By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton may be the greatest Formula One driver of all time but 'negativity and envy' are denying him the recognition he deserves, according to his Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.
Comparing the five-time world champion to retired Ferrari great Michael Schumacher, Wolff suggested people might not appreciate the 33-year-old Briton's achievements until he too had left the scene.
"Not everybody recognises a great career, a great sportsman or greatness overall while it's happening. There is a lot of negativity and envy whilst it happens," Wolff told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"It's only being recognised once a career has ended as having been really great and I don't know why that is. We are extremely privileged in following a career of maybe the greatest racing driver of all time.
"Obviously Michael has set the records and was unbelievable but Lewis is on a similar trajectory," he added. "Also with Michael, it was only recognised after he retired and even more when tragedy struck. And I think it's a pity."
Schumacher, who turns 50 in January, has not been seen in public since the German suffered severe head injuries in a skiing accident five years ago.
Hamilton has set a string of records on his way to his fifth title this season, and could go on to match Schumacher's seven championships and 91 wins.
The Briton, now on 73 victories, has won 51 of the 100 grands prix in the V6 turbo era that started in 2014 and four of the last five championships.
Hamilton also has a record 83 pole positions and is only the third driver ever to win five titles or more.
Last Sunday, he was runner-up in the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year awards -- a public vote -- to Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas.
He was condemned on social media for 'slum' comments about his boyhood town Stevenage, words he later clarified, and has been criticised for moving to the tax haven of Monaco where many other Formula One drivers reside.
"We are live spectators, live witnesses of a great racing driver at the peak of his abilities," said Wolff. "In the U.S. you are very much inspired by success. In Europe it triggers much more envy and negativity.
"I am certainly biased because I have an emotional attachment to Lewis, for me the greatest sports person that is in his career in Britain."
Wolff said Hamilton was fully motivated to chase his sixth title next season and that the Briton, who leads a jet-setting celebrity lifestyle with interests in fashion and music away from the racetrack, would also not be the champion he was without dividing opinion.
"Everybody wants to be recognised, particularly in their own country and in order to achieve the success he has, you need to be sensitive," he said.
"He is that exceptional sports personality also because he polarizes. And I think at the end of the day, he's thinking that he'd rather polarise than be just in the middle and boring.
"He stays true to himself and his values and that is the most important thing."
Mercedes have won both titles for the past five years, something only Ferrari had ever done previously, and the German manufacturer has enjoyed the best year of its motorsport history.
Their British driver George Russell won the Formula Two title, Schumacher's son Mick was European Formula Three champion in a Mercedes-powered car and Mercedes also won the DTM (German Touring Car) championship.
"I think we have achieved records this year which I think the sport has not seen," said Wolff.
"We have exciting new challenges ahead with Formula E that we are going to embark on in season six (2019-20), replacing DTM, and in the same way Formula One provides its own challenges about staying relevant.
"I have no doubt that Ferrari and Red Bull in Formula One are going to continue to push the organisation too. Remaining on top and setting benchmarks is an exciting objective."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin)