Lewis Hamilton has been breathing rarefied air for a while now, but as he sealed his greatest achievement so far, a fifth Formula 1 world championship on the weekend, the overwhelming thought was just how much further he could go.
The 33-year-old is the equal second most successful driver in history, in terms of titles, drawing level with the great Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio. Suddenly, Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven, which for a while looked impregnable, is within reach.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team have triumphed in every single year since the introduction of F1’s turbo hybrid engines in 2014. But a large part of the reason they have done so this season is because their lead driver has reached new heights. As long as the team remains competitive, the way he has been driving it is hard to see anyone stopping him.
Hamilton’s achievement this year will surely go down as his greatest so far. He has maintained a level of excellence not only way out of reach of his only real rival, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, but at a consistency Hamilton himself has not achieved before.
The scale of the accomplishment becomes clearer when one considers that he has brought the season to a premature close with two races to go despite not having the fastest car the majority of the time.
The measure of a truly great driver is that he can take his equipment to places it has no right to go to, and which others cannot reach. In that, Hamilton has truly proven his mettle this year.
On top of that, it has been a virtually flawless season. It is hard to think of a single serious mistake. And while he has had a couple of off-races, they have not been as noticeable as in the past. He even won on one of those weekends.
Not for nothing, then, did Mercedes technical director James Allison describe Hamilton’s driving this year as “peerless”. Right now, in F1, that is exactly what he is.
The raw statistics of the 2018 season tell only part of the story. Hamilton has won nine races and taken nine pole positions; Vettel five of each. The basic maths of that equation explain why Hamilton is already champion, with the Brazilian and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix still to come.
But what the statistics do not say is that Mercedes have probably had the fastest car at only eight of the 19 races so far, and yet Hamilton has won nearly double the number of races of his closest challenger.
“This feels the proudest moment,” Hamilton said, “because we have not had the fastest car at the majority of the races and yet we have come away with more wins and pole positions than I could have hoped for.”
As Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff said: “He has been the differentiator.”
After the title-winning race, Hamilton was quick to pay tribute to the two men with whom he now shares his exalted statistical status.
“Michael’s still quite far ahead in race wins so you have to say he’s still the ‘GOAT’ (greatest of all time),” said Hamilton.
“Fangio I think is the godfather and always will be from a driver’s perspective. To do what he did in that time when it was so dangerous, I respect him so highly. I feel a great honour to have my name alongside his, that’s for sure. And naturally just very proud to have the Hamilton name up there. If I stop today, the Hamilton name will always be there.”
At the time of his greatest success, Hamilton, as he often does, referred back to his earliest days, his humble beginnings on a council estate in Stevenage still forefront in his mind, still providing motivation despite the wealth and fame that have come his way since.
“If you could see how tough it was for us in the beginning – even this year, still fighting those obstacles and still coming stronger and stronger each year – I feel like I’m still driving with that fierce fire I had when I was eight years old,” he said.
“So I’ll keep going until that goes. Which I don’t think is ever going to go, but my body will probably run out at some stage.
“I’ve still got things to achieve, still so many targets, so many things ahead.”