MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton may be just reaching ‘Base Camp’ in terms of what he can achieve in Formula One, if he does not suddenly walk away, according to former world champion Damon Hill.
The Mercedes driver is set to become Britain’s first four times world champion in Mexico City this weekend, with two races to spare.
Hill, the 1996 world champion whose late father Graham won two titles in the 1960s plus the Indianapolis 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours race, hailed his compatriot as one of the all-time greats.
“There’s no question about that. His talent is spellbinding sometimes,” he told Reuters.
“(Retired triple champion and Mercedes non-executive chairman) Niki (Lauda) said something about him being the greatest ever. I can understand why he said that.”
Hamilton leads Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by 66 points going into Sunday’s race at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez and need finish only fifth to take the championship.
That would make him only the fifth driver to win four titles or more -- alongside Vettel and France’s Alain Prost and behind Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio (five) and Michael Schumacher (seven).
The Briton has already taken some of Schumacher’s records, including one last Sunday when he made his 117th front row start, one more than the great German’s career tally.
Hamilton’s 72 poles are a record, the Briton overtaking Schumacher’s haul of 68 back in September at the Italian Grand Prix.
He is now on 62 wins, 29 behind Schumacher’s 91 -- a number that once seemed likely to stand the test of time but now looks vulnerable if Hamilton, 32, continues for four or more seasons and stays in a competitive car.
Asked how many titles he felt Hamilton could end up with, Hill laughed.
“Well, he’s going to end up with four -- that’s a definite. Barring extraordinary circumstances. I think I might have said three was Base Camp, now maybe four is. I don’t know,” he declared.
”I don’t get the sense he’s made himself a target of beating Michael Schumacher’s record. But this year all these records have been tumbling. He’s passed these markers as if he didn’t even know they were there.
“So he’s got a lot in his back pocket at the moment.”
Hill, now a television pundit for Sky Sports, was impressed with how Hamilton -- who thinks nothing of flying to America in between races and leads a hectic social life -- stayed fresh despite the pressure.
He said Hamilton had matured as a driver, and could take credit for that, and was invincible when on form.
”I think his life balance thing has been very important,“ he said. ”He’s been criticized, and I’ve questioned it at times, but I think what he’s done is he’s made sure he doesn’t work so hard, he doesn’t stress himself to the point of burnout.
“What’s really impressive is that he sticks to what he wants to do. And that’s very hard to do. You have to have confidence and a self-belief in maybe some sort of destiny that you have. He seems to have that.”
Hill recalled watching Hamilton at a wet and treacherous Suzuka, and marveling at what he saw.
“I almost had my mouth open the whole time. Sometimes you see things and you think, ‘I haven’t seen that before. I haven’t seen such control and such style and such confidence’. And I think he is brimming with it right now,” he said.
Such is Hamilton’s mercurial nature and unpredictability, however, that Hill felt it could also all end as abruptly as 2016 champion Nico Rosberg’s sudden retirement at the end of last season.
”In some senses he’s got an artistic temperament... he doesn’t appear to be someone who has a definite structure or a plan to his career,“ he said. ”He maybe just one day will say, ‘That’s it, I’ve done it. I’ve peaked and I want to stop’.
”It can become a little bit harder as you get older.
“He’s got other interests, a lot more business stuff he likes to be doing, so maybe that distraction factor grows and the idea of doing it all again starts to wane a bit.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris