So, what could have possibly stopped Lewis Hamilton from breaking Michael Schumacher’s incredible record of 91 Formula One (F1) victories last weekend? There was the rain that threatened to spoil the plans of every team at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve—popularly known as the Portimão circuit—which hosted the 2020 Portuguese Grand Prix. Conditions were incredibly windy. He had a cramp in the right leg, as he noted on the team radio at around lap 60 of a gruelling 66-lap race on a circuit that not many of the 20 drivers knew much about.
None of this stopped the 35-year-old Mercedes driver. Hamilton swooped into the final corner on lap 66 to seal a win.
“Ninety-two race wins, who would have thought that when we embarked on the project in 2013? It’s almost a surreal number of wins. It is absolute passion, energy, and everything that Lewis puts into the sport,” Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, said in a press statement.
It is a record that looks set to stay untouched for a while. Having surpassed Schumacher’s tally, Hamilton’s closest active rival is Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, with 53 race wins. But where does the Brit go from here?
A seventh world championship (a record currently held by Schumacher) is now his to lose as well.
If he stays 78 points clear of his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas after the Turkish Grand Prix, the title will be Hamilton’s.
World championship No.8?
Hamilton is not only on course to match this Schumacher record, there’s every chance he might eclipse it in 2021 or later.
Sports expert and commentator Suhail Chandhok says Hamilton’s record-breaking drive in Portugal was a huge achievement in the sport, and he’s “not done” yet.
“A lot of people will talk about Schumacher as still the all-time great—the era that he was in, for the different cars he won titles in as well. But you can’t take nothing away from Lewis’ consistency and his ability to put the big laps in whenever required. His tyre management has also been impeccable,” says Chandhok.
On Hamilton’s chances of an eighth world championship, Chandhok says: “A lot changes in the off-season in this sport. But the case will be to become the most successful driver in Formula One history. He has gone past every other record there is to beat and that’s the one he would want under his belt as well.”
Red Bull is right behind
After last weekend’s race, Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen called Hamilton’s feat an “incredible, incredible achievement”. Deep down, the 23-year-old must be pushing himself to ramp up the pressure on Hamilton and Mercedes.
Verstappen has been on the podium seven times out of 12 this season, alongside Bottas and Hamilton. He looks like one of the only credible threats to Mercedes’ winning streak in the coming seasons.
“If you look at Hamilton’s challengers and biggest threats, there are three you need to talk about: Verstappen, (Charles) Leclerc and Bottas,” says Chandhok.
For the sake of the championship, says Chandhok, one would want to see Verstappen in a title-winning car—but Mercedes always seems to have something extra in the tank.
“They are still leaps and bounds ahead of the rest. I don’t think next season things will change too much, as compared to 2022, when the new (technical and financial) regulations come in,” he adds.
Can Ferrari be a threat again?
Scuderia Ferrari has had a disappointing season so far. The only positive has been Leclerc, who finished fourth in Portugal, Vettel’s journey with the team will come to an end this year. But has Ferrari found someone who could partner Leclerc, and change its fortunes, in Carlos Sainz, who will join it from McLaren next season? “It’s actually one of the most exciting driver pairings. (Daniel) Ricciardo and Lando (Norris) are a supremely good pairing as well at McLaren but the Leclerc-Sainz pairing at Ferrari is the more exciting one. But I think it doesn’t come into play till 2022,” says Chandhok.
“Getting the love and support of the Tifosi (Ferrari supporters) is very important and maybe next year will be about Carlos understanding the culture at Ferrari and building into that,” he adds.
The hunger factor
Hamilton, who turns 36 in January, is the oldest driver in the current F1 setup after Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Räikkönen, who’s also not showing any signs of slowing down at the age of 41. For all its technical and modern brilliance, F1 is still one of the most gruelling motorsports in the world. It’s less taxing on the drivers than earlier, says Chandhok, but the sheer number of races makes it physically demanding. “The G forces are massive,” he adds.
“Hamilton is supremely fit as an athlete. From a fitness perspective, if he wants to, he’s got four-five years in him, easily,” says Chandhok. “I don’t think the age factor comes in just yet. It’s more about hunger... Once you have won it all, where does the hunger stem from? That’s going to be the bigger question.”