Comparisons between sporting greats are fatuous, because the big names all had different challenges to deal with in their respective eras. But we'll light the blue touch-paper and give it a go anyway. Scoring his fourth world championship in Mexico last weekend cements Lewis Hamilton's status as the most successful British racing driver of all time, and surely moves him into the top five Formula One talents in motor racing history. But could he be the greatest ever?
Well, who would you rank alongside him? Beardy students of F1 usually cite Juan Fangio, Sir Stirling Moss, Sir Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark, all of whom were blessed with a skill so sublime it was surely gifted from whichever deity you believe in, combined with the awesome doggedness and guile of the true racer. They also competed in an era when there was no controversy, to give one example, about breaching track limits because if you did that you were probably toast.
Many of their friends and rivals did check out, of course, which might offer another index of their brilliance: to win a race over which the ghastly pall of death had descended must have focused the mind. Moss once told me that risk was a big motivator, 'the salt in the chili.' People are rarely that honest these days, but there was a gleam in his eye when he said it, believe me. Watch a 1950s Grand Prix now and tell me you don't feel the same frisson, even when tragedy was waiting round the next corner.
Clearly, we have to add Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher to the five above. Senna has been practically canonized, and his movie star charisma only helped burnish his outrageous skill behind the wheel. That debut win in Portugal in 1985, or the Monaco pole lap in '88 where he qualified 1.2 seconds ahead of team mate Alain Prost and later admitted he was driving out of his skin, beyond his mortal limits… his legend is irresistible, untouchable. But he could also be gripped by the hubris that afflicts so many otherwise great historical or sporting figures. Prost declared that while Senna was apparently prepared to die in the course of battle, he most certainly wasn't. Prost won as slowly as possible, Senna as flamboyantly. The Frenchman won four world titles, the Brazilian three. Yet we're still waiting for that film about Alain Prost.
Schumacher's record remains the one that Lewis, if he truly cares about such things, has to eclipse. Lewis has won 62 GPs so far, Michael a still-astonishing 91, with seven world titles to Lewis's four. Along with Jean Todt and Ross Brawn, Michael was part of the triumvirate who successfully kept the self-defeating, behind-closed-doors politicking of Maranello at bay, to record a winning streak for F1's most glamorous team that Mercedes still has to beat. Like Senna, Schumacher's innate talent was underpinned by an unattractive ruthlessness, for this was a driver who almost ran his own brother into the wall at 241kph, and could be as craven on the track as he was inspired.
Yet Michael remains the F1 star, a master manipulator, genius and a fighter. And for all those who still write him off as an unbearably entitled German, he was charming company, fascinating to interview, funny and generous. It breaks my heart to think of him currently having to fight harder than anyone should ever have to, just to stay alive.
Which brings us back to Lewis, and perhaps the biggest problem he faces: perception. Or more accurately, how other people perceive him. Following Sunday's race, Brazilian footballer Neymar sent his best over the team radio, and others were quick to congratulate him. Make no bones about it: Lewis Hamilton is a megastar, the kid from Stevenage who made it to the top of one of the world's most highly pressurized and glamorous sports. He has it all: the Senna-esque one-lap quali touch that leaves his rivals gasping, phenomenal race-craft, and unbelievable natural speed. The word is that Mercedes is ready to renew his contract in a three-year deal that'll be worth a total of £120 million (P8 billion). Wow.
So why don't we love him more? Dissecting brand Lewis Hamilton has led plenty of commentators into murky waters, and the fact is that his kinship with LA's hip hop fraternity and image 'management' simply doesn't sit well with racing fans who prefer their F1 drivers to conform to an altogether different stereotype. You fill in the gaps.
Frankly, this is utter nonsense. Firstly, the guy can wear what he likes. Secondly, Lewis being Lewis is surely a positive thing for a sport that needs to modernize even faster than its new owners are committed to doing. Finally, since we spend enough time moaning that there are no characters left in F1, why moan even louder when one actually emerges? Besides, when he delivers on the track in the way that Lewis does, who gives a toss what sort of extra-curricular activities are going on.
That's not to say Hamilton isn't without his foibles. He can be a prickly character, and as someone who has interviewed him on numerous occasions during the past decade, I've found myself on the wrong end of moody Lewis more than once. Keith Richards used to say that Mick Jagger was a 'lovely bunch of guys,' and there's a bit of that to Lewis Hamilton. You can never be sure which one is going to turn up. Some drivers don't mind the interviews and media engagements; others are less skillful at hiding their contempt for this part of the process.
Here's the thing: Lewis wears his heart on his sleeve. Sometimes it's to his detriment, on others it's hugely refreshing. Ultimately, we are lucky to be around to watch such a genuinely stellar British talent do his thing in the sport we love.
The rest is just… noise.
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.