There are few examples in sporting history of complete domination.
During his heyday, Tiger Woods could not guarantee he would win every major, and neither Roger Federer nor Serena Williams have a record that represents such a stranglehold that they merely had to turn up to claim victory.
That is not how sport works, and if it was, we probably wouldn’t watch it. We certainly wouldn’t watch Formula One’s 70th Anniversary Grand Prix this weekend if we knew who was going to win. Even though we have a good idea that it will be Lewis Hamilton, last weekend’s British Grand Prix served as a much-needed reminder that the unexpected can arise at any moment.
“Anything can happen in Formula One, and it usually does,” echoed the saying from much-loved Murray Walker, with the sudden tyre deflations for Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Carlos Sainz last Sunday bringing that famous Murrayism rushing to the front of the mind. Having cruised his way around 51 of the 52 laps at Silverstone, Hamilton faced one of the toughest three-mile drives of his career. He perfected it as only he seems able to.
Some will have seen Hamilton winning yet again with only three wheels on his Mercedes as a sign of his relentless domination this season, with the six-time world champion recording a third straight victory in 2020 to take a 30-point lead in the drivers’ standings. But what it also displayed was a vulnerability that we have already seen in the past. The Mercedes seems to be harder on its tyres than the Red Bull, and had Max Verstappen not been afforded the luxury of a free pit stop to go for the fastest-lap extra point, we would have won the British Grand Prix (providing he didn’t suffer a similar fate to Hamilton and Bottas before the chequered flag).
If Verstappen can remain in range of the Mercedes this weekend to keep them on the gas pedal, that uncertainty will remain and Mercedes will have to watch on nervously as Hamilton and Bottas look to extract as much as possible out of the softer compound Pirellis without crossing the limit.
It’s what has made F1 so watchable over the years, even when the likes of Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Hamilton have reigned in turn as the kings of the sport. Since Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina won the very first Grand Prix 70 years, two months and 25 days ago, the unpredictable nature of F1 has always been there no matter who was the prevailing force of the era or what was at stake. Unlike most, Walker has been there to see it all, with the 96-year-old calling the shots on that inaugural Grand Prix at Silverstone.
“In those days the engine was in front of the driver, the driver didn’t wear any safety clothing – a skull cap and no crash helmet – the medical facilities were absolutely minimal, and the cars were death traps with no protection,” Walker recalled on the Australian Grand Prix Corporation’s podcast.
“From a safety point of view, it got better and better, particularly after the death of [Ayrton] Senna at Imola in 1994.
“[But] the cars are more sophisticated now and it is no less exciting when you take into account what a contest it is between man and machine.”
Walker also explained on the podcast why, in his eyes, Hamilton has proven himself a greater driver than either Senna or Schumacher because he has never been forced to resort to dirty tactics in order to assert his superiority. Schumacher’s outright cheating against Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve – and dubious tactics later in his career with Fernando Alonso – and Senna’s famous battles with Alain Prost remain blemishes on a career record that do not exist on Hamilton’s.
“He’s always driven as clean as a whistle, he’s an extremely nice, gigantically talented driver and I don’t think we’ve seen anyone like him before,” added Walker.
Chances are Hamilton will make it four from five this season on Sunday, with his championship rivals Verstappen and Charles Leclerc even admitting last weekend that there appears to be no stopping Hamilton once again this year, and it will be a surprise to no one if he equals Schumacher’s tally of seven world championships by the end of the campaign.
But this weekend? Anything can happen, and it usually does.