| |

F1: Joy, anguish and outrage as 2016 championship comes to an end

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

Headline: Lewis Hamilton has won 10 races this year, Nico Rosberg has won 9. Hamilton won in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg won the championship. Hamilton has had a disproportionate number of mechanical and electronic failures but he's also had a propensity to ruin his own starts. But, even so, Hamilton does seem to have been hard done by and even his team has, from time to time, been a little less than even in their support for their two drivers.

Let's get one thing straight: Rosberg is a fine driver and this year he's been in the best car, even the best car out of the two Mercedes. Rosberg won the first four races of the season; then Hamilton started to claw his way back into contention. The difference between nine wins and ten is not as great as the impression fans have watching the sport. One of the reasons is that Hamilton's equipment failures have, mostly, come when he might have been expected to beat Rosberg, resulting in Rosberg scoring points when Hamilton scored less than expected, or none.

The pair have an on-off friendship but great respect. As soon as Rosberg walked into the parc fermé area, without his car which he left on the main straight after donuts, Hamilton went over to him, put his arm around him and touched helmets, the motor-racing driver's equivalent of a quick kiss, and not of the Glasgow kind. Most print media this morning make no mention of that, preferring to make snide comments suggesting that Hamilton "eventually" got around to congratulating Rosberg on his title.

But on track, there is no love lost: they are more likely to swap punches than kisses.

Not that there was any risk of a punch-up on Abu Dhabi: Rosberg knew, and his crew repeatedly reminded him, that he didn't need to win the race to win the Championship, only that he needed to be third or best. Whether there is any conspiracy theory to be had over the end result might depend on how people view the serious discussion between Ferarri's Maurizio Arrivabene and Mercedes' Tito Wolff who has already blotted his copybook earlier this season by making an ill-considered phone call to Jos Verstappen to demand that his son, Max, who was fifth in the championship, did not interfere with the Mercedes cars. As the Abu Dhabi race came to a conclusion, Vettel was put in a position where a failure to attack Rosberg would have looked suspicious: he did, fluffed it and held station. Yet both Vettel and Verstappen were travelling at speeds considerably higher than Rosberg.

But Rosberg's pace was not of his own making. Hamilton, already warned by his team before the race that they would use pit-stops to help Rosberg pass him if he "backed up" Rosberg into the clutches of Ferrari and Red Bull, drove an impeccable race, just out of reach of Rosberg but not pushing so hard he was far away. Then, once all the pit-stops were over, Hamilton slowed down, hoping to put both Vettel and Verstappen ahead of Rosberg. But Verstappen was just too far back and Vettel was in the way. Vettel's storming drive suddenly slowed. Hamilton went slower and slower, his last lap being nine seconds slower than his qualifying time.

Messages from the Mercedes pit wall became increasingly frantic and, eventually, Paddy Lowe, a senior figure, spoke to Hamilton telling him to get a move on. Hamilton's response was a calm, but clearly a little upset, "Right now, I'm losing the world championship, so I'm not bothered if I win or lose this race." The team used the word "instruction." Hamilton went slower still. But his tactic was high risk: if Vettel had passed Rosberg with four or five laps to go, then Hamilton, on much older tyres, would almost certainly have been a sitting duck. So Hamilton needed to find a time and place to orchestrate both Vettel and Verstappen passing Rosberg with, ideally, only one lap remaining.

As it happened, Verstappen didn't keep up, Vettel gave up the attack and Hamilton crossed the line less than a second ahead of Rosberg. He slowed, gave a congratulatory wave to Rosberg as he passed, then slipped into a quiet and introspective drive back to the pit lane. Clearly subdued at the failure to win the title after a series of four victories, he wasn't very interested in the celebrations. Those who think he was being a sore loser clearly are not aware of what goes on in a racing driver's helmet : it's a weird world and Hamilton was driving so slowly that there was plenty of time to become morose at the lack of a handful of points at the end of a season that had had had many unfortunate events. Hamilton said, after the race "It may have been intense for you, but not intense for me."

Toto Wolff said that he was in two minds about Hamilton's conduct: the team boss wanted to berate Hamilton for refusing to follow orders and speed up to allow Rosberg to protect himself but the racing driver in him said that if there was any chance of winning the Championship fairly, then Lewis was right to take it.

Hamilton is an emotional character: it often takes him a while to come to terms with anything except a win. He's not being unpleasant or bitchy: he has to settle his inner demons at what he considers failure. Once he's had a few minutes, which non-stop tv coverage of the parking of the car, via the green room and onto the podium denies him, he's fine. Once he'd become a person not a racing machine, his reaction to Rosberg was not merely gracious, it bordered on the warm. "He has done a fantastic job and it is a great feeling to win a championship - I don't want to do or say anything to reduce that for Nico. I did everything I could. Obviously, Nico had a very clean year without any real issues to be honest. "That is why we sit in this position right now. He did a fantastic job, congratulations to him. It's a great feeling to win the championship."

There is no doubt that Rosberg is a worthy champion - this year. In previous years, some dodgy driving has raised questions about his integrity and safety. This year, he has been supremely fast and safe. And his car hasn't broken down. But there remains the nagging doubt that, if Hamilton hadn't had all the failures and grid penalties for replacement parts, perhaps that five point gap to Rosberg wouldn't have been there. Rosberg will always be the 2016 champion, but he will always have the nagging knowledge that, when both cars were working properly, Hamilton was the better racer and the faster driver, provided he got off the line properly.