Sir Lewis Hamilton has opened up on the feeling of being ‘cheated’ at the end of last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix when he was denied his eighth F1 title.
Hamilton and Max Verstappen had gone hammer and tong for 21 rounds of the 2021 season, winning 17 races between them as the fight intensified, not only between them, but their Mercedes and Red Bull teams too.
The drivers were involved in multiple controversial moments, including crashes in Silverstone, Monza and Jeddah, while the Brazilian Grand Prix weekend was full of contention.
They would enter the final round of the season completely level on points; it all came down to 58 laps of the Yas Marina Circuit. One would walk away champion, the other would be left heartbroken.
Verstappen had taken pole position, but was passed off the line by the 37-year-old, and it took but a few corners for them to collide.
Verstappen dived down the inside into Turn Six, aware that he might not have many chances to pass the Mercedes, and they made contact, sending Hamilton off the circuit.
He kept the position as a result, but race director Michael Masi was happy that the Briton had given up the time that he had gained, so no action was warranted.
Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez would hold Hamilton off after he was left out following the Dutchman’s stop, allowing Verstappen to catch back up, but Hamilton extended his lead again.
For all intents and purposes, that was it. Hamilton had got the job done, he had conquered the upstart, and he had become the single most successful driver of all time.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told Sky Sports 14 laps from the end that his team needed a “miracle” to win the title from there, and a miracle is exactly what they got.
Nicholas Latifi crashed towards the end of the race, bringing out the Safety Car and leaving Mercedes in an impossible situation.
Because Perez had held him up, Hamilton did not have the gap back to Verstappen to safely pit and emerge back in front, so they could not afford to lose track position to the 24-year-old, who himself came in for a fresh set of Softs.
It was still an uphill task though; there were five lapped cars between the leaders, and Masi, following some interesting exchanges with the Red Bull pit wall, allowed only those five to unlap themselves, but not the rest.
As this happened, Hamilton started to realise what Masi had just done, what had just happened, and what it meant for his title dream.
“You see things start to unfold,” he said in an interview with Vanity Fair, for whom he is their September cover star.
“And my worst fears came alive. I was like, ‘there’s no way they’re going to cheat me out of this, there’s no way, that won’t happen. Surely not’.”
Verstappen would pass his rival on the final lap of the race to claim his maiden championship in one of the most bizarre championship finales in recent memory.
Hamilton recalled the feeling of the heartbreak he had just experienced, and knowing that he would somehow have to clamber out of his car and put on a brave face for everyone having seen the championship “manipulated” in Verstappen’s favour.
“I don’t know if I can really put into words the feeling I had, I remember just sitting there in disbelief,” he candidly explained.
“And realising I’ve got to undo my belts, I’ve got to get out of there, I’ve got to climb out of this thing, I’ve got to find the strength.
“I had no strength, and it was one of the toughest moments, I would say, I’ve had in a long, long time.”
The seven-time champion was aware of what had taken place, and the feeling that Masi had ripped the title from him made him consider whether he could carry on racing, which explains his lengthy absence from the public eye after Abu Dhabi.
“I knew what had happened, I knew what decisions had been made and why. Yes, I knew something wasn’t right,” affirmed Hamilton.
“I, for sure, considered whether I wanted to continue.”
Hamilton was commiserated by Verstappen, who himself had done nothing wrong, and was consoled by four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, the German surely aware that controversy had ensued as his friend was denied the crown.
What meant the most to Hamilton though, was the embrace and the words of his father Anthony that gave him strength.
“He embraced me, and I think he was like ‘I want you to know how proud I am of you’,” he divulged.
“Having your father embrace you in that way is one of the most profound things I’ve ever… especially as you’ve grown up not many times having that.”
Masi has since been removed as race director by the FIA, with Eduardo Freitas and Niels Wittich alternating in the role in 2022.
Safety Car regulations have also changed to reflect that “all” instead of “any” lapped cars are to be waved through at the race director’s behest.