Hamilton didn’t need so much as a podium at the Mexican Grand Prix to claim his fourth drivers championship, but even this relatively modest goal seemed unachievable after the first lap.
The Briton aced his start, joining Ferrari title rival Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen in a three-way fight into the first turn, but by the time they reached turn three both Hamilton and Vettel were limping back to the pits with damage while Verstappen streaked into the distance.
Hamilton lay last with diffuser damage. Vettel, one place ahead, sniffed an opportunity, even if the scent was only faint. Like a hot knife through butter he scythed through the field, knowing only second place could prolong the title fight another round. By lap 30 he had breached the top 10, leaving Hamilton to be lapped by runaway leader Max Verstappen.
Then another lifeline: on lap 31 Brendon Hartley parked his Toro Rosso by the side of the track, his engine billowing dirty smoke. Race control triggered a virtual safety car, and both Vettel and Hamilton dived into the pits for fresh tyres.
Emerging eighth and with 39 laps to go, Vettel set fastest lap after fastest lap as he bore down on Valtteri Bottas in second place. After 15 laps he was up to fourth behind only Bottas and his Ferrari teammate, Kimi Räikkönen.
But Hamilton too was moving at renewed pace, and the Briton knew ninth place would be enough to cover Vettel finishing runner-up. By lap 56 he was duelling old rival Fernando Alonso for the vital position, and though the Spaniard was unyielding for 10 laps, on lap 69 Lewis forced the issue and captured his two precious points.
In the end it was more than enough — Vettel could go no further than fourth, the gap to Räikkönen and Bottas too big to recover.
“Mamma mia,” he said exasperatedly on team radio. “It’s a little bit too much.”
Hamilton and Mercedes had bested Vettel and Ferrari. Lewis was a four-time world champion.
“Obviously that’s not the kind of race that I want,” Hamilton said. “But I never gave up, and I guess that’s what really important.
“I was like ‘I’m not going to give up … I’m still going to give it everything so that when I cross the line I can be proud of myself’. And I definitely am.
“A big thank you to my family, my team — Mercedes has been incredible for the last five years and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”
Vettel, having come painfully close to achieving Ferrari’s first drivers title in a decade, was cut a sorely dejected figure in the paddock.
“It’s disappointing obviously,” he said. “But it’s not that important. What we have done today is more important — what Lewis has done is a superb job all year around, and he deserves to win the title.
“Congratulations to him. It’s not about anyone else today; it’s about him. It’s his day.”
Ferrari will take will take solace in that the 2017 season was more competitive than the premature ends of both championships suggest. Had it not been for a combination of critical driver error on Vettel’s part and catastrophic mechanical failures in the space of three weekends in Asia, the Italian team would be eyeing the season final in Abu Dhabi.
Now the team will be forced to rebuild for a 2018 season likely to be only more competitive than this first year back in contention, and it will do so with the spectre of lost opportunity hanging heavy over Maranello.
“Overall they’re just the better bunch,” Vettel admitted.
No further summary is necessary.