Hamilton brings F1 field together for Vettel’s farewell dinner · RaceFans

Formula 1 drivers set the intensity of competition aside on Thursday evening in Abu Dhabi as the entire 20-strong field gathered for a farewell dinner in honour of retiring four-times champion Sebastian Vettel.

The meal, images of which swiftly appeared across their social media accounts, was the first time F1’s drivers had got together in this way since the 2016 Chinese Grand Prix. It came about at the instigation of Vettel’s former championship rival Lewis Hamilton.

“I thought it was really important, so that’s why I asked in Mexico whether they would be open to all doing a dinner to give Seb a farewell,” he explained to media including RaceFans. “We haven’t had a dinner [together] since years ago in China.”

Vettel took the floor at one point to give a speech. “It was the best evening,” said Hamilton. “We were all laughing so much, great stories, Seb is a great leader as well. He made a great speech, just trying to hand down some of his experiences that he’s had over these years particularly to the younger guys for their the future.”

While images of the F1 racing class of 2022 seated at a dinner table were inevitably scrutinised by fans for any signs of loyalties or hostilities, Alexander Albon insisted no-one had set out to avoid sitting next to a particular rival. “Whoever arrives just sits,” he said, “there’s no kind of musical chairs going on.”

He turned up at the same time as Williams team mate Nicholas Latifi who, like Vettel, is making his final grand prix start this weekend. “Nicky and I were first to arrive,” he said. “We were five minutes late and we were the first by 20 minutes, so we got to sit next to each other.”

“Everyone seems to be good friends,” Albon reckons. “There’s not really any big rivalries, apart from a couple.

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“But generally speaking, we all get along really well. I think we see each other more than ever now, just with the amount of races that we’re doing, all the travelling we’re doing, where we tend to be either sharing planes or whatever.

F1 drivers’ dinner ahead of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

“So we get to spend a lot of time with each other. We see each other more than our own families, as I’m sure you [media] guys see each other more the yours. So there’s a good spirit with the whole grid.”

Two years of Covid restrictions made such a social event impossible until recently. Many drivers on the grid had never previously met up with all their rivals at once for a social event and had a chance to speak to drivers they seldom otherwise encounter.

“It was my first time doing such a thing, I think it’s cool,” said Lando Norris. “You kind of grow up in the world of motorsport, you’re not forced to not like each other, but you don’t grow up to like each other. You’re always seeing them as enemies more than anything.

“So for the first time, it’s actually quite a different feeling sitting there actually talking to everyone completely away from from a race track and away from racing. So it’s nice. I spoke to some people I’ve almost never spoken to before.”

The grid met up at Hakkasan restaurant in Abu Dhabi. They were not – as was widely reported elsewhere – the party which racked up a 615,000 Dirham (£140,000) bill that night in Abu Dhabi’s branch of Nusr-Et, the staggeringly expensive steakhouse chain owned by Instagram influencer Salt Bae.

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“A couple left early,” while others stayed late, returning to base in the early hours of the following morning, said Daniel Ricciardo, another driver heading into his final race for the foreseeable future. “Obviously we had a good excuse to do it for Seb as a bit of a farewell for him, but you kind of just forget when we all get in a room away from the competition of this environment it’s just quite nice.

“We all have obviously a lot in common, probably more than we think actually. So it was just cool to enjoy each other’s company and not really talk racing and not talk competition. I felt like we all were just learning a bit more about each other away from the track, so that was nice.”

Fernando Alonso, the grid’s most experience driver, has attended several get-togethers over a career spanning 21 years. Having once gone up against the likes of Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, he now competes against a new generation of rivals.

“It was Jos Verstappen there when I started and now it’s Max,” the Alpine driver observed.

“It’s just different. It was more respect [for the older generation] before, it was less of this younger generation or social media or whatever. Before it was like very strong characters in Formula 1, it was DC, it was Mika, it was Michael. It was very established which one was who.

“Now it’s a little bit more friendly in a different way. I don’t say fake, but all young, all friendly. Before it was different.

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“But I like it more now, I think it is more fun. Everyone is taking pictures, that’s the only thing you need to be careful of because you cannot have a bad moment because it will be all around the world, someone will be filming. But apart from that, I think it was good fun.”

Grand Prix Drivers Association

Hamilton’s team mate George Russell admitted the evening proved “a lot more fun than we probably would have expected. We’ve sort of said we need it more often.”

“There’s only 20 [F1] drivers in the world, there’s only one another that can understand what we all sort of go through,” he explained. “And in a way that’s something quite special that we all share in common and in a way that all brings you a little bit closer. But when the helmet’s on, the helmet’s on.”

The success of the event may make it a regular occurrence, said Hamilton. “Afterwards we were like ‘let’s do it all the time’. Maybe we’ll make this an annual thing here, maybe we’ll have another one in the year perhaps.”

He also sees the value of solidifying the connections between the racers through the Grand Prix Drivers Association, which represents their interests within the championship.

“There’s also a lot that we can do as the GPDA, as a united group,” said Hamilton. “We have, I think, a responsibility, we’ve got a great platform each and every one of us collectively and it’s encouraging.

“Collectively that there’s lots of things that Formula 1 needs to really push forward on action-wise. It says we’re doing a lot of things, sustainability and those things, but really, really making sure we’re pushing through and doing the absolute best and maybe the GPDA can have a role in that.”

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