As Mercedes unveiled their 2022 Formula 1 car, the W13, at Silverstone on Friday morning, Lewis Hamilton stepped out of the darkness and back into the light.
He had elected to say nothing in the aftermath of the loss of the 2021 World Championship to Max Verstappen on the last lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, beyond the official obligation of a parc ferme interview with Jenson Button.
But Mercedes’ decision to protest the race result almost at the moment the chequered flag fell – coupled with an unearthed distress signal over team radio moments before the finish in which he claimed the race had been “manipulated” – offered a clear hint to his true feelings.
In keeping quiet publicly and remaining dignified in defeat before slipping away into the shadows, Hamilton left behind a vacuum of noise for F1’s off-season of soul searching.
How was he? Where was he? Had what happened in Abu Dhabi distorted his view and extinguished his love of the sport that shaped his life? Was it the last time he would ever be seen in an F1 car?
And what exactly did he mean when he told Button “we’ll see about next year” – a line that took on a life of its own during the winter – when invited to say he would be back in 2022?
Sometimes it is better to stay silent, step back and leave the world to wonder.
It is a tactic Hamilton has employed in the face of adversity and injustice over the years, stretching all the way back to his debut season with McLaren in 2007 when another title was lost in highly suspicious circumstances.
The official story of that season is McLaren and Hamilton, on the verge of making history as the sport’s first rookie World Champion, suffered a devastating attack of the ‘yips’ in a tale that started in a Shanghai gravel trap and ended with a temporary gearbox glitch in Sao Paulo.
But in a fascinating – if uncomfortably casual, for the subject matter of a potentially massive sporting scandal – article for The Race in 2020, respected F1 reporter Mark Hughes explored the possibility that Hamilton’s title challenge had been critically undermined by the fall-out of the Spygate affair and mutual hatred between McLaren boss Ron Dennis and FIA president Max Mosley.
Already fined $100million and excluded from the teams’ standings, and still racing under the threat of being banned from the following season if an FIA investigation found Ferrari secrets in the design of their 2008 car, the mistakes McLaren made across the final two races in China and Brazil, Hughes indicated, were so bad as to be scarcely believable.
The result, as we know, was Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen won both grands prix to overturn a deficit of 17 points into victory by just one.
When asked a decade ago by Hughes whether he had ever got to the bottom of what exactly happened that season, Hamilton – as he would at Yas Marina years later – said both a little and a lot: “I didn’t know at the time. But I do now. It’s not something I can talk about.”
If he was indeed reduced to a pawn in the game of Max ‘n’ Bernie’s rotten racing roadshow in 2007, in 2021 he was the sacrificial lamb of F1 being transformed from sport to show.
Hamilton’s response back then was to do to them what they did to him, hitting back immediately to win the 2008 title by a single point. Take that.
If he could do the same in 2022, it would be the perfect riposte to Abu Dhabi and create the ideal opportunity to leave F1 behind with his head – not to mention his middle finger – held high.
Even during the W13 launch ceremony there was a sense Abu Dhabi, at least in his eyes, was already ancient history, with the focus instead on looking ahead to the sport’s new era.
“It was obviously a difficult time for me and a time when I really needed to take a step back, focus on being present,” was all Hamilton said of his bleak midwinter. “I had my family all around me, creating great moments, and it eventually got to a point where I decided I’m going to be attacking again coming into another season.”
Ultimately, Hamilton could take comfort from the fact that with five laps to go in Abu Dhabi, at the end of his toughest test to date and his weakest season overall since 2016, he had Verstappen defeated.
The unique nature of 2021 – the season-long struggle between Verstappen and Hamilton, Red Bull and Mercedes – had taken a tremendous toll, a snapshot of which came at the penultimate round in Saudi Arabia.
Despite having drawn level on points with Verstappen after his third victory in succession, Hamilton was not a happy man at the end of the race in Jeddah.
He was angry, irritated but mostly utterly exhausted having been subjected to a vicious onslaught by Verstappen over the course of a race punctuated by two red-flag stoppages and lasting more than two hours.
After sitting with his head in his hands behind the scenes in parc ferme to compose himself, Hamilton strode defiantly to the edge of the podium structure to raise the winner’s trophy in full view of his team, beating his chest without even the slightest hint of satisfaction on his face.
Illuminated in the Arabian night by the paraphernalia of the podium and with Verstappen in the background, himself frustrated having been unable to force through his first match point, it made for one of the great podium images and came to symbolise the bitterness of the battle.
If Hamilton had overcome that – as well as the wasted win in Baku, the collisions at Silverstone and Monza, the disqualification from Brazil qualifying – to still leave Verstappen and Red Bull needing a miracle in the closing stages in Abu Dhabi, it was a measure of the man and the class of the competitor.
When a title-winning dynasty is brought down you would normally expect the first signs of friction to develop between team and driver, but the nature of his dethronement may only have brought Hamilton and Mercedes closer together.
In the moments when Mercedes seemed powerless to prevent Verstappen from running away with the title in 2021, Hamilton expressed a frustration with the team’s reluctance to upgrade the car beyond the British Grand Prix in mid-July.
Their stance in optimising what they had, with Hamilton holding a gap of 12 seconds over Verstappen before the intervention of the Safety Car in the season finale, was arguably justified, and the refusal to compromise the development of the W13 should equip them for the challenges of 2022.
At the heart of Mercedes’ astronomical success since 2014 has been a hunger to learn from the mistakes of other dominant teams in F1 history, with Williams, Ferrari and Red Bull – so fixated on the present they failed to prepare sufficiently for the future – all allowing themselves to be wrongfooted by rule changes in the past.
Having already negotiated two major regulation changes in 2017 and 2019 with little more than a stumble, and quickly found solutions to the floor changes of 2021, there is no reason to expect the Mercedes empire – under the meticulous management of Toto Wolff – to fall this time either.
Could the same be said of Red Bull, who sensed vulnerability in the Mercedes machine last season and by their own admission, with the opportunity to fight for a title for the first time in eight years, threw everything at it?
Maybe, given Adrian Newey’s own history of acing major rule changes. But maybe not, if Red Bull’s all-consuming commitment to the 2021 cause came at a cost to their 2022 program.
No matter how painful the defeat, Hamilton was never going to retire from F1 at the end of last season.
A Mercedes man to the core, he was never going to leave his team in the lurch like his former team-mate Nico Rosberg – and, in truth, a driver as decorated as he deserves a far better ending.
An eighth World Championship would see him fully surpass Michael Schumacher as statistically the greatest grand prix driver of all time. But with his place in history long since set in stone, another title would add only a little extra weight to his legacy.
Perhaps, instead, his motivation for this year will be more personal – to right the wrongs of Abu Dhabi and take back what was his, and all while letting his driving do the talking.
It is why winning and then walking away would be a fitting way to finish.
Hell hath no fury like Lewis Hamilton scorned.
Hamilton ‘never ever said’ he was going to quit
Lewis Hamilton claims that he never said that he was leaving Formula One.