2009 mid-season driver rankings: part 2

10. Kimi Räikkönen

Increasingly, Kimi Räikkönen comes across as a disinterested Formula 1 driver. Any sense that last year may have been a blip has faded further. In Räikkönen’s favour, it is clear that his Ferrari car is probably one of the worst he has driven in years. But once again he is being outclassed by Felipe Massa.

His season has not been without its highlights. Räikkönen was the first to score a point for Ferrari in Bahrain, and has produced Ferrari’s one and only podium, in Monaco, after almost grabbing pole with an awesome lap in qualifying. But Massa has strung together a more impressive and consistent run of results.

9. Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton is having a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde year. He began the season putting in some very impressive performances in a car that patently wasn’t up to the job. So he was battling for 3rd in Australia, and grabbed a superb 4th in Bahrain. But he has also made a couple of catastrophic errors, most notably during qualifying at Monaco. The team felt they had a good chance of getting a good result, but Hamilton binned the car during qualifying and lined up last on the grid.

Interestingly, at the start of the year Hamilton came across as frustrated and terse during interviews, yet he was putting in good performances. Today he is more relaxed, but his performances are sloppier (witness his mistakes at Silverstone). I wonder if he has given up trying. Not the spirit you like to see as a fan. This is a learning year for Hamilton, and I’m sure he’ll emerge at the other end as a much more complete driver, but a lot depends on his attitude from now on.

8. Jarno Trulli

Trulli has had a decent season. As the Toyota’s performance has dropped off, his race results have not dropped off as much as Glock’s have. His qualifying performances are as great as always, and he has grabbed another pole position in Bahrain this year. But unusually, his race performances seem to be holding up quite well.

In fact, this year Trulli’s Achilles’ heel seems to be his starts. His starts at Silverstone and Spain were particularly sluggish. Beyond that, it’s difficult to find any real fault in Trulli’s performances this year so far.

7. Fernando Alonso

I find it difficult to say much about Fernando Alonso this year. I have not noticed him an awful lot, and nothing about his results sticks out. He is doing exactly what you expect him to, which for most drivers is great. But I expect something more from Alonso.

Clearly, his car is not good. But at the start of last year his car was not very good either. In fairness, this time last year I felt disappointed with Alonso too. Then I placed him 8th. Let’s see what he can do in the second half of this season.

6. Felipe Massa

Massa is having a fairly solid season. The only real goof he has made is a bit of a ragged performance in qualifying at Monaco, which he rectified for the race by finishing 4th.

Apart from that, he has produced the obligatory good performance at Turkey, and he put last year’s Silverstone nightmare behind him to finish 4th. He also came very close to scoring a great result at China before his car broke down. He was thwarted in Spain by a fuel problem that was no fault of his own.

5. Nico Rosberg

This year I think Nico Rosberg is doing the business. At last! In general, I have been disappointed at the way Rosberg’s career has unfolded. But this year you have to say that his performances are very consistent, and he is regularly scoring respectable amounts of points.

The jury is out on whether the Williams is a good car or not. My impression is that, despite the glory-runs in practice sessions, the Williams is not up to scratch and is very firmly a midfield car. Just have a look at what Nakajima is doing. The gap between the Williams drivers in the Drivers’ Championship (7th to 20th) is larger than any other team mate battle, even Alonso versus Piquet. In this respect, you have to applaud Nico Rosberg this year.

4. Rubens Barrichello

It’s Lazarus! Just five months ago it seemed as though Barrichello was never going to race in F1 again. Now look at him — 2nd in the World Drivers’ Championship. In truth, though, the superiority of the Brawn car flatters Barrichello.

For the most part this season, Barrichello’s driving has been a bit sloppy, and he now looks past his best. This reminds me a lot of David Coulthard’s season last year. Take his crash-tastic Australian Grand Prix, or his lacklustre performance in Turkey.

One thing that Barrichello has going for him is that he seems to be driving the way Brawn’s weekend unfolds as a team. We hear about how Button makes heavy use of Barrichello’s set-up data, and you get the sense that it has saved the Brit’s skin a few times this year.

3. Mark Webber

After years of unfulfilled promise, Mark Webber finally has a car that allows him to deliver the goods. And his performances so far are not too bad. Webber’s experience has been put to good use, and his superior racecraft has allowed him to gazump Vettel on the occasions when the German has got bogged down behind another car.

But there is a major question mark over his qualifying performances. Sebastian Vettel has outqualified him in every race so far. And that first win still eludes him. He will be hoping to change that in the second half of the season. He’s got to if he wants to challenge for the Championship. This could be the best opportunity of his career.

2. Sebastian Vettel

I don’t think many can have expected Vettel to be challenging for the Championship so early on in his career. Most will have expected him to make a move to a bigger team before being in that position. But given a surprisingly good Red Bull car, Vettel already faces his big opportunity.

So far, it is clear that he is not a complete driver. Probably not ready to win the World Championship. His qualifying performances are usually great, but he is still variable during races. Both of his wins this season have come from pole position, and he threw another opportunity away in Turkey with a disastrous first-lap mistake. And there is also now a major question mark over his ability to overtake, having got bogged down behind Hamilton in Bahrain, Massa in Spain and Button in Turkey.

1. Jenson Button

What can you say? Button has been an absolute revelation this season. I was disappointed after a dodgy 2008 from him, and he didn’t look like he had much to look forward to. Now, with a good car in his hands, the question has been: can he step up to the plate? And you have to conclude that he has.

Six wins out of eight races says it all, and Button has found himself in the odd position of being compared with names like Jim Clark and Michael Schumacher. Even Ross Brawn himself has said he is seeing similarities between Button and Schumacher.

It’s no accident, and it’s not just because he’s driving the best car. For one thing, he is easily outclassing Rubens Barrichello. But more than that, Button is now more focussed and is working harder. He has genuinely become a better driver in these circumstances. It might make him, in his words, “a right boring bastard”. But it will almost certainly win him the World Championship, and rightly so.

10 comments

  1. Except for one detail (I’m not completely sure about Nico), you’ve copied the list from my head. Thank you for sharing not only your list, but also the reasons behind it.

  2. Thanks Guille. I’m not sure about Nico either. I don’t usually rate him, but it is the gap between him and Nakajima that sealed it for me, along with the sheer consistency of his results.

  3. Excellent commentary. A few thoughts:

    #10/Kimi- Thanks for not mentioning the Malaysia thing!… I was worried that his nickname was going to change from Ice Man to Ice Cream Man. People forget that just 26 hours before he decided not to run in a restart, he’d nearly been choked to death in noxious fumes from his KERS… You can see how he wouldn’t want to take a voltage bucket like that out for a swim across the lake! And then, just an hour earlier, the team had bungled his tire assignments. Bad day! Nothing personal!… An uneven driver, maybe, but still a world champion. (I’ve been reviewing old seasons: His sheer animal courage in driving that shredded tire to disaster in Nurburgring ’05 is inspiring.)

    #9/Lewis: The thing about Albert Park was that even if it was a tawdry and forgivable sin, it was still completely unnecessary. You don’t have to be 30 years old or go to college to know not to tell lies…. (Even if those lies are how business is done in the sport. I want Dave Ryan to have his job back.) It took a lot diminish my admiration for Lewis, the boyband-style racing driver, but seeing him turn a cold shoulder to Rob Dennis did the job.

    Would Lewis be anywhere in the world without Dennis’ patronage? Consider some of the Lewis scandals that Dennis had to sit through, all after years of investment in the young driver:

    � The quali pissing match in Hungary

    � The Safety Car pacing error in Japan

    � The pitlane in Canada

    After all this, Lewis takes the championship and then turns his back on Ron Dennis, just because Max Mosley wants him to?

    Lewis is gifted, but it will be very hard to become a fan again.

    #4/Rubens: I think it’s Barricello who has problems with starts, just as he did in the ’90s.

    #1/Jenson: I think JB is more about smooth style than about Schumacher-type aggression. Smooth driving suits the BGP 001. One reason to enjoy this season is that the man and the machine really seem to have been made for each other.

  4. It was Nico that jumped out of the list for me too, but I understand your reasoning, Nakajima is widely regarded as showing good pace this year.

  5. I just can’t agree with Button as #1. I’ve never rated him as a driver, and all this year proves to me is that the Brawn car is just a revelation. Even as you say, he is outclassing Rubens, but as much as I like Rubens I don’t rate him as a #1 either. A good solid #2 is how I see Rubens. So the fact that Jenson is beating him (but not wiping the floor, mind, and clearly using Rubens set ups to his own advantage) really doesn’t prove much to me.

    For me, this season, the stand out driver is Webber. Maybe not so much for results – although he has had some good ones – but for the sheer tenacity he has displayed, and the visual images of him wringing everything he can get out of that Red Bull. And while Vettel has won twice, show me any times he overtook anyone to do so, or really actually, you know, raced? Webber has been in the thick of the best battles this season, and put in performances few suspected him capable of (yours truly excluded of course). Sure I think Vettel probably outclasses Webber – certainly will in the future- but I still beleive that Webber is doing the ‘driving’ of the season. Not bad for a bloke who still can’t walk properly on his not fully healed broken leg, and by all rights probably shouldn’t even be capable of racing.

    The disappointment of the season to me is Alonso. Sure the Renault is a dog, but I still fully expected Nando to be able to do something with it. Anyone else get the feeling he is just marking time? Not the Nando we know and love. I hope he gets his mojo back for the remainder of the season.

  6. Good points, Pink Peril.

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on Jenson Button. The thing that impresses me the most about him this year is the amount he has improved from last year. He was pretty lacklustre last year, but you do sense that he is really working much better this year. Ross Brawn’s comments back that up for me.

    As for Barrichello, I think it’s fairer to say that he is struggling because he is getting a bit past it now. I’m not sure if his “number 2” reputation is at play. I always thought that was a bit unfair on Barrichello. He outclassed Johnny Herbert at Stewart and did an awful lot more to assert himself at Ferrari than Eddie Irvine ever did. Not that Herbert or Irvine were all-time greats themselves, mind you…

    Great points about Webber. But for me, the missing thing is that elusive win. He may have had some good scraps this year, and outclassed Vettel a couple of times. But he is yet to cross the stripe first in his entire F1 career, and finishing 1st is the bottom line in motor racing.

    I share your disappointment about Alonso. Like I say, he could make a similar resurgence to last year. But you make a good point that he is probably just going through the motions just now — perhaps waiting until he gets in the red car to really push himself again.

  7. Well, I’ll give you that Jenson has improved over past years. Or is it just the car? I mean, he’s had it pretty easy so far… 🙂

    As for Rubens’ performance, I’d rather see Trulli pensioned off over Rubens. Trulli is another one who I can’t see what all the fuss is about, and one of the few drivers I genuinely dislike.