Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has no problem accepting that Max Verstappen deserved his championship in 2021, stressing that race control is what cost Sir Lewis Hamilton his eighth Formula 1 title.
Hamilton and Verstappen entered the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2021 level on points after a dramatic and unpredictable year of hard racing.
The Dutchman took pole position for the season finale ahead of his rival on the Saturday, but Hamilton overtook the Red Bull driver at the start to cruise into the lead.
Despite the best efforts of Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez, the Briton was streaking away from the Red Bull and looked well on course to seal his record-breaking eighth championship.
However, late on in the race, Nicholas Latifi’s Williams collided with the barrier, leaving the car stranded on the circuit at Turn 14.
Wolff was on the radio to race director Michael Masi asking him not to deploy the Safety Car, fearing that an undercut for Verstappen could cost Hamilton the championship.
Mercedes also did not want to risk sacrificing track position by pitting Hamilton as time constraints threatened to see the race end behind the Safety Car.
When the Safety Car was called out, Red Bull pitted their driver, leaving five lapped cars between the protagonists.
Masi would later allow those five to go through, but none of the other lapped drivers at the time.
The result was Verstappen passing the his rival on the final lap to seal the championship in the most dramatic of season finales, and Mercedes were left fuming.
They saw a post-race protest denied by the stewards, before the Silver Arrows withdrew their intention to appeal several days later.
Instead, they promised they would hold the FIA “accountable” for an investigation they are currently carrying out and will finish on 18 March – the weekend of the opening race of 2022 in Bahrain.
Wolff believes that the events last month will leave a legacy on the sport, saying that the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix “will never be forgotten,” in an interview with Austria’s Kronen Zeitung newspaper.
The 50-year-old labelled the final lap of the race “outrageous” and thinks that it would be a travesty if that is what makes the seven-time world champion leave the sport.
“He is the most important part of our sport. It would be an indictment for the whole of Formula 1 if the best driver decides to quit because of outrageous decisions,” Wolff said.
While the Austrian praises Hamilton’s ability to always bounce back – something that former team-mate Valtteri Bottas touched on earlier in the week – he recognises that what happened at the end of last season is a tough pill to swallow.
“No matter what hurdles he has faced, he has known all his life that he has to speak on the racetrack.
“But it is incredibly difficult for him until he has found a way between understanding right and wrong. It just takes time,” he explained.
Continuing, Wolff said that what happened to Hamilton in Abu Dhabi was “just wrong” and accused Masi of making a mess of the season finale.
“What happened to Lewis was just wrong,” he said.
“He was unbeatable that day until the race management blew fuses and decided on three rule violations.”
Wolff has no issue with Verstappen being champion after his 10 wins and 18 podiums in what was an excellent season for the 24-year-old, but he affirms that Hamilton deserved it more in the final grand prix of the season.
“It’s just hard to understand. It will always remain with us, even though Max Verstappen is a worthy world champion over the course of the season,” he said.
“But that day one was better than the other and he didn’t win.”
While Hamilton’s wait for an eighth title will have to continue at least a year longer, Mercedes did manage to seal their record-eighth Constructors’ Championship in 2021, beating Red Bull to the crown.
George Russell is set to line up alongside his 37-year-old compatriot this season, replacing Bottas, who has moved to Alfa Romeo.
However, Hamilton is reportedly considering retiring from Formula 1 following the heartbreak he suffered at the end of last season, and Wolff has made no assurances that the Brit will be racing in the sport in 2022.