Lewis Hamilton sits on the brink of a fifth Formula One world title, a milestone previously reached by only two other drivers in the sport’s history.
With no other driver on the grid seemingly able to match the Brit’s relentless excellence – teammate Valtteri Bottas recently told CNN’s The Circuit that Hamilton is the “perfect reference in F1” – or any other manufacturer able to match Mercedes’ reliability, people are beginning to ask: How many?
Can Hamilton surpass the five titles won by Juan Manuel Fangio, the legendary Argentine who tore up the track in the 1950s?
Can he match Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven world championships, a total that, until recently, seemed untouchable?
It’s a question that would have been scoffed at less than two years ago but, with Hamilton on the cusp of winning his fourth title in five seasons, is now arguably looking more likely to happen than not.
“With the trajectory he is on, I don’t see why he wouldn’t stay and beat that target because not many people in our lifetime are ever going to get the chance to go for it,” Lawrence Barretto, senior writer for Formula1.com, tells CNN.
“Lewis (is) clearly as hungry as ever to win and I find it difficult to see how he can’t be a contender for at least the next few years – and when he’s a contender it’s very difficult to look beyond him as the champion.
“If he can have a shot at beating Michael Schumacher’s titles, a record that – when he got that seventh title – I didn’t think would ever get beaten and here we are, not even 15 years later, talking about it.”
Hamilton already has 81 pole positions compared to Schumacher’s 68 and is just 20 race wins behind the German legend’s all-time record of 91.
Given that he has averaged 10 wins per season over the last five years, it certainly looks to be another attainable target.
A statement in Singapore
With Hamilton leading championship rival Sebastian Vettel by 30 points heading into September’s Singapore Grand Prix, the 33-year-old was heavily criticized for his preparation in the build up.
In the days leading up to the race weekend, Hamilton clocked up a staggering 25,000 air miles, flying to Shanghai and New York for the launch of his debut fashion collaboration with Tommy Hilfiger.
Many thought the hectic schedule, lack of rest and, in particular, the jet lag would negatively impact his performance on the track but Hamilton proved the doubters wrong – and in some style.
“I know there were questions at the start of the week as to whether these things outside of Formula One are a distraction to me,” Hamilton said immediately after his victory.
“I came here, and I thought: ‘Jeez, if I put one foot wrong, people are going to point to the things I do as a result of it.’
“But you can see that it doesn’t affect my performance and, if anything, those things add to the performance. I get a lot of energy from these different things that I do.
“I find it stimulating and I think you’ll see that my results have shown that for the past several years.”
Barretto says Mercedes’ strength comes from their ability to sustain title challenges even when they have the inferior car, as has been the case for much of 2018, but much of this is down to Hamilton’s ability to “turn it on” when it really counts.
In Singapore, on a track where Vettel’s Ferrari was expected to be strong and dominate, Hamilton put in a scintillating lap in Q3 to snatch an unexpected 79th career pole that left both his team and rivals in shock.
It was arguably one of the greatest laps of Hamilton’s career and set him up for a flawless race in Sunday’s grand prix.
Few drivers in history have possessed Hamilton’s ability to drive to his maximum potential and eek every millisecond out of a track when it really counts, something that inspires his teammate Bottas.
“Lewis being Lewis, a quick driver, he keeps me very motivated,” the Finn told CNN’s The Circuit last month. “I want to be ahead of him. Me as a driver, you can always learn from another driver, it would be silly not to try.
“I can always learn more. I’m in a car that can win races and I’m next to Lewis, who is the perfect reference in F1 because if I will be able to beat him then: ‘Okay, Valtteri can drive’, and I know it as well.
“Being alongside Lewis with the new team around, there’s a great opportunity to learn much, much more.”
Fernando Alonso, a former teammate at McLaren, told reporters before the US Grand Prix that he believes Hamilton is among the five best drivers in F1 history, alongside Schumacher, Fangio, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
“If you see the number of championships and the records that he has, he is one of the greatest of the sport,” he said. “It is difficult to compare different times and different ways to win those championships.
“Lewis probably winning five now, same as Fangio, it is a great achievement and if one had to do it in our generation, I am happy it is him.
“He showed the talent and commitment. When the car was dominating he won and when it wasn’t he still put in performances to show his talent. That is difficult to see these days.”
‘Let Lewis be Lewis’
Singapore proved to be a defining moment of the 2018 season which, combined with a tactical error from the blundering Ferrari team, left Hamilton a further 10 points clear of his German rival.
That Hamilton is able to travel the world in the days leading up to a season-defining race weekend is a testament to the level of trust he has built with Mercedes since joining the team in 2013.
“One thing Mercedes have done really well, is they’ve let Lewis be Lewis and I think when Lewis is happiest in his personal life, as well as on track, both sides benefit,” Barretto says.
“By Mercedes allowing him to clock up all those thousands of air miles and do his own thing, they know he will manage his time effectively so he’s not tired when he gets to a circuit and it won’t have a detrimental impact when he gets there.
“He came to Singapore buzzing because it obviously went really well, he’d had a great time and that buzz and momentum carries into that weekend.
“People might criticize him for it and that criticism might be acceptable if he was struggling on track but the thing is, this year, there have been no signs of that.”
The Italian manufacturer’s season had unraveled before their eyes.
Following a brilliant Vettel victory at the Belgian Grand Prix in the first race back after the summer break, back-to-back wins for Hamilton in Italy and Singapore swung the championship in his favor.
In what felt like the blink of an eye, this year’s title race went from a tightly-contested affair into a victory march for Hamilton.
“It’s groundhog day in a way,” Barretto says. “This happened last year when it was looking pretty good for Ferrari and then they had that problem in the Asian swing of the season with the first-lap crash in Singapore and the problems in Japan.
“Singapore is a track that rewards drivers who take risks and Lewis, if you watch that lap, he was prepared to take a risk at every single corner. He was prepared to do it in a way no other driver was.
“Two circuits, Italy and Singapore, that Vettel really should have won and yet he’s walked away without victory and Hamilton has got both. I think that’s why the wheels started to come off a little bit.
“Then they went to Russia, a circuit where Mercedes are always strong, and were able to deliver again.”
What makes going up against Hamilton on a weekly basis such a daunting prospect is his ability to perform at the highest level in the face of adversity.
His mental strength, or lack there of, in his early career was often thought to be one of the biggest gaps in his armor – but he has now turned it into one of his greatest assets.
When Nico Rosberg shocked the sport by announcing his retirement just five days after clinching the title in 2016, the German cited the constant battle of fighting Hamilton as one of the reasons behind his decision.
“There have been a number of occasions this year that Vettel has made mistakes,” Barretto says. “I can’t think of a single mistake Hamilton has made, which is quite rare.
“If you look back over his career that hasn’t always been the case. He’s managed to, when the pressure is on, hold it all together.
“There have been many times this year when Vettel’s led the championship and Hamilton didn’t let it get to him, he just kept his head down.
“Whereas when Vettel lost the championship lead and Hamilton moved into the ascendency, Vettel started to make the mistakes.”
The Hamilton and Mercedes partnership is an intimidating one and when the pair are at their dominant best, it’s sometimes hard to imagine anyone else being crowned world champion come the end of the season.
If Vettel and Ferrari are to stop Hamilton’s seemingly inevitable march to matching Schumacher’s record, they’ll have to erase the inconsistency which has blighted their previous two campaigns.
Or perhaps his biggest threat comes from within his own team, with Bottas finally ready next season to launch his own title challenge.
Whatever happens between now and the end of Hamilton’s contract in 2020, nobody would deny him a place among the sport’s all-time greats.