Mercedes’ team principal Toto Wolff says he can give “no assurances” that Lewis Hamilton will continue in Formula One after Sunday’s controversial season finale, saying the British driver is still in “pain” and “will never get over” what happened.
Speaking after Mercedes announced they had decided not to appeal the result of the Abu Dhabi race, Wolff doubled down on his criticism of race officials, describing Hamilton as a “sitting duck” who was “robbed of his crown” by race director Michael Masi’s decision to set up a last-lap shoot-out between the pair. That led to Max Verstappen, who was on fresh tyres, being able to overtake Hamilton to claim the race win and world title, much to Mercedes’ frustration.
“It is going to take a long time to digest what has happened on Sunday,” Wolff said. “I don’t think we will ever get over it, that’s not possible. Lewis and I are disillusioned at the moment. We’re not disillusioned with the sport. We love the sport with every bone in our body. And we love it because the stopwatch never lies.
“But if we break that fundamental principle of sporting fairness and authenticity, then suddenly the stopwatch doesn’t become relevant any more. Because we are exposed to random decision-making. And it is clear that you may fall out of love with a sport if you start to question, with all the work you have been doing, all the sweat and tears and blood.”
Wolff also repeatedly failed to give reassurances that Hamilton, who recently signed a new two-year contract with Mercedes, would be back to attempt a record eighth world title.
“I very much hope that Lewis continues racing because he’s the greatest driver of all time,” he said. “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.”
Confusion reigned on Sunday as race director Masi changed his mind to allow lapped cars to pass the safety car just before the last lap – giving Verstappen a clear run at longtime race leader Hamilton in the closing moments. Mercedes withdrew from any further action after the FIA announced on Wednesday it would investigate the process and decision-making around the end of the race, but Wolff stepped up his criticism on Thursday.
“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 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.”
But despite having what they believe to be a very strong legal case, Mercedes ultimately decided not to go ahead because they felt the FIA’s international court of appeal would back their own race director.
“It you look at the legal side, how it would have been judged in a regular court it is almost guaranteed that we would have won,” Wolff said. “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 also said he had no interest in talking to Masi, adding: “It is not only [about] a decision to change the race director. The whole system 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 – it decided the world championship.”
The Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, has insisted that Mercedes did not have grounds to appeal Sunday’s result. “Safety cars are usual in Formula One,” Horner said on Thursday. “Obviously the determination of the race director is always to get the race going again. That has been a clear mandate for many years.”
“A lot was made of it but that’s the way it is. We felt many things have gone against us this but things have a habit of balancing themselves out over the course of the year.” Horner was speaking at a press conference in Paris ahead of the FIA’s annual prize-giving gala.
Verstappen said the threat of losing his maiden world title after an appeal had not bothered him. “We knew we won it on the track when there was a green light or a green flag,” the Dutchman said.
“I don’t feel sorry [for Hamilton] but I understand it can be very painful. But, at the end of the day, that is racing. You have to keep fighting until the end and anything can happen. He also won a championship like that, so I think he can understand as well.”
As a protest neither Wolff nor Hamilton will attend the ceremony, despite the top three drivers in the world championship standings effectively being required to attend.
A statement from Mercedes added: “We left Abu Dhabi in disbelief of what we had just witnessed. Of course, it’s part of the game to lose a race, but it’s something different when you lose faith in racing.”
“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.”