There was plenty of handwringing and questioning after Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix about whether Lewis Hamilton’s tactics were on the up-and-up.
In a last-ditch effort to swipe the Formula One title from Nico Rosberg, his Mercedes team-mate, Hamilton drove as slowly as he could, attempting to push Rosberg back into the clutches of Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen.
Hamilton needed a victory coupled with Rosberg finishing off the podium if he was going to grab the championship, but Rosberg held on to second place despite his the Brit’s ploy.
After the race, Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff was clearly not pleased that Hamilton had repeatedly ignored team orders to pick up the pace. He said the team would review the situation and might consider changing the rules for their drivers, but he also did not rule out punishing Hamilton, per ESPN F1’s Laurence Edmondson.
But Wolff and anyone else who thinks Rosberg (or any other driver on the grid) would not have done the exact same thing in Hamilton’s position are naive.
In fact, if any driver in Hamilton’s position did not do everything (legal) within their power to win the championship, they would not belong in F1.
As Hamilton explained in the post-race press conference, “I don’t think I did anything dangerous today. So, I don’t feel I did anything unfair. We’re fighting for a championship, I was in the lead, I control the pace. That’s the rules.”
Indeed, this wasn’t Michael Schumacher slamming into Jacques Villeneuve. Anyone feeling the need to criticise Hamilton’s tactics should first take a deep breath and then close their Twitter app.
“It was naive to think that there would be any different approach with what’s at stake,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, per Autosport‘s Lawrence Barretto, Ben Anderson and Edd Straw.
“I did everything I could within fair reason” – @LewisHamilton#AbuDhabiGP #F1Finale pic.twitter.com/TVfpoxrz8P
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 27, 2016
Likewise, though, anyone questioning whether Rosberg “deserves” the title should pause for a quick F1 history lesson. Newsflash: The best driver does not always win.
Yes, Hamilton had more car problems than Rosberg this year. That was out of his control, but sometimes that’s just the way it goes in F1. Jim Clark probably would have won the 1967 title if his Lotus hadn’t broken down so often, but there aren’t too many people campaigning to retroactively strip Denny Hulme of his world championship.
Hamilton also had more poor starts than Rosberg this year—something that was in his control. But in 10 or 20 years, no one will be questioning whether Rosberg was a worthy champion. They will just remember him as a champion.
Hamilton might be the better driver, but that does not mean we can deny Rosberg‘s title.
Incidentally, Hamilton’s win in Abu Dhabi gave him 10 for the season, one more than Rosberg. Back in 2010, F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone suggested the championship should be given to the driver with the most victories at the end of the year, regardless of how many points they scored.
At the time, Hamilton said, “Out of the many ideas that have come out, this is potentially one of the worst,” according to the Guardian‘s Paul Weaver.
One suspects he would have had a different view in the immediate aftermath on Sunday night.
Hamilton’s ease in toying with Rosberg just underlines the his incredible skills behind the wheel. Two weeks ago, Hamilton demonstrated his superior car control as he drove away from everyone in a Sao Paulo downpour. In Abu Dhabi, he showed the same supreme control, but in a different way, holding Rosberg up while doing just enough to stay ahead.
Vettel said Hamilton was “playing some dirty tricks,” per ESPN F1’s Nate Saunders, but Rosberg seemed nonplussed.
Clive Mason/Getty Images
Lewis Hamilton (right) congratulates Nico Rosberg on the podium after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
“You can understand Lewis because it’s the world championship,” Rosberg said, per Autosport‘s Barretto.
“We are out there fighting, we’re drivers and you can understand he wants to try something.”
But perhaps that is just because Rosberg had won his first title and couldn’t be bothered to argue.
Either way, Mercedes should reexamine their internal rules. They had already clinched both world championships, so it came off as petty for them to attempt to micromanage Hamilton’s race from the pit wall.
Do you think Lewis Hamilton’s tactics in Abu Dhabi were fair?
The optics would be even worse if they actually decide to penalise Hamilton for his supposed indiscretion.
After the race, referring to Mercedes’ goal to finish every race in first and second, executive director Paddy Lowe said, “We don’t distort our objectives in the context of the drivers’ championship,” per Autosport‘s Ben Anderson and Scott Mitchell.
A little flexibility is necessary, though, particularly if you want your drivers to maintain their edges. They can’t spend the whole season scrapping for every point and then suddenly turn it off in the last race and pretend not to care whether they win the title or not.
If Hamilton had broken an actual regulation or done something unsafe, then criticise him all you want. But when all he did was drive slightly slower than the computers back at Mercedes’ Brackley headquarters determined was optimal? Please, a little perspective.
Matthew Walthert is an F1 columnist for Bleacher Report UK. He has also written for VICE, FourFourTwo and the Globe and Mail.
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