Lewis Hamilton seems confused by Nico Rosberg's fine form

By Andrew BensonChief F1 writer
Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton won the title but has lost his earlier dominance

It has, in all honesty, not been the greatest of Formula 1 seasons. Lewis Hamilton wrapped up the title too easily for that; there was too little jeopardy.

As Red Bull team boss Christian Horner put it at the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi: "The action in the paddock has been more exciting than that on the track."

The season ended that way, too, with a weekend full of intrigue, about many aspects of the sport, including the future of the great Fernando Alonso, and of Renault in F1.

Alonso we will come to in a moment. About Renault, there is still uncertainty - although the weekend ended with the prospects of the French car company finally buying the Lotus team seeming more positive than when it started.

Lewis Hamilton
View BBC F1's developing Stars of the Season list

But the final race of the season, uneventful as it generally was, did continue the late-season narrative - namely, just what has caused Hamilton's recent dip in form?

From taking 11 poles and seven wins in the first 12 grands prix, and 10 victories in the first 16, his team-mate Nico Rosberg has finished the season on quite a roll - six consecutive poles and now three wins in a row.

Hamilton seems confused by the turnaround.

Is it the car? Or the driver?

The world champion talked at the penultimate race in Brazil about a change in the car since Singapore in September making him less comfortable with its balance.

Abu Dhabi GP: Hamilton disappointed to finish behind team-mate Rosberg

In Abu Dhabi he went further, saying he had taken off his car a part he had used for the last six races, which he knew made it quicker.

The motivation? "I was thinking it wasn't really working for me. So I tried to work around it and get back to where we were. I was thinking I would try something different but it didn't work." He added: "It was about exploring this weekend."

But Mercedes insiders say the only change to Hamilton's car was a small tweak to the front suspension. A part that tunes the balance but that, according to the data, should have a negligible effect on performance.

For now, Mercedes have no answers, at least not that they are admitting to.

Team boss Toto Wolff said: "There has been so much discussion about 'has Nico stepped up his game, or has the car come towards him development-wise, or has Lewis just taken it more easily unconsciously, for sure not consciously'.

"I think we have to do an intelligent list over the next couple of weeks and try to analyse it.

"We have to find out. For Lewis, the world championship title mattered, but those last couple of races really mattered for Nico."

Perhaps in that last line the real answer lies - that Rosberg, stung by Hamilton winning the title so early, and the manner it happened, after the German threw away a win with an inexplicable mistake at the US Grand Prix, increased his efforts at the same time as the new world champion relaxed.

The highs and lows of the 2015 F1 season

After a winter re-set, the suspicion has to be that Hamilton will turn up in Australia and normal service will be resumed.

But after this end to the season, who can be sure? The start of the 2016 season is much more enticing a prospect because of the way the 2015 one ended.

What's going on with Alonso?

Alonso has endured a season of pretty extreme lows, but Abu Dhabi was about as close to a nadir as he could have got.

Events on track were bad enough - a puncture on his McLaren in qualifying left him back in 16th on the grid on what was one of the team's most competitive races of a difficult year; he was penalised for a collision at the start that damaged his front wing and required an early pit stop; which left him facing a dispiriting race way adrift at the back of the field.

Ron Dennis and Fernando Alonso
McLaren boss Ron Dennis (left) and Alonso had discussed a sabbatical earlier this year

Much worse, though, as the curtain came down on a year the two-time champion will want to forget as quickly as possibly, was that the chairman of his McLaren team, Ron Dennis, put Alonso at the centre of a media storm that left the Spaniard bewildered.

Holding a news conference on Saturday, Dennis was asked whether, in the context of the frustrations Alonso has occasionally expressed this season, there was any possibility he might not race next season if McLaren's engine partner Honda failed to improve their engine as much as was hoped.

Dennis replied that he had "an open mind to anything. Some of the ideas have involved those sorts of considerations, sabbatical years, etc,".

The remarks caused a furore. How could they do anything else? After all, what Dennis had said was that the man many regard as the best driver in the world, one of the icons of the sport, might not be taking part next year.

Fernando Alonso
Alonso finished the season with 11 points, his lowest total since his first season in Formula 1

How did Alonso react?

The conference took place shortly before qualifying. Alonso, interviewed a few minutes later following his early exit, expressed his surprise at the comments and wondered aloud what was Dennis's motivation in saying them.

But at McLaren's official news conference later that evening, Alonso eventually admitted that the "crazy idea" had been discussed, albeit some months ago, and would not completely rule it out. Although he added that it was his "intention" to race, and re-emphasised his confidence in the progress the team would make for 2016.

By Sunday, the position had shifted. I bumped into Alonso in the paddock not long before the race, and briefly discussed the situation with him. "I won't do it," he said of a sabbatical. In his television interviews later on, he added: "I will be racing, that is 100%. It's very clear."

Dennis attempts damage limitation

Fernando Alonso
Alonso posted on his Instagram account: "Thanks for the support that has been more important than any other year, and the team for their consistent work and harmony"

Within McLaren, there was exasperation at Dennis's intervention. What had he been thinking of? It would have been perfectly easy to dismiss the question with a much less inflammatory response.

Dennis, meanwhile, was trying to re-write history.

"The truth is," he told BBC F1 pit-lane reporter Tom Clarkson before the race, "that a journalist asked a question and said could it be possible? And I said it could be possible - drivers have taken sabbatical years in the past; it is more than possible.

"But the simple fact is I finished the statement saying: 'But Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso are our drivers for next year.' He forgot that part and chose to spin the story. And not two minutes after Fernando is confirming to the world he is driving next year. There is no question Fernando and Jenson are the drivers for next year. End of story."

Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso on the podium
Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button joked around on the Brazilian GP podium during qualifying

It seems as if Dennis may have tried this line on Alonso. The Spaniard said to me that "some of the questions yesterday didn't reflect what Ron said in his answer. Not yours, maybe, but some of your colleagues'."

But Dennis was mistaken in his recollection of what he had said. He did not mention other drivers who had taken sabbaticals - the obvious example being Alain Prost, who sat out 1992 after being sacked by Ferrari and came back to win the title in 1993. And nor was he unequivocal in his remarks about McLaren's 2016 line-up.

What prompted the uncertainty about Alonso?

The question that elicited Dennis's original response was predicated on the events of the Japanese Grand Prix, after which Alonso had said he "didn't know" whether he would race next year.

Ron Dennis
Ron Dennis sparked a flurry of stories after appearing to suggest Alonso might take a break next year

Later that evening, Alonso tweeted that "no-one should be in any doubt that I have three years with McLaren and I will finish my career with this team, hopefully winning everything". But he did not specify which three years he was referring to.

Hence the question to Dennis on Saturday.

What Dennis actually said in his answer, in full, was this: "He will definitely finish his career in McLaren. I have an open mind to anything.

"Some of the ideas have involved those sorts of considerations, sabbatical years, etc, but at this moment in time I would say we believe we know where we'll be and we navigated a difficult weekend in respect of our drivers [in Japan].

"I took quite a high level of flak out of that weekend; it was a challenge to navigate through it.

The 2015 BBC Sport F1 awards

"We have a great number of driver options. We have two of the best drivers in the world in our cars. When we have to take the decision, we will take it together and at this moment in time our drivers of next year are Fernando and Jenson Button."

Note the equivocal tone: "a great number of driver options"; "when we have to take a decision"; "at this moment in time".

In his pre-race interview - which seems to have been aimed at controlling the damage - Dennis said Alonso taking a sabbatical was "not an option".

So why bring it up in the first place?

From a personal point of view, this writer hopes both that McLaren and Honda can improve their performance and that, regardless, Alonso does race in 2016. When he does eventually go, F1 will miss desperately his blinding talent, his charisma, his insight and his willingness to speak his mind.

But this one will not go away that easily.

Thanks to Dennis, when Alonso steps out of his McLaren after his first day of pre-season testing in 2016, the first questions he will be asked are now inevitable.

Abu Dhabi GP results


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