MEXICO CITY (AP) Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel hugged in a gesture of mutual respect between two drivers with nine Formula One championships between them.
Then Hamilton talked about winning the 2018 season title, his place in history and the tough fight with Vettel to earn a fifth career championship that tied him with Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio for second-most in F1 history.
“This is a precious moment for me,” Hamilton said after securing the title Sunday at the Mexican Grand Prix.
Vettel cradled his head in his hands and wiped his brow, bracing for hard questions about how a title chase he once led had once again slipped away. The defeat may have been expected, but it was still painful.
“It’s a horrible moment,” said Vettel, a four-time champion who has finished second two years in a row and three times in his career.
“You put in a lot of work … you hang in there as long as you can. I’ve had three times now in my life that sort of disappointment,” Vettel said
Hamilton came into the race with a lead so big that Vettel had to win and Hamilton had to finish lower than seventh just to push the championship to the next race in Brazil.
Vettel made a fight of it, finishing second to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Hamilton finished fourth, sparking a championship celebration in the high altitude of Mexico City for the second consecutive year.
The 2018 season has been defined by the battle between Hamilton and Vettel and their Mercedes and Ferrari teams.
In a year Hamilton admits he often hasn’t had the strongest car, he ranks his fifth career championship among his best and hardest. Their teams are still battling for the constructor’s championship.
“We have not had the fastest car in the majority of races, but we won races,” Hamilton said. “I’ve had some of the best races of my career.”
Vettel stormed into 2018 by winning in Australia and Bahrain to put the pressure on Hamilton, who didn’t win until the fourth race. Vettel’s season came undone with a series of driver and team mistakes. None was bigger than Vettel crashing out of the lead in a rainy German Grand Prix to let Hamilton win.
That Ferrari calamity started a streak of six wins in seven races for Hamilton, who hit his usual second-half stride. Vettel hasn’t won since the Belgian Grand Prix in August.
“I can’t be too hard on myself what I did in Germany. It was the most costly one, but it’s part of racing,” Vettel said. “We just didn’t have the pace to keep up with Mercedes for a couple of races.”
But a Ferrari resurgence of late only worsens the frustration of a championship lost.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen won the U.S. Grand Prix. Vettel might have won if not for a three-spot starting grid penalty for driving too fast under a red flag in practice.
And Mercedes has seemed to slip back the last two weeks. Hamilton was third in Texas and struggled with his car all weekend in Mexico City. A strong start Sunday was followed by a clunky race just to ensure a fourth for the championship.
After the finish, Vettel got out of his car and approached Hamilton to congratulate him.
“He drove superb all year. He was the better one of us two,” Vettel said. “Five (championships) is something incredible. I asked him to keep pushing for next year. I need him to be at his best to fight him again.”
Ferrari hasn’t won the driver’s championship since 2007. Vettel won all his championships with Red Bull from 2010-2013. He signed with Ferrari in 2015 with the goal of bringing the championship back to F1’s most famous team.
Hamilton gave a nod of respect to his title fight with Vettel.
“He fought so hard this year,” Hamilton said. “The pressure that he would be under … that’s a lot to ride on one’s shoulders.”
Follow Jim Vertuno at https://twitter.com/jimvertuno