On Sunday in Sao Paulo the Autódromo José Carlos Pace will witness a third successive final round showdown for the Formula One World Drivers Championship. The obvious question is of course, will Lewis Hamilton better Fernando Alonso's 2005 record and become F1's youngest Champion?
Such a victory would be a remarkable achievement, one of which Hamilton and Mclaren-Mercedes could be justly proud. However, assuming Lewis' seven point advantage proves sufficient to see off local hero Felipe Massa at Interlagos, where would Hamilton's success leave him in the annuls of the truly great drivers?
Recently, Hamilton was forced to retract his possibly misquoted statement to the effect that he was as brilliant as the late great Brazilian Ayrton Senna. Given that the Championship Showdown is taking place in Senna's hometown, a comparison between the 1988, '90, and '91 World Champion and the 2008 Champion elect is perhaps instructive.
Of course it would be ludicrous to suggest that at this stage in his career, Lewis Hamilton could be compared to a triple world champion and veteran of 161 races, but never the less there are those who have been making the comparison regularly of late (not least the commentary team at ITV-F1) so let's examine the facts...
Beginning with simple statistics, it would seem a comparison is so lopsided as to be unwarranted. In the 2007 season and the 17 rounds of the 2008 season so far (his first and second years in the sport), Hamilton has garnered a staggering nine victories and 22 podium finishes in 34 starts.
As a record for a rookie, that is unprecedented. Senna's first two seasons (1984 and 1985) brought him a comparatively paltry two victories and nine podium finishes.
Case closed. Hamilton is the greater of the two. Right?
Superficially perhaps. However, examining the details of how Hamilton and Senna won their victories is revealing. Specifically the relative performance of the machinery at the two men's command paints an entirely different picture.
Senna entered F1 as British F3 Champion in 1984 with the Toleman Team (later to become Benetton, then Renault) having turned down test drives with Mclaren and Brabham. The Hart powered TG184 was little or no match for the Mclaren MP4, Brabham BT49 or Williams FW09. Yet Senna took a sublime second place in torrential conditions at Monaco and dragged the TG184 onto the podium twice more for third places in Britain and Portugal.
The following year, Senna joined a fading Lotus team and despite the thirsty Renault engine drove to an unlikely maiden victory, again in heavy rain, at the Portuguese Grand Prix. Indeed it has been said that with better reliability, Senna may even have challenged for the 1985 title in the overweight 87T. As it was, another victory in the USA and four further podiums were all Senna could coax out of the Lotus.
Lewis Hamilton entered F1 in 2007 as GP2 Champion with the Mclaren-Mercedes team. Having been groomed for 10 years by the Mclaren hierarchy, Hamilton made his debut at the wheel of the MP4-22 as the best prepared driver in the history of Grand Prix racing.
At his first race and for much the season thereafter he was able to flaunt the difficulties his team-mate and reigning Champion Fernando Alonso was having adapting to the new single supply Bridgestone tyre to lead the championship for much of the year, only to fall at the final hurdle and surrender the title to Kimi Raikkonen in the technically inferior Ferrari F2007.
This year, despite errors, mechanical failures and some extraordinary decisions by the stewards, Hamilton again leads the championship as the teams enter the final race weekend of the season. Again, the Mclaren-Mercedes is the class of the field and Hamilton has added five more victories to his tally.
The above would appear to suggest that while Hamilton deserves plaudits for composure and commitment he is yet to prove that his extraordinary record is as much his doing as it is the doing of the technically fantastic car at his disposal (Shades of Damon Hill in 1993).
Senna, meanwhile forged the basis of his subsequent greatness grinding out unlikely successes in clearly inferior machinery. Does that mean that when finally Senna triumphed in 1988, the world was prepared to acknowledge that he had earned it? If Lewis wins on Sunday, there will those who will say he is yet to pay his Formula One dues.
Despite this, Lewis Hamilton does display characteristics that make him startling similar to Senna. Ruthlessness, self-belief bordering on arrogance, virtuosity in the wet and an increasingly fractious relationship with the media all mark Senna and Hamilton out as being cut from the same cloth.
But could Lewis ever be as great or greater than Ayrton? Sunday's result will begin to answer that. In the end though, a true comaprison is premature and we will only be able to judge when Lewis, like Ayrton Senna has 161 Grand Prix starts to his name.
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