An extraordinary 2021 F1 season was overshadowed by a tumultuous ending in Abu Dhabi which saw Max Verstappen clinch the world title on the final lap of the last race of the year.
A contentious Safety Car restart procedure left Hamilton, who had dominated the race, exposed to a last-lap attack from Verstappen, who was on fresh soft tyres. The Red Bull driver dived past Hamilton at Turn 5 to claim his maiden world championship.
FIA race director Michael Masi has come under intense scrutiny for his handling of the situation, which Mercedes argued went against normal protocols. However, last Thursday, the team decided not to pursue its appeal against the race result.
On the same day, in what was his first media briefing since the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted he could give no assurances that Hamilton will even be on the grid next year.
Everything that has been said
Wolff said Hamilton and the team have been left “disillusioned” by the events of the controversial season finale and may never get over what happened.
According to Wolff, Hamilton was “robbed” of a “deserved” record-breaking eighth world title by Masi’s decision-making.
"We are not disillusioned of the sport, we love the sport with every bone in our body and we love it because the stopwatch never lies,” Wolff explained.
"But if we break that fundamental principle of sporting fairness and authenticity of the sport, that suddenly the stopwatch doesn't become relevant, because we are exposed to random decision making, it is clear that you start to question if all the work that you have been putting in - all the sweat, tears and blood - can actually be demonstrated in terms of bringing the best possible performances on track, because it can be taken away randomly.
"It's going to take a long time for us to digest what has happened on Sunday. I don't think we will ever overcome it, that's not possible.
"And certainly not him as a driver. I would very much hope the two of us and the rest of the team we can work through the events... But he will never overcome the pain and the distress that was caused on Sunday.”
Hamilton signed a new two-year contract with Mercedes earlier this season but Wolff said he could not guarantee that the Briton, who turns 37 next month, would continue to race in F1.
"As a racer, his heart will say: 'I need to continue' because he's at the peak of his game," Wolff added. “But we have to overcome the pain that was caused upon him.
"I am in a daily dialogue with him. But there is not a lot to talk about at the moment. Each of us copes in their own way with the feelings we have at the moment.
"I just need to do the utmost I can to help him to overcome the feelings that he has in order for him to return strong with a love of the sport and trust in the decision-making of the sport next year.
“And we wish very much that this would be the case.”
Meanwhile, newly-crowned world champion Verstappen said he believes Hamilton has every reason to return next season.
At the time of writing, Hamilton has remained totally silent on the matter. He has not posted anything on any of his social media channels, nor has he conducted any interviews, having skipped both the post-race press conference as well as the FIA’s prize-giving gala in Paris.
The only reference about his future came during his sole interview with Jenson Button directly after the race in parc ferme, where a clearly shell-shocked Hamilton, still trying to comprehend what had just happened, concluded: “We’ll see about next year.”
Hamilton has been seen at two public engagements; when he formally received his knighthood from the Prince of Wales at Windsor Castle last Wednesday, and when he visited Mercedes’ factories on Friday.
Welcoming home our Champions. pic.twitter.com/VyVzakhRe9— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) December 17, 2021
The late shenanigans in Abu Dhabi felt like an unfair conclusion to what had otherwise been an epic season.
It would be understandable for Hamilton to feel like he was robbed. He did absolutely everything right on the day in order to win the title having nailed the start to get the jump on Verstappen and controlled proceedings up until Nicholas Latifi’s late crash.
It is impossible to truly comprehend how Hamilton must be feeling to have lost a world championship in such a cruel way. It was not a mistake made on his behalf that cost him the world title, but rather contentious factors completely outside of his control. Perhaps, in time, he can take some comfort from that.
There is no doubt that Verstappen is a worthy world champion based on his epic and remarkably consistent performances across the season as a whole, but an unshakable, unjust shadow still lingers over the manner in which the title was decided.
It marked a huge blow to Hamilton after what had been an immense challenge - both physically and mentally - to turn in the sorts of ruthless and phenomenal displays he did across the final four events of the year to take the title fight down to the wire in his toughest season to date.
Walking away from F1 after what happened in Abu Dhabi would be entirely justifiable for Hamilton. He has nothing more to prove and would bow out as statistically the most successful driver of all time.
But Hamilton calling time on his career under such circumstances would be a hugely sad ending to his legendary F1 story and mark a massive loss for the sport going into what should be an exciting new era.
It would also completely go against Hamilton’s competitive nature and never-give-up attitude. Indeed, his personal mantra ‘Still I/We Rise’ is a permanent reminder that Hamilton keeps on the back of his helmet.
This is not the first hurdle Hamilton has faced throughout his F1 career and if he decides to carry on, it will unlikely be his last.
You only have to look at the way he bounced back from the disappointment of his title defeat to Nico Rosberg in 2016 to understand how Hamilton normally responds to setbacks. He reset and came back stronger than ever to overcome successive challenges thrown down by Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel.
Once he has had the necessary time to process and come to terms with how things played out, we expect that Hamilton will be back firing on all cylinders and return as motivated as ever for 2022 in his quest to claim an unprecedented eighth world title.