Lewis Hamilton has issued a bullish statement of intent for his return to Formula One this year. Hamilton was speaking publicly for the first time since he was controversially denied the world championship in last season’s finale in Abu Dhabi. The seven-time champion insisted he “refused to be defined” by the adversity and that the experience only spurred him on to come back stronger than ever, despite briefly losing his faith in the sport.
Hamilton endured crushing disappointment when set to take his eighth title in Abu Dhabi only for an intervention by the race director, Michael Masi. The Australian’s improvisation of safety car rules gave Red Bull’s Max Verstappen a crucial advantage and the Dutchman went on to win and take his first championship.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team launched their new car the W13 on Friday and the 37-year-old, having retreated from the public eye and social media for the entire close season amid speculation that he would retire from F1, came back in sprightly, good cheer, clearly fired up for the new campaign, his 16th in the sport.
Hamilton admitted it had been a “difficult time” post Abu Dhabi and that he had dealt with it by switching off from F1 and spending time with his extended family, while controversy raged around what had happened. During the winter his team principal, Toto Wolff, said the driver had been disillusioned with F1.
“I always see that through these experiences you can turn that emotion into strength and power and that is what I am doing,” Hamilton said. “If you think what you saw at the end of last year was my best, wait until you see this year.
“Ultimately this is the sport I have loved my whole life [but] there was a moment when I had lost a little bit of faith with the system. But I am generally a very determined person. I thought whilst moments like this might define others’ careers, I refuse to let this define mine. So I focused on being the best I could be and coming back stronger.”
On Thursday F1’s governing body, the FIA, announced it had dismissed Masi from his position as race director and were instituting changes to prevent a repeat of the events in Abu Dhabi. It has not published its report into the race but that it has felt the need for structural adjustments presents a strong indication that what happened in Abu Dhabi did not follow its own regulations.
Hamilton welcomed the FIA’s actions, but pointedly noted that they were no compensation for the impact the events had on him. “Whilst we can’t change the past – nothing will ever be able to change the way and I how I felt at the time, and how I feel about the situation – it’s good to see the FIA is taking steps to make improvements,” he said. “Accountability is key, we have to use this moment to make sure this never happens to anyone else in the sport ever again.”
Hamilton and Verstappen had engaged in a fascinating nip-and-tuck battle across all 22 races last season, with the pair clashing on track repeatedly. Their relationship remained largely respectful despite the ferocity of their title fight. Hamilton congratulated Verstappen immediately after the race in Abu Dhabi and insisted that going into the new season he bore no ill-will toward the Dutchman for the manner in which he secured his first title.
“This has nothing to do with Max,” Hamilton said. “Max did everything a driver would do given the opportunity he was given. He is a great competitor and we will go into another battle like we did last year and conduct ourselves and grow from our races and experiences last year.
“I have no issues with him, I don’t hold any grudges with anybody. I don’t think that is a good thing to carry round with you, I don’t have anything over my shoulder holding me back. I am not letting that experience be one of those.”
Wolff, who said he had not been concerned that Hamilton would opt not to come back to racing, believed his driver was returning with an aggressive enthusiasm to once more join the fray. “What he did was absolutely right to take himself out of the microcosm of F1 and step aside and black out socially,” he said. “He has come back in a great mindset. He is positive, he is determined. Yet again adversity that was thrown at him will make him stronger. As he said: it’s attack mode.”