Ever since the events of Sunday, 12 December 2021, Lewis Hamilton has disappeared from the public eye.
Hamilton, as much a brand as he is a sportsman, is one of the few drivers to fully embrace the power of social media over the years, becoming F1's most recognised household name as a result of his transparency on Instagram – a platform he uses to promote causes he feels particularly strongly about, as well as showcasing his own ventures.
But those channels have also fallen silent, such has been the extent of Hamilton's despair after the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
With 10 laps to go in that race, Hamilton must have felt pretty good about himself. Barring a mechanical failure, or some sort of unforeseen disaster, he was on course to win the 2021 Drivers' Championship over year-long rival Max Verstappen. Comfortably leading by more than 10 seconds, Verstappen had been powerless to respond to Hamilton's pace.
It hadn't been a completely straightforward race. Having made a lightning start, Hamilton was fortunate to get away with a first-lap incident when Verstappen managed to get alongside him into the apex of Turn 6. Hamilton cut across the escape area and held onto the lead, and wasn't forced to cede position back to Verstappen – the stewards ruling that him slowing down to allow Verstappen to close back up was sufficient.
Hamilton then had to deal with Red Bull's Sergio Perez slowing him down. Offered as a sacrificial lamb, Perez was left out on track to get track position over Hamilton after the Mercedes' pit-stop – his only job being to slow down Hamilton. This he did admirably. With no consideration for his own race progress, Perez slowed Hamilton down enough to get Verstappen back onto the rear of the Mercedes, although Hamilton quickly set about rebuilding the gap.
It all looked in hand, until the aforementioned disaster struck. Williams' Nicholas Latifi crashed on Lap 53 of 58, triggering a Safety Car. So close to the end of the race, what could Mercedes do? If they pitted Hamilton for fresh tyres, they'd cede position to Verstappen with no guarantee of the race resuming. If they didn't pit, Verstappen would and, if the race resumed, hold the advantage of fresher tyres.
It was a no-win situation, although Mercedes' tactical issues weren't helped by the events of the final two laps. Halfway around the penultimate lap, Race Director Michael Masi made the call for certain unlapped cars (specifically, five of the eight lapped) to unlap themselves, freeing up the traffic between Hamilton and Verstappen, who had pitted as Hamilton didn't.
From that moment, Hamilton was doomed – the events of the final lap now well documented as Toto Wolff radioed in, "No Michael, no! That was so not right!", in relation to Masi's call.
Hamilton clearly in shock after the Abu Dhabi GP
A dazed Hamilton, having seen the title ripped away from him in just a few minutes of track action, radioed in on the slowdown lap to say, "This has been manipulated, man".
Returning to the pits, he removed his steering wheel and sat, contemplative, in his W12 as he absorbed the enormity of what had happened. Clambering from the car after gathering his thoughts, he made his way over to congratulate Verstappen on his moment and turned to give his pre-podium interview.
"Firstly, a big congratulations to Max and to his team," Hamilton said.
"I think we did an amazing job this year. My team, everyone back at the factory, all the men and women we have, and here [at the track], have worked so hard.
"This whole year has been the most difficult of seasons, and I'm so proud of them, so grateful to be a part of the journey with them.
"We gave it everything [in] this last part of the season. We gave it absolutely everything, and we never gave up, and that's the most important thing."
Hamilton then wished "everyone" a happy Christmas and that "we'll see about next year" – a seemingly innocent comment at the time, but one that has become far more hard-hitting since.
Attending the podium, Hamilton withdrew to the Mercedes facilities in the paddock and, since then, has vanished.
Mercedes kick up a storm with post-race protests
While Hamilton appeared to have taken the defeat well, even if he did appear to be a rabbit caught in the headlights during the interview, Mercedes were furious.
They immediately lodged two protests – one being against the race restart procedure, and the other being against Verstappen, specifically. The latter was in relation to Verstappen's front wing ending up ahead of Hamilton as the pair prepared to go racing after the Safety Car withdrew – an indication of Mercedes' desperation.
The Verstappen protest was quickly thrown out, as was the meatier race restart procedure protest. Mercedes quickly signalled their intent to appeal and, after that, followed Hamilton's lead in vanishing.
The next question was whether Hamilton or Mercedes would attend the mandatory FIA Prize-Giving Gala four days later, coincidentally occurring, almost to the hour, at the same time as the appeal window closed.
Not a single item was posted on Mercedes or Hamilton's social media channels in the following days, with Mercedes and Daimler also electing not to release their usual post-race press releases. There were no media opportunities with Hamilton, Wolff or even Andrew Shovlin – one of Merc's chief engineers who usually debriefs the media on Sunday evenings.
Hamilton resurfaces for his knighthood
On the Wednesday following the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Hamilton appeared at a ceremony in the United Kingdom to receive the knighthood he had been granted in the Queen's Honours list for 2021. Posing for pictures with his mother, there were no comments made by Hamilton, nor an acknowledgement of the day on his own channels.
Indeed, Hamilton's Instagram channel had become even more intriguing at this point, as he 'unfollowed' absolutely everyone on his account. This meant that he would not see a single post regarding the furore going on as warring fans argued about the events, and pondered about the Prize-Giving Gala.
Finally, Thursday rolled around. With hours remaining until the appeal window closed, Mercedes confirmed that they intended to drop their appeal, as Wolff emerged to speak to media via an online call. He revealed that he and Hamilton would miss the Gala, with James Allison sent along to represent Mercedes, and that the team had dropped the appeal despite being confident of winning if they brought the case to a court outside of the FIA's jurisdiction.
Mercedes' social accounts began posting again, congratulating Verstappen and Red Bull, while Wolff also made it clear that their despair and anger was never aimed at the Dutch driver – rather the decisions made by Michael Masi.
The reason behind Mercedes' decision to drop the appeal also became clear, as the FIA confirmed they would conduct a full investigation into the decisions made at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The results of this investigation are yet to be published.
Where is Hamilton at the moment?
There is no definite answer as to where Hamilton has been over the past month. With Wolff unable to confirm whether Hamilton will return for 2022, there's been vague hints from Mercedes that their talismanic driver will be back but, for now, the man himself hasn't confirmed that.
His thoughts on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix aren't known, although new FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem described Hamilton as "broken" as he addressed media for the first time after assuming the office.
His younger brother, Nicolas, did offer an update as he streamed on Twitch over the Christmas period, revealing that Hamilton is going through a social media detox in the aftermath of the title fight.
"I think he is just having a bit of a social media break, which I don't blame him for," he told his followers.
"Social media can be a very toxic place. But he's cool, though. He's fine."
The big question mark at this point is what exactly Mercedes and Hamilton are hoping the FIA report reveals. Given the apparently clear sequence of events, perhaps it's the whole system of race governance that Mercedes want to be revised.
Certainly, comments made by Wolff suggest that's the case, rather than a simple case of firing Masi and slotting someone else in his place.
"I'm afraid it's not only a decision to change the Race Director – the whole system of decision-making needs to be improved," Wolff told media, including RacingNews365.com.
"I think that the Race Director is certainly under big pressure and some of that is due to our own faults.
"I would have wished [for] more consistent decision-making that could have avoided many of the controversies throughout the year.
"The last one [in Abu Dhabi] was just a decision that had the biggest impact. From a sporting perspective, [it had] a catastrophic impact, because it decided the World Championship."
What's next for the seven-time champion?
With the F1 launch period and pre-season testing just over a month away, and still no formal confirmation from Hamilton that he'll continue, the chat surrounding his future has picked up once again.
An interview given by Sky Sport's Craig Slater earlier this week hinted that Hamilton is awaiting a tangible report from the FIA on Abu Dhabi before making a call on whether to continue in the sport.
Certainly, only one driver is publicly confirmed as having visited the Mercedes factory in Brackley, as George Russell swung by earlier this week to start his official duties with the team after stepping up from Williams. While Hamilton might have also paid a visit, it hasn't been made public.
One month on from Abu Dhabi, the furore surrounding the events of that day remains unabated, much to the FIA's chagrin. What will Hamilton choose to do?
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