Punishing Lewis Hamilton could end up hurting Mercedes
British driver less than gracious in defeat on Sunday and disobeyed team instructions
Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes AMG GP celebrates on the podium after his victory in the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo: EPA
It was not when he slowed down to back Rosberg into the jaws of the Ferrari and the Red Bull that followed them. It was not even when he twice ignored rather optimistic team orders to pick up his pace.
Hamilton was at fault only in the race’s aftermath. On the podium and in the press conference, he was less than gracious to the man who had supplanted him, the driver who had dedicated his sporting life to this one moment – Rosberg, his once close friend.
So mealy-mouthed was Hamilton as he “congratulated” Rosberg that the title winner’s fellow German Sebastian Vettel had to step in and declare the Mercedes man a worthy champion.
Finally, and appropriately, the British driver looked a little embarrassed but he failed to display a champion’s style when it was most required.
For backing up Rosberg, as he took the slow road to his 53rd grand prix win, he should not be admonished. It is what not only more ruthless champions such as Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher would have done but also how most drivers would have reacted, especially when defending a title.
There are those who argue it would have been a nobler thing if Hamilton had sprinted into the distance, to have won the race by the biggest possible margin, to have proved once again he was the fastest and best driver in the world. That would also have shown he did not care that much about this world championship. He had won it three times, after all, and a fourth did not really bother him that much.
Hamilton cares a great deal. His natural talent disguises a fierce competitive spirit. He desperately wanted that fourth crown, and he showed everyone just how much on Sunday. There was nothing underhanded about his tactics – they were perfectly legitimate, as he attempted to deny Rosberg the top three finish he needed to guarantee the title. Unlike Rosberg, Hamilton has never been penalised for causing a collision.
As for Mercedes they have handled the situation well over the past four years and in particular since 2014 when the relationship between their drivers changed from friendship to bitter rivalry.
Following two crashes earlier this season, in Spain and Austria, the team set down strict terms of engagement, suggesting the drivers could be fined or banned if they broke the rules. With so much at stake, they should have left Hamilton alone and not instructed him to pick up his speed. As a senior paddock figure told me after the race, that can have only fed Hamilton’s paranoia that someone out there doesn’t want him to be champion.
Toto Wolff, the head of motorsport at Mercedes, argued they were worried they might lose the race. But although Vettel might have passed Rosberg for a second-placed finish – a move that would not have stopped Roseberg winning the title – he was never likely to take Hamilton to win the race.
The Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, had a point when he said: “It was only ever going to be that kind of battle between the two of them. Hamilton won the race as slowly as he could. It’s like in a football game where the team might protect from the opposition by kicking the ball around and not enabling the opposition to get hold of the ball. I didn’t see that he did anything wrong.”
So what do Mercedes do now? If they are sensible, very little. When the sand has settled over Abu Dhabi it will be perfectly clear the team had another stupendously successful weekend, with another one-two result and the clinching of the drivers’ championship to add to the constructors’ title.
Hamilton is already licking his considerable wounds. Rubbing salt into them at this stage may not be the right thing to do if they are looking forward to an equally successful 2017.
But the difficulty is that Wolff has made something of a rod for his own back. He came out with some pretty strong stuff after the race, when he said about Hamilton: “Undermining a structure in public means you are putting yourself before the team. It is very simple. Anarchy does not work in any team and in any company. It is about finding a solution as to how to solve that in the future because a precedent has been set.”
Wolff said he would have to sleep on it before deciding what to do. Hamilton is likely to escape harsh punishment but after such strong words from the top man little or no action might be perceived as a sign of weakness.