Lewis Hamilton, his sixth world championship secure, closed out the season with a consummate win in Abu Dhabi. He again delivered abundant notice as to why he is the most sought-after driver in Formula One and after the race his future, whether at current team Mercedes or potentially Ferrari, was once more under debate. The Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, admitted he had assessed there was a 25% chance of the Englishman leaving.
Hamilton’s run from pole to the flag was as clinical a piece of execution as he exhibited all year. Having opened a gap from the off he did not relinquish it to complete his 11th win this season, equalling his own record. He stood atop the podium alongside Max Verstappen in second and Charles Leclerc in third – a lineup of what is hoped to be the protagonists in the championship next year.
After seven years at Mercedes, Hamilton has one more year on his contract and speculation has been rife that the 34-year-old might like to see out his career with Ferrari. He did not deny that had already met twice this year with their chairman, John Elkann, and admitted he was considering how to finish his time in F1.
“Naturally everything that happens behind closed doors is always private with whoever you end up sitting with,” he said. “ I love where I am so it’s definitely not a quick decision to do something else, but of course I think it’s only smart and wise for me to sit and think of what I want … If it is the last period or stage in my career.”
Wolff joined Mercedes at the same time as Hamilton in 2013 and the pair have shared remarkable success together. However, he conceded that it was not a given Hamilton would re-sign with them. “I would rate it at 75%,” he said when asked for a percentage of the chances of the Englishman staying.
“I hope that our relationship continues but there is a 25% chance we are not in control of. A sports team is not static. It is dynamic. That means there is always going to be change.”
On the track, Formula One’s season finale lacked spectacle. It was largely a procession in the desert – almost the season in microcosm. Hamilton magisterial to win, Ferrari floundering and Verstappen’s mercurial touch enlivening a drab finale. There was even a cameo for Carlos Sainz in the McLaren to cap a fine season for the British team.
Hamilton has had to fight hard this year but he made this look easy, beating Verstappen by a full 16 seconds and closing on a high as he considers the final two records left to tilt at next season: Michael Schumacher’s seven titles and 91 victories.
Ferrari, in contrast, have struggled for pace, suffered from operational errors, driver mistakes and reliability. They have only three wins, a tally matched by Red Bull. Here Leclerc was 43 seconds off Hamilton. Worse still they had once more complicated their own efforts even further by declaring the amount of fuel in Leclerc’s car before the race inaccurately. They were investigated and the result hung in the balance until well after the race when they were ultimately fined €50,000 (£43,000).
Reflecting on the season the team principal, Mattia Binotto, was honest on their shortcomings. “We did our best but we are unhappy with the performance of the car, with mistakes, with reliability problems, with some decisions,” he said. “We need to look ahead. We did our best, it is not yet sufficient.”
The result did ensure Leclerc finished fourth in his first season for Ferrari, solidly beating his teammate Sebastian Vettel into fifth in the championship. He has two wins to Vettel’s one and has consistently looked more comfortable and quicker in the car. Vettel began the season with No 1 driver status but Leclerc has clearly earned parity and Binotto said next season they would be allowed to race as equals from the off.
Verstappen’s second was impressive after battling with power unit problems but showing his usual enthusiasm and verve. He has all three of Red Bull’s win this year and his typically bold move, late-braking to dive down the inside of turn eight and past Leclerc for second was the highpoint of action on track.
McLaren already had fourth in the constructors’ championship but they and Sainz wanted to cap it with sixth place in the drivers’. They gambled on a final late pit stop for fresh rubber and Sainz hared after Nico Hülkenberg’s Renault.
Catching him on the final lap, Sainz made his move at turn 11, the last overtaking opportunity, and made it stick to take 10th place and one point. Enough to guarantee sixth, a rightly celebrated achievement for driver and team with which to close 2019.
Vettel was in fifth. Alexander Albon was in sixth, while Valtteri Bottas came back well from 20th after an engine penalty to take fourth. Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez was seventh with Lando Norris eighth for McLaren, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat was ninth. – Guardian