Schumacher or Hamilton?
It’s the big question this week, ahead of the Bathurst weekend and before Lewis powers away in his Silver Arrows to re-set the record for all-time grand prix wins.
As they sit equal on 91 victories, I have a personal opinion on who is better.
I’m not talking about The Best, mind, because that is a very different question and means you need to be thinking and talking about Juan-Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
For me, today, Michael Schumacher rates higher than Lewis Hamilton.
I have seen both in action since the start of their F1 careers and it was Michael, not Lewis, who had the bigger impact and did more to achieve his greatness.
Hamilton has stunned me several times, and was never better than during a last-second qualifying run with McLaren at Silverstone. It was a take-your-breath-away moment to nearly (but not quite) match the impact of Senna on an all-or-nothing lap at the AGP in Adelaide.
Hamilton is also millimetre perfect and perfectly correct as a racer, never taking – or giving – more than he needs to get the job done. He is a surgeon with a scalpel, and his ability to get his cripped car to the finish at Silverstone this year shows his incredible natural skill.
When he goes to ‘Hammer time’ he is able to lift to another level, like all the greats in motorsport.
Out of the car, Hamilton is a product of his generation, in everything from his conversion to a vegan lifestyle to his taste in clothes and dogs. There is no possibility to compare that part of Lewis Hamilton with anyone else.
In sharp contrast, Schumacher was more like a butcher. He was prepared to chop and hack his way to the front, he was a bully on the track, and he was happy to find and exploit every potential advantage.
Out of the car, Schumacher was a very private family man who loved horses and helped raise a son, Mick, who is about to follow him into Formula One. Right now, he is gone but not forgotten as he fights his personal health battles.
I have interviewed both Hamilton and Schumacher, sat one-on-one across a table and eye-to-eye with them. It was obvious that both men had something special, but it was Schumacher who had the special aura that you find with major movie stars and also surrounded Peter Brock.
Hamilton was calm and measured, speaking very quietly, and skirting around anything that might be contentious.
Schumacher was warm and engaging, intelligent and happy to talk about anything.
Both drivers were products of their time in Formula One and the cars they were driving.
Hamilton is extracting the maximum from a high-tech Mercedes hybrid after learning the tough lessons at McLaren, while Schumacher did his best work at Ferrari following the torrid times at Benetton when he was more like Max Verstappen.
So who is better and why?
For me, it comes down to the impact they have had on Formula One.
Hamilton is the only true grand prix superstar today and has an impact that goes well beyond F1 racing, something that is reflected in his leadership of the Black Lives Matter push and even the decision by Mercedes to paint its Silver Arrows racers in black for 2020.
But he has also been a plug-and-play champion who has benefitted hugely from the superiority of his Mercedes hybrid and the German carmaker’s massive spending. You could put any of the current top-level drivers into Hamilton’s car – Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc and even Sebastian Vettel – and their strike rate would be much the same.
Hamilton has also had more races each year to build his tally, and he has done it at a time when F1 cars are incredibly reliable and he almost never fails to finish.
Schumacher had to do much more to create his championship-winning opportunities, building the Ferrari team around him and batting through the tough times before the wins began to flow. Yes, he preferred a compliant team mate but Valtteri Bottas is not an A+ driver and even Nico Rosberg was able to steal a title from Hamilton when he got fully committed for a year.
Schumacher was a bully, and he crashed into his rivals, but it was because he was a warrior. That’s why he tested endlessly at Fiorano when there were no restrictions and an F1 tyre war, and why he had a special gym built at Ferrari with another in a truck that followed the F1 races around Europe.
Did you know that Schumacher would drive over the kerbs in practice, not because he had made a mistake but because he wanted to know the absolute limit when it came to wheel-to-wheel battling in the race? Or that when he came into press conferences at the AGP at Albert Park he insisted that the airconditioning was turned off because he did not want to compromise his preparation for the race?
Lewis Hamilton is a star and a winner whose partnership with Mercedes-Benz will allow him to re-write the records in Formula One and live a life after racing – like Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss – as an honoured champion.
Michael Schumacher re-wrote more than the records as he created new standards for fitness and commitment, and changed the rules – not always in a good way – for success in Formula One.