I feel dis­re­spected by Mercedes, says bit­ter Hamil­ton

Bri­ton fu­ri­ous at crit­i­cism for dis­obey­ing team or­ders Wolff in­cred­u­lous over con­tro­ver­sial com­ments

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - By Oliver Brown

Lewis Hamil­ton feels “dis­re­spected” by Mercedes af­ter they ac­cused him of ig­nor­ing instructions dur­ing last month’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where he lost the world cham­pi­onship by just five points to team-mate Nico Ros­berg.

Ex­plain­ing that the si­t­u­a­tion had still not been re­solved, an an­gry Hamil­ton was unim­pressed with com­ments that se­nior Mercedes of­fi­cials had made about his con­duct at the end of the race, in which he de­lib­er­ately slowed down in a fu­tile at­tempt to back Ros­berg into the traf­fic be­hind.

Paddy Lowe, the team’s tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, took the un­usual step of telling him to pick up the pace, while Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, sug­gested that the driver had risked “an­ar­chy” by dis­obey­ing or­ders so brazenly.

Hamil­ton re­sponded strongly, say­ing: “That was one of many un­com­fort­able mo­ments of the year. Ul­ti­mately, see­ing what had been said af­ter­wards, I felt quite dis­re­spected by the in­di­vid­u­als who had spo­ken. You def­i­nitely don’t ex­pect that from those who are in charge of so many peo­ple.”

Wolff re­acted in­cred­u­lously when told of Hamil­ton’s “dis­re­spect” com­ment, while Ros­berg, who an­nounced his re­tire­ment ear­lier this month, in­di­cated it was an­other cal­cu­lated psy­cho­log­i­cal ploy. “So he felt dis­re­spected?” the Ger­man asked, sar­cas­ti­cally. “OK, in­ter­est­ing. That’s a new one.”

Even with Ros­berg now a man of leisure, Hamil­ton could not re­sist one fi­nal op­por­tu­nity to bait his ri­val for us­ing a mind coach to help im­prove his per­for­mance on the track. Ros­berg sought psy­cho­log­i­cal ad­vice over the Au­gust break and promptly reeled off three con­sec­u­tive vic­to­ries to tilt the ti­tle race de­ci­sively in his favour.

But Hamil­ton de­scribed such an ap­proach as a re­flec­tion of how much pres­sure he had put his ri­val un­der.

“In my whole ca­reer, I have never had to work with a men­tal coach,” he told Chan­nel 4, in the pro­gramme Lewis v Nico: For­mula One 2016, to be broad­cast this lunchtime. I find my own way. “I take it as a com­pli­ment that he is throw­ing ev­ery­thing and the toi­let seat at it. Look at other sports. When peo­ple know they have to go up against Tiger Woods, or Ser­ena Wil­liams, they know they have to lift their game.”

Ros­berg, mean­while, main­tained that he had no re­grets about walk­ing away from the sport at the age of 31. “It feels right to me,” he said. “I feel ful­filled. I am at the top of my Ever­est.”

Here at Mercedes’ spaceage fortress on the fringes of Brack­ley, emo­tions are raw. Lewis Hamil­ton is still lament­ing the world cham­pi­onship that slipped from his clutches in the Abu Dhabi sun­set, while Nico Ros­berg, his friend-turne­dusurper, is pay­ing his fi­nal visit to the fac­tory af­ter a re­tire­ment an­nounce­ment that has left For­mula One agog. Toto Wolff, the ur­bane team prin­ci­pal, is thrust into his fa­mil­iar role of hav­ing to keep the peace.

In many ways, Mercedes, who have just wrapped up a tre­ble of con­struc­tors’ ti­tles, are a re­mark­able or­gan­i­sa­tion: slick, ul­tra-dis­ci­plined, re­lent­lessly for­ward-think­ing. Un­sur­pris­ingly, they guard their se­crets fe­ro­ciously. Un­der­neath the in­ter­view room is the wind tun­nel, where they are plot­ting a metic­u­lous path to a fourth straight year of dom­i­nance in 2017. Ac­cess to this area is harder to ob­tain than for a nu­clear bunker in Ne­vada. And yet in a more fun­da­men­tal sense, this team are an open book.

Their in­sis­tence on putting two star driv­ers on an equal foot­ing, with ab­so­lute free­dom to race each other, has cre­ated the type of ten­sion that could be sliced with a knife. Since last month’s con­tro­ver­sial sea­son cli­max in Abu Dhabi, where Hamil­ton de­lib­er­ately backed Ros­berg into the chas­ing pack in a des­per­ate last-gasp ruse to thwart his ri­val, the two have made a few stabs at be­ing civil to­wards one an­other. Hamil­ton even posted a touch­ing pic­ture on Twit­ter of them to­gether in Greece as teenagers, con­grat­u­lat­ing his team-mate on the ful­fil­ment of a child­hood dream.

But the lines of frac­ture are still clearly vis­i­ble. Hamil­ton, who should be in serene mood as he heads off for a surf­ing hol­i­day in Mexico, can­not hide his bit­ter­ness about how the fi­nal grand prix un­folded. He re­mains an­gry at his team for in­struct­ing him to speed up over the clos­ing laps, be­liev­ing that this negated his nat­u­ral racer’s in­stinct to win the cham­pi­onship by what­ever means avail­able. Paddy Lowe, Mercedes’ tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, made a rare in­ter­ven­tion over the in-car ra­dio, be­fore Wolff sug­gested that Hamil­ton could be sanc­tioned for fail­ing to fol­low or­ders.

“That was one of many un­com­fort­able mo­ments of the year,” he says. “Ul­ti­mately, see­ing what had been said af­ter­wards, I felt quite dis­re­spected by the in­di­vid­u­als who had spo­ken. You don’t ex­pect that from those who are in charge of so many peo­ple.” Has the si­t­u­a­tion since been re­solved? “No, it hasn’t.”

Diplo­matic sub­tlety has never been one of Hamil­ton’s strengths, but this still rep­re­sents a re­mark­able broad­side against em­ploy­ers who have steered him to two ti­tles and 31 race vic­to­ries in three years. Wolff ex­presses as­ton­ish­ment when told of the al­le­ga­tion of dis­re­spect, while Ros­berg, well versed in such ver­bal provo­ca­tion af­ter his days fight­ing Hamil­ton in ju­nior kart­ing, of­fers a wry smile. “So he felt dis­re­spected? OK, in­ter­est­ing. That’s a new one.”

Ros­berg gives the im­pres­sion that he has had enough of Hamil­ton’s con­stant needling. Be­ing in the same camp as such a mer­cu­rial per­son­al­ity, famed for throw­ing sulks when­ever his supremacy is threat­ened, can be an ex­haust­ing busi­ness. So adept was Hamil­ton at ruf­fling him that Ros­berg had to spend his sum­mer break in Au­gust work­ing with a mind coach. “I re­ally dug in with a men­tal trainer,” he ex­plains. “I got into med­i­ta­tion for per­for­mance.”

Hamil­ton per­ceives such an ap­proach with thinly veiled dis­dain, re­gard­ing it as an af­fir­ma­tion of his su­pe­ri­or­ity that he forced Ros­berg to go to these lengths. “In my whole ca­reer, I have never had to work with a life coach or a men­tal coach. I take it as a com­pli­ment that he is throw­ing ev­ery­thing and the toi­let seat at it. Look at other sports. When peo­ple know they have to go up against Tiger Woods, or Ser­ena Wil­liams, they know they have to lift their game.”

The con­nec­tion be­tween Hamil­ton and Wil­liams grows closer, the more deeply he in­scribes his name among F1’s greats. He in­vited Ser­ena, win­ner of 22 ma­jor sin­gles tour­na­ments, to the most re­cent Mexico Grand Prix and has cited her as an in­spi­ra­tion in his quest to keep adding to his feats.

Next sea­son, he can be as­sured, with Ros­berg’s ab­sence, there will be no doubt over his al­pha-male sta­tus at Mercedes. Even if the team prise Valt­teri Bot­tas from Wil­liams to fill the va­cant seat, Hamil­ton will feel more em­pow­ered than ever to lay down the rules.

Al­ready, he is do­ing just that. Hamil­ton is un­happy at how Mercedes switched sev­eral of his engi­neers and me­chan­ics to Ros­berg’s side of the garage in the early part of the sea­son and has urged Wolff not to med­dle again. “Be­fore next sea­son, I’m go­ing to say to Toto, ‘I don’t want these guys to be changed. Please just leave us to do our job’. I want to keep them all.” At times lately, Hamil­ton has acted as if he glimpses a con­spir­acy around ev­ery cor­ner. When he found him­self in the lead in Malaysia, only for his en­gine to blow up, he all but ac­cused Mercedes of sab­o­tage, rag­ing that “it does not sit right with me”. Even to­day, it is a men­tal­ity he strug­gles to shake off. “When you have some­thing in your head, it’s there. You think it can’t be a co­in­ci­dence that all these things have hap­pened.” Hamil­ton’s pain turned out to be Ros­berg’s gain. For­ti­fied by the ex­per­tise of his mind guru, the Ger­man won three grands prix in suc­ces­sion af­ter the sum­mer hia­tus to es­tab­lish an ad­van­tage he would never re­lin­quish. He knew that the cham­pion’s crown was his to lose. Noth­ing, though, could quite steel him for the strain he would come un­der dur­ing those nerve-shred­ding fi­nal laps at Yas Ma­rina. “It was one of the most in­tense mo­ments I have ever had,” he says. “The only one worse was watch­ing my wife give birth.” Given that Hamil­ton had started from pole in Abu Dhabi and needed Ros­berg to fin­ish out­side the podium places if he was to seal his fourth driv­ers’ ti­tle, the pos­si­bil­ity that he would seek to leave his team-mate at the mercy of the traf­fic be­hind had been widely trailed.

“I had no idea how far he was go­ing to go,” Ros­berg says, shud­der­ing at the mem­ory of Se­bas­tian Vet­tel’s Fer­rari and the Red Bull of Max Ver­stap­pen loom­ing large in his rear-view mir­rors. “I just saw these two guys, hot as hell be­hind, smelling the vic­tory. It was prob­a­bly naive, but I didn’t think Lewis would do it that way. The way we had been speak­ing in­ter­nally, it was very clear. He al­ways said that he wanted to go as fast as pos­si­ble and win by the big­gest mar­gin, to put out a state­ment. Lit­tle did I know.”

Wolff, like­wise, re­acted to Hamil­ton’s de­fi­ance with a mix­ture of hor­ror and amaze­ment. The only mercy, he ac­knowl­edges, is that he was not able to im­part his true feel­ings to his ob­sti­nate driver via ra­dio link. “If I had the but­ton, I would get emo­tional – and that wouldn’t be good for the im­age of the team.”

For Ros­berg, the re­al­i­sa­tion dawned af­ter this duel that he had fol­lowed his am­bi­tions to their fullest fruition. Even his in­ter­view-averse fa­ther Keke, the world cham­pion in 1982, made an ap­pear­ance in the pad­dock to share in the cel­e­bra­tions. Could such an ex­pe­ri­ence be re­peated? Did he have the ap­petite for an­other grind­ing eight-month bat­tle with a crafty provo­ca­teur like Hamil­ton? He de­cided, even if it meant giv­ing up an £18 mil­lion salary, that it would be bet­ter for his life, even his san­ity, that he stepped out of the cock­pit en­tirely.

“At the high­est level, fam­ily can get left be­hind,” says Ros­berg, whose wife Vi­vian gave birth this year to their daugh­ter, Alaia. “It wasn’t an easy de­ci­sion. But I have never driven for the money. It feels right to me. I feel ful­filled. I am at the top of my Ever­est.”

The fi­nal­ity of his de­ci­sion shocked even Wolff. The two of them had flown to Malaysia the day af­ter his ti­tle tri­umph, on a visit to spon­sors Petronas, and Ros­berg had not breathed a word about re­tir­ing. But within three min­utes of them part­ing ways at Frankfurt air­port, the fate­ful call came. “Nico said that he tried to tell me over din­ner on the aero­plane, then again over break­fast in the morn­ing,” re­flects Wolff, who ad­mits they both cried. “He said, ‘I just didn’t have the balls to tell you to your face.’ I couldn’t be­lieve it. I tried to call him back. But he said, ‘No, don’t call back’. ”

With that brief ex­change, Ros­berg reached the end of his road, cre­at­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing co­nun­drum for Hamil­ton. If a tem­pes­tu­ous 2016 taught us any­thing, it was that these two could barely stand each other. In 2017, we will find out how suc­cess­fully they can live with­out each other. Watch “Lewis v Nico: For­mula 1 2016” ex­clu­sively on Chan­nel 4 at 12.30pm to­day. Chan­nel 4 is the home of free-toair F1 in the UK, show­ing 10 live races each sea­son.

Agony: Lewis Hamil­ton sur­ren­dered his ti­tle

Selfie time: Nico Ros­berg (above left) with Mark Web­ber (cen­tre) and David Coulthard at Mercedes head­quar­ters dur­ing TV film­ing and (be­low) with his wife Vi­vian af­ter win­ning the world ti­tle from (bot­tom right) Lewis Hamil­ton

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