Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are definitely the most successful Formula One drivers who came after Michael Schumacher. Hamilton is 33 years old, Vettel is 31, and they both started their careers in F1 in 2007. The older driver is British and the younger one is German. Currently, each one holds four world championships and both are driving for two of the top teams in the paddock. The Brit drives for Mercedes and Vettel races for Ferrari.
At this stage, these two drivers are comparable to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal or Messi and Ronaldo, as these pairs of rivals stand out from the rest and push each other to their very best. Surely, each pair has its particularities plus, comparisons are never-ending. After all, each athlete is different from his rival and in the end fans’ choices will always be subjective. This one tough, does not seem to have been talked about over and over as much as the other two.
Hence, here is an overview of how we can compare both of the drivers. First, let’s go to the stats and facts, then we will dive into behaviours, which may well become subjective.
Stats and facts
Regarding wins over races ratio, Hamilton has won 30,63% whereas Vettel has only won 24,53% of the races he started. As to pole positions as a percentage of races, Hamilton has the edge again with 35,13% compared to the 25,94% of Vettel.
Fans of the German driver might contest this arguing that he did not start with a competitive car in contrast to Lewis starting in a team which would fight for the championship. However, Hamilton also had some years in which his car was simply not good enough to be a strong contender, which include Vettel’s dominant seasons and 2009. Taking into account that Vettel struggled in his last season with Red Bull, and in the first couple of years at Ferrari, it is fair to say that both drivers had 4/5 years in which they could not perform at their best.
According to a Mark Hughes’ article in which he compares Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel, each of the drivers were only beaten by one of their team-mates throughout their careers in terms of races. In this rather insightful perspective, the experienced journalist based his stats on where direct comparison is possible, which takes out different specs, mechanical failures, and so on. Alonso has beaten Hamilton in 54,5% of the races in which they were team-mates and Daniel Ricciardo has beaten Vettel in 72,7% of the races in 2014.
However, we should not forget that when the Brit was beaten by Alonso, it was his rookie season against the Spaniard who had just won 2 championships in a row. On the other hand, Ricciardo outperformed Vettel in his first season at Red Bull, just after the German driver had won his fourth title consecutively with that same team.
To sum up, Lewis takes the upper hand statistically. Before an abrupt change of perspective, we should briefly take a look at their stories in Formula 1.
The popular phrase ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ applies to both drivers in question. They achieved their first title at their second season with a competitive car. Lewis was the youngest champion ever in 2008, record which was broken by Vettel two years later.
Nevertheless, they struggled for a few seasons: Hamilton after being crowned champion, from around 2009 to 2013; Vettel from his last season in Red Bull (2014) to 2016. Fortunately, nowadays, we are able to see them both showing us their best combination of talent and experience, both with very competitive cars.
The grey area
Now let’s jump to the grey area, which is not seen in numbers, but in behaviours, that can have rather different interpretations.
First, we will address their team-mates and the teams which they raced for. Vettel had Vitantonio Liuzzi, Sébastien Bourdais, Mark Webber, Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen (World Champ x1) as team-mates. On the other hand, Hamilton had Alonso (World Champ x2), Heikki Kovalainen, Button (World Champ x1), and Rosberg (World Champ x1).
In case the names are not clear enough, we should not forget that when Vettel had a faster team-mate (Ricciardo), he changed teams for next season and received Kimi in Ferrari, already past his peak form and seemingly settled with his 2nd horse role for the Italian manufacturer.
As to the teams, Sebastian started with BMW Sauber (one race only) and Toro Rosso – which was not a competitive team – while Lewis started with McLaren Mercedes, a car that provided the opportunity to fight for the title. Hence, it is clear that Vettel had to climb his way up to bigger teams.
Nevertheless, as already mentioned before, during Vettel’s dominant years (2010-2013), the Brit didn’t have a car which allowed him to fight for the title.
Throughout their careers they both have shown their profile as very talented drivers, fiercely competitive who get frustrated with anything less than the first place. Taking into account that they have never competed in the same car, it is difficult to have a fair comparison. Although, observing details, we can conclude there are certain differences which help find the missing pieces of the puzzle.
Since his early years in Red Bull, Vettel has had most of the times a team which was mainly focused on him, giving less importance to the second driver – and this seems to be what is fair in Sebastian’s perspective. This was proven especially in Istanbul 2010 when Vettel drove into Webber and Red Bull clearly defended the German driver back then. Other situations include Silverstone where the same two drivers had a different aero package and Malaysia 2013 where Vettel refused to follow team orders to hold position behind Webber and went on to win the race.
During his years at Ferrari it has been also pretty clear that Kimi Raikkonen is there to help the first driver of the Scuderia. After all, the Italian team is famous for its favouritism since the Schumacher era. In contrast, Lewis Hamilton has been part of teams, such as McLaren and Mercedes, which are known for letting their drivers race on track. Now this doesn’t mean that Lewis’ teammates have not helped him sometimes. It has happened, although it is not as recurrent nor does it start as early in the championship as Ferrari’s well known moves.
This rather naturally controversial subject puts an end to the grey area. Just for a last change, here is…
The (not so) grey area
Let’s cut to the chase here: what really does make the difference between Hamilton and Vettel? If there is one differentiating factor it has to be that Lewis performs much better under pressure.
Does it sound like an exaggeration? Here are the examples which prove it:
– Baku 2017: Vettel hits Hamilton from behind during safety car and, thinking he was break tested (which was proven wrong) came by the side of Hamilton and hit him again.
– Singapore 2017: Vettel causes the big incident at the start with a risky move, which led him to retire. Hamilton ended up winning this race in a track which was clearly bad for the Mercedes.
– Baku 2018: In the closing stages, Sebastian made a badly calculated overtake to Valteri Bottas, which probably cost him the victory and ultimately led to his 4th place in the finish line. Instead, Hamilton took the win, after Bottas had a puncture.
– Paul Ricard 2018: Vettel started in 3rd place and hit Bottas and Grosjean in the first lap. After a good recovery he ended in a 5th place which could have at least been a podium.
– Hockenheim 2018: Sebastian was leading the race when it started raining. Lewis started to close in on the Ferraris and the German driver hit the wall which made him retire.
– Monza 2018: Vettel started in 2nd place behind Kimi and ahead of Hamilton. When fighting with Hamilton, Sebastian hit him and spun when Lewis left him enough space. In the end, Hamilton won the race while Vettel finished 4th.
All these situations happened when Ferrari and Mercedes were both very competitive with very little difference between them, even though different tracks were favourable to different cars. Furthermore, they also happened when both drivers were fighting for the title, which means extra pressure. These factors explain why the situations above were chosen to prove the earlier argument regarding the essential difference between Lewis and Sebastian.
Now don’t get me wrong, Lewis Hamilton is not god-like, as he also has is struggles, which surprisingly come often when there is too little pressure. However, throughout this season he is yet to commit a major mistake, and that may be probably because pressure has been high since the beginning.
To sum up, just as it is with Federer/Nadal and Ronaldo/Messi, we as sports enthusiasts should be grateful to have two great drivers in Hamilton and Vettel who push each other to overcome their limits, and provide us with exhilarating moments which can make our weekends.