Before the season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, much of the discussion centred around whether Lewis Hamilton would back Nico Rosberg up in an attempt to win the Formula 1 World Championship. By now it appears the general position has settled on his actions, whilst not gentlemanly, being acceptable and understandable.
The constructor’s championship had been decided in Mercedes’ favour at October’s Japanese Grand Prix and Hamilton clearly had pace in hand to deal with the threat of Ferrari’s Sebastien Vettel. But with the furore having died down, I think it is worth considering whether, as Toto Wolff has hinted, a precedent has been set and if this might in fact be a positive.
Above all else, sportsmanship matters in Formula 1 because, like any form of motor-racing, it is a sport which carries additional risks. Be it drivers, crew or spectators, safety takes top priority and good driver conduct goes a long way to preventing accidents. There’s a reason divers like Maldonado and Verstappen can be looked on pretty harshly.
But in reacting to Hamilton’s actions, it is worth remembering what other drivers have done and gotten away with.
Formula 1 revels in the idea of a glorious past, perhaps more so than other sports and when it comes to legends, none come to mind faster than Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Senna in particular has been given a mythical aura about him. Let me be clear that this isn’t the problem I want to address. Just like with any spectator sport, these stories are a big part of why I find Formula 1 so enjoyable to follow. But it is worth remembering that these two both won world titles by crashing into each other at Suzuka, putting themselves and others at risk.
What Hamilton’s case does share is his acting as an individual competitor. The radio communications ban which perpetuated the first half of this season was designed to make the driver a more important component in running the car. Though that particular attempt fell through, the continuing popularity of drivers like Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonnen show a desire from fans for drivers who aren’t just machines but personable individuals.
Hamilton’s actions were tame compared to other instances of drivers going against their teams. It may not have been gentlemanly, but to call it outright bad sportsmanship is stretching.
More importantly, he found a near perfect balance. He drove fast enough to keep Rosberg behind him but slow enough to give Vettel and Verstappen at least a chance of overtaking. In doing so, he also struck a chord between handing Rosberg the championship and attempting to take him out Prost/Senna style, making for an overall more satisfying conclusion.
The bigger criticism I have is that both Hamilton and Mercedes were naïve enough to claim before the race that it wouldn’t happen. Now the question arises of what other boundaries need to be more formally defined for similar situations.