Saturday, November 15, 2008

Top 10 Drivers - 2008

Behind Clive's list over at F1 Insight, but well ahead of the annual Autocourse list, here is the annual Motor Sports Ramblings top 10 drivers list. It's only a personal view, and I think a case could be made for any of my top 3 drivers as the being the driver of the year. Nonetheless, after much indecision, I have arrived at my list.

10. Rubens Barrichello – You’re in your sixteenth season of Formula 1. You’ve spent six years in a championship winning team, playing second-fiddle to the greatest driver of his generation. Now you find yourself in your third year with Honda, a team which, over the last couple of years, seems to determined to take great leaps backwards. It would be easy for you to become entirely demoralised, to cruise-and-collect on your way to retirement. That, though, is not what Barrichello did.

After two years of being comprehensively outpaced by Jenson Button, Barrichello fought back this year with the outclassed Honda RA108, scoring the lion’s share of the team’s points and more often than not outqualifying the younger Brit. His drive in the wet at Britain brought the team it’s only podium, and while it may have owed much to Ross Brawn’s inspired call on the tyres, it still required a driver to keep it on the road on a day when many others did not. There were times, such as at the Chinese Grand Prix, when Barrichello had the recalcitrant Honda far further up the running order than it had any right to be and, after a couple of seasons when his star appeared to be on the wane, he did much to re-establish his reputation as one of the best drivers in the business this year. In the process, he just might have finished off any chances Jenson Button might ever have had of getting a drive with one of the front-running teams.

9. Jarno Trulli – After 3 years driving alongside an increasingly bored looking Ralf Schumacher, Jarno Trulli could easily have been caught on the hop when he found himself placed alongside a promising young newcomer, GP2 champion Timo Glock. Glock’s performances in the Toyota were impressive, but over the course of the season, it was Trulli who got more out of the car. His standout performance came at Magny Cours, when he out-paced the Mclarens, the BMWs and the Renaults to pick up Toyota’s first podium in over 2 years. Other drivers might have scored unexpected top 3 finishes this year, but Trulli’s was one of the relatively few which were the result of pace rather than luck.

He may continue to have a reputation as a one-lap specialist, but to my mind, that still reflects his phenomenal qualifying abilities, rather than any lack of race pace. If you’re really quick over a single lap, you will find yourself having to keep quicker machinery behind you on race day. So it proved again this year. Only towards the end of the season was the Toyota anything like a front-running car really, yet he more often than not made it through into the top-10 shoot out in qualifying, and outqualified team mate Glock 13-4. He racked up a good number of points too – all important when a team’s FOM money is dependent on its constructors’ championship position. Unless Toyota make a quantum leap forward under the new regulations next year, he’ll probably never be world champion, but there were more than a few flashes of the pace Trulli showed back in 2004 when he gave Alonso an awful lot to think about at Renault before he fell out with the team and his confidence went to pieces.

8. Nick Heidfeld - Ok, so in comparison with his team mate, ‘Quick Nick’ didn’t really live up to his epithet this year, he could be seen as a bit of a disappointment. After all, this was a man who had been de facto team leader last year, but just as Robert Kubica struggled with last year’s oversteery F1.07, so Heidfeld couldn’t extract the most from this year’s car. Only at Spa and Shanghai did he simply look quicker than Kubica.

In light of the press coverage, it would be easy to forget that Heidfeld actually finished the championship with a very impressive haul of 60 points, not many fewer than Kubica and more than Kovalainen was able to score with the more competitive Mclaren. He was on the podium four times (again, more than Kovalainen could manage in the Mclaren) and impressed in the wet at Silverstone on a day when his team mate flew off the road. In Spa he called it absolutely right in coming in for wet tyres 2 laps from the end, against the advice of his team, and while he may not have future world champion written all over him the way his young team mate does, he proved to be a very capable number 2. Last year, I suggested he might make an excellent partner to Hamilton at Mclaren, and what I’ve seen this year leaves me wondering if Mclaren might have picked up the constructors’ championship had they followed my advice.

7. Kimi Raikkonen - It was a disappointing year for the reigning world champion. There can be little doubting that the Ferrari was a potentially title winning car, but for whatever reason, the Finn never really seemed to get on with it. For much of the middle of the season, especially at Hungary, Hockenheim and Valencia, he appeared lacklustre and out of sorts, to the extent that more than a few observers were rather surprised when the Scuderia announced the renewal of his contract.

Raikkonen, though was the victim of more than his fair share of bad fortune this year, not to mention having to contend with a team mate who is almost certainly far better than most of the paddock is willing to give him credit for. He may have struggled to get the best out of the Ferrari over a single lap, but his race pace was, when he was in clear air and got the chance to demonstrate it, frequently very impressive. Hence all those fastest laps. In Sepang, he was outqualified by Massa on a heavier fuel load, but the Brazilian could do nothing about him on race day, and ended up flying off the road in frustration. In Spain he had the measure of Massa, and in Canada, where it seemed Ferrari had no answer for BMW, let alone Mclaren, he was a serious contender for victory before Hamilton ploughed into him in the pits. He dominated the French Grand Prix until a cracked exhaust slowed him, would have won at Spa had it not began to rain just a couple of laps from home, and comprehensively outpaced his team mate at China when the Brazilian was meant to be making his bid for the title. It was a mixed year for the quiet Finn, but that mid-season slump aside, he did a better job than his results might suggest.

6. Mark Webber Another year in which the Aussie’s undoubted talents were wasted in a sub-standard Red Bull. It must be to his immense frustration that Renault fell so far behind in the horsepower war (you know, the one that is supposedly not being fought) that the works team were more often than not outpaced by the old Minardi guys running their car with a Ferrari engine. Webber made the most of what he had, and picked up an awful lot of 6th, 7th and 8th place finishes. David Coulthard, in the other Red Bull, rarely managed to get the car anywhere near the points. Another man with an unfair reputation as a qualifying specialist, it’s simply easier to transcend the limitations of your machinery over a single lap than over a whole race. All the same, how on earth did he get the RB4 on the front row at Silverstone? He’s doubtless still kicking himself for throwing it off the road on the first lap.

It was one of very few mistakes that Webber made all year. His finest drive? His pace in Barcelona was particularly impressive, and staying on the road in horrendous conditions in Monaco ensured his best result of the season but to my mind one of his great, largely unnoticed drives came at Spa. The Renault-engined version of the Red Bull chassis showed little pace, yet Webber nonetheless got himself up to 7th on the grid, and ran well in the early stages only to be punted off the road by Heikki Kovalainen. From there, he kept his head down and finished an unheralded 8th. It was a drive typical of his year – getting the most out of an underperforming car in difficult circumstances and largely unnoticed.

5. Sebastian Vettel – The cheerful German youth became the youngest man ever to win a Grand Prix at Monza in September. He couldn’t have done it in finer style either. OK, so the Red Bull is a very forgiving car in the wet, and the Ferrari engine is exactly what you would want for Monza’s long straights, but even so… a Toro Rosso winning from pole position, never seriously challenged? You’d have got long odds on that before the start of the year, and much of the credit must go to Vettel.

He began the season impressively, breaking through unexpectedly into the top 10 run-off in Melbourne, but thereafter, seemed to fade away for a while, retiring from each of the first four races, getting caught up in silly little incidents. Then, in the conditions you would have thought most likely to induce unforced errors, the torrential rain at Monaco, he put in a fine, consistent drive to finish fifth behind Mark Webber. From there, his season began an upswing that really took off in Valencia, when he and the Red Bull looked really at home on the Spanish dockland circuit. There followed good points finishes in Belgium and Singapore, and of course that fairytale win at Monza. Just to show he really knows what he’s doing in the rain, he rounded off the year by nearly snatching the world title from Hamilton’s grasp with a fine drive to 4th in Brazil. At the start of the year, I wondered whether the wunderkind could live up to the hype. I’m beginning to think he really can.

4. Fernando Alonso – It may have been an on/off year for the Spanish double world champion, but if I were a team boss, I’d still have him at the top of my shopping list, no matter how difficult he might be. He was always quick, the only driver to outqualify his team mate at every race, but at times, especially in the first part of the year, he was rather erratic, losing good points with silly errors in Monaco, Canada and Germany. There were times when he looked like a quick, but overenthusiastic youngster unable to rein in his urge to push a car that wasn’t truly on the pace. Outside the car, in the first part of the season, overenthusiasm was not a problem Renault were faced with. Rumour has it, he skipped team debriefs, unable to summon up the commitment to deal with a car which was far from competitive.

Then Renault turned a corner and the old Fernando Alonso was back. In the last third of the year, Alonso racked up more points than either of the two title challengers, in a car which was far from the fastest in the field. The Singapore win might have owed much to luck, but the same could not be said of his Fuji victory two weeks later. His drive to fourth in a car which team mate Piquet struggled to get into the points was in its own way equally impressive, and he nearly succeeded in his stated ambition of helping Massa beat old rival Hamilton to the title in Brazil with another fine drive in difficult conditions to take 2nd. There were two Fernando Alonsos this year. The one who looked petulant and unpredictable for much of the first half of the year would barely scrape into this top 10, but the one who beat Michael Schumacher to the world title in 2006 in an inferior car, and who made a reappearance towards the end of the year, would be my driver of the year.

3. Felipe Massa - Despite my long-held scepticism about the little Brazilian, I think I might finally have to concede that Felipe Massa really is the real deal. He clearly established himself as Ferrari’s main title contender, ahead of his World Champion team mate Kimi Raikkonen. There were times when he was absolutely inspired – at Hungary, in Turkey, a track he has really made his own, and most notably at his home race in Brazil where he made his final, desperate bid to wrest the World title from Lewis Hamilton. Other good, solid wins came at Valencia and Bahrain, and for all that he was hardly a worthy winner at Spa, he did at least keep his car on the road, when others did not.

Had his Ferrari been more reliable (there were engine failures in Australia and Hungary and pit-stop bungles in Canada and Singapore) he would have won the world title easily. However, he must shoulder his share of the blame for failing to take the title in what was probably the fastest car in the field. Before the engine failure in Melbourne, there had been not one but two spins, and then two weeks later, he spun out of a safe second place in Malaysia and was a no-score. He looked

positively amateurish in the wet at Silverstone, finishing 13th and last and there were other races where he just looked lacklustre. He had no answer for Raikkonen’s pace at Spa, Magny Cours or at the vital race in Shanghai. At Fuji, he pushed Hamilton off the road in a clumsy move that left him with a penalty which cost him a possible podium finish, and the way he practically rolled over and invited Hamilton past in the closing laps of the German Grand Prix left not a few of us wondering if the Brazilian was really world champion material. This was undoubtedly the strongest season from the Brazilian yet, and he is almost unrecognisable as the fast but wildly unpredictable youngster who debuted with Sauber in 2002. All the same, I can’t help but wonder whether his best shot at the driver’s title may now lie in the past.

2. Lewis Hamilton – A controversial thought, but was Lewis Hamilton a slightly less complete driver this year than he was last season? Had he actually taken a bit of a step backward, under the increased pressure of being seen as a title contender from the start. He got things off to a great start at Melbourne, with a dominant win, and he did well to recover some points from a Malaysia weekend when everything seemed to wrong for him. Things took a turn for the worse, though, with a scrappy, error-strewn and ultimately point-less weekend at Bahrain. He fumbled his start, and then compounded his error by running into the back of Alonso.

It wasn’t the only time he would throw away points with silly, basic errors. There was his infamous moment of brain fade when he ran into the back of Kimi Raikkonen in the pitlane in Canada, and his entirely unnecessary banzai approach to the first corner at Fuji. Come to that, his failure to hand back a place he had gained unfairly at the expense of Sebastian Vettel in France almost certainly cost him points too. So why do I place him ahead of Massa in my top 10?

In short, because when he was good, he was truly astounding. His comprehensive domination of the British Grand Prix, winning by over a minute in atrocious conditions that would leave many floundering, was to my mind one of the all time great race drives. Two weeks later, he was again in dominant form in Germany, passing Massa on the road on his way to victory (one of very few overtaking manoeuvres between the title contenders which didn’t take place on the opening lap). In the wet at Monaco and – for a while – at Monza, he again showed a degree of car control which none of his rivals seem able to muster. In the end, he gets the nod from me over Felipe Massa because while Massa was frequently impressive, I always had the impression the Ferrari was ultimately the quicker car this year, and yet in spite of this, and in spite of a couple of very dubious stewarding decisions, Hamilton still just came away with the title.

1. Robert Kubica If one thing is clear, it is that nobody was perfect this year. All the leading drivers made mistakes and had off-days over the course of the season. To my mind, though Poland’s Robert Kubica had fewer than any of his rivals. How else to explain that, in a BMW Sauber that was never any match for Ferrari or Mclaren, and which by the end of the year struggled to stay on terms with Renault or Toyota, he was still in with a mathematical shot at the title after Kimi Raikkonen had fallen by the wayside, with two rounds to go?

He frequently transcended the limits of his car, pitching it onto pole at Bahrain and keeping Kimi Raikkonen honest on the way to a podium finish, and again staying right on the pace of the Ferraris and Mclarens in Spain. The win in Canada might have owed much to luck, but on the other hand, had Lewis Hamilton not been very lucky with his enforced pit-stop early on at Monaco, which just happened to land him on exactly the right strategy for the conditions, Kubica would probably have won round the streets of the Principality. Less noticed, but equally impressive were the occasions on which Kubica dragged a car which was far from truly competitive much further up the order. The Hungarian Grand Prix, where the BMW proved so slow that Nick Heidfeld couldn’t drag it out of Q1, for example. Or Valencia, where again the car looked miles from the pace in the hands of his team mate, but where Kubica got himself amongst the Mclarens and Ferraris while Heidfeld struggled to hold off the Toro Rossos and Renaults.

Kubica’s season wasn’t perfect. He threw away the lead of the World Championship with an (admittedly understandable) mistake in the rain at Silverstone, and he was curiously lacklustre at Spa and at Shanghai, where Heidfeld appeared better able to get to grips with the BMW. To my mind, though, he came much closer to perfection than anyone else this year, and frequently overcame the limitations of a car which was not truly a race winner. If, as everyone expects, Ferrari ditch Massa or Raikkonen at the end of next year, they face an interesting dilemma in choosing between double world champion Alonso and BMW's new Polish star.

The Rest

Of all those who haven’t made the top 10, the most glaring omission, I think is Toyota novice Timo Glock. The German GP2 champion might not have made quite the kind of impact that his forerunner as GP2 Champion did, but after a slightly disappointing start to the season, he came on increasingly strong towards the end. Rarely able to match Trulli in qualifying, he was often as strong come race day, and in Hungary, really wasn’t far behind race winner Kovalainen. He looks to have a strong future in the sport.

Heikki Kovalainen is the only race winner not in my top 10 this year. Again, I think a case can be made for his being in the lower reaches of the top 10, and he certainly had more than his share of bad luck over the course of the year, but the blunt truth is that he finished only seventh in the title race with a car which his team mate was able to take to the title. To be fair, while his Hungarian GP win relied on luck, but for misfortune, he might have won in Turkey and at Fuji. It is also worth remembering that, while he never had the race-pace of Hamilton, he frequently matched Hamilton on fuel-corrected qualifying pace in the first part of the year, which suggests that fundamentally the pace may be there. It will be interesting to see if he can be more of a factor at Mclaren next year.

This year’s Williams was a major disappointment. Nico Rosberg picked up a couple of podiums with it at street circuits, to which it seemed more suited but made too many mistakes this year – notably at Monaco and Canada where he might otherwise have picked up points, and generally failed to transcend the limitations of his car. Sometimes, he struggled even to out-pace rookie team mate Kazuki Nakajima (though to be fair, it is worth pointing to Autosport’s analysis of the difference in outright pace between drivers as measured by fastest lap of the weekend – which put Rosberg further ahead of his team mate than any other driver. Nonetheless, I found him slightly underwhelming this year. Nakajima was not as much of a disappointment as I feared he might have been, and seems to have more pace than his Dad, but did nothing to suggest he will break the mould and become Japan’s first Grand Prix winner.

What of the other men in their first Grand Prix season? Sebastien Bourdais came into F1 with 4 Champ Car titles, and seemed to pick up the lion’s share of Toro Rosso’s bad luck – failing, for instance, to get off the line from the second row in Italy, inexplicably being stripped of his seventh place in Fuji for being run off the road by Felipe Massa and getting losing what would have been a fine fourth place in Spa on the final lap. Contrary to what some have said, he looks to me like he belongs in F1 and deserves another year, though, on the other hand, he doesn’t really look like a future champion.

Nelson Piquet Jr, on the other hand, was a crashing disappointment. In the early part of the season, he was miles from the pace of his team mate, which is perhaps understandable given his team mate was Fernando Alonso. More worryingly for him, though, he made the Renault look like a tail-end car. There were occasional flashes of the kind of talent that enabled him to win the British F3 championship and fight Lewis Hamilton all the way for the GP2 title in 2006, but more often than not he seemed to collapse under the pressure, especially in qualifying, where he seemed unable to access the kind of pace he could sometimes show in free practice. He also went off the road a lot. To be fair though, he kept everything together to pick up a solid second place in Germany when a fortunately timed safety car left him in the pound seats, and even beat Alonso without help from the safety car in France (albeit Alonso was heavily compromised by a fuel strategy seemingly geared around Saturday afternoon glory-hunting.)

Jenson Button must have been frustrated to find himself stuck in a hopelessly uncompetitive Honda for the second year in a row. Perhaps the sheer disappointment goes some way to explaining why, unlike last year, he never seemed able to rise above this, and was generally out-paced by his veteran team mate Barrichello. Honda, for all that they made a complete mess of 2008, might be wondering why they were paying quite so much for their lead driver. His performances were at least generally more impressive than those of David Coulthard whom, I think, stayed around in the sport for a year too long. He never looked like getting on terms with the pace of team mate Mark Webber, and seemed to spend much of the year getting caught up in collisions. By staying out of trouble in Canada, he did however pick up one last podium in a long and generally successful career.

Last, and, to be honest, least, Force India crept close to the pace this year, but still didn’t make the leap required to actually pose any kind of threat to anyone else on the grid. Giancarlo Fisichella, after three years with front-running Renault, somehow maintained enough interest in the job to out-pace Adrian Sutil most of the time, which suggests that the German was rather over-hyped last year. There were odd flashes from both drivers through the year – Giancarlo Fisichella’s 12th place on the grid at Monza and his solid run in the top 5 for a good part of the Brazilian GP (only for the team to fumble a pit stop) and Adrian Sutil’s impressive but ultimately fruitless drive in the wet at Monaco and (much less noticed) his race at Spa which saw him mixing it with the Hondas and Williams for much of the race. In the end, though, the team must be hoping that their deal with Mercedes will see them turn the corner, because they are fast filling the role left vacant by Minardi as perennial tail-enders. A shame for a team which, as Jordan, made a semi-serious bid for the title just ten years back.

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Anonymous Clive said...

Just one minor point: Ross Brawn has said that it was Barrichello's call to change the tyres in the British GP. Makes the Brazilian look even better, doesn't it?

5:27 AM  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Kubica was brilliant, wasn't he? I also find him slightly scary; he's relentless, in a Hitchcockian sort of way.

But what happened to him in 2007? I understand that he couldn't deal with that year's BMW because it had a tendency to oversteer. If he's going to be a really great driver, he needs to be able to adapt his driving style to suit various different types of car.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

One thing I've always liked about Kubica is that he seems to be a genuine fan. He's one of the drivers who always seems to be watching the GP2 in the morning from the pitwall.

I agree, if he's to really establish himself as one of the greats, he's going to have to learn to cope with cars that aren't to his liking - or to learn how to ensure that the team build them to his liking - but this year, I don't think anyone did a better job.

Interestingly, the Autosport message board poll seems to have picked Alonso as driver of the year - I thought that in the middle of the year he was a little disappointing, so I'm surprised - but intriguing nonetheless.

I'm glad I posted this before Mark Hughes' list appeared in Autosport, because it is very similar. Even down to having The only driver on his list and not on mine is Glock, whom I would have included had I been putting together a top 11. The only difference in our top 7 is that he puts Alonso one ahead of Massa.

8:45 AM  

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