Mexico City: The checkered flag awaits, yet the underlying expectation at the Mexican Grand Prix is that Lewis Hamilton’s fourth career Formula One championship is on course for the inevitable.
Whether it’s this week or next month, Hamilton’s nearly insurmountable lead over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel has him facing constant questions about his legacy in the sport and where he stands among Formula One’s greatest drivers.
Hamilton tries to steer the conversation toward winning a single race, but it always returns to measuring his place in F1 history. He can win the title if he finishes as low as fifth. He’ll shoot to finish first.
“I’m trying to win,” in Mexico. “It would be cool if we did and I plan to,” Hamilton said.
If he wins the championship Sunday, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez would be the fourth city where Hamilton gets to celebrate a title, joining Sao Paolo, Brazil in 2008, Abu Dhabi in 2014 and Austin, Texas in 2015.
And with its confetti and sombreros in front of tens of thousands packed into the enormous grandstand, Mexico City provides one of the biggest podium parties of the F1 season.
A fourth world championship would put the 32-year-old Briton in some elite company. He would set the championship record for British drivers, join Vettel and former champion Alain Prost as four-time winners, and trail only Michael Schumacher (seven) and Juan Manuel Fangio (five) for the most all-time.
He also would pass his idol, Brazilian driving great Aryton Senna, who was killed in a crash in Italy in 1994 and is generally considered to be the most elegant and skilful driver in F1 history.
“Aryton’s life was cut short. If he had the chance to race in safe conditions, he would have won more,” Hamilton said. “I feel very proud to have my name mentioned with his.”
Formula One is full of disputes over who were the top drivers of different eras, and how they would fare against each other. Hamilton won his first title with McLaren, but his most dominant years have come with a Mercedes team that has had no peers in the hybrid engine era. Of his 62 career victories, a mark second only to Schumacher’s 91, 40 have come since 2014.
“He’s a champion of this generation,” said McLaren driver Fernando Alonso, himself a former two-time champion. He and Hamilton were teammates for one tempestuous season in 2007 when the rookie Hamilton upstaged Alonso and finished second in the championship by a single point.
“He won races when the car was good, and when it was not so good,” Alonso said.
Williams driver Felipe Massa, who Hamilton beat to the title with a final-lap dash in Brazil in 2008, this week already put Hamilton on the level with Schumacher and Senna.
“He’s there,” Massa said.
“It’s really made me happy to hear nice things from other drivers,” Hamilton said. “They know how hard it is to be consistent and perform.”
Hamilton has neared the 2017 title by chasing down Vettel over the second half of the season. That’s a sharp contrast to the past three years, when Hamilton’s biggest rival was former teammate Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes garage. Those tension-filled seasons fractured a childhood friendship.
Part of Hamilton’s legacy will be his persona off the track. He’s a global star for Formula One as he leads a rock star’s lifestyle with world travels, hobnobbing with other celebrities and a social media presence that draws millions of followers. After the Mexico race, he and friends plan to visit the ruins of the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru.
Rosberg’s quest for the F1 title left him exhausted by season’s end and he abruptly retired. Hamilton seems ready to keep winning. He considers himself a wiser, better racer with more still to accomplish.
“In 2008, I had all the natural talent I have now but I don’t have the experience,” Hamilton said. “It’s been more enjoyable (now). I’m more comfortable in my own skin.”
How long before he retires?
“Definitely don’t want to be here at 40,” Hamilton said. “I anticipate a couple more years.”