The Freak Show of Formula 1

What’s going on with Lewis Hamilton?

Picture Credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas

It was unlikely that Hamilton would take his fourth championship in Abu Dhabi this year. After an engine failure cost him 25 points, he would have needed a miracle to happen to overtake Rosberg in the standings for a final time. Now the media is going nuts and pretends Lewis Hamilton is recently hospitalized rapper Kanye West.

All the attention that this year’s runner-up is getting right now stems from the controversial finale. While Hamilton was in the lead and certainly had the pace to win the race with a gap of 15 seconds or more, he opted not to do so. Instead, he backed the field up twice, hoping that two drivers would grab the opportunity and pass Rosberg who was running it second. And while at times it looked like he was onto something, the order stayed the same. Hamilton wins the Grand Prix, Nico takes the championship.

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Ironically, Vettel didn’t want to take risks and interfere with the championship campaign of his fellow German Rosberg while he was in third at the end of the race. It’s the same Sebastian Vettel that relentlessly charged after and overtook Hamilton back in the 2008 finale, which almost gave Massa the championship. Still, looking at the final race alone, and it’s by far not the most controversial end to a championship. So why are there bonkers stories about Hamilton on various sports websites?

Well, it doesn’t help that Hamilton has implied bias within his team. When the engine in Malaysia failed while he was comfortably in the lead, he claimed that “someone” doesn’t want him to be champion. And yes, he did have more mechanical failures than Rosberg, often leaving him out of contention from the start of the race. But in the past, he had the luck on his side as well, for example in 2014. As Toto Wolff put it: it’s a mechanical sport, so your car is part of your success story. And as Lewis has taken more race wins with Mercedes in four years than with McLaren in six, he’d better be thankful for the 1200 people building his very expensive toy.

So, the consensus was clear: Hamilton adores the team when he wins, and when he doesn’t, well, he blames them. Critiquing your own people is not uncommon in F1 though, as has been demonstrated by Fernando Alonso or Sebastian Vettel. The rumour mill picked up when Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda criticized Hamilton publicly right after the race, calling his behavior “anarchy” and saying that there would be consequences. Consequences ranging from a stern talk to maybe even a suspension, if you believe the excited journalists.

Shortly after that, an interview surfaced in which Hamilton didn’t dismiss a sensational story: asked if it was true that he considered quitting his drive at Mercedes after the crash in Barcelona this year, he simply smiled and said that this would remain private. That’s not a firm no, and fits perfectly into the narrative of Hamilton being fed up with Mercedes. And if that wasn’t enough, Monday saw a new twist to that “Hamilton is done with Mercedes” theme.

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Mercedes had a scheduled plan for the days after the final race: the champion hops on a plane to Malaysia for marketing activities with title sponsor Petronas, then heads back to Europe to see the employees of Daimler and the team. A few more marketing activities and the official FIA ceremony at the end of the week, and then he’s done for the year. The runner-up meanwhile stays in Abu Dhabi to test the wider Pirelli tires on the current car, a boring but important task both for the team and the tire manufacturer.

Picture Credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas
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Now guess who allegedly didn’t want to fulfill his duties as the best-payed test driver in the world: Lewis Hamilton. At least that’s what sources close to the team claimed on Monday. It looked like a fabricated story when pictures were released of Hamilton in the car during the test session, until other pictures appeared a short while later: instead of Hamilton’s white helmet, the Mercedes W07 now featured Wehrlein’s dark helmet. Apparently, Lewis Hamilton did one installation lap, two short runs after that and then handed the car over to Wehrlein. Not only the onlookers were confused, even Pirelli had to correct themselves on twitter a few times. Sounds like a rather spontaneous and clandestine change of plans to me.

There’s two ways to interpret this: Mercedes did want to leave Hamilton alone and release him into some much-needed vacation, but they are contractually obliged to grant Pirelli a certain number of tests with one of their regular drivers. By doing the few laps he did, Hamilton and Mercedes could have simply fulfilled their duty before letting junior driver Wehrlein do the real work. Or Hamilton could have agreed to do the absolute minimum for it to appear as if he’s done what they expected of him, before getting out of Abu Dhabi. Whose idea it was remains unclear, but everything combined does indeed paint a picture that is not pretty regarding Hamilton’s discipline. Don’t make bets on him jumping ship though: Hamilton knows that the deal he’s got, driving for a team that has the potential to win the championship every year while being paid 30 million bucks for doing so, is the best he can get in F1. He’ll be back in 2017, and he’ll be set on putting Rosberg back where he belongs – in his mirrors.

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