ABU DHABI: Nearly 12 months on from that dramatic finish to the 2021 Formula One championship battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, the drivers return to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit for the finale of the 2022 campaign, albeit in very different circumstances.
This time last year, Verstappen and Hamilton arrived at the UAE capital on equal points in the championship with one race to go.
Red Bull’s Verstappen ultimately won his first world title in somewhat controversial fashion, in an eventful Grand Prix that saw race director Michael Masi make a debatable call that resulted in Verstappen pip Hamilton in a one-lap shootout.
“I don’t really think a lot about it. So I don’t really have many thoughts on the last race here,” said seven-time world champion Hamilton on Thursday.
“I’m not necessarily focused on stuff that’s behind me and I’m also trying to, not control, but trying to be the best I can moving forward, the days ahead.”
This year, Verstappen defended his championship crown, securing his second successive title with four races to spare.
Despite the championship already decided, there is still plenty to look forward to this F1 weekend in Abu Dhabi, and lots to unpack from a busy media day at Yas Marina Circuit.
Max hits out at ‘sickening’ abuse
While we’re used to seeing drama between Red Bull and Mercedes, this time, recent drama has been within the Red Bull camp after Verstappen refused to adhere to team orders in Brazil last weekend.
With Sergio Perez fighting Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc for second place in the championship, Red Bull asked Verstappen to let his Mexican team-mate pass him at Interlagos – a request Verstappen was not willing to fulfill.
The Dutchman said he had his reasons, which were discussed internally within the team, and he hit out at F1 fans on social media, as well as members of the press, for criticizing his decision not to let Perez through without knowing the full facts; facts he remains unwilling to disclose publicly.
“After that race of course a I looked very bad in the media. But also they didn't have the clear picture,” Verstappen told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.
“To immediately put me down like that is pretty ridiculous to be honest. Because they don’t know how I work within the team and what the team appreciates about me. So all the things I have read are pretty disgusting.
“Even more than that, they started attacking my family, they were threatening my sister, my mum, my girlfriend, my dad. And for me that goes way too far while you don't even have the facts of what is going on. And that definitely has to stop.
“If you have a problem with me, that's fine, but don't go after my family because that is unacceptable.”
He added: “As soon as there is something negative it needs to be highlighted, it is pretty sickening being part of that.”
Checo denies Monaco wrongdoing
Verstappen acknowledges that “in hindsight” discussions within the team about possible orders to support Perez’s bid for P2 should have happened earlier and they come to Abu Dhabi with a better understanding of everyone’s position.
“I have never been a bad teammate to anyone, I have always been very helpful and the team knows that. I always put the team up front because at the end of the day it is a team effort. What we learned from that is that we have to be a little more open and we just have to communicate better to each other.”
Meanwhile, Perez believes things are back on track within the Red Bull camp and is confident he can count on his teammate’s help should he need him this weekend.
“I think we are both grown-ups and we’ll be able to put this behind us and we’ll move forward,” Perez said on Thursday.
There has been speculation that Verstappen’s grievance is related to the race from Monaco earlier this season, and there are rumors that Perez crashed on purpose during qualifying, an incident that prevented his teammate from completing his lap.
Perez denies any suggestion that he deliberately crashed, saying the “rumors are wrong”.
“Everyone makes mistakes in Monaco, in general places in qualifying. And it's not like it was done on purpose,” he added.
Red Bull have never finished a championship with their drivers ranked one and two and Verstappen says, “if we could achieve that, that would be amazing. For sure if the opportunity is there to help, as a team we’re going to do that.”
Leclerc hopes to finish on a high
Ferrari’s Leclerc is coming off a fourth-place finish in Brazil and comes to Abu Dhabi on level points with Perez, although he is ahead of him in the drivers’ standings due to his favorable race-win tally.
The Monegasque admits things have been up and down for him the last few races but is keen to secure P2 with a strong finale at Yas Marina.
“Brazil has been good but unfortunately because of our first-lap incident, it was all about coming back to the front, but the pace was there,” said the 25-year-old.
“I hope we’ll be strong enough to fight for the top positions. Obviously we are fighting for second place in the drivers’ championship and also second place in the constructors’ championship, and after going through very tough years in 2020 and 2021, it would be good to be back fighting at the top.
“Even though our goal is to fight for the championship eventually, after these two difficult years, it would be good to be second.”
The sport will get ready to bid farewell to one of its biggest icons in Sebastian Vettel, as the German four-time world champion prepares for the last race of his F1 career this weekend.
Tributes have been pouring in for Vettel since he announced in July this would be his last season in Formula One and drivers are getting ready to swap helmets with the Aston Martin ace one last time.
Two-time world champion and Vettel’s long-time rival Fernando Alonso posted a heartfelt message on his Instagram, wishing the German good luck for what’s to come and revealed a special helmet design he will be wearing in Vettel’s honor this weekend in Abu Dhabi.
The helmet features the German flag stripe Vettel has raced with since 2015 and the words, ‘Danke Seb’ on either side.
See you later, not goodbye for Ricciardo
Fan favorite Daniel Ricciardo is out of a seat for next season in F1 but the Australian hopes he will still be in the paddock in some shape or form in 2023.
“Mentally I’m not treating it like it’s going to be my last ever race. It could be. I know nothing is guaranteed in the future. So I’m just going out to enjoy it, I’m not going to get too emotional about it, about the thought if it is the last one or not,” said Ricciardo, who is being replaced by Oscar Piastri at McLaren next year.
“I’m going to enjoy it and take it for what it is. I got a grid penalty, I only go better when I have penalties. I actually asked for a five-place penalty but three will do it, so there we go,” laughed Ricciardo, who collided with Kevin Magnussen in Brazil last weekend.
Speaking of his future, the ‘Honey Badger’ said: “Nothing is confirmed. But progress has been made. Hopefully you can see my good looks again next year, to some degree.”
‘Mick will get another shot’
Also leaving the paddock after this final race of the season in Abu Dhabi is Mick Schumacher, who just received the news he won’t be driving for Haas next year and is being replaced by Nico Hulkenberg.
Schumacher posted a message on his Instagram after the announcement was made, saying he’ll fight hard to return to the F1 grid, and he signed off with the letters, ‘PTW’ – meaning “prove them wrong”.
“PTW, it’s been pretty much what I’ve been saying most part of this year,” explained Schumacher.
“I just felt like saying that because I think I want to prove everybody wrong who doesn’t believe in me because I know what I can do. I’ve proven that in the junior categories and I see no reason why I can’t do that in Formula One.”
Alpine’s Esteban Ocon is certain Schumacher will get another shot at rejoining the pinnacle of motorsport.
“I believe he will obviously work hard with his team to come back,” said the French driver of the 23-year-old Schumacher.
“I’ve been out of the sport and I know how it feels after two years to go out. But the hard work, the dedication, just being here each time there was a car that started, that’s the thing that brought me back to the sport and I’m sure he’ll have a shot again and I wish him the best.”
Russell keen to keep momentum going
Mercedes’ George Russell is still on a high after clinching a maiden race victory last week in Brazil but the Brit is keeping his feet on the ground and is holding off on celebrations until Sunday night in the UAE capital.
“I’m just very proud of the achievement. It’s something I’ve worked my whole life towards and what you dream of as a child,” said Russell.
“For sure confidence is high and the morale within the team is booming but I don’t suddenly feel transformed overnight.
“I feel we’ll be going for it [this weekend in Abu Dhabi]. I think since Austin the car has been performing really well, probably better than we could have ever hoped for.”
Drivers get ready for new teammates
After two years together with Alpine, Ocon and Alonso will part ways with the latter taking Vettel’s spot at Aston Martin next season, and Pierre Gasly forming an all-French line-up alongside Ocon.
Despite some tension between Ocon and Alonso due to a dramatic last weekend in Brazil, the Frenchman had nothing but positive things to say about the departing two-time world champion.
“I think we can be happy with what we’ve done over the last two years with Fernando, in trying to get that team further up, and we’ve done so,” said Ocon.
“In 2021, through the year we really stepped up and gave, at times, 125 percent of what the car was capable of doing and we really delivered on a lot of occasions. And this year, we created that fourth place together, it’s not finished yet.
“I don’t know how you say it in English, “il ne faut jamais vendre la peau de l'ours avant de l'avoir tué” (don’t try to sell the bear’s skin before actually killing it). I think we can be happy with what we created and I’m sure that’s going to leave a good legacy for what’s coming next.”
Meanwhile, Kevin Magnussen has mixed feelings about Schumacher’s Haas exit, and the impending arrival of Hulkenberg.
“It’s a double-sided thing, because on one hand it’s exciting getting someone like Nico in, with all his experience and capabilities. And on the other hand I feel bad for Mick because I know how that feels, I’ve been in that situation myself. I think he’s done a good job this year. I like him as a person as well, I think it’s easy to feel bad for him,” said the Dane, who scored an incredible pole position for Haas in Brazil last week.
“F1 is tough but it’s also possible to make it back; I’ve done that twice. I hope he can keep fighting and try to make it back on the grid.”