Lewis has never made any secret that the great Brazilian was his childhood hero – he was the inspiration for his helmet design, and the reason he wanted to drive for McLaren. So, with career statistics so evenly matched, how do the two drivers stack up?
Hamilton is generally accepted as the quickest driver in Formula 1, and his 49 pole positions seem to bear that out, although fans of Alonso and Vettel would probably say otherwise. With Senna there was no debate – he was unequivocally The Fastest, from his first season in a competitive car, at Lotus in 1985, until his untimely death at Imola in 1994. Against team mates of the calibre of Elio de Angelis, Alain Prost, Gerhard Berger and Mika Hakkinen, he was outqualified fewer than 20 times in 161 Grands Prix. Nico Rosberg is no slouch, but it’s unthinkable that Senna would have been outqualified by him over a season, as Hamilton was last year. During his two seasons alongside Prost (a driver, lest we forget, who scored 33 pole positions during his distinguished career) the qualifying head-to-head was 28-4 in Senna’s favour…
Verdict: Senna, by a nose
Wet Weather Prowess
Rain is generally accepted as an accurate barometer of talent, and here Senna excelled. He should have won at Monaco in 1984 – in an uncompetitive Toleman. He did so, consummately, at Estoril and Spa in 1985, Spa again in 1989, Adelaide in 1991, and Interlagos and Donington in 1993. In fact, during the course of his career, he won more often than not when conditions were wet.
A supreme victory in appalling conditions at Fuji seemed to set Lewis up for the World Championship in his debut season. He was similarly dominant at Monaco and Silverstone the following year, and was imperious in the tragic race at Suzuka in 2014. However, there have also been tactical and driving mistakes seemingly borne of over-confidence, as wet conditions further distil the ‘win-or-bust’ mentality that defines his approach to racing.
Performance under Pressure
Senna, more than any driver since Clark, liked to dominate races from the front, and starting from pole position on 65 occasions meant he was often able to lead from start to finish. Still, he was prone to the odd mistake: throwing away certain victory at Monaco in 1988, tripping over Jean-Louis Schlesser at Monza the same year to deny McLaren a clean sweep, or even spinning in chase of Michael Schumacher at Interlagos in 1994. Of his three championship showdowns with Prost, he nearly blew the first by stalling on the line, lost the second with a clumsy lunge into the chicane, and took the law into his own hands in the third.
Lewis has a similarly chequered history. The 2007 title was his for the taking until things fell apart at the last two races. History almost repeated itself the following year, with a nervy performance in tricky conditions at Interlagos. He’d also made mistakes earlier in the year at Montreal, Magny Cours, Spa and Fuji, without which the title could have been wrapped up much earlier, and occasional clumsy mistakes marred further championship challenges with McLaren.
Verdict: Honours even – both flawed geniuses
Just as it is rightly held up as a great era for cars, the 1980s and early 1990s also featured exceptional driving talent. During his career, Senna competed against Niki Lauda, Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Michael Schumacher, with 20 World Championships between them. That he was demonstrably faster than the others, and won three World Championships in four years, says everything you need to know.
Still, the current crop of drivers more than stands up to comparison with those from Senna’s pomp. Schumacher’s ultimate speed may have been dulled by three years of retirement by the time he came back to face Hamilton, but Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel are all more than capable of keeping him honest. And the more even spread of machinery these days (recent Mercedes domination aside) means that Lewis has been more rigorously tested, more often, than Ayrton was.
Verdict: Controversial, but Hamilton. Just!
The criticism most often levelled at Senna is that he did irrevocable damage to driving standards in motor sport. And it’s hard to argue. Through his early career he clashed with Alboreto, Lauda, Rosberg and Mansell, but it was against Prost that the gloves really came off. When the chips were down, his complete refusal to accept second place could result in driving which bordered on GBH! It’s impossible to fairly appraise Senna’s career achievements without taking into account Suzuka 1990…
Lewis has also been involved in his fair share of on-track incidents, and throughout 2011 seemed to be on a permanent collision course with Felipe Massa. But even when the stewards found him responsible, and punished him accordingly, there has never been any suggestion of deliberate foul play. And for the fair-minded amongst us, that has to count for something.
Lewis is one of the few current F1 drivers who speaks from the heart and allows his personality to penetrate the vice-like grip of modern-day PR. Indeed, cynics might suggest he is one of very few current drivers to actually have a personality… Senna, though, was something truly special – almost a deity in his native Brazil, and revered around the world, he was a once-in-a-generation phenomenon who transcended mere sporting achievement to become a cultural icon.
Overall Senna or Hamilton?
As with any comparison across generations, any conclusions are purely subjective. What we can say is that, at just 30 years old, and with his third World Championship seemingly within reach, Lewis Hamilton still has time to achieve the exalted status that his hero, Ayrton Senna, already enjoys. He’s not there quite yet, though…
Photography courtesy LAT and Nhoyashida under creative commons