London: Lewis Hamilton took nearly two months to emotionally recover from the controversial Formula One finale that cost him a record eighth championship. The Mercedes driver insisted Friday he never considered quitting F1 in protest.
Once he accepted the results, Hamilton put the debacle behind him and began preparation for the upcoming season.
“Moments like this might define careers, I refuse to let this define mine,” Hamilton said from Mercedes’ team headquarters in Brackley, England.
Hamilton dominated the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December and was five laps away from breaking a tie with Michael Schumacher for most titles in F1 history. But a Nicholas Latifi crash brought out a caution and set in motion a frenzied sequence of events that altered the finish.
Race director Michael Masi changed his mind when deciding how to conclude the race and Max Verstappen, who had pitted for fresh tires, was lined up second behind Hamilton with all lapped traffic removed between title contenders on a restart with one lap remaining. Hamilton on old tires had little chance to defend Verstappen, who passed the British driver to win his first world title.
The FIA on Thursday announced sweeping changes to its race control procedures and removed Masi as race director following an extensive review of the season finale.
Mercedes has accepted the results of the review and Hamilton said he’s ready for another run at the record book. Hamilton said he takes no issue with Verstappen and has been in contact to offer “my full support” to Latifi, who received death threats following the finale.
“I don’t hold any grudges with anybody I never think that’s ever a good thing to carry around with you,” he said. “I moved forward. I don’t dwell on the past. I feel centered and fully focused. I don’t have anything over my shoulders holding me back this year. If you think what you saw at the end of the last year was my best, wait to see this year.”
Hamilton won three consecutive races to tie Verstappen in the standings headed into the decider in Abu Dhabi. He dominated the race and led 51 of the 58 laps” Verstappen led only the final lap in winning the title.
Hamilton gave just one brief interview after climbing from his car but appeared shell-shocked on the podium as Verstappen and Red Bull celebrated. He skipped the mandatory post-race news conference, boycotted the season-ending gala, and made just one public appearance - three days after the race when Hamilton received his knighthood at Windsor Castle.
Hamilton’s retreat from the public eye did little to quell speculation he was so disgruntled that he was considering walking away from F1 after 103 victories over 15 seasons. He finally re-emerged earlier this month with a social media post, then participated Friday in Mercedes’ launch of its car for the upcoming season.
Hamilton took questions for about 20 minutes Friday and said he spent the time after Abu Dhabi with his entire family - a rare moment they were all together in the same place - as he “just unplugged. Switched off.” He said he focused on being present with his loved ones and has not watched a replay of the race, feeling no urge to revisit the event.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said he was “never concerned” that Hamilton would retire.
“We knew he needed to take the time to reflect on things and particularly to understand how he would return in the right frame of mind,” Wolff said. “I think what he did was absolutely right to take himself out of the microcosm of Formula One and step aside. He has come back in a great mindset. He’s positive, he’s determined and he, yet again, adversity that was thrown at him will make him stronger. It’s attack mode.”
Hamilton turned 37 last month and will be paired with fellow British driver George Russell this season as Russell moved from Williams to Mercedes. He said he’s as committed as ever to racing for another title.
“I think at the end of seasons, the question is whether you are willing to commit the time, the effort, that it takes to be a world champion,” Hamilton said. “Do you want to sacrifice the time? Do you believe that you can continue to punch higher than the weight you are punching?
“That’s a normal mental process for me, but of course this one was compounded by a significant factor and I think ultimately a sport that I loved my whole life, there was a moment that I lost a little bit of faith within the system. But I’m generally a very determined person. I am focused on being the best I can be and coming back stronger.”