Only a handful of sportspeople ever attain a genuine sense of invincibility, the kind of aura which makes even the thought that they might be vulnerable completely laughable. Michael Schumacher, though, was certainly one as he reeled off five successive Formula 1 titles from 2000 to 2004.
For fans of Formula 1 during that era, it felt like they were being treated – or subjected, depending on your perspective – to an era of dominance and a body of sporting work that would never, could never, be equalled.
By the time of his final race win, Schumacher’s career haul of 91 was almost exactly the combined tally of the two greats who preceded him and who were a distant second and third on the list at that time: Alain Prost (51) and Ayrton Senna (41). In other words, it was the kind of record which looked so otherworldly, so frankly ridiculous, that even getting close to it would require a level of greatness bestowed so rarely as to be virtually impossible. A record like Lionel Messi’s 91 goals in 2012; Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game; or Mike Powell’s 8.95m leap in 1991.
There was only one Schumacher. How could there ever be anything like this again? How could it even be conceivable that anyone else would reach 91 race wins and seven world titles – an achievement that requires not weeks, or months or even years of utter dominance, but the best part of a decade. Outrageous. Ridiculous. Impossible.
But on Sunday, it can happen. And if it doesn’t happen on Sunday, it will happen soon. Lewis Hamilton will win his 91st Formula 1 race, then his 92nd, and take more decisive steps to a record-equalling seventh world title.
Second placed qualifier Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks in parc ferme
Image credit: Getty Images
His detractors will note that Hamilton has benefitted from having access to the best car in the field for so long – but so did Schumacher during an era when Ferrari bossed the sport. However, Hamilton hasn’t just benefitted from driving a Mercedes, he has leveraged that advantage to its fullest extent and using the full breadth of his incredible skill and intelligence. In turn, having access to Hamilton has helped drive innovation and success at Mercedes. It is a symbiotic relationship and in any case – where would you expect the best driver in a generation, and possibly ever, to be except with the best team?
And yet, despite all his sporting grandeur, Hamilton has achieved so much more, especially this season – a season set against the backdrop not only of the coronavirus pandemic but a pandemic of racism which has brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the fore.
In a year which has witnessed riots in America and marches and demonstrations across the world, Hamilton has been fighting his own fight. Now activist and athlete, he has thrown his weight behind social justice campaigns, demanded the arrest of the cops who killed Breonna Taylor and tirelessly demanded that an overwhelmingly white sport takes diversity seriously.
At times his has felt like a lone voice. Hamilton has been commanded to act both as a spokesman for his sport and its prime agitator for change, all while setting up a commission to try and increase diversity across motorsport.
If it was ever in any doubt, Hamilton has proved this season that he is so much more than an athlete, while at the same time proving that no one is more of an athlete than him. He had seven poles out of 10 leading up to the weekend’s Eifel Grand Prix. And his six race wins give him a lead of 44 points in the drivers’ championship standings over team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who took the pole for this weekend.
Is he Britain’s greatest active sportsperson? It’s a bold position to take when Andy Murray is still clinging onto his career and Laura Trott is planning to extend the boundaries of her own greatness in Tokyo next summer.
But surpassing the achievements of Michael Schumacher in Formula 1? Reaching those 91 race wins and the seventh world title that will surely follow? That might just be the greatest feat ever achieved in British sporting history.