Another Formula 1 season has come and gone, with Lewis Hamilton taking his sixth World Championship title. He is now just one short of matching Michael Schumacher’s record and is only a handful of wins away from overtaking the German’s total number of victories. When Schumacher first retired back in 2006, it was unthinkable that anyone would come even close to the records he set. Yet just 13 years later it is a very real possibility.
Hamilton’s success led to Mercedes' team principle Toto Wolff labelling him F1’s Greatest of All Time. But can the 34-year-old Stevenage lad truly lay claim to this coveted title? Let’s look at his career so far and see how it compares to other drivers who could also be declared the GOAT.
In order to narrow the field, this list will only consider drivers who have won at least four world titles, with one special exception. So, the likes of Jim Clark, Fernando Alonso and Niki Lauda amongst others won’t be included here.
With that in mind, let's look at the contenders:
Titles: 4 Races: 241 Wins: 53 %Wins: 21.99%
Let’s get this one out of the way quickly. Vettel is a good driver. He completely dominated the 2011 and 2013 seasons (albeit with a ridiculously good car) and his performance at Brazil 2012 to clinch the title remains one of the best recovery drives of all time.
His stats are very impressive for sure, but his skills as a driver aren’t good enough to be among the F1 elite. Numerous mistakes over the past few years, including crashing at his home grand prix, saw the German bottle the championship in 2017 and 2018. Unless he has the outright quickest car and a significantly inferior teammate, the pressure inevitably gets to Vettel.
Throw in plenty of controversial moments, like the Multi-21 incident with Mark Webber at Malaysia 2013, as well as collisions with his teammates, including Webber at Turkey 2010 and this year with Charles Leclerc in Brazil.
Vettel can simply not be in contention for the GOAT.
Titles: 4 Races: 202 Wins: 51 %Wins: 25.25%
The underrated candidate on this list, Prost didn’t necessarily have the raw speed or flair that other drivers of his generation had. But what he may have lacked in showmanship there is a reason he won so much.
Nicknamed ‘The Professor’, the Frenchman was known for his methodical and intellectual approach to racing. He often started races more cautiously, protecting his car for the latter stages should he have needed to push for victory. He didn’t take unnecessary risks that others would. If he needed to finish fourth to keep his lead in the standings, then he would get to fourth and just hold position.
Perhaps not the most popular driver to have every graced the grid but definitely one of the smartest, his controversial rivalry with Ayrton Senna dominated the sport in the late 1980s and while he won more, the Brazilian was just the better driver. Nevertheless, a worthy contender for the GOAT.
Juan Manuel Fangio
Titles: 5 Races: 52 Wins: 24 %Wins: 46.15%
It’s tough to judge Fangio’s place on this list. Unlike everyone else who raced from at least 1980 onward, Fangio won all five of his titles in the 50s. Like any sport, F1 has almost entirely changed from its first championship. The seasons are longer, the cars are more reliable, and the drivers’ safety has greatly improved.
These factors obviously mean comparisons are difficult to make. Fangio only won 24 races, less than half of Prost and Vettel’s total. But he competed in just 52 races meaning his wins per race percentage is the best in the sport’s history (for anyone who raced in more than two GPs). His record of five titles stood for 45 years and whilst the others won their titles with just one or maybe two different teams, Fangio stands alone, having won with four different teams (Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Mercedes and Ferrari).
The Argentine was nicknamed EL Maestro and last year Hamilton called Fangio: “The Godfather of our sport”.
There’s no better title for a driver whose legacy has only enhanced over many decades.
Titles: 7 Races: 308 Wins: 91 %Wins: 29.55%
The records man. Schumacher’s mark on Formula 1 will never be forgotten. He currently holds the records for titles, wins, podiums, and fastest laps.
A lot of his success comes from always having an incredible car to drive but Schumacher’s abilities transcended his machinery. He was a ridiculously good driver in his prime, a fact that a lot of fans often overlook. He mastered every circuit he drove at and was a master at racing in the rain. His return to the sport in 2010 was an unmitigated failure, but back in his day there was no one who could match his speed and consistency.
He wasn’t without controversy however. He collided with Damon Hill at the 1994 finale to secure his first championship and attempted to do the same with Jacques Villeneuve in the 1997 title decider. After success with Benetton in the 90s, he then dominated the early 2000s with Ferrari. But even their dominance had an ugly side, revealed when teammate Rubens Barrichello was ordered to give up victory to Schumacher at Austria 2002, despite already having complete control over the championship.
And whilst he raced against fierce opponents, he never had a teammate who really challenged him in his title years. Jonny Herbert, Eddie Irvine and Barrichello. Good but not great drivers.
His records have defended his reputation. Even now, with Hamilton looking likely to surpass the German’s incredible stats, there will be many who will still call him the GOAT.
Titles: 3 Races: 162 Wins: 41 %Wins: 25.31%
He may have won less titles than everyone else on this list, but it would have been unforgivable if Senna was not included in this discussion.
If this were a case of who was the best driver, the Brazilian would be the undisputed winner. He announced himself to the world with a spectacular drive from 14th to second in a torrential Monaco Grand Prix. He was the very definition of quick. Just watching his pole lap at Monaco in 1988, gives even non-motorsport fans goose bumps. His death at Imola in 1994 remains one of the darkest days in motorsport history, which changed the sport forever and we’ll never know how much more he could have achieved.
There really isn’t much more that can be said about Senna that hasn’t already. If you wanted to be super critical, you could say that he only won titles with McLaren during their most successful period. And of course, if you look purely at stats he isn’t as good as the others on this list.
But his legacy is not about numbers. Ask most drivers who they think the GOAT is and they’ll tell you Senna.
Titles: 6 Races: 250 Wins: 84 %Wins: 33.60%
The man of the moment. Despite all his trophies, Hamilton is strangely divisive amongst fans. Whilst some praise him for the great racer that he is, there are some who believe that his achievements have been down to his machinery and that in recent years he has become too complacent and too distant from the sport.
These criticisms are largely unwarranted. Whilst Hamilton has only raced for top teams, McLaren and Mercedes, who have always given him competitive cars, he has never had the championship handed to him on a silver platter. He has raced against top opposition such as Vettel and Felipe Massa as well as an array of world class teammates including fellow world champions Alonso, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg. Despite having the same car, he has only been beaten by a teammate twice in his 13-year career.
There is perhaps no distinctive thing that makes Hamilton tick. He is a perfect all-rounder, blessed with searing pace, great overtaking ability and perhaps most importantly, he has the mentally of a champion. He doesn’t let the pressure get to him any more like it used to. He balances the fun of being a worldwide celebrity with the focus and drive that separates the good drivers from the great. He instantly became a household name when he debuted in 2007 and all these years later, he has become the icon of the sport. He already has the most pole positions and will inevitably overtake Schumacher for the rest of the records. Now is the time to recognise his greatness.
So, is Hamilton the GOAT?
In some ways yes. And in other ways no. It’s impossible to compare these drivers from different eras. Fangio was undoubtedly to the best in the sport’s early days. Senna and Prost ruled the 80s and mid-90s. And Schumacher practically was Formula 1 for 10 years. Vettel and Hamilton are the latest to dominate a generation of the sport.
Hamilton's career is far from over of course. There is still plenty of time for him to enhance or even tarnish his career. That being said it would take something truly reckless to ruin a legacy that has plenty of admirers. The numbers are in his favour and his personality is unique among drivers. We'll know for sure once he retires but it certainly isn't to soon to start calling him the GOAT.