an unfair end, but an impressive Formula 1 season – The Undefeated
Lewis Hamilton has been robbed.
Late in Sunday’s Formula 1 season finale at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the Mercedes driver appeared to be champion again. He led with a solid gap over Max Verstappen, the Red Bull prodigy with whom Hamilton entered the race at the top of the standings – setting the stage for a Game 7 style race that would go to the top player.
For Hamilton, however, taking the checkered flag wouldn’t have simply broken a tie on points with Verstappen this year, it would have taken him even further away from Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher as the first-ever eight-time Formula 1 champion. Or , to put it another way: the sport’s first and only black rider would have a legitimate claim to undisputed GOAT status.
Or at least that was until a late accident knocked out the safety car with five laps to go. As Verstappen refueled for new tires, Hamilton was kept on track to maintain his lead, confident that his much older tires and the five traffic cars between him and Verstappen would hold out until the end.
But that calculation changed when Red Bull team principal Christian Horner contacted race director Michael Masi by radio and sternly advised him to get the cars back to working order. Instead of sending all traffic passed until the end of the line which would have taken longer than there were laps left in the race, Masi waited until the last minute just to chase the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen – taking the departure of the two rivals ready for a sudden death shootout on a single round for all balls.
This late call caught Mercedes completely off guard and left Hamilton totally overwhelmed by Verstappen when his Red Bull machine was positioned just behind the Mercedes. When the race resumed, Hamilton was only able to push Verstappen off a few turns before Verstappen pushed past and won the first title of his career.
To sum it up in terms a football fan might understand, what happened in Hamilton on Sunday was essentially the racing equivalent of the “Tuck Rule Game”. George Russell, the other driver for Team Williams, called the end of the race “absolutely unacceptable”. IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe, referring to the hugely popular F1 docuseries Drive to survive, cracked: “Dude, the race is wild when Netflix makes the calls!” Bubba Wallace, who is no stranger to lightning rod finishes in NASCAR himself, tweeted: “Wtf was that?!?”
Mercedes, for its part, filed two formal protests to see them rejected. But then again, that was to be expected given that they were essentially accusing the referees of making the rules. (Probably, it will go to court.)
Masi had so many better options at his disposal than what he ultimately chose. He could have stopped the race altogether to clean up the wreckage of the crash, which would have given Hamilton and Verstappen the opportunity to trade in for new tires and set up a fair duel. Or Masi could have let the race end behind the safety car and left the running order unchanged, a tack he took earlier this season when the rain swamped the Belgian Grand Prix. Instead, Masi stacked the deck for Verstappen – and moments after, Horner conceded on the Sky Sports show that Hamilton’s Mercedes “was too strong today”. After Verstappen crossed the finish line, Horner called it a “miracle”.
While Hamilton remained graceful in defeat, congratulating Verstappen and his team on a relentless campaign, Verstappen smiled like the cat that swallowed the canary. “Finally, a bit of luck for me today,” he told Sky Sports. It was enough to make you throw a remote control at the TV.
Where Hamilton came from humble beginnings in the middle class, Verstappen is the son of a former Formula 1 driver. He was not only raised to be world champion, but to be the youngest of all. time, starting karting at age 4 before landing a full-time seat in F1 at the record age of 17. After struggling to keep pace with the Mercedes squad for the past six years, Red Bull has finally provided Verstappen with a car that could lead the fight in Hamilton. The Verstappen stand team is the fastest on the market. His teammate, Sergio Perez, is strong enough to provide cover.
Along with these advantages, Verstappen is also extremely talented, stubbornly competitive and a regular line stepper. All season, he got away with overzealousness in Hamilton. In the penultimate race in Saudi Arabia, Verstappen was flagged for illegal overtaking by Hamilton and ordered to give way to the Mercedes; before relinquishing his lead, Verstappen put the brakes on Hamilton as he was about to pass, nearly ending Hamilton’s run and undermining his championship chances.
Before Abu Dhabi, the burning question was whether Verstappen would intentionally collide with Hamilton in the first corner to secure the championship. (As the ‘winner’ of the Belgian Grand Prix race, Verstappen technically led Hamilton in the standings by winning nine races against eight.)
“He’s definitely gone over the limit,” Hamilton said after the race in Saudi Arabia. “I’ve avoided collisions with the guy on so many occasions.”
In addition to disrespecting the track, Hamilton absorbed his share of verbal punches from Verstappen and Horner – who called Hamilton a ‘desperate amateur’ after he and Verstappen met at the British Grand Prix in July. (Imagine an aggrieved NFL coach saying the same thing about Tom Brady.) But that at least was easy enough to dismiss as a good old fashioned game. Far more suspect were people like former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, arguing that Hamilton should have retired from the sport out of respect for Schumacher’s accomplishments, rather than trying to clinch an eighth title. Remember, this was after Ecclestone assumed that Hamilton “isn’t quite the fighter he once was”.
At this point, Hamilton was 32 points behind Verstappen in the Championship. And all he’s done is grab five wins – including three in the last four races – to tie Verstappen to a tie and stage the winner’s clash on Sunday. Even more impressive: He accomplished this without much help from teammate Valtteri Bottas, who will cede his Mercedes seat to Russell for the 2022 season.
After losing pole position to Verstappen in qualifying, Hamilton rose to the top and stayed there for almost seven of the race’s 58 laps. He took care of his tires and made Mercedes look smart in deciding on a unique pit strategy. Everything went perfectly until the referees got involved. Some will call it bad luck. Others, a random callback to the Brazilian Grand Prix that handed Hamilton the first F1 crown in 2008.
Still, respect was in order: Verstappen won the right to be called champion – in a sense that the crown was always his to lose. From the start of the season, Hamilton strived to characterize himself more as a hunter than a hunted.
And while he failed to win the No.8 title, he helped Mercedes keep their grip on the all-important tag team championship race (where the real money is) while also breaking the bank. century in victories and poles. All the while, Hamilton kept the pressure on Verstappen as he came back from midsummer and took the lead in the Final. But just when it looked like he was about to leave in the desert twilight, he didn’t.
Clearly dejected afterwards, Hamilton retreated into his father’s consoling embrace. Seeing these two black men sharing such a loving moment in a sport that just doesn’t produce such scenes, it was hard not to take stock. Although Hamilton has signed a lucrative contract extension that keeps him with Mercedes during the 2023 season, he is still on top of his game. He will be 37 when F1 starts up again in 2022.
In addition, it will have to reckon with a host of new rules introduced in large part to fine-tune Mercedes’ tax and technological advantages. With everything he has outside of F1 – his music, his fashion, his philanthropy, his stakes in other racing series – he could easily get out of the car with nothing more to prove and no regrets.
All the more reason for this season not to be soon forgotten. It might not have ended in a championship for Hamilton, but it should be remembered as his most impressive campaign to date.
If the Abu Dhabi race had ended correctly, we all know who will win. No referee can steal it from him.