Sunday, October 22, 2006

Top Ten of 2006

Perhaps not as authoritative as the Autocourse list, but available much earlier. And given some of the downright strange choices made by Autocourse over the years, I'd argue that you could do worse.

10 - Christijan Albers

Ins hard to think of a sharper contrast between team mates than that between Tiago Monteiro and the Dutchman Christijan Albers. Where Monteiro is laid back and amiable, Albers, by contrast, has a reputation for being spiky, difficult, a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad.

He's been the first driver in a very long time indeed to go from being a top-level touring car driver (he was DTM champion in 2004) into an F1 drive. Last year, he seemed to struggle, at least at first, to re-learn the art of single seater driving, though as the season progressed he soon got the better of Patrick Freisacher. This year, though, there were no such problems. He frequently dragged the Midland much further up the grid than it really had any business being, making the last 16 run-off on several occasions. At Indianapolis, admittedly a track which suited the Bridgestone tyres he was running on, he made it as high as 14th. In the process, he rather took the sheen off Tiago Monteiro's reputation. Last year, Monteiro had earned a reputation for being reliable and for not making any mistakes, but this year, against Albers, he simply did not look fast enough. There were refreshingly few mistakes too, given that this was a young gun anxious to make a name for himself in a sub-par car. Sure, he didn't actually score any points, but only others' misfortune was ever going to allow anyone to score in a Midland. The purpose of this list is to pick the ten drivers who did the most with the equipment that was available to them, and Albers had rather less potent equipment that just about everyone else on the grid.

9 - Ralf Schumacher

Ah, the least propular racing driver on the F1 grid, according to F1 Racing Magazine's global poll of F1 fans. As if being Michael Schumacher's younger brother wasn't enough to be coping with. I have to confess I've never much had time for Schumacher Jr - he always struck me as something of a Nigel Mansell for our age, without the redeeming on-track performances.

It's hard, though, to ignore the fact that he's done a really rather solid job for the underperforming Toyota team this year. By any sensible measure, he's gotten the better of his team mate this year, and Jarno Trulli is no mere journeyman. He picked up more points than Trulli and he scored Toyota's only podium with a fine drive at Melbourne. His best race laps were, on average, quicker than Trulli's and on the rare occasions when both Toyotas enjoyed trouble free races, Ralf was more often ahead than behind. Perhaps most significantly, given Trulli's reputation in this area, he even came out ahead over the year on qualifying performance.

Toyota was frequently a pretty dispiriting place to be this year, and in the past, Schumacher Jr. has not had the best of reputations for getting the most out of sub-par equipment. To my considerable surprise though, this year Ralf kept his head down and the results started to come. Good job too, given the ludicrous sums they're paying him...

8. - Nick Heidfeld

After showing well against Mark Webber at Williams last year, Heidfeld returned to his spiritual home at Sauber to find that the furniture had been moved, the rooms repainted, and some guy called Mario Thiessen had been put in charge. BMW needed someone who would keep their head down, not make a fuss, and help them to develop the car. Heidfeld has always had a good reputation in this regard, and this year he again did an impressive job. He outpaced even a rejuvenated looking Jacques Villeneuve before the Canadian found himself out on his ear, he picked up a podium with a consistent drive in the rain-soaked Hungarian Grand Prix, and his extremely consistent finishing record netted the team a very good haul of points.

At the end of the year, he did seem to find the sheer pace of Polish newcomer Robert Kubica a bit of a surprise, but notwithstanding that, he still scored more points that the hotly tipped newcomer. Heidfeld is not a driver from the very top drawer, but he's a hard working, solid performer, who maintained his reputation this year against two team mates - an aging former world champion and a young hotshoe - who might have sullied it.

7. - Mark Webber

It was a disappointing end to a career at Williams that had promised much and delivered very little. With the chance of a decent performance at Brazil thanks to on-form Bridgestone tyres, Webber found himself punted off the road by team mate Rosberg and that was the end of that. He has always seemed one of the more rounded individuals in the F1 pitlane, and if he admitted that, in hindsight the move to Williams was a mistake, then he was equally aware that the team might have said the same thing of the decision to hire him.

The basic problem, though, was that when the Williams was fast, it broke, and when it held together, it was desperately slow. Webber, to be frank, did as much as could be expected with it, and sometimes more. Its easy to forget some of his brilliant performances at the start of the year - but they were certainly there. Remember the second row start at Malaysia? How might that have turned out, had he not lost time after his team mate boxed him in and he fell behind a heavily fuelled Alonso. And might he have recovered, had his engine run more than a few laps? Then there was his home race, where he led for a single lap before the car called it quits. Given his fuel load, and given the way the safety car periods fell, a second place was not out of the question. Monaco was better still. There, he was genuinely mixing it with Alonso and Raikkonen before, once again, an engine failure put him out of contention when he looked in with a chance of scoring a shock victory.

Thereafter, he faded from notice as Williams' competitiveness fell away. In such circumstances, it might have been easy for him to become disillusioned, as he once again found himself in a car not truly worthy of his talents. If he did, then it didn't show in his performances against Nico Rosberg. He outqualified him 12-6 and almost always out-raced him, even if they were rarely scrapping for points places in the latter part of the season. A rare showing of form from the car at Hockenheim ended with yet another engine failure. The single most telling statistic about Webber's season, though, was not the 7 points he scored, but the 11 retirements he posted.

6. - Robert Kubica

Normally, I have a rule that I do not include drivers that only competed in a part-season. Rules, though, are there to be broken, and I can't help but make an exception for the impressive Polish newcomer. Sure, he didn't have quite the speed advantage over Heidfeld that some of the more excitable F1 fans thought he did. Set against that, though was the fact that this was a man competing in only his first few Grands Prix, up against Heidfeld, no slouch he, and a veteran of 7 seasons of F1.

His podium in the Italian Grand Prix, which was achieved without the kind of large-scale attrition that had helped his team mate Heidfeld finish in the top 3 a few weeks earlier in Hungary, was somewhat overshadowed by Schumacher's announcement of his retirement. That, though, was not his only achievement. He was also very much on the pace in race-trim in China and Japan, harrying Heidfeld all the way to the line in the latter race. Given his lack of pre-season testing, and the fact that almost all of the tracks he raced at this year were new to him, he could be a big threat next year if BMW's plan to turn Sauber into a frontline team continues on its current trajectory.

5. - Felipe Massa

It seemed to be a sign of just how unappealing the idea of playing number 2 to Michael Schumacher really was. At the start of the season, I wondered just how the team were going to cope with someone as wayward as Felipe Massa. Surely, if they would allow their second driver to actually race then they would have had the chance to hire a more dependable second driver. Undoubtedly Massa had been quick at Sauber on occasion, but he didn't really strike me as Ferrari material. Perhaps the Todts thought otherwise...

At the opening race, in Bahrain, I rather suspected I'd been proved right. Massa was unexpectedly close to Schumacher in qualifying (something which we would become used to as the season went on) but he dropped it early on in the race and never made it back into the points. A couple of weeks later at Malaysia, on the other hand, he caught us all by surprise by beating Schumacher fair and square in the race. Of course a better fuel/tyre strategy played its part, but how many times have Schumacher's team mates ever done that?

When the Ferrari upswing came in the second part of the season, it became increasingly difficult to assess Massa's performance. Ferrari, unlike Renault or McLaren, do not encourage their drivers to race each other when running 1-2, and certainly not when one of them is called Michael Schumacher. Generally he ran in close proximity to Schumacher, but at races like the German Grand Prix, it was very hard to tell whether either of them was anywhere near as quick as they could have been had the need arose.

At Turkey, though, Massa simply plain outdrove Schumacher all weekend. Of all Schumacher's team mates, only Barrichello ever really managed that, and then only very rarely. Thanks to Alonso's intervention in the Renault, his 'supporting role' this time involved keeping the win too. In the final rounds at Japan and Brazil too, there were hints that, over a single lap at least, Massa was edging ever closer to Schumacher. No mean feat that. In some ways though, given his job was to provide a supporting role to his team mate's championship challenge, Massa's greatest achievement was to rein in the wildness that has characterised his career up to now. We assume he'll be playing a support role again next year, but who knows?

4. Jenson Button

Well it only took him 113 attempts, but a finely measured drive and just a pinch of luck finally brought Jenson Button his first win this year. Over the years I've had my doubts about whether he's really enough of a racer to cut it at the highest level. He's undoubtedly a true natural behind the wheel, but sometimes he doesn't appear to want it enough. I felt I had less reason to doubt him this year.

I said at the beginning of the season that the intra-team fight with Rubens Barrichello was one he would have to win if he wanted to be taken seriously. Win it he duly did, but I never expected him to do it quite so convincingly. At first, Barrichello was completely at sea with the Honda, unable to get used to the traction control or the brakes. Even once he was at home with the car, though, he never really got on the same pace as Button. After all, in 18 races, Barrichello finished ahead on the road just once - at Monaco. The other positive thing was that, on several occasions, Button showed himself to be a real racer this year. There was his drive from 14th to 3rd at Brazil, or his impressive showing at Turkey on a day when the Hondas really weren't much fancied. There were, too no real mistakes to speak of. He didn't once go off the track of his own accord, he didn't let it get to him when the British press began to write him off (ironically, just before Hungary). Its taken a while, but he really appears to be morphing into a first rate racing driver.

Earlier in the year, I said that there were 3 top teams in Formula 1, Mclaren, Renault and Ferrari, but that after Schumacher retired, there would only be 2 top drivers - Alonso and Raikkonen. I wondered then who I would hire if I was boss at the 'third team'. I would now tentatively answer that question with Button's name.

3. - Kimi Raikkonen

Not a good year for Mclaren was it? For the first time in a decade, they didn't win a single race all season. Martin Whitmarsh said they had gone too far down the road of building a car specifically optimised for the single-tyre rule. Others suggested that Mercedes/Ilmor's V8 was not on the same level as those produced by Ferrari, Renault, Toyota, Honda or even Cosworth. One part of the package that can't really be blamed, though, is Kimi Raikkonen.

Sure, he could be lazy when the car really wasn't on the pace, and on one occasion this year, he seemed to admit as much. Ron Dennis was certainly happy to say so - particularly once it was clear that his charge was heading for Maranello come the end of the year. For this, he falls behind championship contenders Alonso and Schumacher in my top 10. There's no question though, that whenever there was even the vaguest hint that the Mclaren might be in with a sniff, Raikkonen drove the wheels off it. In a car that neither Montoya nor De La Rosa were ever able to do much with, he spent much of the early season putting up the closest thing that Alonso had to an opponent - pushing him hard in the early stages at Australia, and giving both Schumacher and Alonso a fight at the British Grand Prix. Contrast, for example, his pole and second place at Monza with what De La Rosa was able to do that day. Monza wasn't his only pole, either, and if his qualifying performances in Hungary and Hockenheim owed something to low fuel then, well, nobody else managed to make such an approach work.

There were mistakes, undoubtedly. His performance at Hungary, once he'd taken the pole, was not all that convincing, and ended with a very silly incident involving a lapped Toro Rosso. In Canada, too, he threw away a safe second place while pushing too hard on a seemingly disintegrating track surface. He doesn't seem quite the team player that Alonso or Schumacher are, and it will be interesting to see how Ferrari get on with him next year, but make no mistake, the pace is there. The rest might yet come.

2. - Michael Schumacher

What a long, strange road its been. Over fifteen years at the very top of the sport. Many with careers that long were an embarrassment by the end, and many more, while still competent enough, were a long way from being truly quick. Not so Michael Schumacher.

Right at the beginning of the year, in Bahrain, came a warning shot that Schumacher was right back in the thick of it, after a rather lacklustre and disappointing 2005, spent struggling with Bridgestone's ineffective whole-race tyres. On outright pace, there was little to suggest Schumacher had lost any of his edge. In qualifying, Felipe Massa might have been uncomfortably close, and even quicker on occasion, but in terms of sheer race pace, there was never any doubt that Schumacher was still very much the number one at Ferrari. His early win at Imola came against the run of form, and was the result of some excellent defensive driving, but Schumacher was at his very best later on in the year, once the Ferrari came on form. A fighting drive to second at Canada, a redemptive race performance in Monaco, and, right at the end of the season, two of the best drives of his life to win in surprising circumstances in China, and to drive right from the back of the field up to fourth in his final Grand Prix in Brazil - in circumstances where any number of past world champions driving their final race might well have thrown in the towel.

So why isn't he number one? Three reasons really. Monaco qualifying, the Hungarian error, and the slip-ups in Turkey. Had it not been for these three mistakes Schumacher just might have been world champion for an eighth time. It is intriguing to recall that Schumacher once remarked a long time ago that he didn't believe drivers slowed down with age - it just took more mental effort to go quickly. Perhaps, finally, in the autumn of his career, the effort became too great and the mistakes began to creep in. Or perhaps Alonso put him under the kind of pressure he'd never had to face before.

1. Fernando Alonso

Did this man really put a foot wrong all year? Usually, its possible to point to individual mistakes that a driver has made - a spin in qualifying, an unforced error, or something. But on the track, I'm really not sure that Alonso put a foot wrong all year.

He was very, very fast when the occasion required too. His drive to second in China, seemingly hampered by his team at every turn, was to me the single stand-out drive of the season. Equally, his fight with Schumacher in Japan, on a day when we expected the German to disappear into the distance, was a joy to behold.

Then there was his drive through the field from well down the grid in the opening laps in the rain in Hungary, or his dominant performance in ever-changing conditions in Australia, or his brilliant drive at his home race in Barcelona, on a day when Renault didn't appear truly the equal of Ferrari. Certainly there were any number of memorable drives from Alonso this year. When cool, level headed driving was required, as at the final race in Brazil, or while making the most of a large inherent tyre/car advantage in Canada, Alonso got that right too. And of the guys in the serious teams this year, no man dominated his team mate more than Alonso.

Flaws? If one was being harsh, it was notable that on the rare days when the Renault really wasn't in the ballpark, as at Indianapolis or Hockenheim, it seemed that Alonso was actually even slower than Fisichella. In some ways, though, if anything blotted his copybook, it was the slightly paranoid remarks out of the car about the team not being behind him in the run in to the world title. Sure, the wheel nut error in Hungary and the pit-stop blunder in China were unfortunate, but to suggest they might have been deliberate was to go a little far. And perhaps hints at a hitherto undiscovered psychological weakness in Alonso.

But on the whole, there was no doubt in my mind that the youngest ever double-world champion was the best driver of 2006. That doesn't necessarily mean he's a greater driver than Schumacher - but that this year, he did the better job.

The Rest

Away from the battle at the front, it was rather a strange year, and it seemed, to me at least, rather more difficult than usual to decipher drivers' performances and work out who was doing well with what they had. And so the lower reaches of my top 10 presented me with a few dilemmas. Was Christijan Albers quick, or merely flattered by a very mediocre team mate? Was Ralf doing a good job or merely a less terrible one than Jarno Trulli?

If we had an extra digit on each hand and I was putting together a top 12, then Rubens Barrichello would almost certainly be on the list. OK, he was lost at the start of the year, but once he had got to grips with the Honda, he usually wasn't too far shy of his team mate, if rarely on quite the same pace as him. One wonders what he might have achieved in the rain at Hungary had he not started on the wrong tyres.

Giancarlo Fisichella is the only man who won a race not to feature in my top 10. This too was a tough decision. On the one hand, there were occasions, such as at Indianapolis and Hockenheim, when he genuinely appeared to have the measure of Fernando Alonso on pace. On the other hand, there were far many more occasions when the Renault looked a race winning car in Alonso's hands and little more than a midfield runner in Fisi's. It is hard to think of another driver who was beaten quite so comprehensively on pace by his team mate. Certainly, on balance, Renault's decision to keep him on board for next year looks a little eccentric. Intriguingly, two of his best drives, though, came right at the end of the season, which hints that there just might be more to come from Fisichella next year.

Jarno Trulli had a decidedly underwhelming year, generally outpaced by Ralf Schumacher in a Toyota that he never seemed to get to grips with. In the end, I found myself a little surprised that Toyota decided to keep him on, or that he continues to want to race - there has been little sign of passion from the Italian this season.

Neither Red Bull driver made the list either. To be fair, Coulthard's reputation probably suffered for the fact that the team appeared early on to write off their chances this season and concentrate on 2007. His team mate, Klien, was competent, but no more. On pace, he seemed to have the better of Coulthard for a while, but he didn't pick up nearly as many points. He was shown the door before the end of the year. Newcomer Robert Doornbos seemed competent enough, outqualifying Coulthard a few times, but didn't capture one's attention in the way that Kubica did over at BMW.

It was difficult too, to know what to make of the rookies over at Toro Rosso. Measuring drivers' performance in different cars is difficult enough, but the Toro Rossos were effectively running to different rules from everyone else. Liuzzi seemed faster, overall, than Speed, at least in the first part of the season, but both seemed rather too error prone for their own good.

Mclaren split their second car between Montoya and De La Rosa. Neither made much of an impression. Montoya had actually looked a good deal more consistent, if not as fast as he once had, in the first part of the season. Then came the spate of accidents that led to his parting of ways with Ron's team. De La Rosa did what he could within the limits of his talent, and looked mightily impressive in the wet at Hungary but, by the end of the year, Ron Dennis must have wondered whether he might have been better off keeping Montoya on board after all.

Rosberg had a strong start to the season over at Williams, but as the year progressed, came to be ever more overshadowed by his team mate. Like many an inexperienced driver, he was right on it when the car was right, but appeared utterly lost when Williams began to run into trouble.

Of the rest, there is really little to be said. Tiago Monteiro was competent but overshadowed at Midland/Spyker. Takuma Sato outpaced his team mates but couldn't stay out of trouble at Super Aguri. Neither Yuji Ide nor Sakon Yamamoto really had any business being in Formula 1, though Yamamoto looked rather less out of his depth than his countryman. Franck Montagny finally got his F1 chance, but was hard to assess in what was very much a second string Aguri.


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