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WHAT NEXT FOR SIR LEWIS NOW?

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PETER COSTER looks back on a Grand Prix season like no other and wonders whether its biggest star will be back:

ANOTHER indicator of how Formula One has become a dominant global sport was how the drivers’ championship became a talking point during the Ashes cricket broadcast.

It would never have done when old toffs in their Marylebone Cricket Club ties were sipping a gin and tonic at Lords.

But the Second Test was being played in Australia and they would have been watching in the middle of the night to have heard it. Too early for gin and tonic.

The season-ending race at Abu Dhabi saw Red Bull’s Max Verstappen win the championship in the most controversial of circumstances since the Formula One world championship series started in 1950.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone with an interest in sport not being aware of what happened when a crash brought out the safety car at Abu Dhabi and Verstappen won the race when he took the lead from Lewis Hamilton on the last lap. F1 has a worldwide television audience of nearly half a billion and that is apart from the mass media coverage following the race.  

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton had been 12 seconds ahead of  Verstappen when a crash slowed the field under a safety car as debris was cleared from the track. 

The problem, as seen by Hamilton and the Mercedes team, was that five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen were ordered out of the way.

Mercedes chief Toto Wolff and Red Bull principal Christian Horner were making simultaneous phone calls to race director Michael Masi, the former Australian Super Cars official who was trying to calm the chaos.

Masi first decided to leave the lapped cars where they were, which would have meant the race would have gone to Hamilton.

Masi then decided to order the lapped cars out of the way to allow Verstappen to compete on level terms with Hamilton.

The argument against this was that Hamilton’s lead would be sacrificed as the field bunched up under safety car rules.Verstappen, who had dashed into the pits for fresh tyres, would have the advantage.

But that’s what happens under safety car rules. Hamilton could also have come in for fresh tyres but opted to stay out.

At least Masi made a race of it instead of a procession.

Why were there five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen?

That was because of the crash that saw the safety car split the field. It doesn’t wait until it can slot in ahead of the leader.

There will be endless debates about what should have happened. The race could have been red flagged, which would have meant all the cars would have returned to the pits and the race would have been restarted.

While that would have put Hamilton and Verstappen on the front row with fresh tyres, Hamilton’s 12 second lead would have been lost.

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It would also mean there would be ongoing arguments in future races. Should it be a safety car or a red flag?

Safety cars were introduced to slow the field while crashed cars or debris is moved out of the way.

Also to get lapped cars out of the way and to let the leaders race.

Hamilton might do well to remember Brazil in 2008 when he won his first world drivers’ championship by a point from Ferrari’s Felipe Massa.

Hamilton overtook Toyota’s Timo Glock on the final corner of the final lap.

Glock was better known as mysterious Irish driver Tim O’Glock by the paddock jokesters and must have been asleep at the wheel in fourth place when Hamilton slipped past him to gain the point he needed to win the world championship.

The Brazilian driver won the race only to be told what happened behind him had given the championship to Hamilton. Like Hamilton after Abu Dhabi, he was devastated.

It was the first of the then McLaren driver’s  seven world championships, equalling the record set by Michael Schumacher.

He must now decide whether he will race next year in the hope of becoming the most successful driver in the history of the sport.

Will he race again rather than walk away as a loser, embittered by cruel misfortune?

Neither Hamilton nor Mercedes boss Toto Wolff attended the lavish presentation dinner in Paris to see Verstappen crowned champion.

Hamilton was in England being knighted by Prince Charles.

Sir Lewis would surely have preferred the F1 crown.

But the purists want races to be decided on the track, not behind lapped cars, as would have been the case except for the call by Michael Masi.

In sport, you never know what’s around the corner.

The race and the championship might have been decided in the courts had Hamilton not asked Mercedes to withdraw their protests.

That showed Hamilton’s character.

Lawyers were gathering to argue the case.

Red Bull’s Christian Horner said he would attend future races in the company of a barrister.

Toto Wolff brought a highly-credentialed QC with him to Abu Dhabi.

Litigation was already being talked about in the most bitterly fought season in memory.

The world motor sport governing body, the FIA, has promised to review the F1 Sporting Code, which devotes some 1500 words to safety car procedures to see if changes are needed for next year.

Meanwhile, Michael Masi, the race director from Sydney, is the target of a hate pile-on by social media trolls.

Wolff and Horner have admitted they went too far in putting Masi under intolerable pressure while he was trying to do his job. It is a job few would seek.

Will Hamilton take his bat and ball and go home, as might be thought by the cricket pundits at the Ashes Test in Adelaide?

As one who has written on both sports, this correspondent doesn’t think so.

But if Hamilton were to hang up his helmet, his retirement could bring another Australian driver into F1.

Oscar Piastri, who won the F3 championship in 2020 and the F2 championship this year, is the emerging successor to Daniel Ricciardo, whose star has dimmed this year in spite of a win entirely on merit in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

Piastri, at only 20 years of age, is the Alpine test driver for next season but could find himself with an F1 seat in any driver shake-up.

Esteban Ocon, who was in the Mercedes driver development program before he moved to Renault, now Alpine, would be a possible replacement if Hamilton were to retire.

Piastri would be the obvious replacement alongside double world champion Fernando Alonso.

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Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games.

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