Sebastian Vettel called it “very special” for Formula 1 to witness Lewis Hamilton make history with his seventh title and hailed him the “greatest of our era”.
That’s an era that Vettel once seemed destined to dominate.
Vettel made a shock return to the F1 podium in the Turkish Grand Prix, in which Hamilton scored his 94th win and clinched his seventh world championship to draw level with Vettel’s childhood hero Michael Schumacher.
Vettel was the first to congratulate Hamilton in parc ferme, leaning into the Mercedes driver’s car as Hamilton sat there during an emotional period of reflection to tell him “we are witnessing you make history, man”.
“I told him it’s very special for us because we can witness history being made today,” said Vettel later.
“I think he is the greatest of our era for sure.”
Four-time world champion Vettel is a student of F1 history and has great respect for the eras and drivers that came before his own.
However, he does not believe Hamilton should be underestimated when compared to the best across F1’s eras, saying it is indisputable that Hamilton is now the most successful driver ever in the statistics.
Vettel said it is “always difficult” to judge drivers across generations because “how can you possibly compare [Juan Manuel] Fangio, Stirling Moss to ours? You can’t”.
“Maybe we would be useless because we would all be shitting ourselves in those cars,” Vettel added..
“Maybe they would be useless in our cars because they’re way too fast. Who knows?
“But it doesn’t matter, I think every era has its driver or its drivers and Lewis is certainly the greatest of our era.
“To me, certainly emotionally, Michael will always be the most… the greatest driver but there’s no doubt that Lewis is the greatest in terms of what he has achieved.”
The Vettel-Hamilton rivalry is one that never fully ignited in F1, despite their brief crossover in junior categories and arrival in grand prix racing in the same season, 2007, Hamilton with McLaren and Vettel halfway through with BMW and then Toro Rosso.
Fluctuating fortunes at the start of their careers, with Hamilton immediately in title contention and Vettel waiting until 2009 for his Red Bull shot, meant Hamilton was quickest off the mark in terms of a first win and a first title.
But by the time Vettel won his fourth title with Red Bull in 2013, he had moved onto 39 victories, 17 more than Hamilton had at the time, and was still only 26 years old.
At that point it was Vettel, rather than Hamilton, who seemed the biggest threat to Schumacher’s records of 91 wins and seven championships.
He had recovered from a slower start in those rankings and moved onto bigger numbers far quicker than Hamilton. But their fortunes would change again.
As our table shows, in the latter parts of their career Vettel’s numbers slowed compared to Hamilton and Schumacher then became completely outdone.
The manner in which Vettel and Hamilton grasped their opportunities to conquer meant their on-track battles have been limited.
Then-McLaren driver Hamilton was in contention for the championships Vettel won with Red Bull in 2010 and 2012, while Vettel led Ferrari’s challenges in 2015, 2017 and 2018 when Hamilton was in the ascendancy with Mercedes. In their respective Mercedes and Ferrari era, Hamilton saw off Vettel before the season ended each time.
Despite the lack of a fierce wheel-to-wheel rivalry, or perhaps because it never got quite that far, in recent years their relationship has blossomed to one of significant mutual respect.
Hamilton has defended Vettel at times and Vettel has lauded Hamilton’s statistical achievements while others have attempted to undermine Hamilton by claiming his numbers are padded by Mercedes’ domination.
“He’s equalled the championships, he’s won more races, he has a lot more pole positions,” said Vettel.
“So I think he’s done everything you can ask for. [The Turkish GP] is the best proof.
“It’s a difficult race, a very difficult race to stay on track and two hours long and probably, if we’re honest, it wasn’t his race to win and he still won it.
“Once again, he managed to pull out something special out of that bag and therefore I think he deserves everything he has achieved.”