A tearful Lewis Hamilton joined the elite ranks of double Formula One world champions on Sunday after a nerve-racking drive to victory in the floodlit season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
In a race overshadowed by the ever-present spectre of mechanical failure after the Briton’s Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg suffered an early loss of power, Hamilton powered to his 11th win in 19 races.
The 29-year-old, who took his first title with McLaren in 2008, became Britain’s first multiple champion since Jackie Stewart in 1971 and only the country’s fourth.
“Lewis, thank you very much for not letting the British public down,” Britain’s Prince Harry told him over the radio from the pit wall as the chequered flag came down. “You are an absolute legend.”
Hamilton, crying on the podium as the anthem sounded and with his voice cracking in later interviews, performed a slowing down lap with the British flag fluttering from the cockpit and the words ‘Hammer Time’ written on it.
“World champion. Oh my God, I can’t believe it, thanks everyone,” he had shouted over the radio before parking up and embracing his father, pop star girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger and family.
The victory was a record 16th of the season for Mercedes, who had already collected the constructors’ crown, and for the first time the winner took 50 points in an unprecedented and controversial double points finale.
“This has been just an incredible year. I can’t believe how amazing,” said Hamilton.
“This is the greatest moment in my life. It feels very surreal.
“(Winning in) 2008 was special but the feeling I have now is above and beyond. It’s the greatest feeling I’ve ever had. Thanks so much everyone.”
Rosberg finished 14th after starting on pole position and 17 points adrift, the much-vaunted ‘duel in the desert’ becoming a nightmare after dark for the German son of Finland’s 1982 champion Keke.
He had suffered problems from the 25th of 55 laps, then complained about losing brakes as he fell down the order, still hoping against hope that a similar misfortune might befall Hamilton and revive his chances.
When the team asked him to pit and retire with only a handful of laps to go, Rosberg asked to stay out so he could at least end the season on track.
“Sorry it didn’t work out but you drove like a champion,” said Mercedes technical head Paddy Lowe. “We come back next year to have another go.”
Rosberg, who gallantly shook Hamilton’s hand afterwards, did not need to tell anyone that he was disappointed but he said it anyway.
“All in all, Lewis deserved to win the championship. What happened to me had no impact, it did not change anything so there is no point focusing on that,” he said.
“He did just a little bit better than me. The positive is I’ve been the better qualifier over the last two years and that gives me a good base. I came very close and it is a pity it did not work out.”
Brazilian Felipe Massa finished second for Williams in the race, after looking like he could win it, with Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas third.
“Not bad for an old man,” said a delighted Massa after his best result since 2012, when he was at Ferrari.
Behind them, Australian Daniel Ricciardo finished fourth for Red Bull with Hamilton’s former McLaren team mate Jenson Button fifth in what may have been his last race in Formula One.
Force India duo Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez were sixth and seventh while outgoing four-times champion Sebastian Vettel was eighth in his last race for Red Bull before moving to Ferrari.
The man he will replace at the Italian team, double world champion Fernando Alonso, was ninth and ahead of Finnish team mate Kimi Raikkonen.