Lewis Hamilton revealed he is grateful to be alive after he finished third at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on his Formula One comeback.
The seven-time world champion missed the only race of his 14-season F1 career at the Sakhir Grand Prix last weekend with coronavirus.
Hamilton was bed-ridden in Bahrain isolation for a week as he fought the virus. He has lost a significant amount of weight, and said here that he is struggling with his lung capacity as a knock-on effect of contracting Covid-19.
The Englishman, 35, finished almost 18 seconds behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who romped to victory from pole under the lights of the Yas Marina Circuit at the final round of the season. Valtteri Bottas took the chequered flag in second.
“That was a really hard race for me,” said Hamilton. “Physically all year, I have been fine, but today I definitely wasn’t.
“I don’t think I have ever been so blown. I am just glad it is over. My body is not feeling great but I have to look on the bright side. I made it through, and I didn’t think at any period last week that I would be here.
“I am really just truly grateful for my health, to be alive, and looking forward to recovering over the period we are off, and then getting my body back to where I know it should be.”
Hamilton will have 96 days before he opens his bid to become a record-breaking eight-time world champion at the curtain-raiser in Melbourne, scheduled for March 21.
The Mercedes driver is effectively a free agent in a little over a fortnight, with his £40million-a-season deal set to expire at the end of the month.
But following Sunday’s race, Hamilton said he hoped to have his new contract with the world champions sealed by Christmas.
“I plan to be here next year, and I ought to be here next year,” added Hamilton, who remained in Abu Dhabi on Sunday evening for drinks with his Mercedes team as they celebrated another impressive year.
“As a team, we have more to do together – more to achieve both in and outside of the sport.
“I hope we can begin discussions this week and then hopefully get it tied up before Christmas.”
Hamilton’s boss Toto Wolff said: “It is going to happen. There is no reason it is not going to happen. We always said we would do it after he won the title and then the virus delayed us for another 10 days, two weeks. Now we need to sit down and get it done.”
Formula One bosses have pulled off a masterstroke to stage 17 races in a dozen different countries over 161 days – the shortest season for 59 years.
But the coronavirus-disturbed campaign fizzled out on Sunday as Verstappen, Bottas and Hamilton finished in the same places they started.
The 21-corner, 5.3-mile Yas Marina circuit – a mainstay on the calendar for 11 years – rarely throws up a thrill-a-minute spectacle. And when the top-three drivers elected to pit for their sole change of rubber, after Sergio Perez broke down in his Racing Point and the virtual safety car was deployed, a predictable finished ensued.
“The amount of messages I got with the sleepy emoji is the most I have ever received during a race,” said Wolff.
“The infrastructure here is like no other – it is spectacular – but it is just so difficult to overtake even if the car in front is slower. Maybe there are track configurations we could look at that would make it more interesting.”
Indeed, for Verstappen, it ended up being a straightforward cruise to just his second win of the campaign – his first since the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone back in August – and the 10th of his career.
Verstappen’s victory provides some hope that Hamilton and his all-conquering Mercedes team will not have it all their own way next year with few changes to the rulebook over the winter.
Behind the front three, Alexander Albon improved his chances of a Red Bull stay for 2021 by taking the chequered flag in fourth – ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz.
Britain’s most successful F1 team have been on an upward curve in recent seasons, and their double-points finish here moved them above Racing Point in the constructors’ standings to take third, behind only Mercedes and Red Bull.
Sebastian Vettel ended his six-season Ferrari career a lowly 14th, a lap down, and one spot ahead of George Russell. It was back to reality for the Williams driver seven days after he missed out on a brilliant win as Hamilton’s stand-in at Mercedes in Bahrain.
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