Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Motorsports Ramblings Top 10 - 2007

It may not be the Autocourse list, but it is a good two months earlier. Argue with my selection all you will, but this represents my best attempt to decide who did the best job in 2007. Without further ado...

10. Heikki Kovalainen

It must have sounded like an enticing prospect. For your debut season, you get last year's World Championship winning car, a year's prior preparation as their official test driver, and Giancarlo Fisichella as your team mate. It didn't quite work out as hoped for the young Finn. There is little doubt that this year's Renault R27 was a pale shadow of its predecessor, and Fisichella is a tougher nut to crack than is popularly assumed (just ask Ralph Firman, Alex Wurz, Felipe Massa or Jenson Button, all of whom came off second best to him).

The low point of his season came at the beginning. While fellow GP2 graduate Lewis Hamilton was grabbing all the plaudits at the front, Kovalainen had a messy race, with a spin and an off-track excursion, and finished a long way off the pace of his team mate. In other words, he looked like a rookie. It didn't immediately get a whole lot better, and indeed some of his early season performances were so poor there was talk of him being shown the door and replaced with Nelson Piquet Jr.

A promising showing in Spain, where for the first time he outraced Fisichella, gave hint that there was potential, but it was in the North American races that Kovalainen began to really turn things around. In Canada he recovered from a poor qualifying performance to finish 4th, ahead of such as Alonso and Raikkonen. A week later in Indianapolis, he ran rings around Fisichella and fought hard with Raikkonen and Heidfeld in the opening stages, eventually coming home 5th. From there on in, he was in a roll, almost invariably outpacing Fisichella and scoring points on all but two occasions. Late on in the season, he put in his most impressive performance to date, keeping the Renault on the island in very tricky conditions to finish an excellent 2nd in Fuji. Wherever he ends up when the Alonso saga shakes out, he's served notice than there's more than one quick Finn in F1.

9. Robert Kubica

Such was the explosive pace which the Pole showed when he burst onto the F1 scene at the end of last year, one could be forgiven for thinking his 2007 season a little disappointing. After all, he didn't quite get onto terms with team mate Nick Heidfeld over the course of the whole season, despite the widespread assumption he would comfortably outpace the German this year. He was genuinely quicker at Melbourne and (most notably) at Magny Cours, but elsewhere he appeared to be ever so slightly overshadowed. On reflection, though, he did about as much as anyone really had any right to expect. He was amongst the drivers who found the control Bridgestone tyres hardest to adapt to, and as someone who skipped GP2, many of the circuits were quite unfamiliar to him. Given these disadvantages, its impressive he ran Heidfeld as close as he did.

A potential surprise win fell by the wayside in China when his hydraulics packed up while leading and fueled to the finish. On the plus side, he could count himself lucky simply to be alive and unscathed after a truly horrific looking accident at 190mph during the Canadian Grand Prix. On balance, a pretty solid performance for a man in his first full season of F1.

8. Mark Webber

What is it with Mark Webber? Without fail, the man always seems to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He spent two years with Williams while they were in the depths of their troubles, and then he goes and moves to Red Bull just in time to end up racing the woefully unreliable RB3. On the plus side, it was at least reasonably quick when it kept going.

On points, David Coulthard actually came out ahead over the season, but that only goes to show how misleading raw points tallies can be when it comes to the performances of drivers further down the field. Look at it this way: Was the Red Bull really a car which you'd expect to make it through the top 10 run-off in qualifying on a regular basis? No? Well Mark Webber got it through on no less than 10 occasions. Coulthard, by contrast, got there just twice. OK, so there was less to separate them in race conditions, but still, with the notable exceptions of China and Bahrain, it was the Australian who had the edge.

Like many a true racer, he was at his absolute best in wet conditions, taking a podium for Red Bull at the Nurburgring and looking like he might challenge for victory at Fuji before being eliminated by Sebastien Vettel - under a safety car, no less. It was emblematic of a season, and a career, which seems to have been dogged by bad luck throughout. One can only hope that in 2008 he'll finally get a chance to show what he can do.

7. Jenson Button

If Mark Webber had a frustrating time of it in 2007, he can perhaps console himself with the thought that at least he wasn't driving a Honda. The Japanese concern has spent years carefully building up a reputation as an engineering-led company with some very well-made cars and bikes, only to go and sabotage itself by establishing a colossally awful F1 team.

This year's RA107 was terrible. So bad, that for much of the season, it was outpaced by a group of ex-Arrows mechanics running last year's Honda with a pair of drivers rejected by the works. Initially, Button seemed to take this rather badly, and he found himself being outpaced by Rubens Barrichello. In reality, he was probably suffering, as many drivers had done, from the swap from Michelins to Bridgestones. Once he got that licked, he drove better than almost anyone. How else to explain how he dragged his car into the points in Magny Cours and Monza, ahead of sundry Williams and Toyotas? If that were not enough, how about sticking the car on the third row in Fuji? With the weather acting as something of a leveller, Button got a rare chance to make full use of his supreme delicacy of touch and demonstrate why some consider him to be in the same sort of class as Raikkonen, Alonso and Hamilton.

A wet/dry track provided another opportunity to show what he could do a week later in China, and he seized it with both hands, taking a 5th place finish which was comfortably the team's best result all season, and which finally hauled them ahead of Super Aguri in the points table. The thought occurs that had Button been in a Super Aguri, he might actually have done better, so lets hope that Honda get their act together in 2008. If they do, Button could really fly in the brave new world of standard ECUs and no traction control.

6. Nick Heidfeld

He's got a reputation for being a touch dull, has Nick Heidfeld. A perception, one might add, which is unlikely to be significantly altered by his decision to sport the weirdest facial hair the sport has seen since the 1970s (when, lets face it, weird facial hair really wasn't all that weird). Still, there must be a few teams pondering upon the advantages of dullness in a lead driver, right now. Especially when its married to the kind of prodigious pace which Heidfeld has demonstrated this year.

Remember how, at the beginning of the season, he expected he would be blown away by Robert Kubica? Didn't happen. Instead, Heidfeld was the one man who could just occasionally gatecrash the Ferrari/Mclaren battle at the front. Recall, for instance, his wonderfully opportunistic move on Alonso for 4th in Bahrain? Remember, too, that he was the one man able to give Hamilton pause for thought in Canada. Not convinced? Here's another stat. On occasions where both the BMW drivers finished, only twice did Kubica beat Heidfeld all season.

I don't know if there is any chance of it happening, but think how convenient it would be for all concerned if Mario Thiessen and Ron Dennis were to organise a Heidfeld/Alonso swap. And if it were to happen, who's to say that Heidfeld wouldn't given Hamilton more of a run for his money than anyone would expect?

5. Nico Rosberg

How good was this year's Williams? We'll never know for sure, but it didn't look very good in the hands of an experienced guy like Alex Wurz. Chances are, Nico Rosberg was making the FW29 look a good deal better than it actually was. Certainly, he seemed determined from the outset to extract every last drop of pace from the 2007 Williams. He signaled his intent with 7th in the Australian Grand Prix, pulling off the race's only pass of any account in the process, at a circuit where such things are supposed to be next to impossible. Two weeks later, he hung gamely on to Felipe Massa's Ferrari in Malaysia until his engine let go. He was damned quick in qualifying at Monaco - a circuit where he has not previously shined - and was let down only by a strategy that really relied on his not getting stuck behind a heavily fueled Nick Heidfeld.

While Alex Wurz was lucky to pick up a bundle of points in a couple of very high-attrition races, Rosberg by contrast had to work very hard for every point he scored, doing what he could against BMWs and Renaults which were usually faster. In the final race, he even went one better, keeping much closer to Fernando Alonso's Mclaren than anyone had any right to expect, and passing both BMWs on the track, on his way to fourth place. I'm not at all sure anyone else achieved so much with so little, this season.

4. Felipe Massa

First, a disclaimer. The performances of the leading 4 drivers were so closely matched this year, that I could make a good case for any of them as my driver of the year. Certainly, had the dice fallen a little differently over the course of the year, we might now have been looking at Brazil's fourth world champion. Think about the times that he lost points needlessly. The gearbox failure in qualifying at Melbourne, the refueling error in qualifying at Hungary, his failure to get off the grid at Silverstone. And that's without even mentioning the two races where he failed to finish at all - thanks to suspension failure at Monza and a silly error on the part of both driver and team in Montreal which led to his disqualification.

In the plus column, Massa was frequently mighty in the first part of the season. We'll never know how much of a threat he might have posed in Melbourne, but based on his pace in the subsequent races, Raikkonen might not have found it easy to secure a win on his Ferrari debut. In Bahrain and Barcelona, he was imperious, comfortably having the measure of his more illustrious team mate. He would probably have equalled Raikkonen's win tally too, had he not had to sacrifice his own desire for a home victory at Interlagos to help his team mate's title ambitions.

So why doesn't he feature higher up my list? Two reasons really. Firstly, once Raikkonen really got to grips with the Ferrari and its Bridgestone rubber, Massa rarely looked quite as quick as his team mate (save of course at Brazil). Over a single qualifying lap, he perhaps still had it, but over a race distance, he seemed to lack that last tenth of a second a lap. The second reason is that he never showed quite the 'fight' of the other three. Sure, he was unlucky with his start position on a number of occasions, but one can't help but feel that Raikkonen, Hamilton or Alonso might have made up more places in Hungary or Melbourne. He was also a tad underwhelming whenever the track was wet, come to that. These are minor niggles though, and like any of the big 4, he would have made a worthy champion.

3. Fernando Alonso

How short was the reign of the man who finally toppled King Schumacher. If you only ever read the British tabloids, you might think that Alonso's year consisted of being blown away by a fresh faced British newcomer and going off in one almighty sulk. Which, of course, would be nonsense (apart, perhaps, from the bit about the sulking).

Yes, there were days when Hamilton appeared to have his team mate beaten on pace, but equally, there were occasions when Alonso was comfortably the quicker of the two. Think of his dominant performances at Malaysia and Monza, for example, or the way he just left his team mate for dust at Spa or Silverstone. Fernando Alonso was also responsible for two of the most astounding passing manouvres of the year - on Massa for the lead of the German Grand Prix and most impressively of all, round the outside of Heidfeld at the Lycee in the French Grand Prix.

The falling out with Mclaren was unedifying, for sure, and his public pronouncements suggested an unhealthy degree of paranoia. On the other hand, though, how much more impressive that a man who was barely on speaking terms with his team, and who had fallen out spectacularly with the boss of the operation could simply tune it all out and drive as he did in Monza and Spa, while at the very eye of the storm.

So why only 3rd? Firstly, I can't help thinking that he made more mistakes than Hamilton or Raikkonen - he just got lucky and didn't pay as heavy a penalty for them. His startline move on Massa at the Spanish Grand Prix was ill-judged and his multifarious Canadian errors smacked of desperation. He looked scrappy at Indianapolis and Bahrain, come to that. It seemed he was far more rattled by Hamilton than was the case the other way round. Secondly, at the very death, in Shanghai and Interlagos, he seemed, well, flat. Had he been at his mighty best in Shanghai, he just might have taken the fight to Raikkonen, and who knows, he could have been a triple world champion by now.

2. Kimi Raikkonen

Let's be clear about one thing. If this list were based only on drivers performances in the latter half of the season, Kimi Raikkonen would be my driver of the year. From Indianapolis onwards, he was on the form of his life. He dominated Grands Prix at Silverstone, Spa and China, looked quicker than Massa in race trim in Turkey and gave Hamilton far more of a fight that might have been expected in Hungary. It was said that the 2007 Ferrari didn't really work well in wet conditions, but this did not seem to trouble Raikkonen at the Japanese Grand Prix, where he thoroughly shaded his team mate. If he needed a little assistance from Massa in Brazil to be sure of the title, well, so be it.

Mark Hughes once opined of Kimi Raikkonen that "he refuses even to acknowledge the game". He was talking about the constant psychological warfare that seems to be a standard part of Formula 1 at the very top level these these days. Kimi doesn't go in for it, and he doesn't let others throw him off his stride either. When he found himself outpaced by Massa at the beginning of the year, there was no self doubt, nor any petulant suggestion that Ferrari were favouring the Brazilian. He showed no outward sign that this had gotten to him at all. He simply kept his head down and worked on finding the missing tenths of a second. It's an attribute which would have been much appreciated in the Mclaren garage this year, and one which just might have helped him secure the title. Both Hamilton and Alonso made mistakes under pressure this year, pressure which was at least partly of their own creation.

So why's he not at the top of my list? Simple, this is about performance over the whole season and he was really rather lacklustre in the opening part of the year. A man who is supposedly the outright fastest driver in the world really should not be getting beaten by Felipe Massa, and in Malaysia, Bahrain and Spain, he was simply outclassed. He might have had the pace in Monaco, but a rare unforced error in qualifying meant we had no way of of knowing. Still, as I have said before, he's a worthy champion nonetheless, and his comeback drive to win the title must rank amongst the most extraordinary in the sport's history.

1. Lewis Hamilton

The British press have a lot to answer for. Here was a driver of astonishing natural talent, a man with a seemingly innate ability to make an F1 car dance on the very edge of adhesion, and by Brazil I was simply sick to the back teeth of hearing about hm, and quietly hoping that Kimi Raikkonen might wrest the title from his grasp.

It's usually assumed that it takes at least a couple of seasons to get fully to grips with F1. Lewis, armed with the most complete preparation any rookie has ever had, and access to the most advanced simulator in the sport, set about making a mockery of this. By his third race, he was outpacing his double world champion team mate Fernando Alonso and after two victories in North America, the lad from Stevenage had emerged as the odds-on favourite for the World Title.

Over the course of the season, he ticked all the right boxes. He demonstrated tremendous spatial awareness and racecraft at the start of both the Australian and Malaysian Grands Prix, pulled off an excellent move under braking to snatch second from Kimi Raikkonen on Ferrari's home turf at Monza, blocked out intra-team strife to take an assured win in Hungary and proved himself equal to the worst the elements could throw at him in Fuji. All in all, it was the performance of an established Grand Prix great, rather than a fresh faced rookie.

Let's not go overboard with the superlatives. There were certainly times when Alonso made him look rather ordinary, though equally, there were times when he made Alonso look rather foolish. And while it could be suggested that it was misfortune (in the form of a duff gearbox) which cost him the title, he really suffered no greater mechanical misfortune than either of his title rivals, over the course of the season. In the end, it was his one real elementary error, sliding into the gravel trap while coming in to pit at Shanghai, that cost him the Championship. Still, who'd bet against him coming back stronger next year?

The Rest

10 is an arbitrary number. If there was space for a few more, then three or four other drivers would merit consideration. Jarno Trulli's efforts to rag what pace there was out of the 2007 Toyota were impressive on occasion, though more often than not he qualified well only to sink back down the order come race day. Both Super Aguri drivers had their moments. Takuma Sato had the upper hand in the early part of the year, and even passed Fernando Alonso for position during the Canadian Grand Prix - not something anyone would have predicted before the season began. Anthony Davidson generally outpaced the Japanese driver in the latter half of the year, and his qualifying effort in Turkey was one of the standout performances of the year. Adrian Sutil did all that could be expected in the hopeless Spyker, outclassing all his team mates and occasionally dragging the car a touch further up the order than it had any business being (most notably at Spa and at Indianapolis). He went off the road too often to merit inclusion in the top 10 though, and indeed this tendency may preclude his picking up a more worthwhile drive next year.

David Coulthard did a solid job for Red Bull, without ever quite appearing to be on the same level as his team mate. He was impressive in the wet, picking up a couple of 4th places, and coped admirably with a broken gearbox on his way to 5th in Barcelona. Rubens Barrichello, too, did a better job than he was credited for. Unfortunately, he was generally at his best when the Honda was at its worst, and so ended up pointless at the season's conclusion. If, as rumours suggest, this is his last season, it was a sad note on which to end.

Three other old stagers who may be staring retirement in the face are Giancarlo Fisichella, Ralf Schumacher and Alex Wurz. Wurz was a terrible disappointment in the Williams, and jumped before he was pushed. Schumacher achieved little in the Toyota, and was outclassed by Jarno Trulli. Fisichella had a good start to the season with the disappointing Renault, but appeared to lose interest mid-season and rarely figured after the British Grand Prix.

Vitantonio Liuzzi might just have done enough to salvage his F1 career, but his performances at the troubled Toro Rosso team were hard to judge. His team mate, Sebastien Vettel, initially looked out of his depth but came on in leaps and bounds when Toro Rosso finally began to understand the RB3 towards the season's end. He did enough to suggest that the mid-season replacement of the unexceptional Scott Speed was the right move.

Christijan Albers, whom I had been impressed by last year, was rather shown up by the appearance of a talented young team mate, and when the money ran out, he was shown the door at Spyker. Neither Markus Winkelhock nor Sakon Yamamoto made much of an impression either, though the number 2 seat at Spyker was perhaps F1's least desirable drive this year.

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Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Who do you think that Alan Henry will choose as his number one, Patrick? Based on past form, I reckon he'll go for Raikkonen, on the basis that he committed less errors than Hamilton.

By the way, what do you think about Max Mosley's latest astonishing diatribe?

5:37 PM  
Blogger Wyrfu said...

I always suspect these top ten lists, wanting to light a few bombs in their generally unimaginative selection of the guys with the best cars. But you've made it hard for me to do that, Patrick, as I think you have it about as right as we are likely to get.

Just one glaring error: Scott Speed, of course. :D

6:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blogger did the dirty on me and changed my name sneakily to one of my other personas. I am Wyrfu, I admit it. :D

6:10 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Clive - I figured it was you from the Scott Speed remark ;-)

I did look at the list at the end and think - I've got the guys with the 4 best cars at the top of the list - but they all did such a good job this year that it would have felt like a deliberate slight to move either Rosberg or Heidfeld ahead of any of them.

Gordon - I'm really beginning to wonder if Max Mosley is losing his grip on reality. He is of course entitled to his own private opinion, but he seems to have entirely forgotten that he's meant to be the head of a neutral body which makes the rules, and really shouldn't be seen to be hoping for a particular result.

Imagine if Sepp Blatter said "I think its a good thing that Brazil got knocked out of the world cup..."

12:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice ranking!
But: Heikki Kovalainen on 10th place?! For me he is one of the top-challangers of F1 2007!
My Ranking:
1. Hamilton
2. Kimi
3. Rosberg
4. Kovalainen
5. Massa
6. Heidfeld
7. Kubica
8. Vettel
9. Webber
10. Alonso

5:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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Almost daily! Looks good, have you tried it? Know anyone who has won something here?

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't see you point to choose Jenson Button for that list, he's got it all right in China but that was pretty much it. Let's see if this everlasting promise can deliver next year.

10:07 AM  

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