an unjust ending, however a powerful Components One season — •

Lewis Hamilton was robbed.

Late in Sunday’s Components One season finale at Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the Mercedes driver seemed like he can be champion as soon as once more. He was main with a stable hole on Max Verstappen, the Crimson Bull prodigy with whom Hamilton entered the race atop the standings — setting the stage for a Sport 7-style race that might come all the way down to the very best finisher.

For Hamilton, although, taking the checkered flag wouldn’t have simply damaged a factors tie with Verstappen this 12 months, it might have additional separated him from Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher as Components One’s first-ever eight-time champion. Or, to place it one other means: the game’s first and solely Black driver would have a authentic declare to undisputed GOAT standing.

Or at the least that was till a late crash introduced out the protection automotive with 5 laps to go. Whereas Verstappen pitted for recent tires, Hamilton was stored on observe to keep up his place within the lead, on the assumption that his a lot older tires and the 5 automobiles’ price of lapped visitors in between him and Verstappen would maintain up till the top.

However that math modified when Crimson Bull staff principal Christian Horner radioed race director Michael Masi and sternly suggested him to reset the automobiles to their true operating order. As a substitute of sending all the lapped visitors to the top of the road, which might’ve taken longer than there have been laps left to run within the race, Masi waited till the final minute simply to shoo away the 5 automobiles in between Hamilton and Verstappen — teeing the 2 rivals up for a sudden-death, single-lap shootout for all of the marbles.

That late name caught Mercedes fully off guard and left Hamilton completely overmatched in opposition to Verstappen when his Crimson Bull machine was positioned proper behind the Mercedes. When the race was restarted, Hamilton may solely fend off Verstappen for a couple of turns earlier than Verstappen shot previous and cruised to the primary title of his profession.

To border this in phrases a soccer fan would possibly perceive, what occurred to Hamilton on Sunday was mainly the racing equal of the “Tuck Rule Sport.” George Russell, the Williams staff’s different driver, referred to as the race ending “completely unacceptable.” IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe, referencing the wildly well-liked F1 docuseries Drive to Survive, cracked: “Man, racing is wild when Netflix is making the calls!” Bubba Wallace, no stranger to lightning rod finishes in NASCAR himself, tweeted: “Wtf was that?!?”

Mercedes, for its half, lodged two formal protests solely to see them rejected. However then once more, that was to be anticipated provided that they had been primarily accusing the refs of constructing up the foundations. (Doubtless, that is going to courtroom.)

Masi had so many higher choices at his disposal than what he finally selected. He may have stopped the race fully to clear the crash wreckage, which might’ve given Hamilton and Verstappen a possibility to swap for brand spanking new tires and arrange a good duel. Or Masi may’ve let the race end behind the protection automotive and left the operating order unchanged, a tack he took earlier this season when rain overwhelmed the Belgian Grand Prix. As a substitute, Masi stacked the deck for Verstappen — and mere moments after, Horner conceded on the Sky Sports activities broadcast that Hamilton’s Mercedes “was too robust at the moment.” After Verstappen crossed the end line, Horner referred to as it a “miracle.”

Whereas Hamilton remained gracious in defeat, congratulating Verstappen and his staff on a hard-fought marketing campaign, Verstappen grinned just like the cat who swallowed the canary. “Lastly, a little bit of luck for me at the moment,” he instructed Sky Sports activities. It was sufficient to make you hurl a distant on the TV.

The place Hamilton got here from humble, middle-class beginnings, Verstappen is the son of an ex-Components One driver. He wasn’t simply bred to be world champion, however to be the youngest one ever, beginning in go-karts at age 4 earlier than touchdown a full-time F1 seat on the file age of 17. After struggling to maintain tempo with the Mercedes staff for the previous six years, Crimson Bull lastly furnished Verstappen with a automotive that might take the battle to Hamilton. Verstappen’s pit crew is the quickest within the enterprise. His teammate, Sergio Perez, is powerful sufficient to offer cowl.

Together with these benefits, Verstappen can be massively proficient, tenaciously aggressive and a routine line stepper. All season he bought away with racing Hamilton overzealously. On the penultimate race in Saudi Arabia, Verstappen was flagged for an unlawful overtake of Hamilton and directed to yield to the Mercedes; earlier than giving again his place within the lead, Verstappen brake-checked Hamilton as he was about to move, practically ending Hamilton’s race and scuttling his championship possibilities.

Components One World Championship winner Max Verstappen (proper) of Crimson Bull Racing is congratulated by runner-up Lewis Hamilton (left) of Mercedes through the Components One at Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on Dec. 12.

Mario Renzi-Components One/Components One through Getty Photographs

Within the lead-up to Abu Dhabi, the burning query was whether or not Verstappen would deliberately collide with Hamilton on the primary nook to ensure himself the championship. (Because the “victor” within the Belgian Grand Prix race, Verstappen technically led Hamilton within the standings by advantage of getting gained 9 races to his eight.)

“He’s over the restrict for certain,” Hamilton mentioned after the Saudi Arabia race. “I’ve averted collisions on so many events with the man.”

Along with the disrespect on observe, Hamilton absorbed his share of verbal blows from Verstappen and Horner — who branded Hamilton a “determined newbie” after he and Verstappen got here collectively in July’s British Grand Prix. (Think about an aggrieved NFL coach saying the identical of Tom Brady.) However this at the least was simple sufficient to dismiss nearly as good ol’ original gamesmanship. Much more suspect was individuals equivalent to former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone saying Hamilton ought to’ve retired from the game out of respect for Schumacher’s achievements, moderately than attempt for an eighth title. Thoughts you, this was after Ecclestone surmised that Hamilton “shouldn’t be fairly the fighter he as soon as was.”

At that time, Hamilton was a whopping 32 factors behind Verstappen within the championship. And all he did was peel off 5 victories — together with three within the final 4 races — to attract even with Verstappen and arrange Sunday’s winner-take-all conflict. Much more spectacular: He achieved this with out a lot assist from teammate Valtteri Bottas, who’ll flip over his Mercedes seat to Russell for the 2022 season.

After simply dropping out on pole place to Verstappen in qualifying, Hamilton rocketed to the entrance and stayed there for all however seven of the race’s 58 laps. He took care of his tires and made Mercedes look shrewd for deciding on a one-stop pit technique. It went completely to plan till the refs bought concerned. Some will name it unhealthy luck. Others, a callback to the fluky Brazilian Grand Prix that delivered Hamilton’s first F1 crown in 2008.

Nonetheless, respect the place due: Verstappen earned the precise to be referred to as champion — in a way that the crown was all the time his to lose. From the start of the season, Hamilton took pains to characterize himself extra as a hunter than hunted.

And although he fell wanting successful title No. 8, he did assist Mercedes retain its vise grip on the all-important staff championship race (which is the place the actual cash is) whereas cresting the century mark in victories and poles. All of the whereas, Hamilton stored the strain on Verstappen as he charged again from the useless of midsummer and into the finale lead. However simply when it appeared as if he’d journey off into the desert twilight, he didn’t.

Clearly dejected afterward, Hamilton retreated into his father’s consoling embrace. Seeing these two Black males share such a young second in a sport that merely doesn’t produce such scenes, it was laborious to not take inventory. Although Hamilton signed a profitable contract extension that retains him with Mercedes by way of the 2023 season, and he’s nonetheless on the prime of his recreation. He’ll be 37 when F1 restarts in 2022.

What’s extra, he’ll should reckon with a slew of recent guidelines launched largely to sand down Mercedes’ fiscal and technological edges. With as a lot as he has happening away from F1 — his music, his vogue, his philanthropy, his possession stakes in different racing collection — he may simply climb out of the automotive with nothing left to show and no regrets.

All of the extra cause why this season shouldn’t quickly be forgotten. It could not have ended with a championship for Hamilton, however it ought to be duly remembered as his most spectacular marketing campaign so far.

Had the Abu Dhabi race ended truthful and sq., everyone knows who comes out on prime. No ref can rob him of that.

A former Sports activities Illustrated employees author, Andrew Lawrence’s award-winning writing seems in The Guardian, Males’s Well being, Automobile and Driver and different publications. Comply with him on Twitter: @by_drew.


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