Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, did not doubt Lewis Hamilton would return to Formula 1 this season.
After the controversial ending to the final Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi last year, Wolff said Hamilton was disillusioned.
A seven-time champion, Hamilton spurned the awards ceremony organized by the F.I.A., the sport’s governing body, in Paris a few days later.
For two months, he also shunned social media, a tool he uses to communicate with his fans. He was rarely photographed. Speculation over his future was intense.
“Considering the gravity of the incident that happened in Abu Dhabi, it leaves a driver of that caliber quite disillusioned,” Wolff said in an interview. “But I always knew it wasn’t the end of his Formula 1 career or his journey with Mercedes.
“I was always pretty sure. There was a certain easiness. I know when he’s going in the wrong direction, but I felt pretty good about him during that time.”
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In Abu Dhabi, Hamilton had controlled the race ahead of his rival for the championship, Max Verstappen of Red Bull, and was set to win a record eighth title.
Five laps from the finish, Nicholas Latifi of Williams crashed. After the safety car was sent out, decisions were made by Michael Masi, then the F.I.A. race director, that did not conform to the regulations.
The Grand Prix resumed with one lap remaining. Verstappen, on fresher tires, passed Hamilton to win the race and his first title.
On race day, Hamilton was gracious in defeat. Afterward, he said he needed to go away and clear his head. Wolff said Hamilton was now in “very good spirits.”
“One of his great abilities is that he’s able to compartmentalize well, and the only way of digesting and moving on from Abu Dhabi is to say, ‘Things happened and it wasn’t right,’” Wolff said.
“For that specific incident, we can’t turn back time. The trophy is in somebody else’s cabinet, it’s done and dusted, and he’s not complaining about these events anymore.”
Hamilton, 37, said he considered retiring, but after signing a new deal last July that expires at the end of 2023, he decided to remain loyal to Mercedes.
“Naturally, at the end of any season for those who are around my age, of course, you are thinking about the future, about what are the next steps, the right steps for you to take and what is right for you in terms of overall happiness,” Hamilton said.
“I always evaluate all of my options, but I did make a commitment to the team last season, and ultimately, I love what I do, I love being part of the team, working with everyone towards a common goal. I feel like I am at my best, so why do I need to leave.”
Hamilton said there was no ban on discussing what had happened in Abu Dhabi with family and friends over the break, but “it was definitely the last thing I wanted to talk to anyone about.”
“Of course, I speak to my dad about those things because it is something we started together, but we didn’t touch on it too often,” Hamilton said. “It was generally more about being present, living in the moment, creating memories.
“Sometimes in life, we get so focused and stuck into certain things like work that we forget to do those things, so it was a great time just refreshing with them. It was the best period of time I have ever had with my family.”
Hamilton said he had no issues with Verstappen over the last race.
“Max did everything a driver would do given the opportunity he was given,” Hamilton said.
In response to the events of Abu Dhabi, the F.I.A. removed Masi as race director. He has been replaced by Eduardo Freitas, former race director of the World Endurance Championship, and Niels Wittich, former race director of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft, a German touring car series known as D.T.M.
Freitas and Wittich will alternate in the role, assisted by Herbie Blash as a senior adviser. Blash for many years had been assistant to the former race director Charlie Whiting.
Wolff said the decisions made by Masi in Abu Dhabi still rankle.
“Between knowing you’ve won it and suddenly having someone taking it out of your hands, a rogue guy that lost the plot, making you lose it, that’s the worst that can happen,” he said.
Masi could not be reached for comment.
This season, Wolff said, the team, which has won eight consecutive constructors’ titles, has no sense of entitlement and is prepared for the challenge of Mercedes not being competitive with its car, a position the team had been in last year.
“Because of the roller coaster of emotions, doing it against the odds with a car that wasn’t competitive at the beginning, with a driver that was faultless, destroyed his opponent in that last race, and then it’s been taken away, I’m so much more resilient against whatever happens,” Wolff said.
He said the fight with Red Bull last year was brutal, a sentiment shared by Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal.
The rivalry between Hamilton and Verstappen on track was matched at times by that between Wolff and Horner off it. If the teams continue to dominate, Horner said, he does not see the antagonism easing.
“What you did see last year was a fantastic competition from the first race to the last, and I think a key part of Formula 1’s revival in popularity has been that competition,” he said.
“Certainly, we hope this is going to be an equally exciting year,” Horner said, “but I’m sure the intensity of the rivalry between the teams and the drivers will be as pertinent as ever.”
As defending champion, Verstappen has become the man to beat, but he said he did not feel extra pressure.
“I just do what I do all the time,” he said. “There is no reason to suddenly be different. Of course, as a driver, you have to get used to the new regulations.
“It’s not like you just jump in and it’s an upgrade from last year, so that is going to be the biggest adaptation, but the rest, it’s pretty straightforward.”
Aside from tackling Verstappen again, Hamilton also faces getting used to a new teammate, George Russell.
As part of the Mercedes young driver program, Russell spent his first three years in Formula 1 with the back-of-the-grid team Williams before earning his promotion. He has replaced Valtteri Bottas, who has joined Alfa Romeo.
Russell is young and hungry, posing a challenge for Wolff to control the new partnership.
“Both of them are in a very different stage of their career,” Wolff said. “But it doesn’t mean the energy of winning isn’t equally as high.
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“I just have to manage it.”
Russian Grand Prix Canceled
Formula 1 pulled this September event from its record-breaking 23-race calendar after Russia invaded Ukraine. Another country is expected to fill the date. Haas, the only United States team in Formula 1, has terminated its contracts with the Russian company Uralkali and the Russian driver Nikita Mazepin. Kevin Magnussen, who drove for Haas from 2017 to 2020, has returned to the team to replace Mazepin.