LONDON (Reuters) - Only seven-times champion Michael Schumacher has won more Formula One titles than Lewis Hamilton but that astonishing record looks vulnerable now the Briton has banked his fifth.
The 33-year-old Mercedes driver, sure of his place among the all-time greats, pulled level with the late Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio with his fourth crown in five years at Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix.
Hamilton is 20 race wins short of Schumacher’s 91, with that record also now in range given that Hamilton has averaged 10 victories a season for the past four years.
Like Schumacher, Hamilton has taken his fifth title at the age of 33.
Unlike the German, who guarded his privacy and split his time between track and home, the Briton has done it while living the sort of hectic lifestyle few other athletes would contemplate.
The sport’s first mixed-race champion, whose paternal grandfather emigrated from the Caribbean to England at around the time Fangio was dominant in the 1950s, seems to be always on the move.
This year, before scorching to pole position with a sensational lap and winning the Singapore Grand Prix, he flew 25,000 miles in 10 days and made appearances at fashion shows in New York and Shanghai.
The fact there has been no discernible impact on performance, other than positives, has silenced the critics and impressed rivals.
“I think he has been pretty awesome at being able to do what he has done continuously on track for the best part of a decade, but also do his own thing away from the track,” says Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.
“For him to live the life that he is living and still keep up with such a performance, full credit to him,” added the Australian.
“I give Lewis full respect. The talent has always been there. The speed has always been there. Everyone knows that. But for him to maintain this level of intensity, speed and commitment, is pretty strong.”
Hamilton was already the most successful driver from a country that has provided more champions than any other but he is now on a bigger stage as a global phenomenon.
His 81 poles are an absolute record while the 132 career podium finishes put him within reach of Schumacher’s unmatched 155.
The sport’s brightest and most marketable star, even if he also divides opinion more than most, Hamilton is already thinking ahead.
He has launched a fashion collection with Tommy Hilfiger, and was instrumental in that brand becoming a Mercedes team sponsor, while pursuing various musical projects.
“I am definitely planting seeds in other areas to see how things will grow,” he told ESPN. “I’m definitely trying to build an empire.
“First and foremost I’m a racing driver, but I’m trying to grow into an entrepreneur and be successful in business. I want to do it my own way.”
He has done that on track also, ignoring those who advised him to stay with now-struggling McLaren rather than move to Mercedes.
Matching the three titles of his boyhood idol, the late Brazilian Ayrton Senna, was always the goal. Chasing Schumacher’s tally less so.
For some, he is already in a different class to the man who dominated the sport with Ferrari and ceded his place at Mercedes to Hamilton in 2013.
“I would rate Lewis above Michael, by miles,” Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 world champion and old foe of Schumacher, told Reuters.
“There’s very little negativity. You can like or not the way he is in life but...there’s nothing nasty towards his opponents. There’s respect.”
The body-covering tattoos and the bling — he likes chunky gold necklaces and diamond earrings particularly — may upset petrolhead purists and are a far cry from Fangio’s era.
But they have also helped Hamilton become the U.S.-owned sport’s biggest asset in trying to win over new and younger audiences.
Hamilton has come a long way, growing up in social housing and sleeping on his father’s couch while breaking down barriers in a sport where he stood out for more than just talent.
“We arrived at the (go-kart) track for the first time and we were not welcome. We were the only black people there. And it was very expensive, so my dad had four jobs just to keep us going,” he recalled.
“But the goal, and my dream, started when I was five and it was to be like Ayrton Senna and we never lost sight of that.
“Two years ago I equalled him, which was just an incredible moment for me. And since then, I’ve kind of being trying to carry on the baton from him because he was the guy I always wanted to be.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Ed Osmond