By Jim Vertuno The Associated Press
MEXICO CITY — Lewis Hamilton is driving his name toward the top levels of Formula One’s record books. The final word on his standing among F1’s greatest drivers is still to come, but with four championships, he’s made a strong argument he belongs among the very best.
Hamilton won his fourth career championship Sunday with his ninth-place finish at the Mexican Grand Prix. A tough race didn’t produce the podium celebration he wanted, but clinching the title with his lowest finish of the season and two races to go defined a year in which he fought off an early challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel .
This championship, along with his first in 2008, should quiet some of those who argue Hamilton is F1’s master of good fortune, a driver who won titles on the strength of a car no one outside the Mercedes garage could match.
“It’s been a long journey these past 10 years,” Hamilton said. “It’s crazy to think I continue to put the Hamilton stamp, the Hamilton name, in the history books. Beyond my time there will be kids that know the name, and that’s probably what I’m most proud of.”
Hamilton’s 2017 title ties him with Vettel and Alain Prost as four-time winners. Juan Manuel Fangio won five, and Michael’s Schumacher’s seven championships still tower over the sport.
Could Hamilton push for Schumacher’s record? He’s 32 and said he wants to keep racing. With both he and Vettel still driving in the front, many pages of the record book could still be re-written.
“I’ll continue to race while I love it,” Hamilton said. “I think there’s more in me.”
This championship pushed Hamilton past the three won by his idol, Aryton Senna, who was killed in a crash in Italy in 1994 and is regarded as one of F1’s greatest and most skilful drivers. It also puts him ahead of Sir Jackie Stewart for the most titles won by a British driver. After Sunday’s race, Hamilton grabbed a British Union Jack and waived it on a “victory” lap before draping it over his shoulders as he celebrated.
Stewart credits Hamilton’s seat in a dominant Mercedes car as the key ingredient to his success. Stewart won his titles in 1969, 1971 and 1973.
“If you have the right car at the right time, it’s not very difficult to win the world championship. If you continue to have the best car, you continue to win the world championship, like Sebastian did, like Schumacher did,” Stewart told The Associated Press.
“In my era, we had a lucky time. Most of us drove the Ford engine, so there was no difference between one or another and they were relatively small teams winning the world championship. The competition was more even. Now I don’t think anyone would say Mercedes hasn’t been totally dominant, and before them Red Bull.
“Take Fangio, who drove so consistently in Maseratis, Alfa Romeos, Ferraris and Mercedes. He just went in and did it with great style,” Stewart said.
Mercedes has been dominant.
Hamilton won his first championship with McLaren and his other with Mercedes. Of his 62 career victories, which rank second to Schumacher’s 91, 40 have come since 2014 when F1 adopted its current turbo hybrid engines.
When Hamilton didn’t win in 2016, his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg did. Those two fought pitched battles for the championship in 2014 and 2015 that ruined a childhood friendship and tested Hamilton’s nerves inside his own team.
But Hamilton wants credit for his decision to leave McLaren for Mercedes in 2013 with an eye on the future. While Mercedes has dominated, McLaren has flailed around the middle or the back of the pack.
“I wonder how many people thought it was the worst move to Mercedes?” Hamilton said Sunday. “Isn’t it cool to see someone take a risk like I did and it to come out the way it has?”
Hamilton and Vettel have raced in a much safer era than previous greats. Many of F1’s safety reforms came after Senna was killed. Hamilton said last week that Senna would have won more titles if safety conditions were better.
“The nervousness on the starting grid is a shadow of what it was,” Stewart said. “Everybody has their own era. Lewis, it’s his era.”
Hamilton’s contemporary, Williams driver Felipe Massa, counts Hamilton among the best. The Brazilian has raced against Schumacher, Vettel and Hamilton, and it was Hamilton’s last lap in Sao Paolo that beat Massa to the championship in 2008.
“Lewis is definitely one of the best drivers in the history of Formula 1,” Massa said. “He’s there.”
McLaren driver Fernando Alonso called Hamilton a “champion of his generation.” The former two-time champion and Hamilton were teammates in 2007 when the rookie Hamilton upstaged Alonso and finished second in the championship by a single point.
“He won races when the car was good, and when it was not so good,” Alonso said.
Hamilton’s legacy among F1’s giants may also be measured by his impact beyond the sport. He’s an international celebrity with a persona like a rock star. He’s a world traveller even outside of Formula One’s far-flung locations and his social media presence draws millions of followers.
Emerson Fittipaldi, who won championships in 1972 and 1974, said Hamilton is the star and winner Formula One needs.
“As an ambassador for Formula One, he is incredible. He reaches a broader public than anyone else can reach,” Fittipaldi said. “We need a champion like Lewis.”