The F1 Championship 2018 rolls into the grand finale at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit two weeks from now. 20 Grands Prix later, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be a bit of a dead rubber, given that both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles have been secured. But it will not be low on action if the nail-biting Brazilian Grand Prix – where Lewis Hamilton defeated favourite Max Verstappen by 1.3 seconds – is anything to go by.
With Lewis Hamilton having secured his fifth Drivers’ Championship, however, it’s time to look at his place in the legacy of the modern greats. After the late legend Aryton Senna passed away in the San Marino Grand Prix in the early ‘90s, there have only been 5 Formula One drivers who have laid stake to the title of Undisputed Champion. There has been no dearth of talent – but it has been a combination of good timing, luck, machinery and teamwork that has thrown up these five contenders.
Races Won: 91
Pole Positions: 68
It was Schumacher that won the race in which Senna was killed. It took a while for the ruthless German genius to win the hearts of fans, but eventually he did, especially during his 5-title stint with Ferrari after winning 2 titles with Benetton. He transformed Ferrari into the most popular F1 team in the world and might have even won eight titles if he hadn’t broken his leg in 1999 after leading the standings. Schumacher’s domination between 2000-2005 was also the reason F1 became both universal as well as boring – he did have a few challengers, but for those five years, it was hard to imagine any other individual athlete dominating a sport the way he did. Many still consider him the greatest ever. Ferrari has never been able to retain their edge ever since he left after 2006. Nobody has won more than Schumacher’s 13 races in a single season (2004).
Races Won: 20
Pole Positions: 26
His numbers might not be as intimidating in comparison to the others on this list, but Hakkinen, the Flying Finn, will forever be remembered for his stunning rivalry with Schumacher when both were at their peak. F1 has arguably never been as exciting ever since – with the McLaren driver making his 8 years with the team count. He won the Drivers’ title in 1998 and 1999, just when Schumacher and Ferrari were beginning to look menacing. His 1998 season is still cited as one of the most fighting performances in motorsport – where he won the season’s final two races to pip Schumacher to the title, and becoming a “James Bond villain” type of ice-cold driver to many German fans. A chunk of his 20 race wins came at the expense of Schumacher in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Once he realizes that he could no more consistently challenge Schumacher, after losing the title in 2000, he promptly called time on his career.
Races Won: 32
Pole Positions: 22
Alonso was to Schumacher at the twilight of the German’s career what Hakkinen was to Schumacher at the beginning. The young Spaniard combined with a rejuvenated Renault team to end the German’s dominance in 2005, showing considerable skill to win his first of two F1 titles. To come for a country with no F1 culture and race the way he did, Alonso, who into his final F1 years, is still considered perhaps the most naturally gifted driver to have elevated the sport. Till Sebastian Vettel a few years later, Alonso was the youngest F1 champion in history. Yet, his post-Renault years have been a story of opportunities lost. His McLaren stint brought him in constant conflict with rising F1 star Hamilton, while his Ferrari years saw him fall short of the title twice to a marauding Red Bull team. His second stint with Renault after a single disastrous year with McLaren wasn’t fruitful, while he was expected to restore Ferrari to its heydays – which he almost did, in 2010. Twice, Alonso lost the title to Vettel on the final day – once in Abu Dhabi and once in Brazil. He finished runner-up to Vettel thrice in total in his Ferrari years.
Races Won: 52
Pole Positions: 55
Till 2014, Lewis Hamilton rescued a sinking career threatening to mirror Alonso’s, Sebastian Vettel remained the ultimate poster boy of the post-Schumacher error. The young German and Red Bull had taken the sport by storm after a bunch of almost-greats in Alonso, prodigy Hamilton and Jenson Button’s Mercedes wizardry. He won 4 F1 titles in a row, two by huge margins, and thwarted Alonso repeatedly in his quest to become the greatest F1 driver of a generation. If not for him, Alonso might have bowed out as an all-time legend, but Vettel will be the one taking that mantle. However, since his move to Ferrari, Vettel has struggled to continue his dominance, especially with Mercedes winning the last 5 Constructors titles, and Hamilton winning 4 Drivers’ Championships to go with his 2008 title with McLaren. Vettel threatened to come very close this season in 2018, but Ferrari lacked the consistency, and Hamilton has won his 4th title in five years – thereby wresting the title of the ‘greatest of an era’ from Vettel in half a decade.
Races Won: 72
Pole Positions: 82
Arguably the only active F1 great in a position to challenge Schumacher’s legacy – his 7 titles, as well as 93 race wins – Hamilton already holds the pole-position record by a long margin. He has had his fair share of controversies and rivalries since his record-breaking debut in 2007, but Hamilton has proved himself as a true master by coming from behind in the 2018 season and winning his fifth title with a dominant car. His two close runner-up seasons in 2007 and 2016 notwithstanding, Hamilton might end up as the greatest British athlete in history, and the 33-year-old looks like he is good for another two titles at the very least. Many were hoping for Vettel – now the underdog – to challenge Hamilton for this era-defining position, but Ferrari has nothing on Mercedes yet. Perhaps 2019 might be the year we see two drivers on equal ground. As of now, Hamilton is arguably the greatest modern F1 driver in the sport.