Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Motorsports Ramblings Top 10 - 2009

It's become something of an annual tradition here at Motorsports Ramblings for me to produce an annual top 10 list of the best drivers in F1 each year, in the same vein as that which appears in Autocourse. As usual, my own list, if rather less definitive, is at least available a month or so ahead of theirs. Argue with my selections if you will...

10. Robert Kubica

It seems to me that the Pole has on-years and off-years, in alternation. In 2006, he arrived in the sport in a blaze of publicity, only to disappoint slightly in the admittedly less competitive 2007 BMW. He was my driver of the year in 2008, keeping himself in the title battle until the penultimate race in a BMW Sauber that by rights had no business fighting with Hamilton and Massa, but was strangely disappointing this year. I still think it possible that he's a talent in the same league as Alonso or Hamilton, but it's becoming harder to argue when he ends up being outpaced by Nick Heidfeld, as was the case much of the time this season.

Nonetheless, he makes my list because there were odd days, usually when the BMW was at its most competitive, when Kubica reminded us all why he's still regarded by some of us as being very special indeed. The BMW might have been reasonably competitive in the last rounds, but it had no business finishing up second in Brazil, and keeping winner Mark Webber's Red Bull under pressure, in spite of being down on revs owing to overheating concerns. Kubica got absolutely everything out of the car in Singapore to pick up but a single point, and only narrowly missed out on a podium in Belgium. With, admittedly, a lot of help from a fortunately timed safety car, he might even have won the opening race, at Melbourne, had he not collided with Vettel in the dying laps. In the end, he did enough to make my top 10, but there were too many days like his final race at Abu Dhabi, where he was anonymous and a poor second best to Nick Heidfeld, to warrant being placed any higher.

9. Nick Heidfeld

He's not one of the sport's more exciting characters. And he's never going to be World Champion, though if he ever gets himself in the right car, he would probably win races. This year, Nick Heidfeld, in his tenth season in Formula 1, and once again finding himself stuck in a very second-rate car, knuckled down and got about as much as anyone could be expected to from the BMW Sauber F1.09. There was a fair bit of luck involved in his second place at Malaysia, but his drives at Suzuka and Abu Dhabi were indicative of a man who got the very most out of the car. And even if Kubica was having a bit of an off-year, anyone who can outqualify the Pole 7 times and score more points must have been doing something right.

8. Mark Webber

It's taken 7 years, but the perennially unlucky Australian finally got himself into a race-winning car. Unfortunately, he also found himself up against the strongest team mate he has ever faced, and was living with the consequences of a broken leg and shoulder sustained in a winter cycling accident. He rarely looked quite as quick as Sebastian Vettel did, but there were occasions when he was very impressive indeed. His first win was one of the standout drives of the year - refusing to let a drive-through penalty get in the way of converting his Nurburgring pole into victory. He held his nerve, too, when Vettel messed up his starting advantage at Turkey.

All the same, it was an ever so slightly disappointing season from Mark. The last race, at Abu Dhabi, summed up his year. A solid, competent performance, in which he did well to defend his second place from Jenson Button in the late stages, but one in which he never seemed to have the electrifying pace of his young wunderkind of a team mate.

7. Rubens Barrichello

He lost it in the first part of the season. Yes, he had more than his fair share of whatever misfortune was headed Brawn's way this year, but the blunt truth is that, until the British Grand Prix, he was simply not on Jenson Button's pace. He actually outqualified the Briton 10-7 over the year, but it was his race pace which seemed to be ever so slightly lacking.

He was beaten by Button at Spain and at the Nurburgring, because he simply couldn't turn in the series of near-qualifying laps that Button could. One wonders whether Barrichello, who is by some distance the oldest driver on the grid now, simply lacks the fitness of some of his younger rivals. He certainly seemed to be struggling physically with the g-forces of the tough, anti-clockwise Interlagos circuit, though whether it affected his pace was harder to judge. On the other hand, there were days when Barrichello was spell-binding. Beating Button at his home turf at Silverstone seemed to mark a turning-point and soon after came his first win in five years at Valencia, where he was pushed to the limit by Hamilton and came out ahead. Then there was Monza, where he held his nerve in a tense battle with his team mate to take what might turn out to be his final race victory, and what was certainly one of his finest.

6. Nico Rosberg

Assessing Nico Rosberg's performance this year was incredibly difficult, for the simple reason that it's just not clear how good the car he had underneath him was. Nonetheless, the statistics show that he scored all 34.5 of Williams' points this year. Exactly how much of an achievement this was rather depends on how quick his team mate Kazuki Nakajima was. Was one Williams being propelled further up the grid than it really belonged by a very gifted driver, or was the other underperforming in the hands of a very average one?

We can't know the answer for sure, but what was apparent was that Rosberg, in marked contrast with last year, appeared to do a very solid, consistent job with a car which, on the face of it, was nowhere near the pace of the front-runners, and in so doing, racked enough points to single-handedly run BMW Sauber very close for 6th in the Constructors title battle. In contrast with his 2008 season, there were few mistakes you could point to so it is a shame that his one glaring faux-pas of the season came at Singapore, when his transgressing the white line on the exit from the pits after his first scheduled stop came on the one weekend when he looked in with an outside shot of victory. Up to then, Rosberg fils was doing a very good job of conjuring up memories of his father, pushing a Williams right to the limit around a tight wall-lined street circuit. Next year, he'll be at Brawn, and we might get a firm picture of exactly how quick he really is.

5. Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen only really seemed to come into his own when Felipe Massa was forced out of action by his Hungarian GP qualifying accident, but he rose admirably to the challenge of becoming the clear team leader at Ferrari, and left me wondering whether the supposedly robotic and unemotional Finn was more affected by the team's affection for Felipe Massa than we might have thought.

His second place at Hungary was the beginning of a run of five consecutive podium finishes, in a car which Ferrari engineers seemed to think didn't really belong there
. Luca Badoer was clearly out of his depth in the other car, but even so, Giancarlo Fisichella, an experienced racer who had taken a podium with Force India in Belgium, wasn't able to get the Ferrari into the points in his five races with the team. Raikkonen's win in Belgium, in a car which was probably not the best in the field, showcased the man's improvisational genius, taking full advantage of his KERS system to grab the lead before Fisichella's Force India could get away, and then using it to stay there.

The end of the year might have been a bit dispiriting by contrast, but another podium in Brazil might well have been on the cards had he not lost time in the pits after Mark Webber chopped across him and took off his front wing on the opening lap. And the Ferrari team didn't appear to expect a fourth place in Japan, where the car never really looked close to the pace. Apparently he won't be with us next year, and his post-race interviews won't be missed, but his driving, at its inspired best, certainly will be.

4. Fernando Alonso

There was just one podium for the Spanish double champion this year. But let's not forget that he was driving a car so uncompetitive that neither of his team mates, Nelson Piquet Jr or Romain Grosjean could get so much as a sniff of a points finish with. That he got the car on pole at Hungary, and into the top-10 shootout in qualifying 11 times, when his team mates never once made the top 10 run off, showed the difference he was making. That Fernando Alonso finished the year with 26 points on the board was testament to his incredible tenacity, and the simple truth that he is one of the two or three best drivers in the sport right now.

Highlights? Well the pole position in Hungary might have owed a little too much to a rather silly fuel strategy, but the drive to 3rd in Singapore - in a car which his team mate couldn't get off the back row of the grid, was remarkable, at one of the few tracks on the F1 calendar which still gives a driver real scope to overcome the limitations of his machinery. And then there was the incredible wheel-to-wheel battle with Lewis Hamilton, for lap after lap, at Silverstone. So it was all over 15th place? That circuit's all about aerodynamic downforce, and on that day, neither the Renault nor the Mclaren had any. But they are racers and boy, did they race...

3. Sebastian Vettel

It's easy to forget, sometimes, that Sebastian Vettel is just 22, and was in only his second full season of Formula 1. He took four wins on his way to second place in the World Championship this year, and generally outpaced Mark Webber - not something that any of the Australian's previous team mates could ever claim. In so doing, he went a long way to living up to the his reputation as one of the very fastest men in the sport. His win in very difficult conditions in China, after only the bare minimum of running on the Saturday, was one of the drives of the season.

The thing is, but for a series of errors - some large and some small, he might have been able to win the title for Red Bull. The crash at Melbourne cost him at least six points, and the accident in Monaco probably another four. Then there was the first lap mistake while leading in Turkey which probably cost him a second place. Add them up, and you get a total of 12 points. And Button won the title by 11.

To be fair, though, Vettel suffered rather more than his rival from mechanical woes. There were engine failures at both Hungary and Valencia, and more points went begging when he got caught out by the freak rain storm at Malaysia. For a man in only his second season, and even taking account the way Lewis Hamilton has rewritten the form-book in terms of what it is reasonable to expect from young F1 stars, it was nonetheless a very impressive performance from the 22 year old man from Heppenheim. If Adrian Newey and Red Bull can maintain the momentum, I wouldn't bet against Vettel coming back even stronger in 2010.

2. Jenson Button

It could be argued that Jenson Button backed into this year's World Title, cruising and collecting. But let's not forget how it was that he got into a position to be able to do so. In the opening races of the season, when the Brawn enjoyed its greatest margin of superiority over the rest of the field, he was utterly imperious. Thereafter, it was largely a matter of keeping his head down, racking up the points and making sure that he didn't get caught up in silly, needless accidents. In contrast with, for example, Sebastian Vettel, it is very hard to point to any instances where Button threw away points through driver error. Yes, he seemed to struggle in qualifying, and sometimes, for example, at Valencia, this had a serious knock-on effect on his eventual race result, but he did his best to make up for this limitation by carving out a reputation as one of the best overtakers in the business.

His drive to the title in Brazil was typical of this. On his way from 15th to 5th, he dispatched with Nakajima, Grosjean, Buemi and Kobayashi in memorable style, giving the lie to the notion that F1 is entirely impossible. Back at the beginning of the season, too, his first lap moves on Vettel and Hamilton proved crucial in ensuring he eventually finished up winning, ahead of the German. In the end, he misses out on the top spot only because I can't help thinking he made much heavier work than necessary of sewing up the title, after opening up a huge lead in the championship early on. Next year, he faces an even bigger challenge, when he will go up against Lewis Hamilton in equal equipment.

1. Lewis Hamilton

So he only won two races... But frankly, this year's Mclaren was not a race winning car. Team mate Heikki Kovalainen never managed to get it near the podium. Somebody seemed to forget to tell Hamilton though. He picked up two victories, there would almost certainly have been a third had his brakes not failed in Abu Dhabi, and wound up fifth in the World Championship. It looked so unlikely early on in the season, when the Mclaren was the thick end of 2 seconds off the pace.

Yes, his year was not without mistakes. There was the qualifying accident in Monaco that put paid to any chance of his upsetting the formbook on the street circuit he made his own last year, and then there was the last lap crash at Monza whilst making a final effort to overhaul Jenson Button for second place. But this year's Mclaren was a car he had to push right to the limit, and occasionally beyond, if he was going to get a result out of it. Had he been in the running for the world title, and at the wheel of a dominant car, these would have been silly errors, but in the circumstances, they were indicative of a fierce competitive nature that refused to accept meekly the way the cards had fallen for him this year.

He matured too, as a man capable of providing focus and technical direction to a team floundering with a troublesome car. Where some drivers might have let their heads go down or lost interest, Hamilton never appeared to give less than his all. The only real blot on his copybook occurred outside the car. His drive to 3rd place in Melbourne was supremely impressive in a car that had no business being there, but his outright lies to the stewards about whether he had deliberately slowed to let Jarno Trulli past were not befitting of a World Champion, and his attempts to shift the blame onto the team afterwards were without excuse. If the team had instructed him to lie, he was, quite simply, still under a duty to be honest with the stewards. Still, I can't help thinking Britain's newest World Champion could be in for a hell of a tough time next year...

The rest...

First things first. Felipe Massa belongs on this list. Or he would do if I hadn't taken the difficult decision to exclude him in order to make things easier, given that he missed the last 7 of the year's 17 Grands Prix
. Until his season-ending accident in Hungary, he had usually been the quicker man at Ferrari and his podium at the Nurburgring, immediately before Hungary, suggests that he might have led the Scuderia's late-season revival of their fortunes.

An argument could be made for inclusion of either of the Toyota drivers in this year's top 10. Jarno Trulli continued his career-long habit of blowing hot and cold. He was on the podium three times during the course of the year, and his drive to second, beating Hamilton, at Suzuka, was as good a drive as anyone managed this year. But then, there were the days like his anonymous run to 12th in Singapore, where his team mate Timo Glock took second. Glock looked steady, and didn't deserve to be pushed aside for the final two races (I never entirely believed the claims that he was unfit to race following his Suzuka practice accident) but appears to be a solid number 2 in the Kovalainen mould, rather than a future star.

Sebastien Buemi acquitted himself reasonably well at Toro Rosso, and finished off Sebastien Bourdais' career in the process, but there was no single stand-out moment that suggested the first Swiss driver since Gregor Foitek is a future star. He does, however, deserve credit for picking up points at a truly treacherous Chinese Grand Prix in only his third race, on a day when many more experienced hands fell off the road. Jaime Alguersuari perhaps did as much as could be expected from an inexperienced teenager thrown in at the deep end mid-season, but I see nothing to indicate he's anything special, and the team might have picked up more points by sticking with Bourdais.

He certainly did better than Romain Grosjean managed at Renault. The Franco-Swiss racer had built up a reputation for being fast but erratic in F3 and GP2. In F1, he merely looked erratic. He simply made too many mistakes. He might be better than he was made to look alongside Alonso, but I doubt he'll get another chance. An unforgiving world, F1... Nelson Piquet Jr. did nothing to suggest he deserved the second chance he got at Renault and his decision to spill the beans about Crashgate following his sacking after Hungary smacked more of vengeance than whistle-blowing.

Giancarlo Fisichella had a final flourish with Force India at the Belgian Grand Prix - we'll pass over the fact, for now, that a driver with greater racecraft might have kept Raikkonen back after the restart, and brought the former Jordan team its first win under Vijay Mallya, but ended his career on a low when he went to Maranello to substitute for Felipe Massa. The less said about Luca Badoer the better. He got the chance of a life-time, too late in the day perhaps, and succeeded only in going from might-have-been to never-was. Fisichella's erstwhile team mate at Force India, Adrian Sutil, was hard to assess. There were times, such as in the wet in China, when he got the car far further up the field than it had any business being, but all too often he got caught up in silly little accidents. And if he was really quick, why was it that he was so comprehensively outpaced by team mate Fisichella at Spa?

Of the late-season substitutions, Vitantonio Liuzzi fared better than most. He was generally just about shaded by Sutil, but might have scored a podium had his gearbox not broken at Monza. At Singapore he looked out of his depth, but elsewhere, he was pretty respectable, and deserves a proper go, with a bit of winter testing to get him up to speed, next year. Kamui Kobayashi, who, after winning the GP2 Asia series last winter, went nowhere fast in the summer series and looked set for the scrapheap, was mighty impressive when he was given a couple of races in a Toyota. In Brazil, he did a good job of trying to sabotage Button's title hopes, by keeping the Briton behind him for lap after lap, and in the final race, he went one better by passing him on-track during the pit-stops on his way to 6th. It would be a shame if, with Toyota's withdrawal, he has to go back to making sushi in his father's restaurant...

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