Schumacher's F1 wins tally tied, titles record next up for Hamilton

With a 69-point lead over Valtteri Bottas in the 2020 standings, Hamilton is primed to match the German’s seven world titles’ as well this season.

Mick Schumacher presents Lewis Hamilton with Michael Schumacher’s helmet to celebrate equalling his father’s achievement of 91 wins during the F1 Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring on October 11.   -  Getty Images

Records are there to be broken.” — Michael Schumacher after Lewis Hamilton won the 2008 Formula One championship.

Prophetic words indeed. On October 11, 2020, as Lewis Hamilton took the chequered flag at the Eifel Grand Prix to match the German’s record of 91 wins in F1, just 500km away, another champion was on his way to tying an equally coveted record in another sport. Rafael Nadal’s 20 Grand Slam singles titles — his 13th on the terre battue of Roland-Garros — came by way of a demolition of Novak Djokovic, a cold, clinical, ruthless display that threatened to overawe the Spaniard’s relentless, passionate drive to greater achievements.

Not all champions are cut from the same cloth. Hamilton effects none of the ferocity or ruthlessness that Schumacher once displayed on track, just as Nadal and Roger Federer, the Spaniard’s long-time rival and friend whose record he tied at the 2020 French Open, could not be any more different, save for the affable and self-effacing manner that has long endeared the two to all but the most hard-hearted.

Hamilton and Nadal have more in common with each other than either has with the men they emulated — in terms of personal development, if not personality. Long before October 11, 2020, both were assured of their place among the very best their sport has ever produced. Both mercurial talents at the start of their professional careers, if not prodigies, becoming the most successful of all time still required a dedication and focus on improvement — ergo, winning – that comes once in a generation.

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The moment arrives

Hamilton had his first chance to go level with Schumacher at the Russian Grand Prix on the last Sunday of September. The Brit started on pole but had to fight his way back to third place after being given two five-second time penalties, the first for a practice start outside the designated area, the second for failing to maintain “constant” speed on the pit exit — both avoidable but for a poor reading of the rules of the sport.

His second opportunity came at the Eifel Grand Prix, held at the Nurburgring, a little over an hour’s drive from Schumacher’s home town of Kerpen. But when Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, took pole and held on to the position at the start and the opening quarter of the race, it seemed Hamilton would have to wait another day for his date with history.

As has happened with Bottas earlier this season, a small slip-up was followed by a spate of bad luck. Hamilton took the lead when the Finn locked his front-right tyre at the start of lap 13 of 60, and if that was not enough to ensure victory for the six-time world champion, Bottas retired five laps later with engine failure.

As usual, Max Verstappen was the only driver to come close to the two Mercedes cars, the Dutch prodigy outperforming his Red Bull machinery once again. But his second-place finish, just 4.4 seconds behind the winner, does not reflect the outright dominance of the Mercedes at another race. With less than 10 laps to go, Hamilton set about lowering the track record, which he did thrice in a row. Verstappen took the extra point for fastest lap on the final run around the circuit, but by then Hamilton had slowed considerably within sight of the chequered flag. A third place for Daniel Ricciardo — his first podium since he won in Monaco in 2018 — with Renault — the team’s first podium since 2011 — was more of an afterthought on what was Hamilton’s night.

The only threat to a Hamilton victory came when the safety car was deployed with 10 laps to go. At that point in the race, the Mercedes driver was on course to lap every other racer up to Ricciardo in third. But a perfect restart kept Hamilton well ahead of Verstappen, who was left fending off Ricciardo, his former Red Bull teammate.

In comparison to Hamilton, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, once considered the true successor to Schumacher and a driver capable of matching his compatriot’s achievements, spun on track during the race — an all-to-common occurrence for the German for a couple of seasons now. He finished outside the points in 11th, the same position in which he started.

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Laying the foundation for team and driver

Hamilton made his F1 debut for McLaren at age 22. He finished third in his first race and second in the next four, before winning his first race in Canada. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen stole the title that year from Hamilton and his double world champion teammate Fernando Alonso with masterful wins in the final two races of the season, but the seeds of greatness had been sown. Hamilton emerged champion in an even-closer title fight with Felipe Massa of Ferrari in 2008. But the next five seasons were a period of learning and consolidation of his prodigious talent for Hamilton as Vettel went on to win four titles on the trot.

Meanwhile, Schumacher came out of retirement to join countryman Nico Rosberg at Mercedes — an all-German combination that promised industrial-strength efficiency, if not titles. The seven-time world champion’s return to the sport was largely forgettable (his sole podium came midway through his third and final season with the team), but the development work with the machinery laid the foundation for the greatest period of dominance by any team in Formula One history.

When Schumacher retired for a second time at the end of 2012, Hamilton was there to take his place at Mercedes, and under team principal Toto Wolff, Hamilton won five world titles in six years (he lost the 2016 championship as much to mechanical failure as to teammate Rosberg) and is on the cusp of a record-equalling seventh.

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A Schumacher to pass on the mantle

Not much is known about Michael Schumacher since a skiing accident in the French Alps in December 2013 left him with traumatic brain injury, but his son Mick was on hand to witness Hamilton’s achievement. Mick, who was denied an F1 debut at Free Practice 1 for the Eifel Grand Prix when the session was cancelled because of foggy conditions, presented Hamilton with one of his father’s helmet after the victory — a worthy yet poignant trophy.

For many, it once seemed inconceivable that Schumacher’s tally of 91 race wins would be overtaken, but Hamilton has six more races to do that this season itself. And with a 69-point lead over Bottas in the 2020 standings, Hamilton is primed to match the German’s seven world titles’ as well.