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Lewis Hamilton: an unjust ending, but an impressive Formula One season

To frame this in terms a football fan might understand, what happened Sunday was basically the racing equivalent of the ‘Tuck Rule Game’

Lewis Hamilton was robbed.

Late in Sunday’s Formula One season finale at Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the Mercedes driver looked like he would be champion once again. He was leading with a solid gap on Max Verstappen, the Red Bull prodigy with whom Hamilton entered the race atop the standings — setting the stage for a Game 7-style race that would come down to the highest finisher.

For Hamilton, though, taking the checkered flag wouldn’t have just broken a points tie with Verstappen this year, it would have further separated him from Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher as Formula One’s first-ever eight-time champion. Or, to put it another way: the sport’s first and only Black driver would have a legitimate claim to undisputed GOAT status.

Or at least that was until a late crash brought out the safety car with five laps to go. While Verstappen pitted for fresh tires, Hamilton was kept on track to maintain his position in the lead, on the belief that his much older tires and the five cars’ worth of lapped traffic in between him and Verstappen would hold up until the end.

But that math changed when Red Bull team principal Christian Horner radioed race director Michael Masi and sternly advised him to reset the cars to their true running order. Instead of sending all the lapped traffic to the end of the line, which would’ve taken longer than there were laps left to run in the race, Masi waited until the last minute just to shoo away the five cars in between Hamilton and Verstappen — teeing the two rivals up for a sudden-death, single-lap shootout for all the marbles.

That late call caught Mercedes completely off guard and left Hamilton totally overmatched against Verstappen when his Red Bull machine was positioned right behind the Mercedes. When the race was restarted, Hamilton could only fend off Verstappen for a few turns before Verstappen shot past and cruised to the first title of his career.

To frame this in terms a football fan might understand, what happened to Hamilton on Sunday was basically the racing equivalent of the “Tuck Rule Game.” George Russell, the Williams team’s other driver, called the race ending “absolutely unacceptable.” IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe, referencing the wildly popular 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 part, lodged two formal protests only to see them rejected. But then again, that was to be expected given that they were essentially accusing the refs of making up the rules. (Likely, this is going to court.)

Masi had so many better options at his disposal than what he ultimately chose. He could have stopped the race entirely to clear the crash wreckage, which would’ve given Hamilton and Verstappen an opportunity to swap for new tires and set up a fair duel. Or Masi could’ve let the race finish behind the safety car and left the running order unchanged, a tack he took earlier this season when rain overwhelmed the Belgian Grand Prix. Instead, Masi stacked the deck for Verstappen — and mere moments after, Horner conceded on the Sky Sports broadcast that Hamilton’s Mercedes “was too strong today.” After Verstappen crossed the finish line, Horner called it a “miracle.”

While Hamilton remained gracious in defeat, congratulating Verstappen and his team on a hard-fought campaign, Verstappen grinned like the cat who swallowed the canary. “Finally, a bit of luck for me today,” he told Sky Sports. It was enough to make you hurl a remote at the TV.

Where Hamilton came from humble, middle-class beginnings, Verstappen is the son of an ex-Formula One driver. He wasn’t just bred to be world champion, but to be the youngest one ever, starting in go-karts at age 4 before landing a full-time F1 seat at the record age of 17. After struggling to keep pace with the Mercedes team for the past six years, Red Bull finally furnished Verstappen with a car that could take the fight to Hamilton. Verstappen’s pit crew is the fastest in the business. His teammate, Sergio Perez, is strong enough to provide cover.

Along with those advantages, Verstappen is also massively talented, tenaciously competitive and a habitual line stepper. All season he got away with racing Hamilton overzealously. At the penultimate race in Saudi Arabia, Verstappen was flagged for an illegal overtake of Hamilton and directed to yield to the Mercedes; before giving back his position in the lead, Verstappen brake-checked Hamilton as he was about to pass, nearly ending Hamilton’s race and scuttling his championship chances.

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

Mario Renzi-Formula One/Formula One via Getty Images

In the lead-up to Abu Dhabi, the burning question was whether Verstappen would intentionally collide with Hamilton on the first corner to guarantee himself the championship. (As the “victor” in the Belgian Grand Prix race, Verstappen technically led Hamilton in the standings by virtue of having won nine races to his eight.)

“He’s over the limit for sure,” Hamilton said after the Saudi Arabia race. “I’ve avoided collisions on so many occasions with the guy.”

In addition to the disrespect on track, Hamilton absorbed his share of verbal blows from Verstappen and Horner — who branded Hamilton a “desperate amateur” after he and Verstappen came together in July’s British Grand Prix. (Imagine an aggrieved NFL coach saying the same of Tom Brady.) But this at least was easy enough to dismiss as good ol’ fashioned gamesmanship. Far more suspect was people such as former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone saying Hamilton should’ve retired from the sport out of respect for Schumacher’s achievements, rather than try for an eighth title. Mind you, this was after Ecclestone surmised that Hamilton “is not quite the fighter he once was.”

At that point, Hamilton was a whopping 32 points behind Verstappen in the championship. And all he did was peel off five victories — including three in the last four races — to draw even with Verstappen and set up Sunday’s winner-take-all clash. Even more impressive: He accomplished this without much help from teammate Valtteri Bottas, who’ll turn over his Mercedes seat to Russell for the 2022 season.

After just losing out on pole position to Verstappen in qualifying, Hamilton rocketed to the front and stayed there for all but 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 strategy. It went perfectly to plan until the refs got involved. Some will call it bad luck. Others, a callback to the fluky Brazilian Grand Prix that delivered Hamilton’s first F1 crown in 2008.

Still, respect where due: Verstappen earned the right to be called champion — in a sense that the crown was always his to lose. From the beginning of the season, Hamilton took pains to characterize himself more as a hunter than hunted.

And though he fell short of winning title No. 8, he did help Mercedes retain its vise grip on the all-important team championship race (which is where the real money is) while cresting the century mark in victories and poles. All the while, Hamilton kept the pressure on Verstappen as he charged back from the dead of midsummer and into the finale lead. But just when it seemed as if he’d ride off into the desert twilight, he didn’t.

Clearly dejected afterward, Hamilton retreated into his father’s consoling embrace. Seeing these two Black men share such a tender moment in a sport that simply doesn’t produce such scenes, it was hard not to take stock. Though Hamilton signed a lucrative contract extension that keeps him with Mercedes through the 2023 season, and he’s still at the top of his game. He’ll be 37 when F1 restarts in 2022.

What’s more, he’ll have to reckon with a slew of new rules introduced largely to sand down Mercedes’ fiscal and technological edges. With as much as he has going on away from F1 — his music, his fashion, his philanthropy, his ownership stakes in other racing series — he could easily climb out of the car with nothing left to prove and no regrets.

All the more reason why this season shouldn’t soon be forgotten. It may not have ended with a championship for Hamilton, but it should be duly remembered as his most impressive campaign to date.

Had the Abu Dhabi race ended fair and square, we all know who comes out on top. No ref can rob him of that.

A former Sports Illustrated staff writer, Andrew Lawrence's award-winning writing appears in The Guardian, Men's Health, Car and Driver and other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @by_drew.