Lewis Hamilton needs only 16 points to beat Sebastian Vettel to the 2017 championship and become the most successful British racer in F1 history. File photo: Daniel Chan / AP

London - There are certain times when you have to remind yourself that you are watching greatness close up.

That is how it is at Wimbledon when Roger Federer defies geometry to stroke a one-handed backhand low over the net. Or when you are at the Olympic stadium to witness Usain Bolt perform his latest miracle on legs.

The list goes on. And somewhere high in the recent catalogue must be included the 32-year-old who has driven himself to the edge of a fourth Formula One world title, Lewis Hamilton.

Far from being blase after more than a decade spent watching his spirited racing, we should honour him in the British pantheon of his sport. With four races remaining, he needs only 16 points to beat Sebastian Vettel to the championship, an inevitability that will put him, statistically, out on his own as the most successful British racer.

Facts and figures 

He will go ahead of Sir Jackie Stewart, on three, and, in global terms, alongside Alain Prost and Vettel on four, and behind only Juan Manuel Fangio on five and Michael Schumacher on seven. But the facts and figures only take anyone so far. For example, is Schumacher seven times better than the lion-hearted Nigel Mansell, who has one title to his name? And is Sir Stirling Moss, a mere four-times runner-up, inferior to any single champion? No and no.

Nor do Hamilton’s spectacular number of race wins (61) and pole positions (71) tell the full picture. There are more races now, and, anyway, figures offer no gauge as to how certain drivers captured the imagination.

There are other complicating factors. High among those is risk. In the time Moss competed, between the end of the Second World War and his retirement in 1962, some 180 racing drivers died, about 50 of them known to him personally.

Moss, who does not approve of today’s safety-first Formula One, stands out for his breadth of driving in all kinds of cars all over the world, including the 1955 Mille Miglia in Italy, conceivably the greatest single performance in the history of the combustion engine.

Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson at the start of their epic 1955 Mille Miglia drive.

He could have won the Formula One title had he chosen to. Instead, he largely stuck to British cars rather than chase success in better Continental machinery. His sense of fair play was beautifully illustrated by his campaign to ensure Mike Hawthorn was not disqualified from the 1958 Portuguese Grand Prix for reversing on the track. Moss’s protestations prevailed and Hawthorn went on to become the first British world champion. By a single point - from Moss.

Moss ennobled his country and his sport as the only man who did not require motor racing’s great baubles to illuminate his brilliance. If you think that is sentimental twaddle - and I hear the cries - let me leave the final word to Fangio, the Argentine whom Moss considered the supreme performer of all. "Moss," said Fangio, "was the greatest of my time."

Supremely exciting

I am putting Hamilton next highest, not least as the one driver who has given me most pleasure. His championship victory on the last corner in Brazil in 2008 provided a memory I shall take to the grave. But so many moments spring to mind. His win in the wet at Fuji in 2007, his stunning debut year, and then victory by more than a minute at Silverstone a season later. His pole at Monza in 2016 was perhaps the best single lap I have seen.

Wheel-to-wheel, too, this man is supremely exciting. Yes, he has the best car but even that was his own shrewd choice.

Who else? Stewart was not only a triple world champion, with 27 wins from 99 races, but campaigned to make the sport safe. His friend, the Scottish farmer Jim Clark, would have multitudes of supporters as the best Brit, including his great friend Stewart.

Alas, James Hunt’s zenith was too short lived, in 1976 and 1977, when he was the best in the world, so I shall complete the top five by plumping for Graham Hill, by tiny fractions from Mansell.

McEvoy's British top five

1 Sir Stirling Moss - Other drivers looked on in awe.

2 Lewis Hamilton - A natural talent, the most successful British F1 driver.

3 Sir Jackie Stewart - Had so much in reserve he never had to take silly risks.

4 Jim Clark - Died in 1968 having won more races (25) than anyone before.

5 Graham Hill - A big personality and a versatile racer.

Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter