By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Gerhard Berger has always rated former team mate Ayrton Senna in a league of his own but he says Lewis Hamilton now ranks alongside the late Brazilian Formula One champion in his estimation.
Speaking ahead of the 25th anniversary of Senna’s death at Imola on May 1, Berger told reporters his friend still led as a personality and the legend that surrounds him.
In purely sporting terms, however, the similarities were clear.
“Everybody asks me ‘How do you see this driver against Ayrton?’ and I always, in all the years, say ‘I don’t see anybody near to Ayrton’,” explained the Austrian, who partnered Senna at McLaren from 1990-92.
“But Lewis is (now) the first driver I put on the same level as Ayrton.”
Berger, who won 10 races for Benetton, McLaren and Ferrari between 1986 and 1997 and now runs the DTM (German Touring Car) series, said statistics were only one way of measuring greatness.
“I go more by feeling and watching, and for me — and there were great champions like Nelson (Piquet), like Niki (Lauda), like (Alain) Prost, like Michael (Schumacher) – there has always been one above: Ayrton,” he said.
“And now Lewis I see in the same league.”
Hamilton has five championships, one with McLaren in 2008 and four with Mercedes in the last five seasons. He is leading the championship into this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
The 34-year-old Briton holds several records, including most pole positions (84), and his 75 wins are second only to seven times champion Schumacher’s career haul of 91.
Senna won three championships with McLaren and held the record for poles (65) before Hamilton. The Brazilian won 41 races and would surely have gone on to many more had he not died at the age of 34.
“The comparison? I see still Ayrton winning the game because in the end Ayrton was such a charming guy and a personality. And obviously if someone loses his life and stays with us in the way of a legend, it’s always something special,” said Berger.
“But I try to see it from a performance point and from a performance point, Lewis is going from one pole position to the next one and Lewis is going from one race win to the next one. Just like Ayrton did.”
Berger said Hamilton was “outstandingly fast”, made fewer mistakes than rivals and knew when to be patient.
“It looks like he’s just running the game in such a good way that he’s unbeatable at the moment,” said the Austrian. “Yes he’s in the best car and best engine, but he also is the best. By far the best man at the moment.”
He said Hamilton had a good chance of breaking Schumacher’s records.
“I would like to protect Michael’s success because such a tragedy, it’s so sad to see these things,” Berger added, referring to the 2013 ski accident that left the German with severe head injuries.
“But when you put this all out (aside) for a moment, then Lewis Hamilton is a very special driver in all the time I watched and have been in Formula One.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Amlan Chakraborty)