(Reuters) – Lewis Hamilton was gracious in defeat after Red Bull rival Max Verstappen ended the Briton’s quest for an unprecedented eighth Formula One title with a safety-car aided, last-lap pass for championship glory at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday.
The 36-year-old, who started second alongside pole-sitter Verstappen, appeared to have the race well under control after seizing the lead into the first corner and escaping sanction for staying ahead by taking to the run-off in an opening-lap battle with his Red Bull rival.
But a safety car five laps from the end, that handed Verstappen the opportunity to pit for fresh tyres, turned the race on its head and put an end to Hamilton’s hopes of becoming the first driver to win eight world championships.
“Firstly, a big congratulations to Max and to his team,” said Hamilton, his eyes moist, after the race.
“I think we did an amazing job this year. My team, everyone back at the factory… all the men and women… have worked so hard this whole year. It’s been the most difficult of seasons.
“I’m so proud of them, so grateful to be a part of the journey with them,” added the Briton, who has won the title for the last four years in a row and ended the season with eight wins to his Red Bull rival’s 10.
But, even as Verstappen celebrated and Hamilton came to terms with defeat, the Briton’s Mercedes team lodged two safety-car related protests.
One had to do with Verstappen pulling up alongside and edging ahead of Hamilton; the other with the resumption of racing.
Race control initially said the lapped cars, acting as a buffer between Hamilton and Verstappen would not be allowed to overtake, much to Red Bull’s frustration.
But they later decided to let only those cars through, putting Verstappen right on Hamilton’s tail for one final flat-out lap, with the Dutchman seizing his chance on his fresh soft tyres to pass Hamilton for the lead.
Stewards dismissed both protests. Mercedes lodged their intention to appeal against the dismissal of their protest related to the safety car restart.
“We gave it everything, this last part of the season we gave it absolutely everything and we never gave up,” said Hamilton. “That’s the most important thing.”
(Reporting by Abhishek Takle; editing by Clare Fallon)