Lewis Hamilton burst onto the Formula One scene with McLaren in 2007. He finished on the podium in his first nine races—including victories in Montreal and Indianapolis—and lost the championship by one point to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen.
Perhaps more impressively, Hamilton's story resonated with people outside of F1. He was featured in Sports Illustrated, a rare thing for an F1 driver, and Time compared him to Tiger Woods (back when Woods was still known as a great golfer, rather than a serial adulterer). The fact that he was the first black driver to race in F1 only made the story more compelling.
He was anointed as the sport's next big star.
In 2008, the prophecy was fulfilled: The championship was again decided by just one point, this time with Hamilton prevailing over Felipe Massa, another Ferrari driver.
Since clinching that championship in the most dramatic fashion possible, though, Hamilton has not come close to returning to those lofty heights.
January 7, 2014 is Hamilton's 29th birthday. He is no longer an up-and-coming star but rather a veteran of 129 F1 grands prix. Despite his world championship and 22 race victories, Hamilton has not performed up to his potential.
He has been a good driver, but has he been great? Is he even at the same level as his contemporary rivals, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso?
Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso are the most recognizable faces of F1's current drivers, the superstars of the sport. But while the Brit has regressed since 2008, Vettel has won four straight championships with Alonso pushing him to the wire twice.
Hamilton has won at least one race in every year of his F1 career, but his results—if not his performance—have been on a downward trend. In 2010, he finished the season with 240 points; that number has decreased each year since then, and he scored 189 points in 2013.
To get a better idea of where Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso stand relative to each another, here are their statistics since the 2007 season (both Hamilton and Vettel's rookie year):
Of course, this table omits two of Alonso's best years, his Drivers' Championships in 2005 and 2006. Still, from 2007 he has scored more points and more podium finishes than Hamilton. Vettel, at least statistically, is on another plane.
How much of that is due to the car and how much is due to the driver is a matter for debate. But dominant car or not, nobody wins four world championships in a row unless they are a very good driver.
It is safe to say, at least for now, that Vettel is racing at a higher level than Hamilton. While the German has hunted down his four titles with a single-minded focus, Hamilton has, at times, allowed off-track issues to detrimentally affect his performance.
No, Hamilton is not on the same level as Vettel. But what about his one-time (in both senses of the term) teammate, Alonso?
Although Alonso has fewer victories than Hamilton, he has been more successful overall in the championship, especially since 2008. Hamilton has not finished higher than fourth since his title year, while Alonso has three second-place finishes in that time, nearly winning in 2010 and 2012—the latter year in an inferior car to both Hamilton's McLaren and Vettel's Red Bull.
Who is the best current driver in F1?
The best comparative data we have, though, is from 2007, Hamilton's first year in F1. In the same car, the two drivers finished in a dead heat in the final standings, both with 109 points and four wins. Hamilton was classified ahead of Alonso on the basis of one more second-place finish. They probably took the championship from each other, though, and their ill-fated partnership at McLaren ended after one season.
On that basis alone, we could conclude that Hamilton is Alonso's equal. In the prime of the Spaniard's career, Hamilton matched him win-for-win, point-for-point in the same car.
However, in 2013 (and 2012, as previously mentioned) Alonso beat Hamilton in a slower car. And in both years, it was not close. The gap between them in 2012 was 88 points; in 2013, 53.
So, taking into account their bodies of work, we must also conclude that Hamilton is not at the same level as Alonso. He was at one time, but not currently.
Looking ahead, then, what does the future hold for Hamilton? Will he recapture the form of his early career and win another championship? Or will his descent continue, giving him a legacy of a driver who peaked too soon and never fully lived up to his potential?
Hamilton seems comfortable with his new team, writing in his BBC column that, "I look back on joining Mercedes as absolutely the right decision to make." That will certainly help his mindset going forward.
Mercedes also significantly improved their car from 2012 to 2013. If that upward trajectory continues—and I have already written why I think it will—Hamilton should have everything he needs for a return to the top.
He will face a stiff challenge from his teammate, Nico Rosberg, who did not shrink from Hamilton's challenge in 2012. As we have seen, though, Hamilton has already been teamed with, and beaten, world champions. Rosberg should not get the better of him.
In fact, other than perhaps Alonso, Hamilton seems the most likely candidate to dethrone Vettel, if and when that finally happens.
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