Monday, November 22, 2010

The Motorsports Ramblings Top 10 - 2010

A more difficult year in which to make this assessment than many, I think. It may be less authoritative than the Autocourse list, but on the other hand, I'm getting my top ten in first. Feel free to argue...

1.Sebastian Vettel

Last year, Sebastian Vettel might have been a title contender, but errors, both his own and those of his team, meant that he was never really a serious threat to Jenson Button and Brawn. This year was not free of mistakes either: Running into the back of Button at Spa, and into the side of Webber at Istanbul; Falling asleep behind the safety car at Hungary and picking up a penalty which cost him a near certain victory. That, though, was not enough to stop Vettel from claiming the title. Even those mistakes aside, his was not a perfect year. After starting the season with a bang, (but for engine and wheel-bearing woes, he would have won all three of the opening Grands Prix) he appeared to go off the boil in the following races. At Spain and at Monaco, team mate Webber appeared to have established the upper hand. This was followed by their clash at Istanbul. With most impartial observers placing the lion's share of the blame in Vettel's quarter, and with Webber recovering to finish 3rd, this might have marked the end of Vettel's championship challenge.

Instead, however, it marked something of a positive turning point for Vettel. He chalked up his second win of the season at Valencia and in the following races at Silverstone, Hockenheim and Hungary, he appeared the quicker of the two Red Bull drivers – though misfortune and unforced errors meant that Webber won two of the three races and appeared to be heading out of Vettel's reach in the points table.

It was his drives at the end of the year which secured him the title, though. After clattering into Button at Spa, he really got his stuff together. But for an engine failure while leading in South Korea, he would have won all of the last four races that season, and established at last a clear upper hand over Mark Webber. When the team didn't order him aside for Webber in Interlagos, despite the latter's apparently much stronger position in the title fight, it seemed at the time that Red Bull were about to sacrifice the driver's title to keep their long-term number one driver on side. As it turned out, Vettel repaid their faith in spades. Where Webber crumpled under the pressure, and Ferrari were panicked into a poor pit call in Abu Dhabi, Vettel finally took the head of the driver's points table at the only point where it really mattered. A worthy addition to the pantheon of champions.

2. Fernando Alonso

Was the Ferrari F10 really a title contending car? There were times, most notably at Silverstone and at Istanbul, fast courses which put a premium on aerodynamic efficiency as the fifth gear corners require as much downforce as can be mustered, when the car looked a very long way from contention indeed. No match for Mercedes or even Renault, never mind Mclaren or Red Bull.

Whenever the Ferrari was anywhere close to being in contention though, Alonso got the most out of it. Five wins was about as much as anyone could ask from a driver in the F10 this year. At least when he was up against Red Bull's RB6. The Singapore victory, in particular, stood out on a weekend when the Red Bull was surely the quickest car on the circuit. At Monza, he was calm and error-free, not allowing himself to get spooked when Jenson Button got ahead at the start, and in tricky conditions at South Korea, he was in the pound seats when the Red Bulls ran into trouble. Remember, Felipe Massa didn't pick up a single victory all year (although one might argue that the German Grand Prix was by rights his).

That said, he does to some extent have only himself to blame for not claiming the title this year. The penalty for the uncharacteristic jump-start at Shanghai, writing off his car in a practice shunt in Monaco that forced him to start from the back, and crashing out of the Belgian Grand Prix all cost him points, although it must be said that his recovery drive to 6th from the back row at Monaco was as good a drive as any put in by the frontrunners.

In Alonso, Ferrari have perhaps found their new Schumacher. A man whom the team can unite around in a way that they were never able to do around Raikkonen. If this is unlikely to result in a period of dominance for Alonso and Ferrari in the manner that Schumacher managed in the early part of the last decade, that is, I would argue, more of a reflection on the sheer quality of the opposition than anything else.

3. Lewis Hamilton

There were times when the man who had until a fortnight ago been the sport's youngest ever champion, and who is still only 25, seemed able to conjure a magic which saw him drag a far from perfect Mclaren far further up the field than it really had any business being. Did a Mclaren, which Button could only qualify 14th, really have any business finishing up second in the British Grand Prix? And what about Hungary? Unlike recent cars from the Woking team, the MP4/25 never looked happy in the slow, twisty stuff, and yet Hamilton dragged the car up into fourth and, in the light of Vettel's penalty, might have got it on the podium had his gearbox not packed up.

His win at Istanbul might have owed much to luck - and specifically the Red Bull drivers' self-destruction, but his other two victories - at a Canadian Grand Prix where the new surface kept destroying the tyres, and at a wet Spa, making up for the travesty of the 'stolen' win of 2008, were classic Hamilton. Taking a car which was not the fastest on the day by the scruff of the neck, and keeping ahead through sheer force of will.

Unfortunately, there were classic Hamilton errors as well. He over-drove at Shanghai in the wet, and might have won had he been a touch calmer. That, though, was understandable. Spearing into the side of Felipe Massa on the opening lap at Monza was just silly, and might well have cost him a realistic chance at the title. Likewise, his move on Webber at Singapore was foolhardy. Arguably, had he left the Aussie a touch more space, he not only would have avoided a race-ending collision, but would have comfortably sailed past to boot. If the accidents at Monza and Singapore were his own fault, like all the other title contenders, he could point to instances of sheer bad fortune. The timing of his qualifying run at Sepang that left him stuck 20th on the grid. The gearbox failure in Hungary, and the exploding tyre that took him out of an impressive second in the Spanish Grand Prix.

There's a reasonable argument that Hamilton had to drive at ten tenths, to take every 50/50 chance that came his way, because his Mclaren was no match for the Red Bulls, or even, in the latter part of the season, for the Ferraris. And that being so, one fears for his rivals if Woking turn out a car the equal of their 2007 or 2008 chassis next year.

4. Robert Kubica

How good a job did Robert Kubica do for Renault this year? With rookie Vitaly Petrov, an unknown quantity, in the other car, it was hard to know for sure. In the hands of Petrov, at no time did the car ever appear the equal to those of Red Bull, Mclaren, Ferrari or even Mercedes.

On occasion, though, it was a real front-runner in Kubica's hands. No other driver had quite such a margin over his team mate. Comparing each driver's fastest lap of the weekend, Kubica was nearly a second a lap faster than his team mate over the season as a whole, and outqualified him 17-2. That, on its own, might be no more than would be expected of a man rated as a potential future champion, paired up with a rookie of uncertain provenance. Scoring three podiums with only the fifth quickest car in the field, in an intensely competitive season, however, confirmed to many of us after the blip at BMW last year, that Kubica really is something special. Is there another driver who could have got the Renault on the front row at Monaco? Perhaps, but if there is, I would hazard that said driver's name is Hamilton or Alonso, and that's compliment enough. And then there was that stunning performance in qualifying at Suzuka. Had he not lost a wheel on the opening laps, he might have caused Webber a lot of grief that afternoon. Podiums in mixed conditions at Spa and at Albert Park showed that, while the Renault might not have been competitive enough to enable him to mix it with the front-runners in normal conditions, he was ideally placed to take advantage when the weather threw a curve-ball. Time will tell, but if Renault, or Lotus, or whatever the team end up being called next year, continue their progress, Kubica could be ideally placed to 'do an Alonso' and lead the former Toleman team right back into contention.

5. Mark Webber

Has he blown the best shot at the title that he is ever likely to get? Webber, through his career, had been famous for his bad luck and seemed for a time to be following in the footsteps of fellow Antipodean Chris Amon. This year, though, fortune smiled on him. Unlike all his other title rivals, he suffered no race-ending mechanical failures, and in the Red Bull RB6, he had a car that would pass muster in the company of the Mclaren MP4/4, the Ferrari F2002 and the Williams FW14. One of the all time great racing cars.

But with fortune smiling on him for once, he didn't quite deliver. He had a scrappy start to the year, finishing an anonymous 8th in Bahrain and persistently spiking his own guns at his home race in Australia, finishing 9th after clobbering the back of Hamilton's Mclaren in the course of a scrappy, error-strewn performance. He began the fight-back with pole at Sepang, but left the door open for his team mate in a manner I expect he rued for the rest of the season.

His purple patch began in Spain, with a lights to flag victory which left Vettel wondering where he had disappeared to. He repeated the performance a fortnight later at Monaco, with a drive that was as good as any that Vettel managed all season, mastering the ultimate driver's circuit. Then came Turkey and the collision with Vettel that cost him a possible victory. To my mind, the blame for that accident must rest primarily with Vettel, but the team appeared to see things differently and that apparent vote of no confidence from his team seemed to unsettle him. The situation only worsened with the 'front wing' controversy at Silverstone when the team removed the upgraded front wing from his car and gave it to his team mate, leaving him wondering where priorities lay at Red Bull. He responded with an impressive victory that weekend but thereafter, he was rarely quite on the pace of his team mate. A Schumacher-esque drive secured victory at Hungary, but had Vettel not been penalised for failing to keep up with him under the safety car, he would have been only second. The last time he really got the upper hand on Vettel came at Spa, though on that day, he was beaten by Hamilton.

In the closing races at Singapore, Korea, Japan, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, Vettel established a decisive upper hand in terms of pace, but even that might not have been enough to secure him the title had Webber not dropped a wheel onto a damp kerb in South Korea and thrown away a certain second place. It was a mistake that may haunt him for the rest of his days. He's always seemed one of the more grounded members of the paddock, though, and watching footage of his accident at Valencia earlier in the year, he may simply be grateful to be alive and in one piece.

6. Jenson Button

I have to confess, I feared that, by leaving Brawn for Lewis Hamilton's Mclaren, Button was heading straight into the lion's den and that the 2008 champion, who had matched no lesser a man than Alonso in his first year in the sport, and who had all but killed Heikki Kovalainen's career stone dead, would make light work of Button. As it turned out, Button racked up two impressive wins in the rain at the beginning of the year before the more feted Hamilton had even got off the starting block. In both cases, his ability to perform on slick tyres on a still damp circuit helped him to victory though at Shanghai, especially, I was taken aback to see he simply appeared faster than Hamilton in the wet. Thereafter, he was never quite so quick again, and did not win another race.

Unlike his main title rivals, its hard to point to a single significant mistake on Button's part all year, but the truth is, too many times, he simply wasn't quite fast enough. Failing to break out of Q2 at Silverstone and Hungary something Hamilton was able to do without breaking a sweat indicated that an old Button shortcoming, his inability to find a way of working around a car not performing to his liking, is still there. After Shanghai, the only occasion on which he actually looked quicker than Hamilton was at Monza, where his ability to make the combination of the f-duct and a very high downforce setting (by Monza standards, he was running a barn door on his rear wing) enabled him to come very close to stealing victory from Alonso. In 2010, Button showed that his 2009 title was not solely a matter of having the good fortune to find himself in the right place at the right time at Brawn, and that there is a real talent there especially when the weather is inclement, but at the same time I don't see a driver in quite the same league as the very best of the current crop. Good, but not quite a Hamilton, a Vettel or an Alonso.

7. Nico Rosberg

I've never been able to figure out how quick Nico Rosberg really is. Was he dragging an uncompetitive Williams far further up the field than it really deserved to be, or was he flattered by team mates who had no real business being in Formula 1? 2010 provided no definitive answer to this question. Was Nico Rosberg the hitherto undiscovered superstar who became the only man ever to go up against Michael Schumacher in equal machinery and come out on top? Or was he kept honest by a race-rusty 41 year old, way past his best? I don't think we can know the answer to that question, and so one is forced to judge Rosberg solely on what he got out of the first Mercedes F1 car to grace the grid since 1955.

Three podiums was not a bad score for a man driving what was only the fourth quickest car in the field. He came within a couple of points of dislodging Felipe Massa from sixth in the drivers' points standings, and it is hard to point to a single significant mistake from the Finno-German driver all year. On the other hand, there weren't really any occasions on which he looked transcendentally quick. No equivalent of Kubica's giant-killing performances at Monaco and Spa. Probably his best drive of the year came in the wet at Shanghai, where an inspired decision to stay out on dry tyres as the track got wet allowed him to run second for much of the distance, and to pick up his first podium of the year on a day when his vastly experienced regenmeister team mate looked all at sea. On the whole, the impression was given of a good, solid professional doing a decent job rather than of a superstar and world champion in the making. Perhaps, if Schumacher aborts his come-back and Sutil or Heidfeld gets the second Mercedes seat, we will finally get an answer to the question of whether Rosberg is or is not as quick as his dad used to be.

8. Rubens Barrichello

The Brazilian driver, in his eighteenth full season in the sport, was never going to add to his total of 11 race wins in a Williams Cosworth. And a part of me wondered why, after a surprise opportunity to compete for the world title arose at Brawn last year and enabled him to win a couple of races, he didn't just call it a day. It would have been easy for him to mark time. As it was, he stepped up to the plate and led something of a resurgence for the Grove team. He out-qualified new team mate Nico Hulkenberg 13-6 and scored the lion's share of the team's points. The Williams' Cosworth engines were never the match of the Mercedes and Ferrari powered opposition, with their power units particularly prone to losing horsepower over the course of their life (19 races with 8 engines) and yet he frequently dragged the car into Q3 and had a stunning run mid-season wherein he picked up a fourth place in a topsy-turvy race at Valencia and somehow followed this up with a fifth at Silverstone, scene of the greatest drive of his career back in 2003, and a circuit on which Williams have tended to struggle in recent years. Indeed, from Valencia onwards, he only once failed to make the cut for Q3 - a slightly better record than that achieved by former team mate Button, who had the distinct advantage of a Mclaren Mercedes at his disposal. Like Riccardo Patrese nearly twenty years before, the Brazilian veteran appears to be having something of an Indian summer to his career at Williams. His calm and experience will come in especially useful next year if, as expected, the team replace Hulkenberg with the mercurial but well-funded Pastor Maldonado.

9. Kamui Kobayashi

The Japanese driver whose career looked washed up only a year ago after a lacklustre second year in GP2 took a little while to get to grips with F1 with Sauber in 2010. In his early races, there was little sign of the feisty youngster who had traded blows with Jenson Button in the two races with Toyota at the end of 2009 which had made his name. But then the Sauber, at least in the early part of the year, was really not a competitive proposition, at least on circuits requiring any significant measure of mechanical grip. When Peter Sauber's team began to extract some pace from the car, it was Kamui who took full advantage. Dragging the car into Q3 and scoring the reconstituted team's first points in Turkey, he would follow up with a particularly fine drive at Valencia, making an unusual tyre strategy pay and stealing 7th from Fernando Alonso on the very last corner. Another 7th place finish was the reward for a fighting drive at his 'home' circuit of Suzuka (though, in fact, as he'd spent almost his entire junior career in Europe, he hadn't raced there in years) at which he single handedly demonstrated that it is possible to overtake in a modern F1 car, scything through the field from 13th after his pit-stop to finish 7th and showing it is possible to overtake in a modern F1 car, providing you show enough initiative. He repeated the performance, albeit in a slightly more low-key way, at Brazil a few weeks later, passing both Toro Rossos on track to nab a point. If his race-craft was second to none, his qualifying form was rather more erratic. He was frequently bested by veteran Pedro De La Rosa in the first part of the year, and its something he'll have to address if his career is to progress, but to my mind, he did enough to establish himself as the best of the new drivers this year, in spite of having arguably the patchiest pre-F1 CV of any of them.

10. Nico Hulkenberg

Ok, if it hadn't been for that stunning pole on a drying track at Interlagos then I might have given the tenth spot to Sutil, Glock or Massa, and I'm not convinced that Willi Weber's latest young charger is in the same league as the man who established the former Hotelier as a driver manager par excellence. He struggled in the first part of the season to match Rubens Barrichello, but as the year wore on, he was increasingly able to get on terms with his more experienced team mate. A spirited drive in Monza was a highlight, although it must be said he was lucky not to be penalised given the number of times he missed the first chicane while defending his position from Mark Webber's Red Bull. And then, of course, there was that pole in Interlagos. Yes, it owed a certain amount to luck, and he was running a high-downforce set-up that would make his life difficult on race day, but still, he was able to find grip from slick tyres on a still damp circuit that eluded all his more experienced and highly feted rivals. If race day was a disappointment by comparison, he nonetheless defended his position maturely, making the likes of Alonso and Hamilton work to get past him, without doing anything stupid and taking a title contender out of the race. It's a shame that Williams' financial situation is such that they probably can't afford to keep him on next year.

The Rest...

There are a number of drivers who have had legitimate claim on the lower reaches of this list. Felipe Massa picked up five podiums for Ferrari on his return from injury and once or twice even appeared to have the upper hand on Alonso. There was little sign, though, of the driver who usurped presumed number one Kimi Raikkonen in previous years at Ferrari. After being asked to move over for his team mate at the German Grand Prix, he never really looked a match for the Spaniard. The Scuderia might reasonably have expected more than a smattering of podiums from Massa, given that his team mate went into the final race leading the world championship.

Adrian Sutil did a decent job with Force India, making the most of the team's early season form to rack up a decent points tally. Highlights included holding Hamilton off for fifth in Malaysia and keeping it on the road for another fifth place in Belgium. He pretty much did for the idea that Vitantonio Liuzzi was a great unappreciated talent.

My final contender for inclusion in this list was Virgin Racing's Timo Glock. It would have been easy for the ex-Toyota driver to have gone to sleep, faced with a season toiling away at the tail end of the grid in a car that was four or five seconds a lap off the front-running pace. Instead, he completely dominated team mate Di Grassi and got about as much as it was possible to do so from out of the Virgin. When strategy or weather conditions favoured him, he occasionally got the car a good bit further up the order than it really merited, holding back a queue of early pitters in Singapore, and threatening to become the first man from the new teams to break through into Q2 on merit in Brazil (I'm excluding the freak wet qualifying in Malaysia where anybody who wasn't able to set a time as the track dried in the final part of the session was never going to get through).

One man I haven't mentioned so far, of course, has been Michael Schumacher, whose come-back was decidedly underwhelming. There were occasions on which he had the better of team mate Rosberg, but more often than not, the man whose sportscar racing career only missed overlapping with that of Nico's father Keke by a single season looked a shadow of his former self. About the only trace of the old Schumacher was evident in his still appalling track manners. Running his former protege, Massa off the road in Canada and engaging in blocking of breathtaking stupidity while vainly trying to prevent fellow veteran Rubens Barrichello from nabbing a point for tenth from him in Hungary. After an absolute nadir in Singapore, he appeared to find something of his old mojo in the closing races of the year. It will be interesting to see whether this was a flash in the pan, or a sign that he's finally shaken off his race-rustiness.

Another veteran driver making a return to F1 after several years away was Pedro De La Rosa, who was brought in to provide some experience for the Sauber line-up. He was probably better than his results suggested, and suffered the lion's share of Sauber's mechanical woes over the course of the season, but I always thought it a little odd that he had been chosen in preference to long-time Sauber man Nick Heidfeld. It wasn't such a surprise to see him let go to make way for Heidfeld after the Belgian Grand Prix. At 39, his F1 career must surely now be over.

Of the rest, Liuzzi was inexplicably disappointing, typically half a second or so slower than team mate Sutil. I can only suppose there's some financial reason for his continued presence at Force India, as I would have been inclined by now to stick test driver Paul Di Resta in the car and see what the man who beat Sebastian Vettel to the F3 Euroseries title back in 2006 can do. Vitaly Petrov deserves some credit for occasionally besting team mate Robert Kubica at Renault, but more often than not was a very long way from the Pole's pace. The second Renault seat has seemingly never been a happy place, and again, money seems the best explanation as to why Petrov is in the car rather than, say, Glock, Heidfeld or Kovalainen.

On the subject of Kovalainen, the Finn went some way to repairing his reputation after taking a real beating in his two years as team mate to Lewis Hamilton at Mclaren. Mike Gascoyne's hurriedly put together Lotus was a deeply conventional car and was never likely to trouble the midfield, but both Kovalainen and team mate Trulli got on with the job of getting the most out of it. Assessing quite how well they were doing is rather tricky, as they were essentially in a private race with the Virgins, but both appeared surprisingly upbeat, and they usually got the better of Richard Branson's low-cost F1 team. Team boss Tony Fernandes appears serious, so there's a good chance the 2011 car, which will have a Red Bull gearbox, will be a more competitive proposition.

Toro Rosso youngsters Sebastian Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari looked to have got to grips with F1, and looked feisty on occasion, but neither did anything to persuade me he is a star in the making. Alguersuari's best drive came right at the end of the year, holding back Felipe Massa's much faster Ferrari for 9th in Abu Dhabi. Buemi usually appeared slightly the quicker of the two and scored the lion's share of the team's points, but I couldn't help but think that a team with a Red Bull chassis and a Ferrari engine ought to be achieving more. I'd be inclined to drop one of them and stick Ricciardo in the car next year.

Last, and by most accounts least, Bruno Senna, Karun Chandhok, Sakon Yamamoto and Christian Klien all found their time wasted driving the ashes of Adrian Campos' F1 dream. The HRT was frankly embarrassingly slow, given it was the work of the world's premier off-the-peg racing car manufacturer, Dallara. Assessing their relative merits is rather tricky. Bruno Senna appeared a shade quicker than Chandhok, just as he did in GP2, though Senna's failure to out-pace Yamamoto suggests to me that he's nothing special either. Christian Klien reminded us all that he existed by stepping into the car on occasion. I hope he wasn't paying for the privilege...


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6 Comments:

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12:23 AM  
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Anonymous Orest said...

Top 10 - 2012: Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Räikkönen, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Mark Webber, Felipe Massa, Romain Grosjean, Nico Rosberg, Sergio Pérez.

4:25 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Orest - Not far off my list. I'd go with Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Button, Webber, Hulkenberg, Grosjean, Perez, Rosberg/Maldonado = 10th.

9:03 AM  

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