Sunday 21 November 2010

My Top 10 F1 Drivers of 2010: Six to Ten

Following on from one to five below... 

6: Robert Kubica
Robert Kubica is another who may be disappointed with where he's ended up in this list. To an extent, if we're purely to judge drivers on what they achieved with the equipment at their disposal then Kubica would certainly be placed comfortably within the top five. But there also has to be a premium on fighting at the front for wins and the championship when judging drivers, the pressure is of an entirely different level (and pressure does funny things to all of us).

These considerations aren't to take anything away from Kubica, who, after a slightly underwhelming and frustrating 2009 in the lame duck BMW (in which he was outscored by team mate Nick Heidfeld), successfully restored his formidable reputation this year. Like Alonso, he appeared to successfully build his team around him and galvanise them, ending what many thought was a terminal decline. Some in the Renault camp rated him better than Alonso in this regard - high praise indeed. Also like Alonso, he seemed to be getting the absolute maximum from his machinery, and consistently. Unlike Alonso, he didn't pepper this with mistakes, I cannot recall an error of Kubica's costing him points this year.

Kubica's finishing and qualifying records are models of consistent brilliance, and he didn't miss an opportunity to give the front runners hell when such moments arose. He qualified in the top three at the three circuits where the driver has the biggest potential to impact the outcome - Monaco, Spa and Suzuka. At Singapore, Silverstone and elsewhere he showed that there's nothing wrong with his abilities when wheel-to-wheel either.

Consistent, good with the team, bloody quick - with all due respect to Renault it's unfathomable why none of the 'big four' have found a place in their line-up for Robert Kubica.

7: Nico Rosberg
It says something about the strangeness of the 2010 season that Nico Rosberg can join the world champion constructor, comprehensively outperform the mighty Michael Schumacher, but never finish higher than third place, and still divide opinion on his ultimate potential.

Of course, Schumi's disappointing performances make him a difficult yardstick - it's not clear if this causes us to underrate Rosberg, or whether Schumi's struggles flattered his young compatriot.

Rosberg certainly impressed many upon stepping into (close to a) front-running car for the first time. His consistency was impressive, and he showed a strong ability to stay out of trouble, avoid errors, and let races come to him, which arguably is the best approach when you don't have a front running car. His strong finishes at China, Silverstone and Abu Dhabi were quintessential examples of the fruits of this, as was his record of fifteen points finishes. Few championship points were 'left out of the track' by Nico this year. Many in the pit lane rate him very highly.

But there are still some doubts as to his ultimate pace and edge, and whether he has the ability to find those vital final tenths required to be a real top-level driver. There was very little of the opportunistic penetration of the front runners, in qualifying or the races, that we saw on occasion from Kubica, after all.

So, is Nico Rosberg the real deal as many in F1 believe? Or is he simply a better version of Nick Heidfeld? Next year, with a stoked up Schumi on his case, we'll get more of an idea.

8: Rubens Barrichello
Anyone remember the 1992 Australian Grand Prix? Gerhard Berger won in his last race for McLaren, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna had the last of their many altercations, putting both out, before Our Nige went off to drive Indycars and play golf. Well, that was the last race of the pre-Barrichello era of F1. Extraordinary to think, isn't it?

It's become something of a cliche, but no less remarkable for that, but where on earth does the man get his motivation from? This year was his 18th as an F1 driver, and at no point has his enthusiasm outwardly dimmed.

And this season leaving the world champion constructors to join midfield runners proved to not be any challenge to Rubinho's enthusiasm. He immediately got his shoulder behind their efforts, and firmly put team mate and fast young thing Nico Hulkenberg in his place from the get-go, eventually outqualifying him 13 to 6, and outscoring him 47 to 22 (I wonder what Rubinho's thoughts were upon finding out he'd be paired with the 'new Schumacher' this year!). Further, his keeping his right foot firmly to the floor as Schumi tried to wipe him out against the Hungary pitwall, to claim the final point for 10th place, was all you needed to know about how Rubinho's racing fire still burns.

Rubens's technical feedback and experience were put to good use, which the Williams' gradual climb up the grid as the season progressed, against teams with bigger development budgets, testified.

The Williams team, not usually given to hyperbole, were extremely impressed with Barrichello's all round game. Sam Michael said: "Why was Rubens never world champion? For us he is the best possible driver. He brings the car home, does not make mistakes, takes every opportunity coming his way and is an incredibly good car developer and despite his age is still extremely fast".

Here's to year nineteen!

9: Adrian Sutil
Adrian Sutil was another whose stock rose in 2010. He, for the most part at least, curbed his tendency to make contact with other cars and the scenery, to deliver a series of solid finishes, many of which were in the points.

His season took off in Malaysia, where he exploited an advantageous qualifying position to come home fifth, holding off Hamilton for many laps. This was the start of a strong mid-season run of finishes, scoring points in nine rounds within a 13 round stretch, which included another fifth place at Spa.

These showings were enough to be linked with moves to more competitive teams, such as Mercedes and Renault. However, around about the same point Sutil seemed to take his eye off the ball a bit, and performances slipped a little in the latter races of the season. Korea, wherein his hooligan antics with failing brakes were enough to get him a fine and a grid-drop, was clearly the low point (though public trashing of his team mate in Brazil wasn't clever either). It's not clear whether this drop off was down to Force India being left behind a little in the development race, or Sutil being distracted by mooted interest from elsewhere.

Whatever the case, Sutil will need to show some killer instinct next year if he's to get his move to a front running team.

10: Felipe Massa
A desperately disappointing and underwhelming season for Felipe. The base facts are that he was comprehensively out qualified, out raced and out scored by team mate Alonso, and rarely did he show the form that got him within about 20 seconds of winning the title in 2008.

The possible reasons for this state of affairs are well-worn. Massa himself attributes much of it to not being able to get heat into his tyres for his qualifying runs, though that was pooh-poohed somewhat by Bridgestone, and in any case doesn't explain his relative lack of pace compared with his team mate on race day as well.

Others reckon that Massa not being fully recovered, either physically or psychologically, from his near fatal accident last year is the primary cause. This may be part of it, though it doesn't explain why, if anything, Massa's best performances relative to his team mate were in pre-season testing and in the opening races of the season.

Which points us towards perhaps the most likely explanation for Felipe's woes: namely that Alonso was consistently quicker than Massa, and this 'did Felipe's head in'. In Alonso he faced a relentlessness of opponent on the track and autocratic figure off it the like of which he'd never faced with Raikkonen. Indeed, among F1 drivers, certainly the top ones, Massa seems remarkably vulnerable to confidence. When it's up, as it was for most of 2008, he can perform prodigies. If not...

And on a related point, those who point to Massa being asked to cede his lead to Alonso at Hockenheim as an explanation may overstate the case, and certainly confuse cause with effect to a large extent. Massa was struggling to get near to Alonso even before Hockenheim (which is a lot of the reason why Ferrari made the call they did). Indeed, Massa's average finishing position was slightly better after Hockenheim than before. Hockenheim-gate did not help though, and it certainly contributed to what appeared to be a rather strained relationship between driver and team towards the end of the season.

Still, in the middle of this, Massa's ability to bring the car home was good this year. Only in Japan did he not finish, and there was five strong podium runs. And of course at Hockenheim he looked just like his old self.

With a clean slate and Pirelli tyres next year, who knows what may happen. Felipe has surprised us before.

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