Lewis Hamilton and Toto Wolff Made a Heat-of-the-Moment Decision After Losing the Championship That Will Affect Them in 2022

Following the events of the final race of the Formula 1 season in Abu Dhabi, Lewis Hamilton, Toto Wolff, and Mercedes GP launched a series of protests and challenges against the sport. Hamilton and Wolff felt that the race director’s decision to change the safety car rules for the final laps of the grand prix was unfair and gave Max Verstappen the upper hand. 

Following the protests, appeals, and challenges to the sport’s decision-making process, Hamilton and Wolff decided to take their protest one step further and skip the FIA Prize-Giving Gala, where the season’s championship trophies are awarded. 

Snubbing the Prize-Giving Gala may seem like a minor offense, fueled by the frustration of competitors who felt robbed of a fair race, but their absence now could have lasting consequences and affect the start of their 2022 race season. 

How missing a dinner can affect a race season

Drivers take the start of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit on December 12, 2021 | ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/Getty Images

The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, known as the FIA, is the governing body of Formula 1 and the organization that establishes the race rules and technical regulations. It oversees multiple championships, but the most prominent is Formula 1. 

A rule exists that the top three drivers and teams in the final championship standings must be present at the year-end Prize-Giving Gala. This is where the championship trophies are awarded and the season of racing is celebrated. Intentionally skipping the gala is a violation of the series’ rules and subject to a penalty. However, while the rule says a competitor can be penalized for being absent, there is no guidance on what the penalty is. That is up to the FIA to determine.

Both Lewis Hamilton and team principal Toto Wolff failed to attend, and the team opted to not display its Formula 1 car or its Formula E car at the event. Technical director James Allison did attend to accept the team’s constructors’ championship trophy and Valtteri Bottas was present to receive his third-place trophy.

The FIA has stated that Lewis Hamilton will be penalized for skipping the gala, and that could come in the form of a grid penalty at the start of the 2022 race season.

The FIA’s response and what may happen to Lewis Hamilton

The FIA has not yet announced what the penalty will be, but it would most likely come in the form of a grid-place penalty at the first race of the season. A 10-place grid penalty is the most likely result based on previous decisions. 

Newly elected FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem had this to say about Mercedes’ snub of the event, as quoted by UK news outlet Express: “At the end of the day, rules are rules. So we are going to look into the side of where the technical rules are there to be employed and was he in breach? I have to look into it.

“Of course, we’ll have to be also be following our rules. But in the meanwhile, it doesn’t stop us from making a champion feel good about the sport, you know.

“It’s easy to be nice to people. And it is cheap to be nice. And it’s also to motivate people. But definitely, if there is any breach, there is no forgiveness in this.”

The FIA could assign a penalty to Hamilton directly, or it could order an investigation and hearing to determine the best course of action. Regardless of the decision, Mercedes’ choice to skip the gala and the FIA decision to punish Hamilton does nothing to repair the damage done by a controversial end to the racing season. 

How could a penalty affect Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes’ Championship in 2022?

Race winner Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates winning a 7th F1 World Drivers Championship with Mercedes GP Executive Director Toto Wolff on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Turkey at Intercity Istanbul Park on November 15, 2020 | Kenan Asyali/Getty Images

Starting a race season with a penalty is never ideal, and a 10-place grid penalty for Lewis Hamilton would immediately put him on the back foot as he attempts to win his eighth world title.

The new cars coming in 2022 result from a sweeping series of technical rules changes that try to level the playing field. The changes would emphasize the driver as the ultimate performance decider instead of the sophistication of the car’s aerodynamics. That makes the field tighter, with performance differences smaller, meaning that a good qualifying position will be necessary as a significant car performance advantage may no longer exist. 

There is no reason to believe that Max Verstappen will slow down in 2022, and a hungry new teammate, George Russell, is expected to mount a formidable challenge to Lewis Hamilton. A penalty-strapped Hamilton would have to fight back through a field of highly talented and quick drivers to contend for a win against Verstappen, Russell, or any number of other drivers at the front of the field.

With first place paying 25 points in the championship and 10th place paying just a single point, if Hamilton cannot make it through the field after receiving the penalty, he could quickly find himself with a massive points disadvantage after the very first race. 

The potential penalty would hurt not only Hamilton’s championship campaign but also Mercedes’ bid to win their ninth constructors’ title.

Related: Lewis Hamilton Just Lost His Second Championship of 2021 to a Former Teammate and Title Rival