Ronnie O’Sullivan got Lewis Hamilton judgement wrong as F1 rival Sebastian Vettel proves

Ronnie O’Sullivan pulled no punches in his assessment of Lewis Hamilton’s achievements following the Brit’s seventh Formula One drivers’ championship last Sunday. The Rocket says what he thinks and the snooker legend was no different this week when quizzed about where his compatriot ranks among the country’s sporting greats. 

“I wouldn’t have felt as good about my career in snooker if I had been playing on a table where the pockets I was using were bigger than my opponent’s,” he said. “At least in snooker everyone has the same equipment and it is totally a level playing field. I don’t choose my opponents or the table.

“It is fantastic for Lewis to win seven world titles, but if your car is going around quicker you can afford to make a few mistakes and still get away with it. It’s a bit like driving around smoking a cigar with one finger on the wheel!”

O’Sullivan instead named Eliud Kipchoge, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Phil Taylor, Tiger Woods, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo as the eight athletes he ranks highest across all of the sports, insisting it is “there to see” for the octuple’s successes across long-distance running, tennis, darts, golf and football respectively.

It is a long-standing criticism of Hamilton’s achievements that his ever-growing number of championship successes are down almost solely to the masterful machinery of the Mercedes team. It is not a wholly fair one.

It is certainly true that the Silver Arrows, as proven by their seven straight constructors’ title, are the dominant and most talented team in the paddock, both in the factory and out on the track. 

There is no mistaking that during his time with the Brackley-based outfit, Hamilton has often had the best car on track. But not always.

DON’T MISS: Lewis Hamilton wins seventh world title with Turkish Grand Prix win

Sunday’s Turkish Grand Prix was the perfect evidence that even when Hamilton’s car is the best across a season, things aren’t always as straightforward as getting in the car, driving round for sub-two hours and then lifting up the winner’s trophy at the end of the afternoon.

Mercedes were well off the pace in qualifying. Five seconds off pole-sitter Lance Stroll, to be exact, with Hamilton starting Sunday’s race in sixth and Valtteri Bottas down in ninth.

Bottas’ struggles on the Sunday helped show that Hamilton is a man truly at the peak of his craft. The Finn suffered multiple spins and finished 14th, insisting “I wish it was less!” when told there were four laps left to go on the team radio in Istanbul.

By contrast, Hamilton never once looked troubled despite the conditions and steered his car to first with a 30-second advantage after only pitting once. It was the kind of drive that perhaps no other driver on the grid would have managed, even Max Verstappen or Sebastian Vettel. Masterful is the best word to describe it.

“If you have a car that is going a second a lap quicker than the other cars, in theory all he has to beat is his team-mate [Valtteri] Bottas – who seems to be comfortable and happy playing second fiddle,” was O’Sullivan’s verdict on Hamilton’s team-mate Bottas.

But that does not reflect Bottas’ talents or ambitions, and ignores that if it weren’t for Hamilton being across from him in the Mercedes garage, the 31-year-old would likely be a world champion himself.

It’s just that he’s up against a supernatural force in Hamilton, whose race in Turkey would’ve been most of the grid’s best ever race. It was for him, his victory was one more in a catalogue of many, many superb drives.

Despite being in the same car, Bottas is now 110 points behind his team-mate in the current standings, with three races to go of 2020. In 2017 the final gap was 57 points, in 2018 it was a 161-point chasm and in 2019 it was 87 points. But that speaks more to Hamilton’s quality than it does Bottas’ lack of.

And it is that 2018 season that perhaps goes to show Hamilton, now statistically the greatest F1 driver of all time and with more championships likely to come, deserves greater respect.

The narrative headed into the season was all about Hamilton vs Vettel. At that time it was two four-time champs duelling to be the first to a fifth crown. Mercedes vs Ferrari.

The season before, 2017, Vettel led the championship heading into the break but Ferrari imploded in the second half of the season and Hamilton won five of the next six races after the break and went on to win back the title after being narrowly denied by former team-mate Nico Rosberg the previos year.

In 2018 it was expected the German and the Scuderia would come out fighting, and he, and they, did. But so did Red Bull, too. After 10 races, Vettel had four wins, Hamilton three, Daniel Ricciardo (then at Red Bull) two and Max Verstappen one.

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Vettel’s win at the British Grand Prix in July put him eight points clear atop the standings at – almost – the halfway stage of the season. He had the faster car, by quite a margin, and seemed in an ideal position to end Ferrari’s 10-year wait for a title triumph.

Yet despite operating with a slower car, Hamilton won eight of the final 11 races post-Silverstone and crushed Vettel by 88 points despite races such as Belgium, where Vettel was victorious, proving that Ferrari had the greater pace.

A brief summary is that Vettel – even despite his incredible past success – made mistakes. Hamilton didn’t, or at least not nearly as many as his rival. In the years since, the maturity and control of Hamilton’s drives has only continued to improve and it is very rare he is flustered, even when Stroll led him by a pit stop and more early on in the race in Turkey.

Since Belgium 2018, Vettel has won just one race. Hamilton has won 27. That’s partly because Ferrari have slipped behind Mercedes, of course. But it’s also because the latter is not just the better driver but the best driver.

Vettel said it himself last weekend. Despite insisting countryman Michael Schumacher will always “emotionally” be his personal greatest of all time, Seb said in classy style: “I told him that it’s very special for us because we can witness history being made today.

“There is no doubt that Lewis is the greatest in terms of what he has achieved. He has equalled the championships, he has more races won, he has a lot more pole positions.

“Probably if we are honest it wasn’t his race to win, and he still won it. Once again, he managed to pull something special out of that bag, and therefore, I think he deserves everything he has achieved.”

That the Silver Arrows racer comfortably stormed to the title two years ago without actually having the fastest car is ample evidence of his superlative abilities at the wheel.

That Vettel, someone who knows what it takes to win championships year-in, year-out, can not just congratulate but celebrate his peer’s achievement also says a lot about Hamilton’s powers. We are all witnessing true greatness, and we are privileged to do so.

ON THIS TOPIC: Sebastian Vettel pays emotional tribute to Lewis Hamilton after title

He always finds a way to win. In the years since Ferrari’s challenge has faded and he’s been on top and the man to beat, unlike Vettel, he has made very few mistakes, to the point where he has looked genuinely unbeatable on most occasions.

He has only been denied the championship once while at Mercedes, Rosberg winning in 2016 after Hamilton was triumphant over him the previous two years, but even then that was by just five points. Power unit failures played a part, although the Brit also made errors, of which he has learned from.

And losing the title that year is a testament to Hamilton’s abilities in itself too. Why? Because whereas Vettel has been on the slide since – despite clearly still having high-level racecraft – Hamilton has gone from strength to strength, using defeat to Rosberg to drive him on and reach greater heights.

He is still not satisfied and his hunger and desire is something to behold. Hamilton appears to be in a mental space – to add to his physical shape – that stands him apart and it is that for which he deserves more credit.

Yes he has the best car on the grid, but he is also fully deserving of it and it is the combination of both team and driver that is so potent, not just the fact Hamilton is supplied with top-tier kit season on season.

Now, four years on from that loss to Rosberg, he stands alongside Schumacher with the joint-most F1 titles of all time and more race wins, podiums and pole positions than any other driver before him. 

O’Sullivan might be right in saying Hamilton’s car goes around the track quicker. But he’s wrong not to acknowledge that a big part of the reason why is because of who’s in the driving seat.

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