It is a question long debated and never answered, given the impossible nature of comparing drivers from multiple generations in completely different cars. Would Hamilton have beaten Juan Manuel Fangio in the 1950s W196 Streamliner, and would Jim Clark have been described as the naturally-gifted driver that he was if he had to race in V6 hybrids on multi-compound tyres? The Fifties, Sixties and Seventies brought far more danger and risk, but we will never truly know the answer.
What we do know is that if Hamilton can win a seventh world championship in this heavily-delayed 2020 season, he will tie Michael Schumacher as the most successful driver in F1 history, further expanding the argument that he should be handed the ‘greatest ever driver’ tag. He already joins Schumacher and Clark among the elite class of racers who have a genuine claim to that title, alongside Ayrton Senna, Fangio, Alain Prost and Gilles Villeneuve, although this season’s shortened schedule could well see the Briton forced to wait if he is to surpass Schumacher’s tally of 91 Grand Prix wins - Hamilton is currently seven shy of that record.
However, the argument is not one based on success alone, which is why Schumacher is not out on his own when the debate arises. If it was, the seven-time world champion would end all arguments - unless Hamilton ties it come December - but that never has been the argument and never will be.
Instead it requires a combination of many factors: success, for sure, but also natural talent, intelligence, raw speed, the ability to produce something special, versatility among teams and - perhaps most importantly - being able to transcend the sport itself.
That last factor is undoubtedly the hardest to achieve, as the very few to have been able to achieve that across all sports can be counted on two hands alone. Think Tiger Woods, think Serena Williams and Roger Federer, think Usain Bolt.
Think Lewis Hamilton? Before 2020, that question could be answered on his success and natural talent alone, but there was little else to back up the argument that he had transcended the sport itself. But while F1 was put on hold, Hamilton has arguably been more active than ever. The 35-year-old has attended Black Lives Matter protests, addressed systemic racism within his own sport as well as wider society, and launched his own commission to increase under-represented groups within motorsport that could prove to be a gamechanger for those of black, Asian and mixed ethnicity (Bame) backgrounds who dream of a career in the sport.
Hamilton also took on Bernie Ecclestone, the former F1 supremo whose comments that "in lots of cases, black people are more racist than what white people are" were labelled “ignorant and uneducated” by Hamilton. Ecclestone also expressed his “unhappiness” and “surprise” if Hamilton had been affected by experiencing racism during his motor racing career, despite him speaking out about how much this did impact him just days before the interview - experiences that were eye-opening for many in the sport.
We currently now have the mic, and people are starting to listen
It of course led to questions about his active and vocal stance on racial equality at Thursday’s drivers’ press conference in Austria, where once again Hamilton spoke with eloquence and passion to tackle what is a major issue for a white-male-dominated sport.
"The whole reason my helmet has changed colour, the suit has, and also the car, it's all for equality above all, and just really continuing to solidify that message," Hamilton said. "We currently now have the mic, and people are starting to listen. We've got the opportunity to really push that message and really hold people accountable.
"Brands and the teams in Formula One, everybody here needs to be held accountable and be open to educate themselves, be open to understand why the movement is happening, and why around the world we need to keep pushing for equality.
"Because it's not good enough. Even if someone says to you we've been doing something or we've been trying, they need to try harder, because it's still a big issue that the world is fighting, 60 years later after Martin Luther King was fighting for it."
Hamilton is starting to have a major impact outside of the sport. People who have no plans to watch Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix for 71 laps are still listening to what Hamilton has to say when it comes to racial equality. He is beginning to obtain the type of power that Senna was able to create, which puts him on the fringe of a largely untouchable stratosphere reserved for sport’s most powerful speakers.
Senna was an enigma, a deep-thinking personality who had a certain way with words that made people listen more than any average F1 driver was able to. His power went far beyond the sport and changed the lives of millions of children in Brazil thanks to his charitable generosity, and The Ayrton Senna Foundation continues to improve the quality of life for those kids most at risk of poverty today.
What Hamilton has done over the last few months in the wake of George Floyd’s death cannot directly be compared to the charitable contribution that Senna gave - something that has continued long after he was taken from this world too soon at the age of 34. But it is from the same ilk in that Hamilton is making people listen, and by making people listen, the first steps towards change take place.
If people feel educated by Hamilton’s experiences of racism and his passionate calls for more to be done to achieve racial equality, the benefit will be not just of those who are within the sport, but those who feel equality by the reviews and changes that are currently taking place. He is of course not alone in trying to drive this change, but by publishing material on his social media accounts - with 17.3m followers on Instagram and 5.7m on Twitter - he educates others, and by using his platform as Formula One’s biggest attraction, he is doing more than his fair share.
There is also the argument of what Formula One would look like without him. Golf continued without Tiger Woods, and tennis survived the absences of Federer and Williams, but were they the same without them? Not in the slightest. The scenes witnessed at the 2018 PGA Tour Championship, when hundreds flooded East Lake’s 18th fairway as Woods marched towards a victory that would lay the platform for one of golf’s greatest comebacks at the 2018 Masters, were beamed all around the world as a moment people would never forget. That simply does not happen for any other golf player.
The same goes for athletics and Bolt. Since the Jamaican’s departure, the interest in the 100m has gone down significantly - not least due to the controversy currently surrounding his replacement as the fastest man on the planet following Christian Coleman’s missed drugs tests - but is the sport as healthy without Bolt as it was with him? Unquestionably, it is not. Not only do Federer and Williams put bums on seats at the four tennis Grand Slams, but they sell the sport to a market that no other players can reach. That is real sporting power.
F1 is showing that it can survive without Fernando Alonso, and next season it may well go without Sebastian Vettel too. But could it go without Hamilton? It simply would not be the same sport without one of its all-time greats, and it’s because of that reason that the man from Stevenage suddenly finds himself on the cusp of something truly special.