Lewis Hamilton took nearly two months to emotionally recover from the controversial Formula One finale that cost him a record eighth championship, but the Mercedes driver insisted Friday he never considered quitting F1 in protest.
Once he accepted the results, Hamilton put the debacle behind him and began preparation for the upcoming season.
Lewis Hamilton is back for another tilt at an F1 title.Credit:AP
“Moments like this might define careers, I refuse to let this define mine,” Hamilton said from Mercedes’ team headquarters in Brackley, England.
Hamilton dominated the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December and was five laps away from breaking a tie with Michael Schumacher for most titles in F1 history. But a Nicholas Latifi crash brought out a caution and set in motion a frenzied sequence of events that altered the finish.
Race director Michael Masi changed his mind when deciding how to conclude the race and Max Verstappen, who had pitted for fresh tires, was lined up second behind Hamilton with all lapped traffic removed between title contenders on a restart with one lap remaining. Hamilton on old tires had little chance to defend Verstappen, who passed the British driver to win his first world title.
The FIA on Thursday announced sweeping changes to its race control procedures and removed Masi as race director following an extensive review of the season finale.
Mercedes has accepted the results of the review and Hamilton said he’s ready for another run at the record book. Hamilton said he takes no issue with Verstappen and has been in contact to offer “my full support” to Latifi, who received death threats following the finale.
“I don’t hold any grudges with anybody; I never think that’s ever a good thing to carry around with you,” he said. “I moved forward. I don’t dwell on the past. I feel centred and fully focused. I don’t have anything over my shoulders holding me back this year.
“If you think what you saw at the end of the last year was my best, wait to see this year.”
Hamilton won three consecutive races to tie Verstappen in the standings headed into the decider in Abu Dhabi. He dominated the race and led 51 of the 58 laps; Verstappen led only the final lap in winning the title.
Hamilton’s retreat from the public eye did little to quell speculation he was so disgruntled that he was considering walking away from F1 after 103 victories over 15 seasons. He finally re-emerged earlier this month with a social media post, then participated Friday in Mercedes’ launch of its car for the upcoming season.
Hamilton said he spent the time after Abu Dhabi with his entire family — a rare moment they were all together in the same place — as he “just unplugged. Switched off.” He said he has not watched a replay of the race, feeling no urge to revisit the event.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said he was “never concerned” that Hamilton would retire.
“We knew he needed to take the time to reflect on things and particularly to understand how he would return in the right frame of mind,” Wolff said. “I think what he did was absolutely right to take himself out of the microcosm of Formula One and step aside. He has come back in a great mindset. He’s positive, he’s determined and he, yet again, adversity that was thrown at him will make him stronger. It’s attack mode.”
Lewis Hamilton leads Max Verstappen in that dramatic, title-deciding, season-ending race in Abu Dhabi.Credit:Getty Images
Hamilton turned 37 last month and will be paired with fellow British driver George Russell this season. He said he’s as committed as ever to racing for another title.
“I think at the end of seasons, the question is whether you are willing to commit the time, the effort, that it takes to be a world champion,” Hamilton said. “Do you want to sacrifice the time? Do you believe that you can continue to punch higher than the weight you are punching?
“That’s a normal mental process for me, but of course, this one was compounded by a significant factor and I think ultimately a sport that I loved my whole life, there was a moment that I lost a little bit of faith within the system. But I’m generally a very determined person. I am focused on being the best I can be and coming back stronger.”
Wolff is “optimistic” that new steps put in place to improve F1 race management will prove successful.
“Literally in half a minute of decision-making process [we lost the title]. But we also have to move on from that,” Wolff said. “We’re not going to forget it, because that’s simply not possible, but we need to look at 2022. I believe that the right steps have been taken and I’m optimistic about the changes that have been implemented.
“The last couple of years we have seen a little bit of freestyle in the interpretation of the regulations,” he added. “So yes, I’m happy with what’s been implemented.”
The structural changes include a new soccer-style virtual race control room, while unlapping procedures behind safety cars will be reassessed before the first race in Bahrain on March 20.
Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas will act alternatively as race director, assisted by Herbie Blash as permanent senior advisor.
”Certainly the role of the race director is not easy, and now we have two very experienced guys out there,” Wolff said. “The support structure [is] not only in the race directors’ room but also with a remote-control room, where the race directors can rely on feedback and input to make the decision-making process easier for them.”
But there will be no more direct communications with the race director like in the pressure cooker of Abu Dhabi, where Wolff and Red Bull team director Christian Horner were able to talk to Masi while he was weighing his decision in a televised sequence that seemed more like cinema than sport.
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