Jacques Villeneuve gave his usual straight to the point no-nonsense opinion when asked to compare Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. Villeneuve suggested that both Schumacher and Hamilton only won so many races and championship titles because they had the best car. Speaking during a recent media interview Villeneuve said:
“These two drivers only won when they had the best car.”
“They’ve always had the best car in their entire career and, if you put Lewis Hamilton in a Williams, you do not win.”
“At Mercedes, he (Hamilton) builds a team around him, that’s all, he might not have won in a Ferrari.”
“Also with Senna: He won in the best car. [Alain] Prost too, that’s just how it works.”
Here’s why Villeneuve is correct and wrong. Let’s go back to the 1999 Formula One season. Driving for Ferrari, Schumacher broke his leg at the British Grand due to brake failure. It would be eight races until Shucmacher could recover to get back into the cockpit.
Meanwhile, world championship duties fell to Ferrari teammate Eddie Irvine. Eddie Irvine was a solid number two driver, no more than that. Irvine struggled to match the performance Schumacher extracted from the same car.
When Schumacher returned for the Maylasian Grand Prix he put the Ferrari on Pole. Irvine was second, but over 1 second off his teammate’s time. Schumacher could have easily won the race but he played the number two driver dutifully to enable Irvine to win and extend his world title aspirations.
Despite the assist, Irvine lost the championship to Mika Hakkinen. Partly because Irvine was simply not as good as Schumacher in the same car.
Schumacher’s championship was over but he showed a marked difference between having the best car and the best driver. In Irvine’s hands, the Ferrari F399 was ordinary. In Schumacher’s hands, the F399 could dominate races. So Villeneuve is correct about the best drivers having the best car for two seasons in a row.
But equally, he is wrong to assume the best drivers necessarily have the best car. Alain Prost won his first championship in what was considered an uncompetitive but reliable car. Hamilton has won two of his championships for Mercedes in what was considered the least competitive car compared to Ferrari.
So yes the best drivers ultimately have the best car, as Jacques Villeneuve did when he was crowned F1 champion in 1997. But to say Hamilton and Schumacher have always had the best car isn’t factually correct.