Sixty-two wins, seventy-two pole positions, four world titles. The 2017 season saw Lewis Hamilton cement his place among the greatest of Formula One’s greats.
Until this year, only four of the 33 drivers to have won a Formula One title since the sport’s first season in 1950, had achieved the feat four or more times.
But last month in Mexico, Hamilton became the fifth, wrapping up the title with two races to spare and indelibly etching his name in Formula One history alongside Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel.
“It’s like I’m in space,” said Hamilton immediately after the Mexican race, the scale of his achievement yet to register.
“Of course there’s all the energy from all the people around you and you’re riding on Cloud Nine but it’s really hard to, it’s really hard to… it takes a while for it to really, truly sink in.”
Outer space, cloud nine, Hamilton has this year elevated himself to rarefied heights indeed. But with the curtain having come down on the 2017 season, the question now is – where does he go from here?
Going past Senna
Every sportsperson needs a target to chase.
Hamilton is no different. He has always benchmarked his career against that of boyhood idol Ayrton Senna.
He has stopped short of comparing himself with the late Brazilian legend. The cars Senna raced were vastly different to the Mercedes W08 Hamilton took to nine wins this year, as the Briton has pointed out on numerous occasions.
There’s also no saying how many more titles the triple champion would have gone on to win had his life not been tragically cut short at the age of 34, when fighting for a fourth title against a young Michael Schumacher.
Nevertheless, Senna has always been a reference in Hamilton’s career. With four world titles to his name, the Briton has now surpassed his hero’s haul.
It’s not just the titles either.
Hamilton beat Senna’s tally of 41 wins last year. In Canada this season, he scored his 65th career pole position, equalling Senna’s qualifying success.
Six races later he blew past Schumacher’s all-time qualifying benchmark by seizing his 69th pole position.
More than most of his peers, Hamilton has always delighted in the thrill of the chase. He has always thrived in adversity. Being on the back foot has tended to inspire his most scintillating performances. Give him a target to chase down and he is at his best.
Similarly, by his own admission, he has tended to take his foot off the gas once he has accomplished what he set his mind to.
He didn’t, for instance, win either of the final two races this year after clinching the title. In 2015, Nico Rosberg went on to win each of the final three races after Hamilton wrapped up the title in Austin.
But, he has nothing to chase down anymore.
Schumacher’s seven titles and 91 wins remain for the taking. Taking those records away from the German, however, had never been – and still isn’t – part of Hamilton’s plan.
“Now I’m like… I don’t know where it’s going next,” he said after equalling Senna’s tally of three world championships at the US Grand Prix in 2015.
“There is no-one else I look to, that I want to equal or emulate now.”
‘There’s harder times ahead’
So, what does the future now hold for Hamilton, a driver who has been chasing something or the other from his earliest go-karting days when, driving a banged-up old kart, he would line up near the back and pick his way through the field?
He has relished battling a driver of the calibre of Vettel this season. Either one of the pair has swept to the title in seven of the last nine seasons, yet, this was the first time they had gone head-to-head.
Next year Hamilton can expect more of the same. Never in the history of Formula One have two four-time champions gone up against each other for a fifth crown.
The added prospect of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, and just maybe even his old nemesis Fernando Alonso, joining in the fight could provide enough of a challenge to stoke the fires that saw him blaze to five wins from the opening seven races of the season’s second-half.
“I think there’s more in me,” Hamilton said in Mexico. “I think there’s more to come, more of a challenge ... there’s harder times ahead and I like that, I love that.”
The 32-year-old has a contract to race next year. But, his future beyond that remains uncertain.
Hamilton’s keen interest in pursuits outside Formula One is well-known. And while he is expected to agree an extension to his Mercedes deal, his comments regarding his future have done little to silence the speculation surrounding it.
“Someone just said to me, ‘How many championships do you have to have before you could stop?’” he said at the Chinese Grand Prix in April this year, before he clinched his fourth title.
“I could stop now and be very satisfied and grateful for the time I have had and the experiences I have had and what I have earned already in terms of championships.”
After winning in front of his home fans in Silverstone, a triumph that Hamilton credited with unleashing a “forest fire” within him, he said: “At the moment I’m loving driving. I feel like I’m at my prime.
“I still feel young, still feel fit. I’m sure I can go for a long time if I really wanted but yeah, I really have no idea what the future holds.”
Hamilton has always lived life and raced on his own terms. He has no targets to chase now and is free to further his own legacy in his own way. In his case, more than most, there’s no saying how long he will carry on. You would say the sky is the limit as long as he does. But already in space, and in the form of his life, there’s no limit to how far Hamilton might rise.