Why Hamilton v Schumacher is crucial to the future of F1
Lewis Hamilton is chasing down Michael Schumacher on the all-time title-winners list but will he stick around long enough to catch him? James Gray asks the question...
Seven years ago, Lewis Hamilton replaced Michael Schumacher at Mercedes. The seven-time world champion was beyond the peak of his powers, or at least the car he was driving was nothing like his Ferrari of the early 2000s, and it was definitely time for 'Schumi' to retire for a second time. In his three-year comeback, he finished just once on the podium.
It was sad to see a man who was and still is regarded as the greatest F1 driver of all-time so conflicted at the end of his career, replaced by Mercedes before announcing his retirement and admitting that there were times in his final season that he didn't even want to race. The impression he always gave was that coming back - he first retired in 2006 - had been a mistake.
Schumacher was far less of a force when he returnedGetty Images
He had been lured back by the chance to race for Mercedes, to work with Ross Brawn again and the smell of fuel and rubber. You are a long time retired, they say, but the same sages will tell you never to go back.
When Schumacher retired, he stayed close to the sport, working as a racing advisor and even a test driver, just to keep his oar in. It was too easy for him to come back and there was seemingly little else that entertained him.
For Lewis Hamilton, that same decision about his life is also coming. Even though he is super-fit, his reactions seem as fast as ever and his eyesight is still intact, he is 34 years old and F1 is increasingly a young man's game. A decision point is looming over the horizon.
Hamilton could spray champagne for the rest of his life and probably not run outGetty Images
He has more money that he could ever hope to spend, properties in Britain, Monaco and New York and entry to all the hottest bars, restaurants and exclusive events that we mere mortals don't even know take place. His legacy as an athlete is unimpeachable, his records will stand the test of time and he has become a role model to millions. He can hang up his helmet with no real regrets.
And when he does, he will have plenty to occupy him. As a musician, he is already rumoured to have featured on a number of high-profile tracks and he played the piano to introduce himself on an Italian chat show. A lover of fashion, he has his own range of clothing in collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger.
He has designed motorbikes, watches and built a worldwide personal brand that will not leave him short of entertainment away from the F1 circus. When you consider all that, it could be the easiest decision he ever makes. Unlike his on-track work, he will be able to take his time with it.
But it also means that when F1 no longer works for him, he can walk away. It is a sport driven first by technology but increasingly by personality. The V6 hybrid engine doesn't excite the petrolheads any more, but the human element of the machine is the entertainment. It is what draws in the younger generation, that magical group that advertisers are forever trying to reach. Hamilton is the embodiment of that and as much as the sport has built him, it now relies on him as much as he once did on it.
There are some pretenders to his crown: Max Verstappen's driving style and devil-may-care attitude make him a popular choice, Carlos Sainz Jr carries the name of one of rallying's most famous stars and even Lando Norris has a growing cult following. But none of them are Lewis.
The winds of change are blowing in the paddock and without wanting to trigger any Brexit-related PTSD, there is a new deal on the table. The relationship between the sport's owners and the teams will change from 2021, as Liberty Media try to make the series more competitive and more fair. They do not want anyone to win title after title ever again.
Hamilton and Mercedes will find it harder to be so dominant under the new rulesGetty Images
Naturally, those who have been winning title after title - namely Mercedes, along with Ferrari - were sceptical. Ferrari in particular have often threatened, in a flamboyantly continental way, to walk away from the sport when they feel like it, but it has always felt like a hollow threat. With Mercedes or more specifically Hamilton, it's a real concern.
The powers-that-be hoping Hamilton will sign on for longer will have enjoyed his comments this week, suggesting he would like to lead the sport into this revolutionary new era.
"I always love a challenge and this team has shown that they are better prepared and in the best position to be able to react to all the changes," said Hamilton.
"I think it's going to be an interesting time. You've got the youngsters who are in town. I'm planning to be here then so at some point next year my mindset will be to switch into 2021, and wanting to be the pioneer in that era."
Hamilton is no longer the new kid on the block in F1Getty Images
But best-laid plans of mice, men and racing drivers often go awry and it would not be unlike Hamilton after an unpleasant race to suggest remind us all of how easy it would be for him to quit.
There is another reason Hamilton is still here though, sweating blood to win races on a regular basis, going through all the gruelling physical training and travel that being a modern F1 driver entails, and it brings us back to Schumacher.
The German is a hero to just about every man on the grid and Hamilton is no different. As one of the more senior drivers, he even had the chance to bang wheels with the great man, even if only for a few years before he supplanted him. Better still he overtook him. And he wants to do it again.
Hamilton is in the conversation for the greatest racing driver of all-time and will once again be talked of in those terms when he becomes a six-time world champion. But until he equals Schumacher's seven, that will always be a trump card to which he has no riposte. If Hamilton wants to settle that debate once and for all, he must not only equal Schumacher but surpass him. He needs not seven titles, but eight.
And to do that, he must ride into the new era, where heavier, slower cars await him and a budget cap that will still allow teams to plough astronomical sums into the sport but which represents a restriction of their most extravagant research and development.
Hamilton may see himself as some who represents the future of the sport. But soon he will represent the past. How soon may come down to how quickly he can catch Schumacher, and no-one has ever done that with ease.