FEATURE BY MAX NOBLE
As of Sunday December 1st 2019, Michael Schumacher is the only name of the modern era that one can utter in the same sentence as that of Lewis Hamilton.
When Michael was racing most of us watching never expected to see his like again. This was not simply a once in a generation talent, this was a once in a century talent. Only Michael and Juan Manuel Fangio were to be so mighty within a century of one another. So, just like waiting for a number 42 bus after midnight, no sooner have we witnessed this performance for the ages come to a close, than Lewis comes along and makes it all look so, well, common.
The sensibilities, approach, public appearance, and family style of Michael and Lewis could not be more different. Yet they share so much that makes them equally remarkable as drivers for the ages (and, as my dear departed grandmother would suggest, Fangio was a mix of them both).
Let's start with the simple ones. Both are remarkable on-track fighters. Each of them will not believe a race is lost until they have crossed the finish line. Both have produced fighting drives in the hope of a near-miracle occurring to either get them on to the podium or, so unlikely, on the top step. And yet in certain races when lesser drivers would settle into an easy rhythm leading to the typical post-race comment of "seventh was the best we could have expected today..." neither Lewis or Michael will give up. Then, beyond all expectations, other than their own, they grab the top step in the most dramatic fashion, rewarding us fans with a race to remember.
Overtaking. Both are masters at dogging others into errors that let them slip by, often when piloting the supposed inferior car. Or simply driving around the other car at a corner the TV commentators assure us is a point where "...no one overtakes..."
Qualifying. Michael was good. Lewis is remarkable. To think this is a poor season for him (a mere five pole positions...) puts into perspective how often we expect Lewis to simply own Saturday.
The wet. Now here dear reader we hit one of those divine sweet spots that sorts the solid, the remarkable, and the godly one from the other with no mercy. Both Damon Hill and Sebastian Vettel are fine drivers, and worthy champions. For me they are tied in equal first place for heart in mouth moments in the wet, that all too often lead to a face-palm moment a lap or two later. Not so Michael or Lewis. Like Ayrton before them, they simply moved to another plane of existence in the wet and make all those other world class drivers look like learners in an Aldi car park.
I can daydream of mostly (it is a daydream, indulge me...) keeping up with them in the same car in the dry (after a few thousand hours on the PlayStation), but even in my dreams I cannot work out how to keep up in the wet. They seem to simply rewrite the laws of physics, and dance with ease to the finish line, Miss Physics giggling with delight in their arms. Legends both. That tingling sixth sense first shows itself when showers fall across the circuit.
The inner game, the mind, their own and those of others. They each play this game differently, yet the end result is the same. Both have colossal self-belief, a platinum will to succeed, and a quiet ferocity to their driving style and their on-track car stance that all flows from the mind. Lewis appears to play more mind games with his team mates, but both of them would politely crush competing drivers in post-race commentary, or pre-race predictions. Couple this with their inhuman focus on winning (at times at any cost...) and it makes their fortresses of the mind nearly impregnable to mere humans. The sixth sense starts to glow with quiet power.
Team selection. Fangio leads the way here. Winning his five championships with four different teams. As it stands, at the end of the 2019 season, both Michael and Lewis have won with a modest two teams. Michael gave himself the challenge of rebuilding Ferrari, after two mighty seasons with Benetton. Lewis was a McLaren man practically from birth, and was widely tipped to fall flat on his face at Mercedes... well here we are. Lewis has proven us all wrong. And now would be a good time to recall it was Michael who was key to building the Mercedes team in the days prior to the Briton's arrival. So one could see a near handing of the baton from one master to another at that point. Michael played a part in setting Lewis up for his remarkable championship winning streak. If Lewis completes the loop of history and goes to Ferrari in 2021 it would be a fascinating coda to his masterclass at Mercedes. Does his sixth sense tell him, this is his true path...?
Yes, as I've elected to name it, the Sixth Sense. Finally, that magic. The one we all know is there, but can never quite define or capture. That sixth sense that both Lewis and Michael display, yet none of us can truly define. Finding grip in the wet. Finding time in the car in qualifying. Electing to jig right for an ‘impossible' overtake when the equally appealing jig to the left would have caused a race ending collision. Shrugging off controversy or criticism with a seeming indifference to public opinion and bouncing back with an ‘impossible' win.
What is that very special sense they both possess that elevates them from simply excellent into the realms of legend? Self-belief? Belief in a higher power? Being at one with the force? Fractionally faster synapses than the rest of us? More pure muscle tissue? Endless practice?
I wish I knew the complete answer. If one could package and sell it one would make a vast sum. Looking at Lewis' wildly differing lifestyle to Michael's, yet his delivery of similar stunning sporting performances, it is clear they are very different people, who nonetheless, both possess this sixth sense in abundance. Yes, it is self-mastery, and mastery of a complex sport. Yet it is also so much more. It is the subtlety of the mastery, as well it's completeness, that makes it something approaching the divine. At their peak they both render performances close to perfection. Yet perfection is not a natural human condition. It is most unnatural to be so close to a god walking the Earth. Yet here they are.
This season Lewis used his sixth sense to make far more right decisions than wrong, both on and off track. His driving was remarkable, his focus exemplary. He is not just standing on the shoulders of giants to see into, and define, the future. He is a giant striding among us.
Cherish the remarkable performance we are witnessing now, for I sense we might not see its like again for many years to come. And only Lewis knows what he senses in that undiscovered country that is Formula One in 2021 and beyond.
And right now, like dear Michael before him, what he senses he is keeping to himself.
Learn more about Max and check out his previous features, here