F1 season review: the backmarkers

At last! I have got round to starting on my review of the Formula 1 season. Because it has taken so long for me to get round to it, I have had enough ideas gestating around for me to write several posts on this. So I will write one post every Sunday for a few weeks. Hey, somebody has to provide some F1 action on a Sunday!

Each post will focus on a different aspect of the season. Future posts will look at the performances of teams. I will also assess the various F1 media outlets — ITV, FOM, websites, blogs and podcasts.

But today I’ll start with a look at the drivers. This is the first of a two-part run-down.

It’s not easy to rank drivers. As I said a few weeks ago, they are all heroes really. But we all know that some drivers are better than others. No doubt there will be plenty of disagreements, but that is what it’s all about, huh?

26 — Sakon Yamamoto

I have seen some people say that Yamamoto compares favourably to Adrian Sutil. I just don’t get it. Why is he even in F1? He was rubbish last year at Super Aguri, and he didn’t do very much interesting this year at Spyker. Perhaps part of this is the fact that he is tootling round at the back pretty anonymously, and has therefore been overlooked.

But looking at the figures, Yamamoto was outqualified by Sutil in every single race. The books will say that Yamamoto started ahead of Sutil in Brazil, but only because Sutil started in the pitlane, presumably due to mechanical problems. In fact, looking at the qualifying times, Yamamoto set the 22nd-“quickest” time in every single qualifying session. His blushes were only ever spared by other people’s mechanical failures.

He must have some really good sponsors.

25 — Christijan Albers

It’s a shame for Christijan Albers. He seemed like a really nice guy. Unfortunately, he simply caused too many embarrassing incidents. He was warned midway through the season by the Spyker team to clean up his act. Not long afterwards, he dangerously drove out of the pitlane with the fuel hose still attached. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

24 — Ralf Schumacher

Oh my goodness. What an awful season Ralf Schumacher had. Seemingly everyone had it in for him this year. The Toyota team finally lost patience with him and he appears to be out of a drive for next season.

Ralf Schumacher himself is going around telling everybody that he will be in F1 next season. If he’ll be in F1 next season, it will be driving in the Safety Car, although I’m sure the FIA would rather find someone faster.

Part of the problem with Ralf Schumacher is the fact that he is just so damn deluded. At the start of the season he declared himself to be one of the top three drivers (!) and the Toyota the fourth fastest car (!). So where were the results to back it up? Only five points all season.

And all too often he failed to cross the psychological barrier of Q1. For a team with such a huge budget and a driver with such a huge pay packet, that is simply unforgivable. Tragic. Once upon a time Ralf Schumacher was a steady pair of hands, and a proven race winner. That feels like a very long time ago now.

23 — Anthony Davidson

At last, Anthony Davidson finally got a full season in F1. What did he do? I can’t remember. A couple of impressive moments. I seem to remember one particularly unlucky qualifying session. Bad luck dogged him actually, most notably when he hit a groundhog while running 3rd in Canada.

But he also had bad moments of his own making, like spinning during qualifying at Silverstone. Otherwise, Davidson was too anonymous for me to place him any higher.

22 — Markus Winkelhock

Markus Winkelhock’s début grand prix will surely go down in history as one of the most eventful débuts ever. The son of Manfred Winkelhock made his début where his father made his exit from F1, at the Nürburgring. It looks as though it will be Markus’s last F1 race too.

Were it not for Lewis Hamilton, Markus Winkelhock would have been the only person to lead in his début this year. In a way, Winkelhock’s achievement is all the more impressive given that he did it in the Spyker (the worst car) rather than the McLaren.

Of course, in reality luck played a huge part in Winkelhock’s race. A risky strategy was employed by Spyker as weather conditions worsened, and luck played straight into their hands. At one point, Winkelhock led by over 30 seconds and had made Kimi Räikkönen look rather silly. But it was all because of that risky strategy to put Winkelhock on extreme wets.

It was a decision that only Spyker — at the back — could afford to take. In the end, it wasn’t much more than good PR. The race was stopped because the conditions were so atrocious, and at the restart Winkelhock was swamped by faster cars. In the end, he was in the sort of position you’d expect a Spyker to be. Then in another position where you’d expect a Spyker to be — in the grass, smoking.

Still, it’s a neat thing to put on your CV. Winkelhock is the only driver in history to have started the same race at the back of the grid and at the front!

21 — Kazuki Nakajima

Another F1 son, Kazuki is the son of Satoru Nakajima. Drafted in at the last minute to replace Alexander Wurz, who went on early retirement, Nakajima had a pretty mixed Brazilian Grand Prix.

Most notably, he was involved in a horrendous accident in the pitlane where he basically crashed into two of his mechanics. Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured. Perhaps it can partly be explained by nerves and the fact that it was his first ever F1 pitstop. But it was nevertheless an unforgivable accident. He didn’t shine too much in qualifying either.

However, his race driving was pretty hot. He set the fifth fastest lap of the race, ahead of Fernando Alonso and fancied team mate Nico Rosberg. He powered through the field to finish 10th. This has been a year of notable rookie performances, and for me, Nakajima’s Brazilian Grand Prix is up there.

20 — Rubens Barrichello

I know that the Honda was a shockingly bad car. But let’s face facts here. Jenson Button outperformed Barrichello all year. Whereas Button fought to get fast, Barrichello let the car’s poor performance get him down. It’s a far cry from his heroic days at Stewart. If he’s not over the hill, he’s certainly given up climbing it.

19 — Scott Speed

An F1 career wasted. Either Scott Speed simply wasn’t fast enough, or his career was ruined by Red Bull / Toro Rosso bosses. He had a few good drives, making a particularly good attempt at Monaco where the Toro Rosso car worked well. But of his retirements, more were down to accidents and driver error than mechanical failure.

It’s all water under the bridge now though as Scott Speed heads off to forge a new career in stock cars in the USA.

18 — Vitantonio Liuzzi

As Scott Speed, but with some points. Liuzzi also shone at Monaco. At one point in qualifying he was running among the front-runners — setting the fourth-fastest time in Q1 — until a set-up change ruined it all. He eventually qualified 13th and had an unlucky race, being crashed out by Coulthard.

Things looked up a bit towards the end of the season. It became clear that the Toro Rosso was pretty handy in the wet, and Liuzzi was able to wring out some respectable results — almost scoring in Japan and finishing 6th in China. However, he was still outperformed by team mate Sebastian Vettel towards the end of the season. Overall though, Liuzzi’s qualifying performances tended to outshine those of his team mate, whether it was Speed or Vettel.

Midway through the season it was clear that, as with Scott Speed, Liuzzi’s relationship with the management at Toro Rosso had broken down. So he won’t remain at Toro Rosso. Is this the last we’ve seen of Liuzzi? I feel as though he’s had a lot of bad luck in his career. It is only a few years ago that the F3000 champion was being talked about as a future Ferrari driver.

17 — Jarno Trulli

Toyota is like an old folk’s home. But a one where they pay you to stay there. I guess this was just like 2006 for Jarno Trulli, but with fewer jibes about the “Trulli train”, the phenomenon whereby everybody gets stuck behind Jarno Trulli and the leaders disappear off into the distance. I give him one more year in F1.

16 — Giancarlo Fisichella

It’s much the same with Giancarlo Fisichella. In fact, when you look at it, the careers of Trulli and Fisichella have followed extraordinarily similar paths. The broke onto the scene with Minardi, then had some promising stints at Benetton / Renault and some wilderness years at Jordan.

Since then they have diverged a bit, with Trulli going to the Panasonic Toyota Retirement Home and Fisichella constantly being given the benefit of the doubt by Renault. It is clear that Fisichella is not as fast as some people once thought. Outclassed entirely by Alonso and now by rookie Heikki Kovalainen, it is obvious that Fisi is on the wane, big time.

He lucked in to an extension of his Renault contract with the departure of Alonso. Now it might happen again if Kovalainen moves. Expect Nelsinho Piquet to give him a pasting in 2008.

15 — Adrian Sutil

I am not sure if my placing of Adrian Sutil is a little on the high side. It is difficult to tell when a driver is in the worst car. But in a way, it is this very fact that makes me place him so high.

Sutil is a bit of a question mark. Some people seem to be quite impressed with him, while others think he is nothing special. But for me, the facts speak for themselves. He was only outqualified twice all year, and three different drivers were up against him in that Spyker.

It would be fascinating to see how he measures up in a better car. My gut feeling is that Sutil is a competent driver like, say, Button rather than a truly fast driver like Alonso.

14 — Takuma Sato

Takuma Sato has further cemented his reputation as the greatest driver ever to come out of Japan. He has outshone Anthony Davidson for most of the year, if not in qualifying then certainly in the races. Who could forget the moment when Sato overtook Alonso in Canada? I was jumping with joy. Certainly one of the best moments of the year.

That’s my view on the back half of the field. Next week I’ll post my thoughts on the other 13 drivers who competed this year.