Lewis Hamilton’s future shrouded in doubt as new F1 season looms | Giles Richards
After a tumultuous climax to the 2021 Formula One season that ended in both sound and fury, it is Lewis Hamilton’s continued silence that has defined the winter. With the new season rapidly approaching, the British driver’s future in F1 remains unknown and ostensibly undecided. As the FIA wrestles with an inquiry into the events in Abu Dhabi, it is Hamilton’s absence that looms over the sport, his silence speaking volumes.
Seven times an F1 world champion but beaten to the title in controversial circumstances at the season finale at Yas Marina by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, Hamilton left Abu Dhabi angry and disillusioned. He believed the race had been manipulated in Verstappen’s favour and so disenchanted was he with the way it had played out, he had lost trust in the rules being applied fairly. His Mercedes principal, Toto Wolff, confirmed shortly afterwards that his future in F1 was in doubt.
From Hamilton himself there has been all but nothing since he congratulated Verstappen immediately after that race. He has barely been seen in public and his usually exuberant use of social media has ceased completely.
Given his competitive nature, his ability to ultimately overcome and move on from setbacks, it is hard to imagine Hamilton would allow this event, albeit one of crushing proportions, to derail his attempt to take an eighth title this year.
F1 insiders are cautiously optimistic that he will indeed return but crucial to that decision will surely be that the 37-year-old has confidence in an even-handed and transparent application of the rules. Hamilton and many of the sport’s fans, also disillusioned by the events in Abu Dhabi, demand a level playing field.
Regaining trust in how the sport is run seems paramount and the FIA investigation is key to that. At the heart of the enquiry are the actions of the race director Michael Masi, whose future hangs in the balance. Verstappen passed Hamilton for victory on the final lap after Masi improvised decisions around the rules in order to ensure the season’s final race did not finish behind a safety car. There was consternation, confusion and for all that Verstappen was a worthy world champion, distaste and disenchantment for many at how it had happened.
Sources inside the FIA insist the sport’s governing body is investigating dispassionately, pursuing a thorough examination of exactly whether the rules were followed. Yet regardless, change is still coming. Peter Bayer is the FIA’s new head of F1, heading the inquiry, and will draw up proposed changes to present to the teams.
Last week he admitted that there was a “possibility” Masi could be replaced. Yet the indications are that this seems unlikely. Certainly at very least there seems widespread agreement across the paddock, within the FIA and confirmed by Bayer that Masi can no longer do the job alone and will need assistants to reduce the burden.
Equally there is consensus that safety car rules must be revised, to leave a clear protocol for how it would be used if, as the teams desire, races are not to finish under the safety car and that the ability for team principals to lobby the race director live over the radio as events unfold would be removed. The unseemly impression that barracking from the heads of Mercedes and Red Bull was influencing Masi in Abu Dhabi did F1 no favours in the eyes of many who had simply tuned in to watch drivers not their bosses do battle.
Mercedes also remain silent on the subject, focusing on their new car, but the team felt Hamilton’s pain with the same piercing sense of injustice and without doubt they too will have strong expectations of the FIA presenting not only a clear review of what happened in Abu Dhabi but more importantly that Bayer’s proposals are a blueprint to prevent a repeat of the events. An ambition that should be shared by all, for the sport to draw a line under 2021.
The FIA will present its findings to the teams at the F1 commission meeting on 14 February and is expected to make them public shortly afterwards. However should the FIA not do so, it may indicate serious dissent may remain from some participants.
Four days after the F1 commission, Mercedes will launch their new car on 18 February when it would be expected they will present Hamilton alongside it, if his mind is made up. When he finally ends the silence it must be hoped it is to confirm he will indeed race on. It is hard not to imagine after all that he will feel there is unfinished business to address but for now all the pressure and the scrutiny lies firmly with the FIA.
This is perhaps the greatest and most high-profile test of governance the organisation has faced in more than a decade,it sorely needs to get it right and not only for Hamilton’s sake.
Confidence in the sport’s ability to deliver equitable racing was severely rocked in Abu Dhabi, restoring it will go some way to placating fans who felt entertainment and spectacle had taken precedence over fair play. The sport’s reputation was tarnished and before a wheel is turned in anger this year the furore around 2021 must be put to rest.