Saturday, 20 November 2010

My Top 10 F1 Drivers of 2010: One to Five

Top 10 drivers' rankings are all the rage these days. So I've decided to compile one of my very own. Just as a cowardly disclaimer, these are of course purely personal selections and I'm prepared to accept that there may be very defensible reasons for an alternative order.

This is the top five, the remainder are to follow. Here goes...

1: Fernando Alonso
One of the many reasons that the 2010 season was a great one was the return of Fernando Alonso to where he belongs - at the business end of the grid. It just shows what we'd been missing (and what a waste it was) in his last two years struggling with a mainly mediocre Renault.

After his Renault interregnum, preceded by a well-documented McLaren soap opera, Alonso finally had the opportunity to remind us all of his talent and why he is rated so highly in the sport. On track his brilliant tenacity, intensity and, less well-documented, his extreme pace were relentlessnessly on show. However, you could argue that Alonso was even more impressive off the track, building the Ferrari team around him as he had in this championship years at Renault, and providing the team with direction, motivation and technical feedback that they have been missing for a while and have historically responded so well to. This, more than anything else, emphatically reversed what many had seen as Ferrari's terminal decline post-Todt, Brawn, Schumacher et al.

It took an while for this completely come to fruition though. After an impressive win on the opening day in Bahrain, his season entered something of a mini trough. Ferrari were breathless behind the pace of the Red Bulls (and to a lesser extent, the McLaren f-duct) and their first serious round of technical upgrades in Spain made the car slower if anything. Worse, Alonso made a succession of uncharacteristic errors, probably trying to make up the gap single-handed, such as jumping the start(!) in China and pranging a barrier in practice at Monaco, consigning him to start at the back. Between times though the tenacious performances were there for all to see, and his run at Malaysia was perhaps the most impressive of anyone all season, running all day at comparable pace to Massa, Button and others without a clutch from the get-go.

In many ways, Alonso's season turned after the Turkish race. After an underwhelming race, quite a bit behind his team mate, he had the confidence to give his team a very public technical 'hurry up'. From that point on Alonso never failed to be a contender. Canada could have brought victory but for being mucked about by backmarkers, and then a technical upgrade introduced in Valencia leapfrogged Alonso's Ferrari into sniffing distance of victory. This was all Alonso needed.

Unfortunately, bad luck in Valencia and Silverstone meant few points from both rounds, leaving him 47 points from the top of the table. There was some concealed laughter as Alonso still maintained that he would be champion this year, but the laughter subsided as he went on to record a series of brilliant performances, claiming four victories and seven podiums in the last nine races. His victories at Monza and Singapore were vintage Alonso, and few can claim to match them for quality at any point this season. Only a disastrous team call on strategy in the final round cost him what would have been a stunning title won not in the best car. The driver of the year in my book.

2: Lewis Hamilton
It seems strange to think that this is only Lewis Hamilton's fourth year in the sport, such is his establishment in the top order. This year was no exception to the previous ones, Lewis's flair, aggression and stunning pace were consistently on show, and he underlined his long won crown of F1's best and most exciting racer, with a seemingly never-ending succession of overtakes.

For much of the season Lewis also allied these considerable talents to a new restraint and maturity. Examples include his patient probing of the front running Red Bulls in Turkey ending in their self-inflicted implosion, never giving the quicker Webber a moment's peace in running to second at Silverstone, and the marvellously calm and measured victory in changeable conditions at Spa. Abu Dhabi, Suzuka, Canada - the list of prodigiously quick and mature performances seems endless and the story is the same.

These were also achieved with a threat from within. Team mate Jenson Button arrived in the McLaren team as world champion and a considerable threat. His easy charm getting his feet under the McLaren table very rapidly, and further pressuring Lewis with two impressive early-season wins in changeable conditions. From Spain onwards however Jenson rarely saw Lewis on the track.

Indeed, had this list been complied after the Belgian race Lewis would have been a decisive number one, as well as would have claimed one of the most impressive world champion wins, not in the quickest car, the sport has seen. However, in subsequent races Lewis's season and performances slipped at precisely the wrong moment. He put himself out of the race halfway around the first lap at Monza, ill-advisedly sticking his nose down the inside of Felipe Massa when in a strong position. This was followed by another DNF at Singapore, again making contact with another car, this time Webber. It was harder to attribute to blame for this one, but with the championship at stake squeezing Webber to the extent he did was at least impolitic. These two bouts of nil points let his rivals back into title reckoning which they never relinquished, and his run was topped off by a smash in Suzuka practice, putting him on the back foot for the weekend that his championship chances, by his own admission, realistically faded away. Twice in the late races he was frightened off the road by Alonso.

Still, the old Lewis returned in Korea, where he somehow manhandled a difficult car to finish second place, and in Abu Dhabi where he harassed leader Vettel's quicker Red Bull throughout.

Lewis demonstrated this year that he is a formidable competitor, has suitably matured over his time in F1 and is at least as good as any of his rivals. If McLaren provide a car worthy of his talents in 2011 then watch him fly.

3: Sebastian Vettel
By far the season's most consistent front runner and pace setter, five fine victories and ending up as the sport's youngest ever world champion. Not a bad return for young Seb.

Indeed, but for various bouts of unreliability Seb would have wrapped up the title much sooner than the last race. Estimates for points cost from this vary, but it could be anything up to 66. Vettel's astonishing pace and talents were on show for much of the season, ten poles, many claimed under extreme pressure, are testament to this. Like Clark and Ascari, he's at his imperious best when leading from the front, often to the point where you feel that the result is set for the day almost immediately. In Malaysia, Japan, Brazil and Abu Dhabi the opposition were utterly on their knees from the first corner. Indeed, Vettel's best race may have come at a race where he didn't take any points at all. At Korea, in tricky conditions, Vettel was able to pull out seconds on the cars behind him in the first laps in racing conditions, showing incredible bravery, commitment and immediate sixth sense of where the limit is.

However, Vettel's season was something of a patchwork quilt, much as it was for the other title contenders. The feeling persists somewhat that, even with the unreliability, Alonso and Hamilton may have wrapped up the title sooner than Vettel managed had they had access to a Red Bull.

The first two races probably would have brought victories but for some of the unreliability already mentioned, and then in Malaysia Vettel led dominantly to win in the style that we've become accustomed to. But then came a frustrating mid-season run wherein Vettel struggled to consistently get it together: team mate Webber was often faster and Vettel appeared to at times be at war with himself. Gone was the ready smile of the previous season, replaced by a a frown and occasional brattishness. Webber recorded devastating back-to-back victories in Spain and Monaco left Vettel somewhat nonplussed, and the tangle with Webber in Turkey, more his fault than Webber's and putting him out, has a good claim to be his season's low point.

Performances continued to be mixed throughout the summer, before another smash in Spa, wherein he drove into the side of Jenson Button, which along with the resultant penalty dropped him out of contention. At that point it seemed to be open season on Seb, with many, mainly in the McLaren camp, not missing an opportunity to twist the knife and question both Vettel's abilities and his mental state.

If these people thought that such attacks would destroy the young German it turned out they were completely misguided. Vettel subsequently hit his best form of the season, and this, perhaps more than anything else, was the most impressive aspect of Vettel's performance this year. Seeming to enjoy his role as the hunter, he put an unorthodox strategy to good use to salvage fourth at Monza, and from that point on seemed to be leaving his rivals breathless just about everywhere. But for being pipped in qualifying at Singapore by an Alonso special and his engine failure late on in Korea, Seb could well have claimed the last five race wins of the year.

So, all the talent, commitment and pace is there (as is the world championship), while cutting out the errors and having more of an ability to make the best of it when not at the front are on top of his to-do list.

4: Mark Webber
Mark Webber was in many ways the revelation of this season. He's probably entitled to be disappointed with ending up fourth in the list - to be honest the top four could feasibly have gone in any order. But just like F1, someone's got to come first and someone got to come last however competitive things are!

The common assumption at the season's outset was that Webber would be a firm number two in the Red Bulls' championship assault. Yet for most of the year Webber was pretty much on or quicker than Vettel's pace. He further allied this with a calmness and an ability to bring the car home in a good postion that his team mate didn't always have, meaning for much of the summer the Australian was the championship's pace setter in terms of points. It perhaps underlines just how much the broken leg sustained before the 2009 season had taken out of him then, as well as the extent he'd been under-rated in previous seasons.

After an iffy opening few flyaway races, Webber's best form of the season was at the start of the European rounds. His wins from pole in Spain and Monaco were probably the most decisive that anyone achieved all season, and left his team mate unconvincingly pointing a finger at a faulty chassis. The good form was rudely interrupted by Vettel driving into him at Turkey, and the team's public apportioning of blame for this incident, along with 'front wing gate' at Silverstone, for many indicated that Webber's good performances had to some extent been achieved while swimming against the tide within the Red Bull team when faced against his team mate.

Still, he made this underdog persona work for him with a series of gritty drives throughout the summer, including two more impressive wins at Silverstone and Hungary, which seemed to put the championship into the palm of his hand.

It was therefore a pity that his performances seemed to slip in the last quarter of season, letting Vettel and Alonso leapfrog him the table. Whether this represented a 'tightening up' as the season reached squeaky bum time, or simply that Alonso and Vettel found another level, is not clear. But Webber didn't always do himself justice and things gradually unravelled for him, first with an accident in Korea's rain, then an ill-advised attempt to rekindle his underdog status with his comments about the team before Brazil, completed with an unfathomably underwhelming performance in Abu Dhabi.

As it transpired, the two weak bookends cost Webber the title. The talk of this being his last chance to be champion is overstated though. The Red Bull will no doubt be strong next season, and Webber won't be minded to defer to his team mate. Just like this season.

5: Jenson Button
It seems odd to think that in a season where he ended up fifth in the table that Jenson's Button's reputation has been enhanced among many previous doubters in comparison to his title-winning year in 2009. Such are the strange ways of F1.

Leaving Brawn/Mercedes to take on Lewis Hamilton in his own fiefdom was widely thought to be, as Sir Humphrey Appleby might have said, courageous. But the decision has since been fully justified and Jenson can certainly be thought to have given a good account of himself, this despite being out-qualified 14 times by Hamilton, and being 26 points behind him in the final reckoning.

His integration into the McLaren was double-quick, and he appeared to be getting the upper hand internally with two early season wins in wet-dry events in Australia and China. Both owed a great deal to keeping a calm head to change tyres at exactly the right time, as well as an almost super human ability to keep his tyres in shape. It's reasonable to think that Hamilton's new-found maturity and restraint displayed this year owes something to his team mate's influence.

However, from Spain onwards Hamilton managed to reassert himself, displaying a relentless pace and brio that Jenson couldn't quite match. While on race day Jenson's pace was often comparable to his team mate's, increasingly tepid qualifying performances often gave him too much to do on a Sunday. Still, his abilities to come through the pack, either through strategy or overtaking, were again on display in races such as Silverstone and Brazil.

There was still time for one more stellar performance, at Monza where he had the confidence to take a totally different set up path from his team mate, and led most of the race in a mesmerising toe-to-toe with Alonso, eventually losing out at the pit stops and having to settle for second.

Most impressively, of the five championship contenders he's the only one who can claim not to have thrown away points through errors. Next year, with a year's feet under the table at McLaren, should he sort his qualifying out he could start giving Hamilton, and the rest, a bit more to think about.

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