For someone who has become a stranger to defeat over the last eight years, Lewis Hamilton said and did all the right things in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
After spending two minutes alone in his Mercedes to process what had just happened – exactly how a race he controlled from the start had fallen, along with the 2021 Formula One World Championship, into the hands of Max Verstappen – Hamilton disappeared behind the scenes to be consoled by his physio Angela Cullen and his father Anthony.
He momentarily emerged from the shadows to make the point of embracing Verstappen, before offering his “big congratulations” to the Dutchman and his Red Bull team in his parc ferme interview, during which he also expressed his gratitude to Mercedes, who “gave it absolutely everything” in the “most difficult of seasons.”
With Hamilton skipping the post-race FIA press conference and the paddock pen reserved for television interviews, that was the last we saw or heard from the seven-time World Champion as Mercedes – already seeking to have the race result overturned – entered a form of lockdown.
Yet nothing Hamilton said as the dust settled would have captured his true feelings as well as a team radio message delivered in the heat of battle four corners from the finish line, which, would you believe, was not chosen to be aired to the watching world.
“This is getting manipulated, man!” a breathless and panicked Hamilton cried as it dawned on him his run of six titles in seven years was about to end, as his team principal Toto Wolff berated Michael Masi, the FIA’s hapless race director, the agitated anguish in his voice thickening his Austrian accent.
— BenS (@SilkyLegend) December 12, 2021
Whether or not you believe Verstappen is the more deserving champion of 2021 – and it is undeniable such incidents as his tyre failure in Baku, resulting in his retirement from the lead, distorted the title fight – it never sits well when a performance as flawless as Hamilton’s at Yas Marina goes unrewarded.
This, from an emotional perspective at least, was Monaco 2015 all over again, only without the promise of another grand prix just around the corner in which to strike back. This was final.
The grotty fingerprints of Liberty Media, hosting a final-race title decider for the first time since taking complete control of F1, were all over Masi’s sudden volte-face over the Safety Car procedure.
The decision to allow only the five lapped cars between Hamilton, on old hard tyres, and Verstappen, on fresh softs, to be released and immediately restarting the race was akin to hurriedly sweeping the stage for an encore between the two stars of the show that just had to happen no matter how fair a fight it turned out to be.
After a month of performative stewarding – with verdicts crucial to the title tussle taking almost 24 hours to be delivered, on one occasion when Wolff and his Red Bull counterpart Christian Horner were sat together in a televised press conference – this was the moment F1 completed its transition from sport to show.
And, make no mistake, F1 and its authorities got exactly what they wanted from Abu Dhabi – a World Champion crowned after the defining moment of this century and with sufficient controversy to sustain the sport’s social media penetration throughout the winter… or, in other words, until the new series of Drive To Survive arrives.
Hamilton had been here before, of course, losing the World Championship through no fault of his own at the end of his debut season in 2007.
But losing the title with a woeful strategy in the wet in Shanghai was one thing; losing after being wronged by a sport choosing not to follow standard protocol, in the name of entertainment, is quite another.
And, who knows, it may forever darken Hamilton’s own perception of F1.
Indeed, you were reminded of the words of his former team-mate Fernando Alonso, who after being penalised for impeding Felipe Massa in qualifying at Monza in 2006 – despite occupying a separate postcode to the Ferrari driver – uttered the immortal line: “I don’t consider F1 anymore a sport.”
Second guessing a driver’s retirement at the end of a season has almost become a sport itself in the years since Nico Rosberg decided he could take no more after pipping Hamilton to the 2016 title.
Yet while it is true there would be no greater rejection of Liberty’s vision of F1 than the most successful driver in its history – one who has long since outgrown the place – refusing to be a pawn in the game for a moment longer, even on the verge of his 37th birthday Hamilton unquestionably still has more to give, more to achieve.
Perhaps the 2021 season finale will instead mark a pivotal moment in the career of Hamilton and potentially bring forward its conclusion, with his outlook arguably about to change almost regardless of whether he succeeded in Abu Dhabi.
The arrival of George Russell at Mercedes next season will significantly alter the atmosphere within the team after the quiet cosiness of the Valtteri Bottas years, during which Hamilton could always count on the support of his trusty wingman.
Russell, prim and proper and a clone of Jenson Button in almost every way, was signed by Mercedes to eventually lead the team through life after Lewis and as such will from the beginning be more enemy within than popular pushover.
His intelligence, leadership and natural charm – instrumental in uniting and reviving a Williams team at the lowest point in their history over three years – are almost as dangerous as his innate ability and from this point no longer can Mercedes simply be regarded as Hamilton’s team.
Hamilton’s landscape – his entire view of life from inside the Mercedes machine – will change and, now dethroned, his style is sure to be cramped, his authority is set to be challenged, and Russell will need no invitation to widen any cracks forming between the team and their star driver.
On more than one occasion this season Hamilton aired his frustration with Mercedes’ refusal to compromise their 2022 program by continuing to upgrade the 2021 car beyond July’s British GP, telling Sky Sports in October he had been prevented from pursuing a particular development path.
The gamble to optimise what they had very nearly paid off, yet after all they have achieved together it came with the inherent danger of leaving Lewis feeling let down – potentially disillusioned – that his team hadn’t quite done everything in their power to support him when faced with his toughest challenge to date.
Hamilton himself is not exactly blameless and in truth his season always carried shades of 2016 as he wasted pivotal point-scoring opportunities in Baku, where his accidental activation of the brake-magic button saw him run off track at the restart, and Monza, where his poor start to the sprint race set him on course for a costly collision with Verstappen the following day.
But may he feel that a little extra tender loving care for the W12 would have been enough to swing the balance in Austin, for instance, where he finished little more than a second behind Verstappen? It is something to monitor over the coming months.
For whatever reason Hamilton always seemed to be fighting a losing battle in 2021, always – at least until his disqualification from Brazil qualifying left zero margin for error – struggling to generate momentum and apply sustained pressure.
Adding an eighth title to his collection in this of all seasons, against such aggressive and poised opposition, would have been his crowning glory and achieved almost in spite of everything.
It is often said by elite athletes that defeat brings infinitely more torment and despair than triumph brings joy and satisfaction.
And no matter what Hamilton has achieved before and will go on to achieve in the time he has left in F1, perhaps this will always stand out more so than 2007 and 2016 as the one that got – or, rather, was snatched – away.
All he can do for now is reflect on a year that began with the prospect of him creating yet more history and has ended with him potentially facing the beginning of the end.
Is title defeat the beginning of the end for Hamilton?
Are we seeing the beginning of the end for Lewis Hamilton after his title defeat?