The inevitable comparisons began a few years ago, when Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes first asserted their domination of the highest level of motorsports in the middle of the last decade. The questions of “Could they?” eventually wound down to “How soon would they?”
Just one race after Lewis Hamilton became Formula One’s most successful driver, Mercedes asserted its claim as the greatest team the sport has seen. It will be a while before the German behemoth climbs above Ferrari on the statistical ladder (after a very successful but also very brief stint in the 1950s, Mercedes returned to the sport only in 2010, while Ferrari, after all, is the only team to have raced in every F1 season till date), but Mercedes now has seven straight constructors’ titles, one more than the Italian marque.
The question of “greatest ever” in Formula One, as in any other sport, instead of yielding an answer, always ends in a debate. Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton... The individual answer, even when stripped of personal bias, will still be a reflection of the place and time.
Statistically, Schumacher and Hamilton are far ahead of anyone else (the latter a little further ahead at this point). And the teams they elevated to “greatness” — Ferrari and Mercedes, respectively — have legacies that are inextricably tied to the two drivers.
Success doesn’t come overnight
Michael Schumacher joined Ferrari in 1996 as the two-time reigning world champion with Benetton. It had been many years since the legendary Italian car maker had been a title contender, or even a regular race winner; its last drivers’ title had come in 1979, and constructors’ in 1983. Jean Todt — the president of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), motorsports’ global ruling body, since 2009 — had joined in 1993, and the team had been in transition when Schumacher signed on.
The initial couple of Schumacher’s Ferrari years were spent building the team — car designer Rory Bryne and technical director Ross Brawn (now F1’s managing director for motorsports and technical director) joined from Benetton during the 1996 season — though the German was immediately winning races, three in his first year with Ferrari and five the next. While Schumacher pushed Williams’ Jacques Villeneuve for the title in 1997 and McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen in ’98, his Ferrari was a dominant force by the final year of the millennium, and the German might even have become champion that season had he not sat out most of it with a broken leg suffered at the British Grand Prix (Ferrari did take the constructors’ championship in 1999).
Schumacher and Ferrari spent 2000-04 playing roller derby with the record books. The German was the prima donna of the world’s most expensive opera, his five consecutive world drivers’ titles his aria, the adulation of the audience as much for him as for his production team.
Yet, Ferrari did not always have the fastest car in those years when it reigned supreme. That honour went mostly to Williams, at the hands of Juan Pablo Montoya and the other Schumacher — Ralf, Michael’s younger brother. Even McLaren in some seasons and later on Renault (a rejuvenated and rebranded Benetton) had as much pace as Ferrari, if not more.
In the case of Mercedes, team principal Toto Wolff joined at the same time as Hamilton in 2013. The previous three seasons had been a period of consolidating a team that had won both championships in 2009. The eponymous Brawn GP had bought out an exiting Honda’s assets and taken home both titles through a savant-like reading of the season’s technical regulations, with Jenson Button winning his only world title and Rubens Barrichello playing second fiddle — as he had to Schumacher at Ferrari between 2000 and 2003.
In 2010, Ross Brawn sold a majority stake in the team that then bore his name to Daimler AG, the owner of Mercedes, and Aabar Investments, but he remained as team principal. With German ownership came German talent — Nico Rosberg, who had risen alongside Hamilton in the junior formulae, and Schumacher, coming out of retirement after three years (plus test driver Nick Heidfeld, lest anyone forget).
When Mercedes announced that Hamilton would replace Schumacher for the 2013 season, the seeds for the team’s success had already sprouted. Rosberg had won the previous year’s Chinese Grand Prix. He won twice more in 2013, with Hamilton adding the Hungarian GP to the German outfit’s tally.
Mercedes and Hamilton’s dominance of the 2020 Formula One season — nine of the team’s 10 wins in 13 races have gone to the Brit — is almost enough to make one forget that it had not been so for the previous five years. Ferrari had the pace in both 2017 and 2019 to win either title (as had McLaren in 2000-01, and McLaren and Williams both in 2003’s memorable three-way battle between Schumacher, Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen). Red Bull, after its own record-breaking run in 2010-13, has been a constant threat during races, if not always over the course of the season (highlighted by Max Verstappen carrying the team on his shoulders the past two seasons).
Yet, as with Schumacher and Ferrari, the combination of driver and team in Hamilton’s Mercedes years is what has enabled either’s success. Formula One is a team sport, for all that just one man can stand on the top step of the podium. Hamilton’s greatness may not have been achieved without the brilliance of Mercedes. The reverse is as much true.
One more record to go
Hamilton began the 2020 season chasing history as he looked to equal Schumacher’s seven drivers’ titles and 91 race victories. The latter record was surpassed as more races were added to the provisional eight-race calendar when the season began in July after a four-month delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic. With an 85-point lead over teammate Valtteri Bottas going into the Turkish Grand Prix, the former could be his as well at the next race in Istanbul.
Mercedes, meanwhile, after securing its seventh consecutive constructors’ title at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola, Italy, on November 1, will go to Turkey with a degree of uncertainty over its future. Wolff has said he will remain with the team in 2021 but plans to step down from his current position, while Hamilton has left a question mark hanging over whether he will race on.
“I don’t even know if I’m going to be here next year, so it’s not really a concern for me,” Hamilton said, as reported by The Guardian . “We have a lot of deep conversations, Toto and I, so I’m very aware of where he is mentally, and we share a lot of and carry a lot of the weight together. I’ve been here a long, long time. I can definitely understand wanting to pull back a little bit and giving more time to family and those sort of things.”
Few champions are able to walk away from their sport when at the top of their game. Schumacher stayed on with Ferrari in 2005 and ’06, even finishing a close second to Renault’s Fernando Alonso in the latter season, before hanging up his racing boots. But the German donned them again when Mercedes came calling a few years later.
Lauda and Prost both retired as reigning world champions but returned to F1 to win the title again. Schumacher’s own return was — to put it mildly — not up to the standards he had previously set.
Hamilton is supremely fit at 35 — as is required of F1 drivers; the physical demands of racing are to be felt, but they are not often seen — and if he does retire at the end of this season, there’s no discounting the talent, experience and sheer will to win he will bring if he decides to race again.