As Mercedes unveiled its 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 chosen not to say anything the day after the loss of the 2021 World Championship to Max Verstappen in the last lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, beyond the official obligation of an interview in parc fermé with Jenson Button.
Corn mercedesThe decision to protest the race result almost as the checkered flag fell – coupled with a distress signal unearthed on the team’s radio moments before the finish during which he claimed the race had been “manipulated” – offered a clear indication of his true feelings.
By publicly remaining silent and standing dignified in defeat before slipping into the shadows, Hamilton has left behind a vacuum of noise for F1’s off-season soul-searching.
How was he? Or was he? Had what happened in Abu Dhabi distorted his vision and extinguished his love of sport that shaped his life? Was that the last time we saw him in an F1?
And what exactly did he mean when he told Button “we’ll see for next year” – a line that took on a life of its own over the winter – when he was asked to say he would be from back in 2022?
Sometimes it’s better to shut up, step back and let the world wonder.
It’s a tactic Hamilton has employed in the face of adversity and injustice over the years, dating back to his first season with McLaren in 2007, when another title was lost in highly suspicious circumstances.
The official story for this season is McLaren and Hamilton, set to make history as the sport’s first rookie world champion, suffered a devastating attack from the ‘yips’ in a story that began in a Shanghai gravel pit and ended ended with a temporary gearbox problem in Sao Paulo.
But in a fascinating – albeit uncomfortably casual, for the subject of a potentially massive sports scandal – article for The Race in 2020, respected F1 journalist Mark Hughes explored the possibility that Hamilton’s title challenge has been seriously compromised. by the fallout from the Spygate affair and mutual hatred between McLaren boss Ron Dennis and FIA president Max Mosley.
Already fined $100 million and kicked out of the team standings, and still racing under threat of being banned from the following season if an FIA investigation uncovers Ferrari secrets in the design of their 2008 car, the mistakes made by McLaren in the last two races in China and Brazil, Hughes said, were so bad they were hardly believable.
The result, as we know, was Ferrari‘s Kimi Raikkonen won both Grands Prix to overturn a 17-point deficit in victory by just one.
When asked a decade ago by Hughes if he had ever figured out exactly what happened that season, Hamilton – as he would at Yas Marina years later – said a little and a lot: “I didn’t know then. But I do now. It’s not something I can talk about.
If he was indeed reduced to a pawn in Max ‘n’ Bernie’s rotten racing roadshow game in 2007, by 2021 he was F1’s sacrificial lamb transforming from sport to spectacle.
Hamilton’s response at the time was to do to them what they did to him, immediately fighting back to win the 2008 title by a single point. Take that.
If he could do the same in 2022, it would be the perfect retort in Abu Dhabi and create the perfect opportunity to leave F1 with his head – let alone middle finger – held high.
Even at the W13 launch event, there was a feeling that Abu Dhabi, at least in his eyes, was already ancient history, with the focus instead on the new era of the sport.
“It was obviously a tough time for me and a time when I really needed to take a step back, focus on being there,” Hamilton said all about his dark winter. “I had my family all around me, creating great moments, and I finally got to a point where I decided I would attack again in another season.”
Ultimately, Hamilton could take solace in the fact that with five laps to go in Abu Dhabi, at the end of his toughest test yet and weakest season since 2016, he got Verstappen beaten.
The unique nature of 2021 – the season-long struggle between Verstappen and Hamilton, Red Bull and Mercedes – had taken its toll, a snapshot of which came in the penultimate round in Saudi Arabia.
Despite leveling the points with Verstappen after his third consecutive victory, Hamilton was not a happy man at the end of the race in Jeddah.
He was angry, irritated but above all completely exhausted to have suffered a vicious assault from Verstappen during a race punctuated by two red flag stops and lasting more than two hours.
After sitting with his head in his hands backstage at the parc fermé to calm down, Hamilton defiantly strode to the edge of the podium structure to lift the winner’s trophy in full view of his team, hitting the chest without even the slightest trace of satisfaction. on his face.
Illuminated in the Arabian night by the paraphernalia of the podium and with Verstappen in the background, himself frustrated at not having been able to impose his first match point, he made one of the great images of the podium and became the symbol of the bitterness of the battle.
If Hamilton had overcome that – along with the wasted victory 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 final stages in Abu Dhabi, c It was a measure of the man and class of the competitor.
When a title-winning dynasty is toppled, one would normally expect the first signs of friction to develop between team and driver, but the nature of his dethronement may have only brought Hamilton and mercedes.
At times when Mercedes seemed powerless to prevent Verstappen from running away with the title in 2021, Hamilton expressed frustration at the team’s reluctance to upgrade the car beyond the British Grand Prix at mid-July.
Their stance of maximizing what they had, with Hamilton holding a 12-second gap over Verstappen before the safety car intervened 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 thirst to learn from the mistakes of other dominant teams in F1 history, with williamsFerrari and Red Bull – so obsessed with the present that they failed to prepare enough for the future – have all been caught off guard by rule changes in the past.
Having already negotiated two major regulatory changes in 2017 and 2019 with little more than a stumble, and quickly found solutions to the 2021 floor changes, there is no reason to expect the empire Mercedes – under the meticulous direction of Toto Wolff – falls this year. neither does time.
Could the same be said of Red Bullwho sensed the vulnerability of the Mercedes machine last season and by their own admission, with the opportunity to challenge for a title for the first time in eight years, threw everything at it?
Perhaps, given Adrian Newey’s own history of major rule changes. But maybe not, if Red Bull’s all-consuming commitment to the 2021 cause came at a cost to its 2022 programme.
However painful the defeat, Hamilton was never going to retire from F1 at the end of last season.
A Mercedes man at heart, he was never going to let his team down like his former team-mate Nico Rosberg – and, indeed, such a decorated driver as he deserves a much better end.
An eighth world championship would see him surpass Michael Schumacher as the statistically greatest Grand Prix driver of all time. But with his place in history long set in stone, another title would only add a little extra weight to his legacy.
Instead, his motivation for this year may be more personal: to right Abu Dhabi’s wrongs and take back what was his, while letting his driving do the talking.
That’s why winning and then walking away would be a good way to end.
Hell has no fury like Lewis Hamilton despised.