Formula One is all about the numbers. Milliseconds, budgets, top speeds – it’s the benchmark against which everything else is measured. Take Lewis Hamilton’s recent outing at the Portuguese Grand Prix, where he tumbled just about every record that bestows upon the greatest drivers of all time almost god-like status.
So far, 2020 has seen some interesting numbers: the least number of spectators, the most race-starts from a single driver – courtesy of Kimi Räikkönen, who recently started his 324th Grand Prix. Then there’s the Mercedes F1 outfit that is tied with Ferrari for the most consecutive constructors’ championships. And they look increasingly more likely to pull another from the cap, bringing the total to seven in 2020 – a record that will likely not be broken in the foreseeable future. Yet, arguably the most-enviable record to have, and the one that was shattered by Lewis Hamilton at the recent Portuguese Grand Prix; the most career Grands Prix wins.
RUSSIA & BELGIUM
Frustratingly, though, for the Britton, the record alluded him at Sochi, despite being the ideal venue for bursts of close racing and drama from the moment the lights turned green. And drama there was from as early as lap one, with Carlos Sainz in his McLaren. Although his car traditionally favours this track, it made contact with the barriers after the track unexpectedly narrowed for the Spaniard. A few turns later, the Racing Point of Lance Stroll too had a meeting with the barricades after he reported a shunt from a fellow racer.
Yes, Lewis Hamilton, looked like he couldn’t set a foot wrong, but his race quickly deteriorated into a downward spiral following a near-unprecedented double ‘Practice Start Violation’ that netted him a 10-second time penalty. It was, however, his teammate, Valtteri Bottas that took the chequered flag, with Max Verstappen crossing the line in second. Hamilton, though, had to be satisfied with the last spot on the podium, making it the sixth time in 2020 that this trio shared the top three steps.
And while it was the same somewhat predictable outcome at the Belgian GP, the circuit that is also debatably the most iconic on the F1 calendar delivered on its reputation with an early position-squabble between former Red Bull teammates, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, that made for edge-of-your-seat stuff early in the race. Naturally, the Mercs pulled ahead at the start, but behind them, the Renault of Ricciardo displayed the kind of outright pace that we haven’t seen in a while. Ultimately, it was the well-sorted chassis of the Red Bull with the Flying Dutchman at the helm that edged ahead.
Aside from a safety car period, the remainder of the race delivered on the overtaking front, thanks to the long straights of Spa; sections that played into the hands of the Renault team with Ricciardo also setting the overall fastest lap of the race – a glimmer of hope for Alonso on the dawn of his return to F1, since we might finally see him piloting a car that has top-three potential.
GERMANY & PORTUGAL
The return of the F1 circus to the Nürburgring proved to be nothing short of spectacular. Sure, it was Mercedes dominance from the get-go, even after Hamilton and Bottas nearly ended the Mercedes run at the exit of the first corner. It was, however, further down the order where the sparks were flying. Ricciardo showcased some of his previous form with a seemingly impossible overtake on the young Charles Leclerc – which begs the question of whether it’s a competitive return for Renault, or if the Aussie is finally getting used to the Renault platform, just as his contract is expiring and he’s looking set to join McLaren for the 2021 season?
And then Bottas, who was relentlessly fighting Hamilton for the lead, retired with the blitzing Australian in his yellow and black Renault RS inheriting third place. This position has eluded him since his Red Bull departure. An engine issue for the McLaren of Lando Norris forced a safety car, putting Ricciardo in a bit of a peculiar position upon the race restart: he was within striking distance of his former teammate, Max Verstappen, but he was also in a vulnerable position with Sergio Perez breathing down his rear diffuser in the pink Racing Point, a car that has proven to be substantially pacier throughout the season. The Aussie, however, defended his position brilliantly, ending his near two-year podium drought.
At the head of the pack, Lewis Hamilton secured his 91st win, equalling the tally of Michael Schumacher.
The first-ever Grand Prix at the Algarve International Circuit, and the first Grand Prix to be held in Portugal for 24 years, got off to quite the memorable start. Bottas took the early lead from Hamilton, endangering his record attempt for most F1 wins. Carlos Sainz followed suit by moving up to second place. Verstappen had contact with Perez that didn’t end well for the latter, Kimi Räikkönen extracted pace from the Alfa Romeo we never knew it had – all of that on the first lap.
And then, out of nowhere, Sainz took the lead from Bottas, although it didn’t last long, as the Fin reclaimed the lead on lap six. Tyre degradation meant the Spaniard’s pace faltered, with both Hamilton and Verstappen overtaking him for second and third respectively. Inevitably, Hamilton also reclaimed the lead from Bottas with a significant speed advantage in the main straight’s DRS section; an overtake that would eventually see Hamilton taking the chequered flag as he set a new record for the most wins in Formula One – making him the most successful driver ever.
Many a pundit has argued that, despite Hamilton’s record, Michael Schumacher was and always will be the greatest F1 driver of all time. And yet, the numbers don’t lie. Hamilton has entered 262 times and won 92 races meaning that he’s won 35% of his career races. Schumi entered 308 times, of which he won 91 equating to a win-percentage of 30%. That in itself says a lot. Sure, Lewis is yet to equal Schumacher’s World Championship tally, but that’s bound to happen soon enough.
However, what makes the greatest Grand Prix drivers of all time? Is it the finesse with which drivers manipulate their cars, their storied racing conquests, overcoming of obstacles or amount of racing wins? In my opinion, while all these aspects have a role to play, it all comes down to winning – because isn’t that the point?
Report by DEON VAN DER WALT | Images © DAIMLER AG & RENAULT SPORT