Sunday, 21 November 2010

My Top 10 F1 Drivers of 2010: The Rest...

A big draw back with compiling a top 10 of drivers is the arbitrary way you have to draw a line under the tenth driver. In an attempt to redress that, here are my thoughts on the 2010 F1 drivers that didn't make it into the top 10. 

Kamui Kobayashi came oh-so-close to pipping Felipe Massa for tenth place in the list. He started the year with a promising reputation, after two impressive, if wild, drives for Toyota at the end of last season. This year Peter Sauber's reputation for picking out a young driver (see Raikkonen, Massa etc) seemed to be under threat for a time, as Kobayashi struggled to get to grips with the sport and only maintained the 'wild' part of his 'fast and wild' persona. Three first lap accidents in the first eight races pointed to this, as did the fact he was hardly blowing away his team mate. His season gradually turned around though, qualifying in tenth in Spain and finishing tenth in Turkey. But the real watershed was his run in Valencia, running a long stint on the primes (in a way that became fashionable) before a late dash on the options including impressive outbraking maneuvers on Alonso and Buemi. His progress was underlined by being firmly quicker than Nick Heidfeld when he arrived in the team, as well as the faith Peter Sauber has shown by making Kobayashi his lead driver for 2011, guiding the rookie Sergio Perez. If nothing else, his overtakes usually provide a diversion in dull races.

Alongside Kobayashi, Pedro de la Rosa, who was surprisingly brought into a race seat for the first time since 2006, was safe enough as you'd expect, as well as gave his team mate a good run for his money pace-wise. Like Kobayashi, he struggled initially with car unreliability, though as things improved he scored his only points of the year with seventh place in Hungary. However, there had been some signs of tensions within the team and de la Rosa was dumped after the Italian race. His replacement, Nick Heidfeld, while typically keeping his nose clean, seems to have continued his uncanny ability to position himself away from potential drives. Having spent last winter holding out for a Mercedes seat that never came, he didn't really ever completely get on Kobayashi's pace in his five races, and now finds himself without a drive for 2011. A pity, as there's probably none better at bringing the car home, and he's rarely been embarrassed pace-wise by team mates such as Raikkonen, Massa, Kubica and the like. You'd think he'd be perfect for one of the new teams.

To go through the rest of the drivers by the order of the numbering on the entry list, immediately beings us to Michael Schumacher. Like Felipe Massa, his performances have been among the most unfathomably poor of anyone, and subject to much speculation. The topline is that Schumi was comprehensively outqualified (often by several tenths) and outraced by team mate Rosberg, and performances varied with no great pattern between the passable and barely competent. Worse, one of the few aspects that Schumi seemed to retain from his previous life was extreme aggression: hooligan performances at Canada and Singapore, as well as his egregious attempt to put Barrichello into the pitwall at Hungary, were the worst examples. However, his performance at Suzuka seemed to reinvigorate him and there was enough in the last four races to suggest he might give a better account of himself next year.

Nico Hulkenberg arrived in F1 this year with a 'new Schumi' tag (though he's not the first one). Initially though he struggled, both to get on terms with his team mate and to keep his car pointing straight and in one piece. He was smart enough to learn and performances gradually improved throughout the year, and he scored six points finishes from Britain onwards. A magnificent and brave pole on a drying track in Brazil was the high point, and his robust defence of his position the next day was also impressive. He's perhaps not quite the new Schumi, but is easily good enough for F1 and unlucky to be dropped by Williams for next year. Money talks, as always.

Vitaly Petrov, like Hulkenberg, arrived in F1 this year in a midfield team as an impressive GP2 graduate. However, Petrov has spent most of the season not getting near to team mate Kubica (though that admittedly is a graveyard shift), and in so doing having a lot of accidents. Crashing on an out lap in Spa qualifying 'testing how wet a kerb was' was particularly embarrassing. There were flashes of potential, he kept out of trouble well in China, put in a great performance to qualify seventh and finish fifth in Hungary (both ahead of Kubica), then of course he showed new-found calm and precision in holding off Alonso for 40 laps in Abu Dhabi. That last race could turn out to be the making of him, and he deserves another go. Unlike Hulkenberg, he has plenty of sponsors' cash to oil the wheels.

Vitantonio Liuzzi got his 'second chance' in F1 this season with Force India, having impressed when brought into the team for the final races of 2009. Unfortunately he didn't do much to take advantage of the opportunity, being consistently away from Sutil's pace. There was the odd good performance, such as at Canada when he recovered well from a first corner clash, and in Korea where he stayed out of trouble in the wet, but there didn't seem to be sustained progress at any point. He'll probably lose his drive to Paul di Resta for 2011, a pity as his F3000 record shows there is talent there somewhere, it's just he's never been able to extract it consistently in an F1 setting.

Given their commitment to young drivers it's always difficult to judge the Toro Rosso pilots, lacking as they do an experienced driver to offer more of an indication of where they're at. This year was no exception. Sebastien Buemi was generally the better of the two taking the season as a whole, and outscored team mate Jaime Alguersuari by eight to five and outqualified him 11 to 8. However, Buemi's season was a little disappointing. After showing solid progress in 2009, turning heads in a few top teams, his progress seemed to plateau in 2010, and in the last few races was consistently outperformed by Alguersuari. Alguersuari at least stopped the accidents that characterised his 2009 debut, and showed he wasn't to be cowed by bigger names in Malaysia and Australia. In the weird world of F1 he is being more widely touted for a step up than Buemi is, given he now has the momentum.

That leaves the newbies. Of the new teams (not including Sauber who don't really count) Lotus were the most impressive, and of the two Lotus drivers Heikki Kovalainen was definitely the more impressive. Despite dropping down from McLaren he showed huge enthusiasm and industry for the fledgling Lotus project, which the team clearly responded to. Jarno Trulli on the other hand spent a lot of the season giving the outward impression he wanted to be somewhere else. The qualifying pace was usually still there, outqualifying Kovalainen 11 to 8, but the races were rather mediocre when compared with Kovalainen's and punctuated by occasional poor judgement, such as parking on top of Karun Chandhok at Monaco. Story of his career, really.

If Lotus were the most impressive of the newbies then HRT were definitely the least. Their ill-preparation before (and including) the opening weekend of the year must have made Bernie cringe, and the car's evil handling, which barley seemed to improve as the season went on, made it hard to judge their pilots. Indeed, they seemed something of a throw back to some of the tail end teams of the 80s and early 90s, where you felt budding drivers should steer clear if they knew what was good for them, even if it meant staying in lower formulae.

In Karun Chandhok's case it went to an extreme, not getting so much of a minute of experience with the car before the start of Bahrain qualifying, his phlegmatic attitude in the face of this was impressive. While Bruno Senna was generally the faster, Chandhok brought it home more consistently, and scored two 14th places which ensured HRT wouldn't be bottom of the constructors' table. Being replaced by Sakon Yamamoto mid-season, while dictated by financial necessity, was nevertheless harsh (though if all else fails Karun surely has a future as an F1 commentator). Senna got his head down initially, and generally outperformed his rotating cast of team mates. Unfortunately, having Christian Klien step into the other HRT and immediately outperform him by a second a lap (at Singapore, one of the year's trickiest tracks) didn't reflect well on him. It took until Abu Dhabi for Senna to make a fight back, but by then the dye may have set. Yamamoto certainly didn't disgrace himself having been thrown into the deep end, and kept out of trouble, which was probably all that was expected of him. He also looked quite racy at his home track. As for HRT, just reaching the end of the year represents an achievement, but the collapse of the Toyota link-up leaves them in a quandary.

Which leaves Virgin. To a large extent Timo Glock's performance shadowed Kovalainen's, in that he displayed a positive attitude and hard work to push the team on, having arrived from a bigger team. The Virgin was clearly a few tenths down on the Lotus, but he got on with doing his best to get among them, and never seemed to let his chin drop. He could well have been on for a strong finish in Korea, only to be wiped out by Sebastien Buemi. Lucas di Grassi finally got his chance in F1 in the other Virgin seat. He rarely got on terms with Glock, but showed when he had an opportunity that he's a strong racer and not cowed by reputation, see his dice with Schumi at Australia and with Alonso in Monaco. He also qualified ahead of Glock at Suzuka, but it's a pity that trashing his car on the way to the grid there may be his defining act in F1 for many.

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