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Christine Blachford

Christine became an avid follower of Formula One after getting a taste of the action way back in 2003. Today, you'll find Christine putting her experience to good use as writer and producer of the news show F1Minute, and editor of community F1 site Sidepodcast.

Don't drop back in anger // Hamilton's change of heart in the heat of the battle

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Hamilton tempted to Abu Dhabi race strategy
Credit: Daimler AG

“If I am out ahead I want to be as far ahead as possible.”

The eager words of Lewis Hamilton, who was ruling out the possibility of doing anything other than racing his heart out in Abu Dhabi. Red Bull chief Christian Horner had suggested it would be prudent to get out in front of the pack and then start to back the field up in an effort to mix up the position Nico Rosberg ended up with, giving Hamilton half a chance at taking home the 2016 World Championship title.

Asked about this potential strategy in the pre-weekend press conference, Hamilton wasn’t keen. “When you have an 18-30 second lead that is as painful a blow as you can give to the guy you are fighting. That is more of an achievement than backing up your teammate.”

He also added the practicalities of doing such a thing would be difficult, and that the two DRS zones around Abu Dhabi’s long layout would make it an unwise solution to the problem of making up the points gap in the title fight.

Of course, fast forward a couple of days and backing up the field is the strategy that Hamilton took. In the dying laps of the race, Hamilton was out in front and controlling the pace, able to slow the field to a relative crawl. With just a few laps remaining and a championship at stake, Lewis ignored the radio pleas of his team to speed up, and went at his own leisurely pace.

Do as I say, not as I do

Now, this article is not to point fingers at Hamilton and cry hypocrisy – although naturally there is a hypocritical element in saying one thing and doing the exact opposite when it comes to the crunch. Rather I am fascinated by the fact that this is a perfect example of what the pressure of sport can do when the stakes are extraordinarily high.

Hamilton is the kind of Formula One driver that wears his heart on his sleeve

Hamilton is the kind of Formula One driver that wears his heart on his sleeve, and is almost incapable of hiding his emotions. If he had intended to let strategy shenanigans play a part in proceedings on the Sunday, then I believe he would have said so. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been so blatant as to describe what he would do, but a coy “I’ll do what I have to do,” would have been enough of an answer to give the hungry media something to talk about.

Thus we have to believe that backing up the pack wasn’t on his mind until it came to the very crux of the race. I can’t begin to imagine the pressure, the thoughts racing through his head, the sheer enormity of leading a race and doing everything you can do, and it still not be enough to take home the title. Any small avenue of possibility must have looked like a shining light at the end of an otherwise bleak tunnel.

If we have to blame Hamilton for anything, it is ignoring his team and accusing them of meddling. Otherwise, I don’t think anyone can judge Lewis for changing his mind about his racing options given the circumstances. Also, if we’re passing judgement on anyone, I’m looking directly at Christian Horner who revealed something of the extent of his cold and calculating, win at every single cost, attitude. Would the idea have even entered Hamilton’s head if Christian hadn’t tempted him to the dark side?

Perhaps hearing the idea in the form of the questions put to him made him initially react in the negative, but then gradually the idea wormed its way into his race plan. Or maybe he really didn’t want any part of it and only succumbed halfway through the race.

The dark side

Hamilton controls Abu Dhabi race
Credit: Daimler AG

Either way, it was an incredible change of heart. To be full of good intentions and noble thoughts before a race, to want only to win the race and let the rest of the cards fall as they may, and then flip in the final few moments of the race into the kind of driver that Horner covets for his team, it was a surprise of the most dramatic kind. When it comes down to it, with everything at stake and the pressure of those dwindling number of laps weighing heavy on your mind, then those good thoughts couldn’t be further away.

That’s what’s brilliant and blinding and baffling about sport, showing the effect it can have on anyone, highlighting just what it can do to a person. The ability to be right there, present in the moment, and using the heavy weight on your shoulder to do what needs to be done, to push that bit harder and further and to go against anything you may have thought possible before to get the required results, that’s what sport can bring out. There’s a limit, of course, and a line that shouldn’t be crossed, but up to that line, everything before it earns respect. Pushing yourself, your body, your mind and seeing what you are capable of when everything is on the line and up for grabs, those are the moments that make sport worth watching, and make it a valuable thing to society itself.

As we all saw, in the end, it didn’t work for Lewis. The somewhat underhanded strategy had potential, but overtaking in Formula One is hard, and even though both Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen were snapping at the heels of Nico Rosberg, it was the latter who was the eventual champion.

Decent distraction

Poor Mercedes were readying themselves for another winter of discontent. Lewis complained about the team’s interference from the pit wall. Rosberg offered up surprise at the tactics employed by his teammate. Team boss Toto Wolff went so far as to call it anarchic behaviour and was concerned about how it would set precedents for future events. There was wild and rampant speculation that Hamilton could be fired for his behaviour, that the fragile but fruitful teammate partnership at Mercedes would be irrevocably damaged.

No one wants a pushover teammate giving Hamilton an easy ride

Nico Rosberg’s surprise retirement announcement no doubt quashed a lot of the potential flames and fallout from that final race. For the German, he had achieved his dream and there was nothing left to aim for. Meanwhile, Hamilton is left behind in a team with bigger problems than their naughty little scamp of a triple world champion. If Rosberg hadn’t given us something else to talk about, I think the fallout within Mercedes would have dominated much more of the off-season conversation.

Now the focus is on who will partner Hamilton for the 2017 season, and almost everyone wants it to be a driver who can stand up to Lewis and pressure him for results. No one wants a pushover teammate giving Hamilton an easy ride to the title this year, partly because that would be dull to watch, but also because we need Lewis to have a decent rival to chase him all the way. If we’ve learnt anything from the 2016 season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the eventual result, it’s that pressure reveals so much more than we could ever have expected.

“If I am out ahead I want to be as far ahead as possible,” Lewis has said. Let’s hope Mercedes can find a driver that will be as close behind him as they can.