The rest of the rankings came fairly easily to me. Perhaps that is because the spotlight is not on the lower positions so much. It doesn’t seem to matter so much whether I place Kazuki Nakajima 15th or 16th.
But the top five is really, really tough to get right. I keep on changing my mind, juggling the positions even as I write this post. Really, the number 1 position could be justified for all of these drivers. To put one of them fifth feels just wrong. But that is what I have to do.
5. Sebastian Vettel (11; 12)
I was very tempted to place Vettel higher than this, perhaps even in 2nd place. In the end, I think the young German still has more to prove before he can be that high. But there can be little doubt that Vettel will climb up these rankings next year.
In many ways, Sebastian Vettel’s first full season is just as impressive as Lewis Hamilton’s. After all, the Toro Rosso, while clearly a handy car in the right circumstances, is no McLaren. Mind you, it was an inauspicious start to the season, which saw him retire from four races on the trot, mostly as a result of accidents. But when the new Toro Rosso chassis started racing, things started to improve. Before long the car was well and truly in the groove, and Vettel rose to the occasion and performed magnificently on occasion.
The highlight was, of course, his unbelievable victory at the Italian Grand Prix. When he grabbed pole position in torrential conditions, it was a clear signal of his talent. But he floored the world by almost flawlessly taking practically a pole-to-flag victory in conditions that were far from easy.
Monza was a high watermark for the promising youngster, and it has to be said there were a few occasions where he didn’t shine nearly so brightly. But consistency will come with experience, and it is surely a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’, Sebastian Vettel finds himself in with a shout of winning the Championship one day. Whether he will achieve that in next year’s Red Bull car is debatable, but there is no doubt that they have a major star on their hands.
4. Felipe Massa (5; 5)
I can scarcely believe that I have had to place a title contender in 4th position. What makes this all the more flabbergasting is the fact that Massa has undoubtedly raised his game, stepped up to the plate and shown that he is capable of performing at the sharp end of the grid more or less throughout the season. Few drivers can have improved their reputation so much in such a short period of time.
After a rather shaky start to the season that raised questions about the Brazilian’s ability to drive without traction control, Massa withstood the pressure and ultimately passed the test as convincingly as he could have.
Strong results at Bahrain, Spain and Turkey were perhaps not expected, but they did little to dissolve the widespread scepticism about his driving abilities. What impressed were his good drives at Monaco, France and Canada, where he pulled off one of the most amazing overtaking manoeuvres I have ever seen — an audacious double-move on Rubens Barrichello and Heikki Kovalainen.
The British Grand Prix was a major disappointment, with a decidedly sluggish pace at the back of the field complemented with no fewer than six spins. This cast doubts on Massa’s abilities in the wet, not helped by another mediocre result in damp Monza. However, in fairness, it appears as though the Ferrari was a particularly poor car for rainy conditions, as Räikkönen wasn’t exactly a star in the wet this year either. Aside from those wet races, Massa’s only other poor results came as a result of Ferrari foul-ups in Hungary and Singapore that cost him a sackful of points.
Massa was a true star of this season. He may not have had a perfect season, but no-one can really say that. His behaviour after the Brazilian Grand Prix was worth a championship in itself, and it is a shame that I am unable to place him higher than 4th.
3. Lewis Hamilton (3; 3)
Well, Lewis Hamilton did it. He won the Drivers’ Championship in only his second year, becoming the youngest ever World Champion. I wouldn’t doubt he deserved it. Overall, Hamilton did a great job this season, and a much more mature, conservative, restrained approach eventually helped deliver the goods — even though it almost looked like it was too conservative until the final corner!
However, a flawless year it was not. A number of lapses in concentration cost Hamilton dearly a few times during the season. There was the infamous crash with Fernando Alonso in Bahrain, when Hamilton got spooked as a result of being in the midfield. He was the main protagonist in the pitlane pile-up in Montreal, when he lost concentration and failed to notice a red light — an almost unforgivable error. Meanwhile, a highly erratic performance at Fuji raised question marks about the Brit’s ability to stay cool under pressure.
However, ultimately Hamilton was able to come up with the goods, and for that you have to take your hat off to him. A particularly strong point of the season was a dominant couple of races at Silverstone and Hockenheim. His drive at the British Grand Prix was among the most dominant I have seen since I started watching F1 in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, his fightback from a compromised position in Germany as a result of a terrible strategy decision by McLaren was, dare I say it, Schumacher-esque. I wouldn’t say Hamilton is the rounded driver that Schumacher was, but with time that could well come.
2. Robert Kubica (1; 9)
Other drivers may have attracted spectators’ attention with glitzier, showier performances. Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel all shone in flamboyant ways. But Robert Kubica arguably did the most solid job of all the drivers in the entire grid.
Most of the other drivers on the grid also had a tendency to make mistakes. 2008 will be remembered for a lot of things, but flawless drives will not be one of them. However, Robert Kubica made very few mistakes throughout the season. Indeed, I cannot think of any real driver errors by Kubica, except for a spin in treacherous conditions at Silverstone.
In the process, he took a stunning — if slightly lucky — win at Montreal. And despite the fact that the BMW Sauber car clearly fell behind other cars in terms of development as the season went on, the Pole continued to punch above his weight. Most notably, Kubica started the Japanese Grand Prix extremely strongly until Fernando Alonso in the superior Renault car took him during the first round of pitstops.
Of course, at the end of the season the challenge of contending for the Championship proved too much for the Kubica-BMW combination. Fingers will always be pointed at the team’s decision to stop development of the car in order to focus on the 2009 effort. Only time will tell whether that was the right decision or not. But in the meantime, Kubica had a clutch of extremely strong results, but just one win. And even though he was always near the top, he never felt like a real Championship contender.
1. Fernando Alonso (8; 2)
I have long believed that Fernando Alonso is the best driver on the grid since Michael Schumacher retired. Beforehand, I may have been in a minority. People would have been more likely to cite Kimi Räikkönen or, latterly, Lewis Hamilton. However, I believe that the events of 2008 vindicate my belief, despite the fact that in terms of results 2008 was actually comparatively poor for the Spaniard.
The Renault car was clearly pretty poor when the season began. And as it became clear that Renault’s engine was falling behind in terms of development, things became even worse. It was difficult to see where improvement was going to come, and Alonso hit a mid-season slump. This was encapsulated by the fact that his team mate Nelsinho Piquet managed to grab an excellent 2nd place at Hockenheim. At that point, Alonso’s best result had been 4th at an attrition-hit Australian GP.
However, that very race was the turning point of Alonso’s season. From then on, he never finished lower than 4th, with the exception of the European Grand Prix at Valencia where Kazuki Nakajima put paid to his race before he had even completed a lap. In the last eight races of the season, Alonso scored more points than anyone else.
The Renault resurgence was completed with back-to-back wins in Singapore and Fuji. The Singapore victory did have an element of luck to it, but was no less remarkable for it. This was a sign that Renault and Alonso were back on the map. When it was followed up by a fluke-free victory in Fuji, we knew it was for real.
Alonso’s resurgence can partly be put down to Renault’s turnaround. Amazingly, Alonso seems to have avoided Renault’s worst season of recent years, 2007. Dare I say it, Renault are perhaps six tenths faster than last season. But even though the car has improved, Alonso has almost always retained his authority over his team mate Nelsinho Piquet. Alonso beat his “junior” team mate in all 18 qualifying sessions. No other driver on the grid can say that.
What a travesty that Alonso has missed out on the World Championship for two seasons in a row. The new regulations will mix things up a lot, but who is to say that Renault will be particularly disadvantaged? I think Alonso is overdue another title.