Hill in 1997 in Hungary for Arrows and 11 straight retirements for JV in his first season at BAR showed that these were drivers that were more reliant on the cars than their own prowess.

This season will show whether Lewis is truly one of the greats, whether his first two seasons were down to just the car or whether he was the key factor in his success. Is Lewis' success the man or the car? This season will tell us.