MEXICO CITY, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton’s fourth Formula One title lifts the Briton to another level, a great who now ranks as the most successful driver from a country that has provided more champions than any other.
All the evidence suggests the Mercedes driver has plenty more in the tank.
Hamilton, one of just five men to have won at least four championships and the sole Briton, may be just revving up in terms of what he could ultimately achieve with a team that has won four constructors’ titles in a row.
He has a record 72 poles and 117 front row starts and, with 62 wins, the 32-year-old is closing in on seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher’s 91, a milestone once seen as lasting for the ages.
“Lewis is one of the greats of the sport,” says former Mercedes technical head Paddy Lowe, now at Williams. “And his career is not done yet. He will emerge as one of the very greatest drivers of all-time.”
The sport’s brightest and most marketable star, taking grand prix racing to new audiences and with millions of followers on social media, has won twice as many races as his closest compatriot, the 1992 world champion Nigel Mansell.
Jackie Stewart, for four decades Britain’s only triple champion until Hamilton matched him in 2015, is now only Scotland’s most successful.
The late Brazilian Ayrton Senna, Hamilton’s boyhood idol and point of reference, also drops down the list.
“What Lewis and Mercedes have done is just amazing,” Stewart told Reuters. “He truly deserves to have won the world championship again.”
The tattoos and love of bling — those chunky gold necklaces, diamond earrings and questionable style — may not be everyone’s cup of tea but Hamilton has substance as well as style.
“He’s already one of the all-time great drivers,” compatriot and 1996 champion Damon Hill told Reuters. “There’s no question about that. His talent is spellbinding sometimes.
“Sometimes you see things and you think ‘I haven’t seen that before’. I haven’t seen such control, such style and such confidence and I think that he is brimming with it right now. When he’s on form, he’s just invincible.”
‘Could have’ counts for nothing in Formula One but Hamilton might be a five-times champion by now had he not paid a heavy price for a blown engine in Malaysia last year.
He secured his first title with McLaren by a single point after a nail-biting finish in Brazil in 2008, but he also missed out by a single point in his debut 2007 season.
This year he started on the back foot in Australia, staying behind until he finally got ahead of Ferrari’s four-times champion Sebastian Vettel in September.
Ferrari’s subsequent implosion, with Vettel retiring twice, knocked the stuffing out of the title battle with Hamilton winning five of the six races since the August break and arriving in Mexico 66 points clear.
There have been times when he struggled to get the “balance of life” exactly how he wanted it, with some wondering whether his jet-set lifestyle was taking a toll.
That was particularly the case a year ago when media headlines reported he was in ‘meltdown mode’ and cracking under the pressure.
This year was different, a fact that has much to do with team mate Nico Rosberg’s retirement immediately after winning the 2016 title in a tense battle.
The atmosphere at Mercedes has changed since Valtteri Bottas arrived, the Finn praised by Hamilton for bringing “a new positive energy” into the team.
Another key was a clearing-of-the-air with team principal Toto Wolff last December after Rosberg’s departure stunned Mercedes.
“We...had a long evening in my kitchen and put it all out, naming all the frustrations and the questions that have grown over the years, they were all dismantled,” said Wolff.
“We went off and he came back with a great mindset and he has grown stronger through the year.”
The man who grew up in social housing, the grandson of immigrants from the Caribbean, now has plenty of cash to splash, hanging out with celebrities and travelling by private jet wherever the whim takes him.
He lives in Monaco, has a home in Colorado and spends much of his time in America where he is regularly photographed with models and musicians.
But he also has a clear idea of who is, something that was not always the case, and his outside interests provide a counterpoint to the racing that helps reduce stress.
There are those who suspect he could pack it all in at any moment, but recent comments suggest that is unlikely.
“I can easily imagine myself without Formula One, but it is not about that right now. There are some really cool things coming along that are going to complement where I am in Formula One,” he said last week.
“I definitely won’t be here at 40... I anticipate a couple more years at least.”
When he joined Mercedes from McLaren in 2013, some warned he was making a big mistake. With the wins and titles mounting up, and McLaren winless since 2012, the doubts are long gone. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)