F1 season review: the frontrunners

This is part two of my series of posts reviewing the F1 season gone by. Last week I wrote about F1’s backmarkers. This week: my top 13 drivers.

13 — Alexander Wurz

When Alexander Wurz burst onto the scene in 1997, he was talked about as a hot prospect. I’d say he was the Nico Rosberg of his day. So the way his career panned out must be seen as a disappointment. He was unfortunate enough to fall into the trap of becoming a test driver, then becoming too good at being a test driver to be considered for a long-term drive.

His occasional races with McLaren were typical. He came across as a bit rusty, as though he had forgotten how to race as opposed to just drive the car. However, when he was on form he shone brightly.

The story was much the same this year with Williams — his first full-term drive with a team since 2000. Most of the time he looked off the pace, and was outclassed by team mate Nico Rosberg. But he had two or three stunning drives, which is why I have placed him so far up the list.

His drive in Canada led to a well-deserved third place. Of course, an element of luck was involved as the multiple safety car periods probably worked to his advantage. But even with luck playing a role, to have qualified 19th and finish on the podium is good going.

More impressive in my view, though, was Wurz’s drive at the Nürburgring. He adapted to the fiercely changeable conditions better than most. Some said this was in part due to his knowledge of the local microclimate, as he used to live just opposite the circuit. But his immense experience was also at play as he got his Williams ahead of better cars.

12 — Sebastian Vettel

In a year of excellent rookie performances, Sebastian Vettel has been overshadowed a little bit. Drafted in at short notice to deputise for Robert Kubica at Indianapolis, Vettel got a little bit spooked at the first corner, but held his nerve for the rest of the race to grab a point.

It was to be his sole race for BMW. But a few races later a vacancy appeared at Toro Rosso, and Vettel took it. Some joked that, while Vettel scored a point in his F1 début, by signing for Toro Rosso he ensured that he wouldn’t score another point until at least 2009.

Those wags turned out to be wrong. On the one hand, he did not comprehensively outperform team mate Vitantonio Liuzzi, although it looked to me as though he did a bit better than Scott Speed. But undoubtedly the Toro Rosso was handy at some circuits towards the end of the season (perhaps sometimes due to rainy conditions) which helped Vettel.

Liuzzi as well as Vettel looked good towards the end of the season, but Vettel was able to capitalise on the opportunities more. He was running in third at Fuji until his infamous collision with Mark Webber, who was effectively his team mate. It was an unforgivable mistake, no matter what the mitigating circumstances were and Vettel obviously knew it. However, he went a long way to burying the memory of that incident by finishing an incredible fourth place at the next race in China.

A lot will hinge on the competitiveness of next year’s Toro Rosso. But given a semi-decent car, Vettel will have the capability to grab highly impressive results from time to time.

11 — David Coulthard

The thing that impresses me about David Coulthard is not so much his driving ability, but the fact that he shows no sign of running out of steam. He is F1’s oldest driver, and of the current crop only Rubens Barrichello has more experience. Usually that would be a sure sign that you’re off — even if you are Michael Schumacher. But DC just keeps on going.

Results this year were mixed, but mostly impressive. He started the year badly with a ludicrously over-ambitious move on Alexander Wurz which almost decapitated the Austrian. As accidents go, it was probably even more shocking than Robert Kubica’s because it demonstrated just how vulnerable drivers still are in that open cockpit.

Coulthard also other race-ending accidents, and of course he was also often the victim of the Red Bull’s dire reliability. But when he was able to finish, it was often in an impressive position. The end of the season was particularly strong, topped by a fourth place in Japan. No podiums like in 2006, but you can’t win them all.

10 — Mark Webber

What has Mark Webber done to deserve such terrible luck? While David Coulthard had his reliability problems from time to time, Mark Webber seemed to suffer all the time. Formula1.com reports that all but one of his seven retirements was caused by either gearbox, transmission or hydraulics.

When he managed to finish a race, though, it was more often than not in a high position. He was particularly impressive in the wet, as he grabbed a podium at the Nürburgring and was lining himself up for a win at Fuji until Vettel smashed into him.

Webber was also excellent at qualifying. He is a surprisingly high seventh on this year’s ‘supergrid’ (where drivers are arranged according to average grid position).

9 — Robert Kubica

In a lot of ways Robert Kubica was a disappointment this season. There were a lot of good results — a slew of fourths and fifths. But his BMW car was handy and he was comprehensively outperformed by Nick Heidfeld.

Unfortunately, Robert Kubica’s 2007 season will mainly be remembered for that shocking accident in Montreal. For me, it was the lowest point of the season as there was a period of time where I feared the worst. It was a truly sickening accident to watch, and at one point Kubica experienced a force of 75g. Kubica was lucky to escape without any major injury (particularly since, by the end of the accident, his feet and ankles were completely exposed).

Kubica did not let the accident deter him. He was eager to take part at Indianapolis, but was ordered to take the week off by doctors. He bounced back at Magny-Cours, though, to finish fourth and went on to score in all but two of the remaining races. That is what makes people like Robert Kubica different to the likes of you and me.

8 — Nico Rosberg

I get the impression that people weren’t really sure what to make of Nico Rosberg at the end of 2006. This year he really cemented his reputation as a solid, reliable driver. Overall, he outperformed Alexander Wurz and Frank Williams seems rather keen on retaining his services. This is odd for Mr. Williams, who usually sees his drivers as disposable commodities.

Despite this, we are yet to see any real result from him. Yes, he is in the Williams which is not the best car. But even Wurz was seen towards the front of the field once or twice this year. Rosberg seems more comfortable in the midfield, and his best result is a solitary fourth (at Brazil, an awesome drive), although you’d be most likely to see him finish seventh.

Nico Rosberg is one of those drivers who is on the borderline for me. A lot will hinge on next year and how he adapts to the removal of traction control.

7 — Jenson Button

Okay, hear me out. A lot of people mocked Nick Fry when he said that this was Jenson Button’s best ever year. Indeed, Nick Fry’s unflappable optimism is often rather laughable, but I think he had a point on this matter.

Let us face facts. We all know that the Honda car was awful. And yet, Jenson Button has six points to his name this year. That is six more than Rubens Barrichello scored. In fact, Button largely outperformed Barrichello in every area this year. Button fought hard to wring results out of that car — and he managed it, particularly towards the end of the season.

I am not usually a fan of Jenson Button. However, this year has made me really appreciate how good he is in the wet. He put in an amazing qualifying performance at Fuji and was really unlucky to walk away from that race with nothing to show for it after getting involved in an accident during the race. Still, he came back in China to score an amazing fifth position.

But it was not just rainy conditions that allowed Button to score points. He broke his duck this year at the bone-dry Magny-Cours circuit. This year, Button has gone up in my estimation a great deal.

6 — Heikki Kovalainen

Kovalainen didn’t start the season too well. His Australian Grand Prix was so disastrous that Flavio Briatore said it couldn’t have been Heikki — it must have been his brother. Ouch!

But as Kovalainen got comfortable in the Renault, he began to put Giancarlo Fisichella in the shadow. His first truly great moment was in Canada. There he survived a race of attrition to finish fourth, leaving Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari behind, having started plum last.

Arguably better was his race in treacherous conditions in Fuji. He was helped out a bit by the collision between Webber and Vettel, but you wouldn’t begrudge Kovalainen the second position.

It really was a year of excellent rookie performances! Kovalainen came within a whisker of beating Tiago Monteiro’s record of most rookie race finishes in a row. Kovalainen finished every single race of the season bar Brazil, so the record — finishing his first sixteen races in a row — must be shared with Monteiro.

It is difficult to believe that Kovalainen is still uncertain to get a drive next season. He is undoubtedly talented, but it looks as though only McLaren would be willing to hire him next season — but would they want two relatively inexperienced drivers? Renault are too busy trying to woo Alonso, and reading between the lines it seems as though Kovalainen does not want to be team mates with Alonso.

5 — Felipe Massa

I still find it difficult to understand where Felipe Massa is at. He does have the ability to pull the rabbit out of the hat. He is a proven race winner, a deserved race winner indeed. And let us not forget that for the majority of the season he was McLaren’s closest rival in the Championship.

It is possible to say that the only reason he fell behind Räikkönen was because of an unlucky patch where the team messed up his qualifying chance in Hungary and a DNF in Italy due to suspension troubles. For a long time, Felipe Massa was being seriously considered as a potential World Champion.

But Massa yet again revealed himself to be far from the complete driver. He was made to look rather silly by Lewis Hamilton at Sepang. And his performance in the changeable conditions at the Nürburgring was embarrassingly bad.

You could also say that the only reason Massa was able to seize the initiative in the first place was due to the teething problems Räikkönen had at the beginning of the season. Two of his three wins were during this phase.

A lot of people were astonished that Felipe Massa had managed to extended his contract with Ferrari until 2010. I have heard that the tifosi prefer Massa to Räikkönen, but I cannot fathom why. Massa is just the sort of driver who I’d imagine would struggle without traction control, so next year will be very interesting indeed.

4 — Nick Heidfeld

It is amazing to think that a few years ago Quick Nick was almost finished in F1 terms. His lifeline came in the form of the Jordan team, which was by then deep into a trough. He impressed enough in that dire car for Williams to pick him up, and ever since he been associated with BMW.

Those years of perseverance have really paid off as he is now in a great car, with a team on the ascendancy and he has comfortably outperformed his head-turning team mate, Kubica. Who would have thought back in 2004 that Nick Heidfeld would ever rake in a points haul of 61? This is about twenty times what he got at Jordan!

Heidfeld had a slew of excellent results. He finished fourth five times, but he also scored two podiums. One was an impressive drive at Hungary where he fended off the threat from Fernando Alonso. Indeed, in Bahrain he made an amazing pass on the outside of Alonso. But he went one better at Canada to finish second in that hectic race. Nick Heidfeld comfortably established himself as the ‘best of the rest’.

3 — Lewis Hamilton

Undoubtedly the surprise of the year. Even those who raved about Hamilton’s GP2 performances were flabbergasted at just how well he was able to cope this season.

For me, his trademark is his audacious overtaking manoeuvres. At the start of the year his lightning starts were fearless as he made his way round the Alonsos and Räikkönens of this world as though they were little kids. Rivals ran wide as Hamilton drove the corners as though he were in a slot car. He psyched out Felipe Massa in Malaysia. He surprised Räikkönen at Monza with perhaps the move of the year.

Some have criticised Hamilton for being over-ambitious when overtaking. His move on Barrichello at Brazil, for instance, was derided as dangerous and stupid. But part of the art of overtaking is trying to work out if the other guy is risk-averse enough to get out of your way. If Hamilton had tried the same move on, say, Nakajima, it would be a legitimate criticism. But you have to look at the situation and say that Hamilton’s audacious overtaking moves have never yet resulted in an accident.

Lewis Hamilton’s other major strong point is his qualifying, particularly towards the end of the season. I could scarcely believe some of the lap times he managed to put in. Alonso was definitely put in the shade several times by Hamilton this season.

However, there is the bad side of Hamilton’s driving. He took several questionable actions throughout the season. His driving behind the Safety Car in Fuji was widely criticised, and was a contributory factor in the famous smash between Webber and Vettel. The employment of a crane to get his European Grand Prix going again was arguably illegal.

But his lowest moment came during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. His refusal to follow team orders and give Alonso his legitimate chance during qualifying (as per internal McLaren rules) set off a chain of events that essentially resulted in the breakdown of the relationship between Alonso and the rest of the McLaren team. Most sickeningly, the whole situation subsequently worked in Hamilton’s favour, so he felt no real punishment for his actions.

On track, too, Hamilton disappointed at the end of the season. To lose a 17 point lead in just two races when there were no mechanical problems, in a car as fast as the McLaren, just beggars belief. Hamilton’s cool head impressed at the start of the season, but clearly by the end the pressure was just too much for him.

Many will point out the fact that McLaren should not have left Hamilton out on shot tyres for so long at Shanghai. This is true, but it also ignores some important points. First of all, Hamilton was the only driver whose tyres were so badly worn out in the first place. This was due to his impatient start and his desperation to win at all costs (when he only needed fourth). Secondly, if Hamilton knew he needed new tyres he could have just pitted anyway (we all know how Hamilton likes to ignore team orders anyway!). Thirdly, it was Hamilton’s fault for entering the pits too quickly and spinning off.

Some also ask why McLaren put Hamilton on a three-stop strategy in Brazil. But the reality is that Hamilton blew his chances himself by going on the grass on the first lap. Once again, this was down to his impatience, and a desperation to take a position that he simply did not need to take.

Even leaving aside the question of whether or not Hamilton pressed the wrong button on the steering wheel, his chances were blown at that moment on the first lap. Even after that, his entire Brazilian Grand Prix performance was, in my view, quite nervy.

Overall, I would define Hamilton’s style this year as ‘impatient’. Sometimes this has worked to his advantage, as it did with his great overtaking manoeuvres at the start of the season. Sometimes it worked against him, as it did in China and Brazil. To become World Champion, Hamilton needs time to mature a bit in this respect. Perhaps he will tone down the exciting nature of his driving in order to do this.

2 — Fernando Alonso

Off the track, 2007 was a bit of a nightmare for Fernando Alonso. Even on the track it was quite bad, as his rookie team mate got the better of him on several occasions.

However, overall, Alonso’s performances were more consistent and demonstrated his extra experience. He had a few bad races. In Bahrain he was unable to fend off Nick Heidfeld, although seemingly Alonso’s car was damaged in transit, compromising grip levels. In Canada he was overtaken by Takuma Sato of all people (although Alonso was disadvantaged badly by the new Safety Car rules).

Alonso was also unusually off colour at Fuji. He spun off in the wet. It was a far cry from the Alonso we saw at Hungary in 2006.

By the end of the year it seemed clear that Alonso did not particularly want to win the Championship with McLaren. This was most obvious in Brazil. So we won’t know what he was capable of.

This year has damaged Alonso’s reputation because of certain off-track events. But on the track, Fernando Alonso is still, for my money, the best driver on the grid. However, this year he was outperformed by one driver in particular.

1 — Kimi Räikkönen

When Kimi Räikkönen burst onto the scene in 2001, who would have thought it would have taken him eight season to win his first World Championship? Räikkönen is the most experienced first time World Champion since Nigel Mansell. The debate will rage on about whether Räikkönen was unlucky with reliability at McLaren or he is a ‘car breaker’.

There are also constant question marks and innuendos about Räikkönen’s commitment to winning the World Championship and off-track antics of a different sort to what Alonso got up to. Let us not forget, though, that Räikkönen came unbearably close to winning the World Championship twice when he was at McLaren. So Räikkönen’s ability and willpower can not be in doubt.

A lot of people love Räikkönen for his cool attitude. He doesn’t give a hoot. He just gets in the car and drives the wheels off it. Meanwhile, he likes to have fun off the track. He is the closest contemporary racing drivers get to the ‘playboy’ model of the stereotypical 1970s grand prix driver.

But on race weekend his approach is laid back, not reckless. At Brazil in 2006 he famously told Martin Brundle that he couldn’t be bothered watching Pelé present Michael Schumacher with a special trophy because he was taking a shit. You really can’t get much more relaxed than that, and I’m sure he was every bit as relaxed at this year’s Brazilian Grand Prix.

In this context, it is easy to see how Räikkönen just capitalised on the spat between Hamilton and Alonso. Räikkönen was not being put off, so he just drove ahead of them, pulled back a 17 point deficit and waved goodbye to the McLarens. Brilliant.

Räikkönen has the right attitude, and when he gets in the car nothing deters him. He won six races this year, more than anyone else.

However, even Räikkönen’s season was not perfect. He had a very bad patch at the beginning of the season. The blame was put on the transition to Bridgestones and the new Ferrari car, although if this was the case then it doesn’t explain why he won so easily at the very first race in Australia.

Luca di Montezemolo had to give Räikkönen a kick up the arse via the press. It worked — and from the French Grand Prix onwards it is impossible to find fault in Räikkönen’s season. A well-deserved Championship win.

9 comments

  1. While Alonso wasn’t at his usual wet weather best at Fuji, I think his crash was more to do with damage his car suffered after he was run into by Vettel, missing 10% of his downforce.

    Good choices by the way! I was also very impressed by Button. He did a great job with a dog of a car.

  2. “However, even Räikkönen’s season was not perfect. He had a very bad patch at the beginning of the season. The blame was put on the transition to Bridgestones and the new Ferrari car, although if this was the case then it doesn’t explain why he won so easily at the very first race in Australia.”

    Ummm two words; moveable floor – later deemed illegal !
    Funny how no one ever suggests Raikkonens championship win is tainted the way they would if either Alonso or Hamilton had’ve won….

    Nor was there much outcry in the media about the illegality of the Ferrari car – the whole thing sank without a trace. Unlike the “spy saga” with McLaren.

    Just goes to show that there are one set of rules for Ferrari, and one for everyone else. Mass damper, anyone?

    I am a longtime lurker – first time poster and I know you have expounded on the subject before so I’ll let the matter drop now, but I just couldn’t let that comment pass !

  3. Yeah, that’s a very good point Pink Peril. I had completely forgotten about the moveable floor, which will have played a huge role in Räikkönen’s dominance in Australia.

    Welcome to the comments and thanks for de-lurking by the way. Feel free to join in the discussions any time. 🙂

  4. Excelent post mate!
    I’d say I mostly agree with you, however I have to say that Vettel deserves all of my praise. I would have put him in the place of Heikki in your list. Massa has to be put down, clearly the Ferrari is too much for him. He has proved to be really easy to overtake (remember ALO under the rain) and a bit feeble-minded.
    If I have to choose a pilot this year I take Quick Nick, being the “best of the rest” is hardest than being the best of the chosen, isn’t it?

  5. I think Kimi’s win in Melbourne was alright. Ferrari was just pushing the limits of the rules, which has been par for the course in F1 ever since it was founded. Remember also that Ron may have gotten the tipoff from THAT Ferrari dosier.

    However, once the Ferrari lost that grip from the floor, Kimi had to use his tires harder, therefore forcing him to learn more about the B-stones, which took sometime.

  6. Oh, I forgot to mention. I’d put Lewis ahead of Alonso (if only because it was Lewis’ rookie season and the expectations for him were much lower than Alonso’s) and Kubica ahead of Rosberg and Button (remember that he almost won in China, and did even better AFTER the Canada shunt than before it).

  7. You say of Hamilton: “To become World Champion, Hamilton needs time to mature a bit in this respect. Perhaps he will tone down the exciting nature of his driving in order to do this.”
    I disagree. I think this is what will make him into the World Champion he is destined to become in the next couple of years. He needs that ruthless and exciting streak that has served him very well. Yes, he made mistakes in his first season and I think it is these, often rather silly mistakes, that cost him the title in the end and not his so-called ‘exciting nature of his driving’.