Lewis Hamilton smashed through Michael Schumacher’s all-time Formula 1 win record with a performance that encapsulated the status he has earned himself over the past 14 years.
Hamilton crossed the line at the end of the Portuguese Grand Prix more than 25 seconds clear of Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, the only man with the same awesome equipment the Briton enjoys, and still going away.
Hamilton had spent the previous hour and a half demonstrating exactly why he now finds himself in a position to move F1’s most impressive records into a realm never previously thought possible.
And after he did so, his rivals paid generous tribute to a man they know full well has earned every bit of his success.
“I am happy for him,” said Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, a four-time champion and winner of 53 grands prix. “He deserves every victory he had. I am sure he will get 100. I don’t think you can praise him enough.”
And Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, the most successful so far of F1’s new generation: “Everyone knows he is very quick, but what has been a strong point is he is also very consistent and he very rarely makes a mistake. That’s why he got to these numbers so quick. It’s just very impressive.”
Bottas, somewhat befuddled by Hamilton’s superiority on the day, described it simply as “an amazing achievement”. “Hats off,” the Finn said. “Respect.”
‘We will look back and acknowledge how special he is’
When Hamilton took pole position on Saturday at Portimao, his 92nd victory always looked on the cards, but it was – for the first third of the race at least – tougher than many would have expected.
On the first lap, in cool temperatures and in a light shower of rain, the Mercedes drivers found themselves struggling for grip on their harder medium tyres, compared with those on soft tyres behind them.
Unusually, Hamilton struggled more than Bottas, who passed him halfway around the first lap after the world champion almost lost his car in Turn Six.
If it was a surprise to see Bottas pass Hamilton in slippery conditions, Hamilton was not concerned: “I was a little cautious through Turn Seven and I generally let Valtteri by and didn’t defend into Eight. He seemed to have more grip than me at that moment. I didn’t understand why but I was sure at some stage I would get there. I knew it was a long, long race.”
McLaren’s Carlos Sainz also slipped by – and then remarkably proceeded to pass Bottas for the lead on lap two.
It had been a stirring performance by Sainz, but it was only ever going to be a fleeting one, and soon, their tyres warmer now, the Mercedes were past, Bottas in the lead, Hamilton stalking him a couple of seconds behind.
After 15 laps, Hamilton moved into another gear, and Bottas had no response. Hamilton turned in a series of fastest laps and the lead came down – 2.3secs, 1.9secs, 1.6secs, 1.3secs, 0.8secs. And then Hamilton was through and away.
If I say that the difference between the two drivers was all about tyre temperature, it would be true – but sound unromantic. In fact, the prosaic impression that gives belies a fundamental truth about why Hamilton is on a level that Bottas – and pretty much everyone else – cannot reach.
Yes, Hamilton won because he was able to get his tyres to a more effective operating temperature. But he did that through adaptability and skill, adjusting his driving, experimenting, using his ability and feel to tease out what the car needs to perform at its best.
It’s the same reason he won the soaking wet 2008 British Grand Prix by more than a minute, or was on pole in the wet in Austria this year by 1.2secs. Pure, raw talent.
“Towards the end, I was thinking about what I will and won’t say, in terms of what is appropriate to say,” Hamilton said.
“It it is no secret that today was about tyre temperatures, I felt through the race that I was learning lap on lap more about the circuit. I was trying lots of different lines and discovering new lines that worked well.
“The wind direction was very tricky, lots of head winds and cross winds and tail winds. There are some you can use to your favour and others get in the way. The key is minimising the loss through the tail winds.
“Set-up was something I really focused on, less about qualifying and more about race set-up, and that enabled me to go one better than before.
“I felt I was getting faster through the race but I had to keep up the pace for these tyres and that was really the key.”
Bottas said afterwards that he simply did not have the pace, and he did not understand why. When he studies the data, he will see what Hamilton was doing. But it is one thing knowing in hindsight, another improvising out on track, working it out in the moment, and applying it.
Not only that, but while Hamilton was going faster than Bottas, he was also taking less out of his tyres.
Mercedes extended their cars’ first stints as long as they could, and the deciding factor in the timing of their pit stops was that Bottas was starting to get vibrations – a sign that the tyres are reaching the end of their lives and could fail at any moment.
The timing of this meant that Bottas’ suggestion that he try the soft tyre rather than the hard at his pit stop to try to come back at Hamilton was never a goer.
There were 26 still laps to go at this stage, much too far to go to the end, Mercedes chief strategist James Vowles believed – a view proved correct when Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon struggled when they pitted for soft tyres for their final stints, much later than Mercedes made their stops.
Mercedes see Hamilton do this time and time again – go faster than Bottas while taking less out of the car – but it only heightens their appreciation of what their lead driver is doing.
“I’m never getting bored of questions about Lewis,” team boss Toto Wolff said, “because in 10 or 20 years we will look back and really acknowledge what a special driver he is.”
‘I don’t believe the sky’s the limit’
This record surpassed, another one is waiting just around the corner. Victory and fastest lap at Portimao moved Hamilton 77 points clear of Bottas in the championship, and that seventh title is probably now just two or three races away.
With teams using the same cars in 2021, and development limited, there is every prospect of an eighth title next year.
How much further can he raise the bar, Hamilton was asked after the race?
“I don’t believe in the saying ‘the sky’s the limit’,” he said. “It depends on how much we want it, how much we want to continue to raise the bar.
“By our history together, just the way we work, we don’t sit back on our results. We keep working, we keep elevating. Every race feels like it’s the first one. I don’t know how but it does. There is a lot more for us to do.
“Especially as we are in a crazy time with the pandemic and having to utilise our position as a leader for inclusivity and diversity. There is a lot of work to do. That keeps me inspired. Our sport is slowly changing. It’s a real special time.
“I sometimes wonder: ‘Jeez, I’m 35 years old.’ I still feel physically strong but of course you wonder when is it going to tip over and when are you going to start losing performance. But showing by today it is not yet.”
‘You can still do it at 40’
Before they sat down for the post-race news conference, Hamilton had been chatting with Verstappen about his landmark achievement.
“Lewis said he keeps pushing because he wants to set it very high so I have to work hard to get there,” Verstappen said. “It’s amazing. He’s pushing me to go until I’m 40 years old or something.”
As Verstappen described his race, he was marvelling at veteran Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Raikkonen, who climbed up from 16th on the grid to sixth in the first two laps.
Hamilton, unaware of Raikkonen’s performance until then as it had happened behind him, said: “Jeez. Shows you can still do it at 40.”
“That’s going to be so long,” Verstappen said. “I don’t even want to think about that.”