Thursday 30 March 2017

Hamilton facing ban in 'anarchy' furore as Rosberg claims crown

Nico Rosberg celebrates after claiming his first Formula One drivers’ title. Photo: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
Nico Rosberg celebrates after claiming his first Formula One drivers’ title. Photo: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

Oliver Brown

Lewis Hamilton could be suspended by Mercedes after brazenly and repeatedly defying team orders in a futile attempt to deny Nico Rosberg a first world title.

In an astonishing climax to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the three-time champion set out to back his team-mate into the path of nearest pursuers Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen, hoping that they could leapfrog the German and gift him the glory.

Not only did the ruse not work, it cast him into potentially serious difficulties with his employers, who suggested he had created "anarchy" in his team.

Mercedes chief Toto Wolff did little to conceal his displeasure.

First Hamilton ignored a radio command by Pete Bonnington, his race engineer, to pick up the pace, and then disobeyed a further instruction by technical director Paddy Lowe.

"I suggest you guys just let us race," he snapped.

Wolff took a different view, indicating that Hamilton had put a Mercedes victory in jeopardy and placed his own interests first.

"One half of me says that with 1,500 people in this company, you respect those values," he said. "Undermining a structure means you are putting yourself before the team. Anarchy does not work in any team or in any company."

Pressed on whether Hamilton could face sanction or even suspension, Wolff replied: "Everything is possible."

Such was the extraordinary theatre of Hamilton's last stand. In the days before the final grand prix of 2016, he had rejected any notion that he would deliberately impede Rosberg, explaining that he wanted to preserve his reputation as a clean racer.

But with 15 laps to go and Rosberg steadfast in second place behind him, he calculated that an act of obstruction was his only hope of saving his title prospects.

Even with a win, he knew, his rival merely needed to finish third to be anointed champion. A couple of swift overtakes by Vettel and Verstappen could alter the equation. Slower and slower he went, much to Bonnington's concern. "Question: 'Why are you slow?'" he asked. "Currently unsafe to Vettel." The brains trust in the garage could see that Vettel's Ferrari was up to two seconds a lap faster and feared that Hamilton was compromising the team's abiding principle that no driver should intentionally put a Mercedes win at risk.

Then Lowe came on the in-car radio, desperately trying to haul Hamilton into line. It was the highest level of escalation Mercedes could use in this scenario. "Lewis, we need to pick up the pace to win this race," he said. "That's an instruction." Again, Hamilton rebelled. "I'm actually in the lead right now, Paddy," he shot back.

Wolff had steeled himself for such insubordination. Mindful of Hamilton's ferocious and uncompromising driving character, team officials were prepared that he might use the method of last resort.

Hamilton denied there had been dirty tricks. "I don't think I did anything dangerous," he shrugged. "I was in the lead, so I control the pace. Those are the rules."

Persuaded

While Hamilton was eventually persuaded to congratulate Rosberg and shake his hand, their exchanges in the immediate aftermath were a study in coldness.

Here, too, he was reminded by Wolff of his responsibilities. "This is a mechanical sport," the Austrian said. "You need to win and to lose with dignity."

In many ways, it was a fitting denouement to a campaign of intense human drama. While Mercedes were inexorably dominant from the first practice session in Australia, 21 races ago, the tensions between the two leading men were compelling in their intensity.

Hamilton had needled Rosberg all year, claiming that he would still feel like a moral victor irrespective of the ultimate outcome. He did not let up in his provocation last night, declaring: "I was genuinely the quickest driver all year."

The two Mercedes were side by side on the front row. Red Bull's decision to send out Verstappen, who span during the opening lap, on a one-stop strategy threw the first curveball. The Dutchman ended up sandwiched between the title contenders, creating a necessity for Rosberg to pass him.

Chasing down Verstappen, Rosberg came within inches of colliding with the teenager, their wheels almost touching at two corners, but he surged clear at last.

From there, he was only at the mercy of Hamilton's devilish cunning. Even with Vettel's Ferrari filling his rear-view mirrors in the closing minutes, he stood firm. In the words of his master Wolff, "Nico is one tough cookie". Hamilton had better start believing it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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