By Mark Staniforth, PA
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff fears Lewis Hamilton will “never get over” the circumstances of his defeat in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, and admits he is yet to receive assurances that Hamilton will continue his quest for a record eighth Formula One title.
Despite Mercedes’ decision to withdraw their final appeal against the outcome of the title-deciding grand prix, Wolff continued his stinging criticism of race officials, describing Hamilton as a “sitting duck” who was “robbed” of his historic crown.
Mercedes said they had taken the decision following “constructive dialogue” with governing body FIA with regard to establishing clarity for future scenarios – but Wolff’s immediate concern is helping Hamilton ease his understandable sense of disappointment.
Team Statement - Abu Dhabi Grand Prix pic.twitter.com/tgrBjrNkcz
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) December 16, 2021
Wolff said: “It is going to take a long time to digest what has happened on Sunday. I don’t think we will ever get over it, that’s not possible.
“I would very much hope that Lewis continues racing because he’s the greatest driver of all times.
“We will be working through the events over the next weeks and months and I think that as a racer, his heart will say ‘I need to continue’, because he is at the peak of his game.
“But we have to overcome the pain that was caused upon him on Sunday, also because he is a man with clear values and it is difficult for him to understand how that happened.
“I just have to do the utmost that I can to help him overcome this, in order for him to return strong and with a love of the sport and trust in the decision-making of the sport next year, and I wish very much that will be the case.”
Sunday’s season-ending race at Yas Marina saw Red Bull’s Verstappen claim victory and the title after the deployment of a late safety car led to the Dutchman being placed right behind Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton, who he then overtook on the final lap.
Hamilton appeared to be charging to glory at Yas Marina, easily holding Verstappen at bay in the closing laps only for a crash for the Williams of Nicholas Latifi to change the course of events.
Confusion reigned as under-fire race director Michael Masi changed his mind to allow lapped cars to pass the safety car – meaning Verstappen had a clear run at Hamilton in the final lap and, on much faster tyres, made his move to claim a first F1 title.
Wolff stepped up his criticism on Thursday, insisting: “It wasn’t just a bad call, it was a freestyle reading of the rules and it left Lewis like a sitting duck.
“The decisions that have been taken in the last four minutes of this race have robbed Lewis Hamilton of a deserved world championship.
“His driving in the last four races was faultless. He had a commanding lead on Sunday in Abu Dhabi from the get-go. He won the start and never gave the lead away again, and robbing him in the last lap of the race is unacceptable.
“We believe we had a very strong case and if you looked at it from the legal side how it would have been judged in a regular court it is almost guaranteed that we would have won.
“But the problem with the FIA is the way it’s structured. The FIA can’t really mark their own homework, and there is a difference between being right and obtaining justice.”
Wolff confirmed that neither he nor Hamilton would attend the FIA’s season-ending gala in Paris on Thursday, despite the top three drivers in the World Championship standings effectively being required to attend.
And he refused to be drawn directly on the future of race director Michael Masi, who made the controversial call on Sunday, saying only: “I am not interested in having a conversation with Michael Masi.
“It is not only (about) a decision to change the race director. The whole system of decision-making needs to be improved.
“I would have wished for more consistent decision-making throughout the year, but the last one was the decision that had the biggest impact – from a sporting perspective it was a catastrophic impact because it decided the World Championship.
“I have confidence that all of us together, all of us in the sport, can revamp the ways in which decisions have been made and make the sport stronger. The situations, as painful as they are, are also an opportunity to make the sport better.”
Mercedes said in a statement: “We appealed in the interest of sporting fairness, and we have since been in a constructive dialogue with the FIA and Formula One to create clarity for the future, so that all competitors know the rules under which they are racing, and how they will be enforced.
“Thus, we welcome the decision by the FIA to install a commission to thoroughly analyse what happened in Abu Dhabi and to improve the robustness of the rules, governance and decision-making in Formula One.”