Hamilton a fitting replacement for Schumacher?
This is not a question about on-track prowess or talent. Lewis Hamilton has proved himself to be not only fast but one of the most naturally talented racing drivers that Formula One has ever seen.
This is a question about which of these two drivers you would rather want in your multi-million dollar F1 car if you were in charge of a team backed by a prestigious car manufacturer like Mercedes-Benz.
You would definitely want the driver to have composure and not get carried away at crucial moments. In that respect both Hamilton and Schumacher can arguably be found guilty. Case in point for Hamilton being choosing to follow McLaren’s decision to leave him out on track while battling with Fernando Alonso during the 2007 Chinese GP. His conservative approach in the season ending Brazilian GP of 2008 not only saw him get passed by Sebastian Vettel in the closing laps, but also almost miss out on finishing high enough to win that year’s title. A crawling Toyota of Timo Glock gave him the finish he needed to best Felipe Massa.
Two of Schumacher’s career defining moments are his title-deciding collisions with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve in 1994 and 1997.
What about consistency? The edge would have to go to Schumacher for that. The German’s ‘first’ career was defined by an ability to go flat out lap after lap and peform at a high level for every race he took part in. If Ross Brawn, his partner in crime at Benetton, Ferrari and then Mercedes is to be believed, he still has that ability. Factors like rust, unfamiliar car setup etc masked that since his return in 2010.
Hamilton is a wild card in this regard, however. Despite starting his career in 2007 with a team capable of delivering a title winning car (with the exception of 2009 and 2011) Hamilton’s record doesn’t seem as impressive as it probably should be. Part of this would have to go down to McLaren’s policy of giving both drivers an equal chance of winning, but Hamilton has (except for 2007) been paired with drivers considered to be less talented than him.
Schumacher won 19 races, two titles (convincingly in 1995) and established himself as undoubtedly the best driver of his generation during his four full seasons with Benetton. Even more impressive was that Benetton was not an established powerhouse on the grid and relied heavily on Schumacher and slipped into the midfield when he left for Ferrari in 1996.
Hamilton has won 17 races and one title (in less than convincing fashion) in his first five full seasons with McLaren. Three more wins have come this year and he is just about in contention for the drivers’ title again. The Woking based team is the second most successful ever in F1 and will have no problems attracting top talent after Hamilton’s departure.
Finally comes the question of which driver has the fortitude to stick it out during controversy. Hamilton has had many such occassions; from lying to the stewards in the 2009 Australian GP to his run-ins with them at various points of 2011. During these tough times, one could always count on a hot-heated comment from the Brit who wears his heart on his sleeve.
Schumacher, by comparison, gives no additional fuel to his critics whenever he courts controversy. He stays silent and lets the storm clouds pass before driving as if the incident never happened. It’s a quality that helped him tolerate the torrid times he faced as he and his close associates at Ferrari turned the team from the butt of F1 jokes to a scarlet juggernaut.
It’s this last factor that seems to tip the scales in Schumacher’s favour. And don’t let pure stats fool you. Schumacher’s average finishing position this year in races both he and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg have completed a race is 7.1 as compared to Rosberg’s 9.6. And five of Schumacher’s seven retirements this year have been through no fault of his own. Not to mention he set the fastest time in qualifying for the Monaco GP.
The work put in by him and the talented technical team at Mercedes’ Brackley headquarters could have helped him become a consistent winner again next year, but that will go down as one of F1’s big what ifs.
Now the only question remains is whether Hamilton will be focused enough to take advantage of being successfully courted by a giant car manufacturer with a 50-50 record of success in F1. Will it be all about Mercedes wanting to use Hamilton’s popularity and reach of influence to market its own brand or will Hamilton deliver the kind of results that will satisfy his lust for success?
Maybe Schumacher himself will have something to say about that if (really wild) rumours of his switch to Williams are true. Hopefully it won’t be another one of F1’s many what ifs.
By Vinayak Pande