Analysis: Lewis Hamilton’s 80 F1 poles – Did he always have the fastest car?

He continues to make history in Formula One with an unrivalled record in qualifying, but how much of his success has been down to the car, and who has he had to beat in order to achieve such levels of success?

“It’s been an incredible year but that number, I just thought… never in a million years did I think I would be at a figure like that,” said Lewis Hamilton moments after securing his record-extending 80th Formula One pole position.

After taking his eighth pole of the season, the championship leader now moves twelve clear of Michael Schumacher in the record books – with far fewer F1 Grands Prix – to underline his title of Formula One’s most successful qualifier. And the milestone only serves to highlight the four-time champions’ outstanding record on Saturday afternoons.

A tool that has proven vital in his quest to take a fifth world drivers’ title ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, Hamilton has taken at least one pole position in every season he has competed in Formula One, with cars at varying levels of performance.

Starting his career at championship-contenders McLaren, Hamilton was quick to establish himself as a superb qualifier; It took him only six races to secure his first pole position, he had the best average qualifying position of the entire field and took more poles than his reigning champion team-mate Fernando Alonso.

The first of many: Lewis Hamilton takes pole position for the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix.

He took the most pole positions in his championship-winning 2008 season against a quick Ferrari, but perhaps gave a better demonstration of his qualifying exploits by spearheading McLaren’s recovery in a sub-par 2009 campaign. He took a further four poles in the second half of that year to help drag the Woking team back up to third in the constructors’ standings.

Easily out-performing Heikki Kovalainen, for 2010-2012 he faced a tougher challenge in 2009 champion Jenson Button but, despite being a much tougher competitor, his fellow Briton was unable to cope with Hamilton on Saturdays.

His toughest team-mate to come up against in qualifying was undoubtedly Nico Rosberg. Despite Hamilton having the overall better record during their time as team-mates (2013 – 2016), 2014 was the only year when a team-mate was able secure more poles than he could, with Rosberg out-scoring him by eleven poles to seven.

Hamilton’s most successful season for qualifying actually came during his championship defeat to Rosberg in 2016, where he claimed 12 out of 21 pole positions.

For the past two seasons, he’s faced a challenge in the form of Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel – also often regarded as a mighty qualifier – but the Mercedes man has nullified that threat, as well as the one posed by his latest team-mate Valtteri Bottas, and taken 19 pole positions across 2017 and 2018.

Reflecting on his 80th pole position, taken at Suzuka last weekend, he added: “It just makes me think of all the great years that I’ve had, quite a few of those I was with McLaren, I think at least 20-odd or so I think might have been with McLaren and there were even times when we didn’t have championship-winning cars at the time but the last six years with this team has been incredible and I’m just so proud of everyone and just so grateful for everyone’s hard work which has enabled me to go out and exploit my own abilities.”

Driving for McLaren, Lewis Hamilton takes pole position ahead of team-mate Jenson Button and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa at the 2012 Italian Grand Prix.

Can Hamilton be the first to 100?

“That’s not the end, eighty is not the end but that is a milestone I’m very proud of.”

He already has the record for most pole positions, but could Hamilton break more ground by being the first Formula One driver to reach 100 pole positions?

It all depends on two factors; how long Mercedes can keep providing a consistent front-running car, and how long Hamilton intends to stay in the sport.

Much of Mercedes’ success in the hybrid era has been down to producing persistently strong power units but, as the competition have gradually caught up, they’ve also proved that they’re very strong in the chassis and aerodynamics departments, as witnessed with the new regulations brought in for the start of the 2017 season.

This bodes well for them being able to cope with the aerodynamic tweaks being brought in for 2019 and beyond, considering the power unit regulations may not change that much for the highly-anticipated new Concorde agreement.

Hamilton will be 34 years old when the 2019 season kicks off and, whilst he hasn’t provided any clues about how long he intends to stay in Formula One, his ventures outside of the sport suggest that he’s starting to prepare for his life after his final Grand Prix, whenever that may be.

Since the start of 2014, Hamilton’s pole position success rate stands at a hefty 51%. In a more optimistic projection, if this level of success continues then he will reach 100 pole positions in just less than two seasons’ time, roughly two-thirds of the way through the 2020 season, assuming the future Formula One calendars remain at 21 races. He is contracted to Mercedes to the end of 2020.

His overall pole position rate (during his time at Mercedes and McLaren) is around 35.5%. If Mercedes have tougher opposition over the next few years, then this may be a closer prediction, which would mean he would achieve the ‘century’ landmark around halfway through the 2021 season, when he will be 36 years old.

By: Luke Murphy

All images: Motorsport Images