The first act of Lewis Hamilton's Formula One career opened with such promise. In 2007, he won four races and nearly stole the title from his more experienced rivals, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso. The following year, he did win at the final corner of the final lap of the final race.
But then followed a long second act, where Hamilton's resolve was tested both professionally and personally. Four more seasons at McLaren did not yield a finish higher than fourth in the drivers' championship.
A surprising move to Mercedes for 2013 showed flashes of promise—five pole positions, a win in Hungary—but also more of the same.
Before the 2014 season, I questioned whether Hamilton was at the same level as Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, as the best drivers of the current generation. I concluded that, at that moment, he was not. He was not known for dragging subpar cars to finishes they did not deserve, like Alonso, or for a clinical commitment to his craft, like Vettel.
Rather, Hamilton was known for his celebrity girlfriend and his flashy lifestyle—and for the effect those elements could have on his driving, per Tom Cary of The Telegraph.
But act three began, as these things sometimes do, with a change to the engine regulations. From preseason testing, it was clear that the Mercedes F1 W05 Hybrid was the class of the field. In a throwback to 1961, when Ferrari got the jump on their rivals in the first year of a new engine formula, Hamilton's only serious competition for the 2014 drivers' title was his teammate, Nico Rosberg.
This year, Hamilton stayed focused, refusing to let small mistakes in qualifying here—or Rosberg ramming into him there—affect his entire season.
In Monaco, with Hamilton leading the championship, Rosberg went off at Mirabeau at the end of qualifying—perhaps on purpose, perhaps not—ruining Hamilton's final hot lap. That gave Rosberg pole position and a huge advantage around Monaco's narrow streets.
The German went on to win the race, beginning a string of seven races where Hamilton won just once. By the end of the Belgian Grand Prix, where he retired after Rosberg clipped his tyre at Les Combes, Hamilton was 29 points behind his rival with just seven races remaining.
From that point, though, Hamilton left no doubt about who was the better driver. He reeled off five straight wins, giving himself a chance to clinch the title in Brazil with one race to spare. Although Rosberg controlled the race at Interlagos from start to finish, Hamilton survived a spin to finish second, meaning first or second at the final race would be good enough for the title.
Rosberg qualified on pole in Abu Dhabi, but it was Hamilton who got the better start in the race. Even before Rosberg's car started to fail, Hamilton was already darting off into the setting sun, worried more about getting his car to the finish than about Rosberg.
The win in Abu Dhabi placed an exclamation point on a brilliant season that saw Hamilton win 11 of 19 races, while Rosberg won just five.
While Alonso and Vettel struggled—the first with an uncompetitive car, the second with a very competitive teammate—Hamilton dominated. Yes, the Brit was given the best car on the grid, but that alone did not guarantee a title. He still had to beat Rosberg and, more importantly, he showed the maturity that has been lacking at times in his career.
Before this season, there was an argument to be made that Hamilton had peaked too early. Could he ever live up to the promise he showed in coming this close to winning two championships in his first two seasons?
The answer, we now know, is yes. Hamilton also showed that he is every bit a match for Alonso, Vettel and anyone else currently racing.
But where does Hamilton sit among the all-time greats?
Earlier this year, we ranked all 32 world champions. At the time, Hamilton was—somewhat surprisingly, given his single title—tied for 11th with Nelson Piquet, just behind Niki Lauda, one of his bosses at Mercedes, and Alonso.
The rankings attempted to compare drivers across eras by using percentages and per-race statistics rather than absolute values (since the early seasons had far fewer races).
Hamilton's fantastic season, coupled with Alonso's struggles, vaulted the Brit into ninth place, ahead of Lauda, with Alonso falling to 12th.
With 33 wins, Hamilton is now fifth on the all-time list. Even considering he has started far more races than men like Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio and Jim Clark, Hamilton still ranks ninth among the champions in winning percentage.
Of course Hamilton could easily drop again with a couple lean years or a whimpering finish to his career—think Michael Schumacher's Mercedes comeback. But right now, that does not seem likely. Hamilton will be 30 years old when the 2015 season starts, but his future has as much promise as it did when he broke into the sport at 22.
Mercedes should have the best car by a substantial margin again next year, and Hamilton is already a heavy favourite to repeat as champion.
It is not a stretch to imagine Hamilton adding one or two more titles—and who knows how many victories—by the end of his career.
In that case, we will not be discussing Hamilton's position among the drivers of his generation, but rather among the very best drivers in history. He is already on the cusp of that discussion—maintaining his current form for a few more seasons will push him over the edge.
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