Unwanted Lewis Hamilton anniversary also marks one of his finest F1 moments

Henry Valantine
Lewis Hamilton on the podium in Jeddah in 2021.

The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in 2021 was the last time to date that Lewis Hamilton has stood on top of the podium.

There’s something of a juxtaposition in Lewis Hamilton marking the unhelpful date of two full years without a win today [5 December], when his most recent victory was arguably one of his very best.

In the throes of his titanic 2021 title tussle with Max Verstappen, the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, which came hot on the heels of another all-time classic in Brazil two races beforehand, was vintage Hamilton.

It was win number 103 for the Mercedes driver in his career, and few would have predicted he would have remained stuck on that number since – but Formula 1 has a habit of being fickle that way.

On this day in 2021: Lewis Hamilton takes enthralling victory around Jeddah

Forgetting the controversy of how the 2021 season ended for a moment, it only takes thinking about some of the races that year to realise just how incredible some of the action was in the not-too-distant past, and what happened in Jeddah was proof of that.

Hamilton, starting from pole after Verstappen’s lap-from-the-Gods-that-never-was ended after a crash at the final corner on the Saturday, led away from his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, with his title rival P3.

What came in those 50 laps that followed was drama worthy of a book (or its own episode of Drive to Survive), but we’ll do our best to condense it.

On lap 10, Mick Schumacher had an enormous impact at the high-speed Turn 21/22 chicane, which brought out the Safety Car. Red Bull were furious at Bottas for deliberately slowing down behind Hamilton and building up a gap to allow Mercedes to double-stack their cars in the pit lane.

Verstappen stayed out for track position and two laps later, the race was red-flagged, handing the Red Bull driver track position and the initiative on the road.

The first restart came, Hamilton got fully ahead of Verstappen into the first braking zone, who went around the outside of the Mercedes driver at the first chicane, cutting the track in doing so and forcing the Briton wide, with another red flag moments later for a crash for Sergio Perez, Nikita Mazepin and George Russell behind.

Esteban Ocon had got ahead of Hamilton in the process, and race director Michael Masi made Red Bull an ‘offer’ to drop Verstappen behind Hamilton at the next restart. Red Bull accepted, with Ocon on pole this time.

Verstappen found his way up from third to first at Turn 1, with Hamilton swiftly up to P2 soon afterwards, and the fight for the win was on.

Come lap 37, Hamilton went around the outside coming to Turn 1, Verstappen went long at the braking zone and the pair did well to avoid contact, with the radio message: “This guy is f***ing crazy, man”, sent to race engineer Pete Bonnington as a result.

Stuck in Verstappen’s DRS zone and under instruction from Gianpiero Lambiase on the Red Bull pit wall to give Hamilton the lead, the Dutchman tried to let Hamilton by before the DRS detection point so he could get back past again with his rear wing open, but it backfired as Hamilton piled into the back of his title rival.

Somehow, the front wing on his Mercedes stayed intact enough for the two to keep going, and by lap 42, Verstappen let Hamilton by before the DRS line, cleverly lunged back up the inside into the final corner, and had the DRS benefit himself on the pit straight.

But Hamilton wasn’t done. Just as he did at Interlagos, his perseverance in battle paid off, with a damaged wing and an opponent who wasn’t going to give up the lead easily.

A five-second time penalty was due to come Verstappen’s way as a result of one of his earlier off-track excursions, but Hamilton took P1 on the road with another move at the final corner, holding the Red Bull driver wide and bringing matters into his own hands, despite only needing to hang onto the back of his title rival.

Far from scampering away from lights to flag, it was a drive of the determination, racecraft and outright talent he needed in that moment to take things to the wire, though the World Championship would ultimately go to Verstappen a week later in controversial circumstances.

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What has happened since for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, and what’s next?

As is so often the way in Formula 1, what happened next with the mass regulation changes brought about a huge reset in the order, and drivers are still beholden to what is underneath them.

With a 2022 car that wasn’t ‘born well’ and the quick realisation a title challenge would not be on the cards, Hamilton effectively sacrificed the first half of that year to experiment with it to try and get on top of the porpoising problem that so plagued his challenger, and since then, he and Mercedes have fought an uphill battle together.

Even though Hamilton has appeared on the podium 15 times since the start of 2022, none of them have been on the top step – and given how he and the team have traded exclusively in victories and championships for so long, anything else will not be good enough.

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff told PlanetF1.com the team are set for a “more conventional” approach to their car in 2024, with some “interesting” features attached.

Hamilton himself spoke of how he has been in regular contact with senior factory figures at Mercedes to try and help in any way he can to bring the team back as close as they can be to Red Bull, though overhauling them next year will be a tough ask after a dominant year from their perspective.

It could take a retirement for Verstappen, a one-off superlative drive like George Russell’s in Brazil last year or Mercedes producing a more competitive car to help Hamilton on his way, but if his career has proven anything – even in uncompetitive machinery in the past (see McLaren in 2009 and Mercedes in 2013), he’s often found a way to get the most from it.

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