Hamilton had dominated the season finale at Yas Marina and appeared on course to win the world championship until a late Safety Car period turned the race on its head and helped Max Verstappen clinch his maiden world title on the last lap.
After FIA race director Michael Masi implemented the rules incorrectly to restart the race, Hamilton, on old rubber, was left exposed to Verstappen, who had pitted under the Safety Car and overtook his rival on the last lap.
Speaking to media including Crash.net ahead of McLaren’s launch of its 2022 car, Ricciardo revealed he felt sorry for Hamilton after getting a front-row seat of the late drama.
“All I knew at the time is that Lewis had a relatively big lead,” said Ricciardo.
“It looked like it was going to be wrapped up and then with one lap to go there was a restart and I knew that Max had pitted for fresher tyres and I don’t think Lewis could have pitted, so I was just like ‘wow’.
“At that time, I really just felt for Lewis. He was laps away [from winning the title] and then through this he couldn’t pit and then he was a bit of a sitting duck with one lap to go.
“It’s not often you put yourself in another driver’s shoes but for whatever reason I was putting myself in his shoes that night, probably because I was seeing it all unfold in front of me. I was like ‘I would not like to feel that, that’s some real heartbreak’.”
Hamilton’s F1 future remains uncertain, however, the seven-time world champion is scheduled to attend the launch of Mercedes’ W13 challenger next Friday.
Asked if he would feel sympathy for Hamilton if he decided not to race this season, Ricciardo joked: “In a way no, because he’s got seven world titles,” before adding: “It’s obviously not the way you would like to see the greatest of all time go.
“But you also understand that affected him differently to what any of us could imagine. So it’s a bit like ‘who are we to judge his actions post the last race’. Obviously he went quiet for a while and he obviously just felt like he needed to escape and get away from it.
“But as a competitor and a fan of the sport I do want to see him back on the grid and I want to see him compete again if his heart desires. I wouldn’t like to see him leave based on an emotional reaction as opposed to what he feels in his heart.
“All lines are pointing to him starting the season with Mercedes and I hope that’s the case.”
Ricciardo also offered support for the under-fire Masi, who he backed to continue in his role this year.
“I don’t like speaking on behalf of people but ultimately if Michael wants to stay then he should stay,” he said. “I don’t think one event should be the picture of everything.”
And the Australian is confident F1 will not lose fans over the way the 2021 world championship ended.
“I went home for Christmas and inevitably friends and family were like ‘wow that last race, what did you think?’ It was certainly mixed,” he explained.
“For sure, I would say a little bit more were like ‘not sure how I felt about that’ but then others were like ‘that was pretty exciting, last lap the title gets decided’.
“Look, I had the front row seat. For some reason I was right behind them, I was like ‘is this really happening? This is nuts’. I watched on TV in 2008 with [Felipe] Massa and Lewis and I was like ‘that will never happen again’ – and obviously it did.
“It was a moment in time for sure and not everyone is going to appreciate that moment in time. But I think lovers of the sport are still going to be lovers of the sport and probably be curious to see what happens in 2022.”