Lack of F1 challengers has not helped '˜king' Hamilton

Whether it is tomorrow night that he wins the title, or in Mexico, Brazil or Abu Dhabi in the weeks ahead, the 2018 season has been one in which Lewis Hamilton has hammered home his superiority in Formula 1.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, of Britain, speaks during a news conference for the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, of Britain, speaks during a news conference for the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

And not just in this year, or in this era, but once that fifth world title is claimed he will take his place among an elite club revered as the greatest drivers of all time.

With a fifth world title Hamilton will move level with Juan Manuel Fangio and just two behind Michael Schumacher.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

He will forge ahead of Alain Prost on four, while Ayrton Senna was left behind a year ago when Hamilton clinched his fourth.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, left, of Britain, talks with McLaren driver Fernando Alonso. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

For all the superlatives that will be thrown at Hamilton – and rightly so as he is clearly the best driver on the grid – the flipside of his utter dominance is the lack of competition he has faced.

This has hardly been a vintage era for Formula 1 and Hamilton has certainly made hay, but great champions need great challengers and as he speeds towards four titles in five years the nagging sense is that he has not been pushed far enough.

Some would argue he was two years ago when his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg edged him out, but the German’s retirement in the immediate aftermath robbed the sport of a simmering rivalry that Hamilton would have relished and which would have made him a better champion.

In Rosberg’s stead his compatriot Sebastian Vettel has been found wanting. A four-time champion at the start of the decade when he had the best car, Vettel has buckled under the pressure-cooker of a two-horse race.

Hamilton and title race in numbers

Forced to chase and take risks, Hamilton’s calmness and mind games have exposed in Vettel more cracks than a sinking new-build.

Hamilton’s impressive run of six wins in seven races to establish a 67-point lead over Vettel has also coincided with an implosion by the German and his Ferrari team.

Vettel has attracted criticism following a series of mistakes – he clumsily collided with Max Verstappen at the last race in Japan – leading Hamilton to claim that his rival warranted more respect, which could be construed as more mind games or the Briton merely wanting fans to view his opponent as a better challenger than he really is.

Hamilton is a great champion, but at the end of the day will his record be tarnished by the fact there was no Senna to his Prost, no Nelson Piquet to his Nigel Mansell?

How many more titles would the studious Prost have won had there been no Senna? How many would the quite brilliant Senna have claimed if his arch enemy Prost raced at a different time?

Oh for the days of those two shunting each other off at the first turn at Suzuka.

It is not Hamilton’s fault. Part of the reason for a lack of a challenger is the aura he has created for himself.

“It is crazy to think that I am embarking on a similar number of championships that Fangio had,” he said this week in Austin.

“Fangio is the Godfather of the sport, and will always be admired.”

Just like Hamilton is by his fellow drivers, even Fernando Alonso, a former world champion with whom he had a fractious relationship at McLaren in 2007.

“Michael, Fangio, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Lewis would be my top five,” said Alonso.

“Lewis definitely showed the talent from day one. I am happy for him because he was able to win races when the car was there to win it, but also when the car wasn’t up to it, as in 2009.”

For the record, Hamilton needs to outscore Vettel by only eight points in Austin to clinch the title with three rounds to spare.