Formula One: Love him or hate him, there's no doubting 4-time world champion Lewis Hamilton's race pedigree

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton celebrates during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, on Oct 22, 2017.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton celebrates during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, on Oct 22, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Former F1 racing boss Lord Alexander Hesketh once said, "Men love women; even more than that, men love cars." Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton is the embodiment of that; living life at breakneck speed, putting the thrill of speed at the heart of everything.

It is an intoxicating cocktail that Hamilton, 32, relishes: from the rush he gets hurtling around a circuit at speeds in excess of 350kmh, to basking in the adulation of millions of followers on social media while revelling in the red-carpet treatment afforded to F1's most marketable driver.

There have been plenty of labels - including "arrogant", "attitude problem" and "playboy" - since his first world championship win in 2008 with McLaren.

Hamilton has long been a fixture on the celebrity circuit with a succession of models on his arm - which is adorned with a full-sleeve tattoo - from former girlfriend and Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger to rumoured flings with models Sofia Richie, Barbara Palvin and Winnie Harlow. In addition, there is the hobnobbing with musicians like Pharrell Williams and Kanye West.

But the Hollywood image he portrays polarises British racing fans, who have never quite taken to him, unlike former world champions Jackie Stewart or Nigel Mansell. This could also be due, in part, to his tax-exile status in Monaco. Another factor is his perceived arrogance - snubbing a pre-Silverstone event this year to party in Mykonos comes to mind - and that is he F1's first black driver.

Having long been criticised for moving from Britain to Switzerland at just 22, he regards the condemnation as unjust.

"Do people know how much I love the UK? Maybe not enough," Hamilton said at this year's British Grand Prix, making no apologies for being the only driver to skip the showpiece in London and having received plenty of flak both from fellow drivers and British racing fans.

The Briton has never quite adhered to the mould of stoic race car driver, and in an interview with Men's Health Australia in June this year, he said, "There is a template someone invented for a racing driver. You have to be a square and fit into a box - and the shape is 'boring as f***'. Don't do anything, but live and breathe racing. Don't enjoy, don't smile."

He shares the same single-minded approach and tunnel vision as racing greats like Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Stewart, when it comes to winning Grands Prix.

Defending his lifestyle in the same interview, he said: "I'm no less focused than any of my peers. They live a different life. They go home and are not pictured at events. I train just as much as them - maybe more."

That pursuit of excellence has resulted in 62 Grand Prix victories, second only to Schumacher on 91, the most pole positions in history (72) and, according to Forbes, US$46 million (S$62.7 million) in earnings for 2017.

And now Hamilton has made history at the Mexican Grand Prix. A ninth-placed finish on Sunday (Oct 29) helped him to overhaul Stewart to become Britain's most successful F1 driver with four world championships.

He has overtaken his idol Senna - also renowned for his prowess in wet conditions - in the process.

Williams driver Felipe Massa, 36, certainly feels Hamilton has few peers. In an interview with Sky Sports, the Brazilian insisted he deserved his place in the pantheon of all-time greats like Schumacher and Senna.

"Lewis is definitely one of the best drivers in the history of Formula One. You cannot really take him away or (place him) in a different level compared to Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna. He's there," Massa said.

With nine Grand Prix wins this year, 11 pole positions, a 66-point lead over nearest rival Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel and a fourth title almost in the bag, it's not hyperbole when Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said he was set to become "the best driver that has ever existed".

Hamilton claims he cannot yet put himself in the same category as Senna, but the formality in Mexico will pull him level with Vettel and Alain Prost, both on four titles.

Only Schumacher (seven) and Juan Manuel Fangio (five) are ahead, and while Hamilton has said that he will walk away from the sport once he retires, in an interview on ITV's The Jonathan Ross show, he said this year's battle with Vettel had reinvigorated him and that he was "loving it (F1) more than ever".

Hamilton may have his detractors, but opinions are not split when it comes to his acumen on the track.

At 4/6 odds to receive a knighthood in the UK's New Year honours list, it would indeed be a fitting tribute for the finest British driver of his generation, once his Mexico coronation is complete.