ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — British driver Lewis Hamilton clinched his second Formula One title in style after winning the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday, with title rival Nico Rosberg drifting out of contention after failing to recover from a poor start.
Hamilton, the 2008 F1 champion, entered the race with a 17-point lead over his Mercedes rival Rosberg, needing only a top-two finish to guarantee the title.
“Woooooo-hoooooo, world champion I can’t believe it! Thank you so much guys,” Hamilton screamed over race radio, before grabbing a Union Jack flag and waving it above his car as his mechanics celebrated wildly.
“It’s hard to soak all of this up. So much pressure,” the 29-year-old Hamilton said. “I didn’t sleep last night. I went for a run and had a massage, I thought I would be tired, but somehow I felt composed for the race.
“This has been an incredible year. It feels very surreal, like an out-of-body experience, like it’s not really happening.”
He kept his helmet on for several minutes, appearing to wipe away tears, as the emotion of his hard-fought championship win started to sink in.
Standing watching in the Mercedes garage, Britain’s Prince Harry told him he was a “legend” and Hamilton was visibly emotional as the national anthem blared out.
“I’m lost for words. One thing I want to say is a big huge ‘Thank You’ to all the fans, to my family. I love you guys,” Hamilton said. “This is the greatest day of my life — 2008 was a special day but this is way, way beyond that.”
Rosberg started from pole position and, with double points on offer, could have taken his first F1 title with a win providing Hamilton finished third or lower.
That dream scenario lasted three seconds — the time it took Hamilton to overtake Rosberg, whose race turned into a nightmare. He eventually finished 14th.
Brazilian driver Felipe Massa crossed the line in second place ahead of his Williams teammate Valtteri Bottas, while Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo drove superbly to finish fourth despite starting from the back of the grid.
Overall, Hamilton scored 384 points, with Rosberg notching 317 and Ricciardo third with 238.
Although it was a one-sided race, the season was a welcome drivers’ contest after Sebastian Vettel beat Fernando Alonso by 155 points last year. Mercedes, however, crushed the competition out of sight, winning 16 of 19 races and securing 18 poles.
“Nico put up an incredible fight throughout the year. We said way back in 1997 that it would be amazing if we were fighting for the title one day,” Hamilton said. “He just came into the room just now, he was very professional. He said ‘Fantastic, you drove really well.’”
As a dejected Rosberg climbed out of his car, Hamilton rushed over to hug his girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger, who was in tears as she gave him a kiss, and Hamilton then jumped up and down with his Mercedes mechanics in a group hug.
Hamilton joins British drivers Graham Hill and Jim Clark with two F1 titles, with only Jackie Stewart ahead of him on three.
He won 11 races to Rosberg’s five overall this season. Tellingly, the German driver failed to make the most of pole, having bettered Hamilton 11-7 in qualifying.
His other title was also decided on the last day, when he did just enough to beat Massa by one point at the season-ending Brazilian GP.
That never looked like being repeated in Abu Dhabi, despite Rosberg’s brash pre-race talk of pressuring Hamilton into making mistakes.
In the final moments before the start, Rosberg stared blankly ahead in intense concentration mode, while Hamilton’s helmet visor was already down.
Rosberg seemed rooted to the spot, while Hamilton showed phenomenal acceleration.
“It was a good start, like a rocket. It was probably the best start I’ve ever had,” Hamilton said.
This put the onus on Rosberg — his childhood friend and teenage go-karting rival — to match his pre-race fighting talk with some aggressive driving.
It never happened.
As Rosberg’s race went from bad to worse, he snapped at his team engineers over race radio to “investigate why” he was losing so much speed.
Hopes fading, Rosberg started to panic and clutched at straws.
“How am I looking for that position I need in case Lewis drops out?” he asked a race engineer.
“It’s not good at the moment,” came the reply.
The 5.554-kilometer (3.44-mile) Yas Marina circuit is built on a man-made island, and the race has a unique feel, beginning at dusk and ending under floodlights.
With darkness falling, Russian driver Daniil Kvyat veered off track and Pastor Maldonado walked away unharmed as the back of his Lotus car caught fire.