Monday, 9 December 2013

My Top Ten Drivers of 2013

Here is my personal rating of the top ten F1 drivers of the 2013 season, seeking to take into account their performance under the circumstances they were in as well as the machinery that they had access to.

A run down of my views on the drivers who didn't make the top ten will follow in the next few days.

Photo: Octane Photography
1. Sebastian Vettel
There can only be one number one. The overarching plot line of the F1 year just passed was all about the latest steps forward made by the prodigious Sebastian Vettel, him further exploring the outer territory of what is required to be a complete F1 performer. In 2013 he was formidable.

As it was for everyone else for Seb it was a season of two halves: pre and post the mid-year Pirelli changes. Yet it's probably instructive that Vettel mastered both. Early in the year, even though the delicate Pirelli rubber didn't always suit, he quickly adopted the role of man to beat: incrementally establishing a clear championship lead via dominant wins when his machine allowed and sizeable point hauls when it didn't.

Then after the summer break Seb was on a pedestal; such was his clamp on first place that race weekends became strictly a battle over second place at the very most. Seb's path to victory was indeed familiar, yet devastating in its repeated execution: take pole with a stunning lap as if it's yours by right; blast off the line and be seconds clear in the opening laps with devastating pace enacted like flicking a switch; manage the gap to the rest and your limited-resource Pirellis from there; make any passes quickly and decisively; and still be at the front when the chequered flag falls. Familiar, yes. Predictable too. But no less impressive for that.

And in a year wherein he always seemed to be pressing, almost always was at the front, from him there were almost no mistakes. Seeking examples wherein he erred is revealing only in its paucity: tapping a wall and later running across the grass in Canada; slightly damaging his front wing against Jenson Button in Hungary; being slightly scrappy in Japan. But that's your lot from a 19-race season. And on the broader level it's possible that Seb never once threw away points this year; that every time he maximised the possible result. Whichever way you define it, his 2013 campaign was just about flawless.

Perhaps it said something that the only chink in his armour made this year was self-inflicted: that around Malaysia wherein Seb allowed his competitive instincts to get the better of him and he rather ambushed an unsuspecting team mate in Mark Webber, against team orders, to win. And his response - all apologetic in the immediate aftermath; unrepentant three weeks later - was bewildering. Perhaps it showed the limitations of seeking to maintain two rather disparate Sebastian Vettels: the smiling, cherubic media darling, and the ruthless self-seeker on-track.

Yet these days Sebastian Vettel is a driver without obvious weakness. He has stunning pace on a single lap as well as in races that he can summon at will. His brain power in managing a race and mental strength in repelling pressure and attempts at needle bear comparison with the very best in F1 history. No one in contemporary F1 works as hard as he; takes such a holistic approach. His overtakes - previously an area where he was criticised - are these days crisp and assured. Somehow after winning everything there is to win repeatedly his motivation and spontaneous joy in achievement appear absolutely undiminished. And on top of all of this he has the confidence and reinforcement that habitual success brings.

Moreover, 2013 was surely the year wherein even many of Vettel's most hardened doubters will have been converted. Only professional churls and contrarians can by now be maintaining the view that Seb isn't all that.

Photo: Octane Photography
2. Fernando Alonso
There is no shortage of comparisons made between the Vettel-Red Bull reign of triumph now with that of Michael Schumacher-Ferrari roughly a decade earlier. There are some parallels indeed; but as is usually the case such comparisons aren't necessarily wholly applicable. With Schumi-Ferrari at the height of their powers even if you somehow managed to get your machine onto something like the level of the Ferrari you still had the driver factor to contend with: few doubted then that Schumi was the standard bearer. With Vettel and Red Bull this isn't universally thought to be the case, not quite anyway, as there is one man elsewhere who plenty reckon ensures that they do not have such comfort. The argument stands; many take the view that should Fernando Alonso ever over a season have access to a car nearly as good as any of the rest then the Spaniard's personal offering will be capable of making up the rest of the difference. And appropriately this season he was the last man left still standing before the Vettel-Red Bull juggernaut.

It's easy to see why. His driving campaign in 2013 wasn't quite the magnificent canvas of 12 months ago, but then it was never going to be. But what we did get was close, and retained many of the characteristics of his classic 2012 effort. For yet another year he was by far the best thing about the floundering Ferrari squad. He spent much of the year scaling sheer cliff edges, often giving the impression that he was carrying his F138 on his back. Seeing his rise on race day from lowly grid slots via a series of aggressive and often improbable overtakes and imperturbable pushing for the duration remained an expectation. Starts like a scalded cat and barreling past rivals on the inside or outside (it never seems to really matter to him) at turn one and in the opening laps were similarly customary features. In Spain and Belgium his efforts herein were quintessential. And to underline his efforts he finished up second in the table, and comfortably, in a car that by consensus was the fourth best out there. In the latter part of the year most reckoned it wasn't even that. Given this, he must have doing something rather more than merely right.

And yet the season started with it looking like Ferrari just might be getting it right finally. The F138 in Alonso's hands looked perhaps the best thing out there on race day in the very early rounds, and Alonso won imperiously in China and Spain, as well as got a strong second place in Australia beaten only on strategy by Raikkonen and Lotus. In Malaysia and Bahrain though potential wins were scuppered by car/team failures combined with small errors from Alonso, which in either case were punished ruthlessly. But what really did for Alonso's title hopes was a couple of things: one is that a lot of the F138's early-season pace was down to having a gentle touch on the fragile Pirelli tyres, but for various reasons the playing field was tilted against this, first with Pirelli selecting more conservative compounds and then the tyres being changed mid-year. But the main thing that did for Ferrari was its by now familiar technical shortcomings, with botched upgrades in Canada and Britain losing the Scuderia momentum that never was recovered. Then mid-year Alonso's relationship with Ferrari, for reasons unknown, started to show strain. But still, there was little outward sign of Alonso letting his standards slip for the season's remainder, despite the slightly overexcited claims to the contrary of some onlookers. His keeping his loud pedal on full even while clattering over a sequence hefty kerbs in Abu Dhabi - experiencing a 25G impact as he did so and earning himself a trip to hospital - to ensure that he cleared Jean-Eric Vergne for position, as well as his heroic clinging to the faster Red Bulls in Brazil, even though little was at stake, underlined this.

Perhaps it's as Clive James once said of Niki Lauda, from Alonso these days a miracle is the least we except, so somehow his achievements seem not sensational, merely satisfactory. None of us though - least of all Ferrari - should lose sight of the fact that miracles remain miracles, regardless of our expectations.

Photo: Octane Photography
3. Kimi Raikkonen
There was much optimism around when Kimi Raikkonen won the 2013 season-opening round in Melbourne, and did so decisively. It followed further from a highly encouraging pre-season for Kimi and his Lotus team, and in a single afternoon the Finn catapulted himself right into the very centre of the drivers' championship considerations. It looked like it could well be the dawn of an Ice age.

Yet it didn't work out that way. Nowhere else did Kimi win; only a couple of times did he really threaten to. But even Kimi's Melbourne crowning glory contained some clues of this outcome: there he qualified only in seventh place, and while the race opened up to him somewhat - he was on the tail of the leading trio within a couple of laps of the get-go - and it's hard to count on that happening every time. And indeed a week later in Malaysia he got graphic demonstration of this, spending the whole race mired in traffic. Worse, the Kimi/Lotus combination slid away from the cutting edge pace in subsequent races (Lotus for a time falling back in the development battle), and the creeping conservatism of Pirelli in its compound selections suited the famous for being gentle on rubber Lotus less than most. Before you knew it Kimi's title chances were filed firmly under 'long shot'.

But for the most part this season was a continuation of his impressive 2012 for Kimi Raikkonen: taking a fine-handling machine that's probably without equal in tyre longevity, and putting it to good use with fast, consistent races wherein you'd bet your life on him making the chequered flag, and it would be usually for a healthy points haul having risen from a gentleman's grid slot and a cautious first couple of laps. Sebastian Vettel was before long a distant speck on the horizon in championship terms (as he was for everyone else) but Kimi's approach ensured that he was right in the thick of the fight for runner-up. And in Germany things for Lotus picked up and Kimi very nearly won there, hounding Vettel for the win late on, as well as ghosted forward in that way of his for another strong second place in the following round in Hungary.

Kimi's season unravelled somewhat after the summer break however. In Belgium his record run of finishes ended with a brake problem, then at Monza his day was compromised by colliding with a wandering Sergio Perez at turn one. Then from Singapore onwards Kimi's team mate Romain Grosjean fairly consistently got the upper hand in races and - especially - qualifying. Romain had improved certainly, but equally it seemed Kimi might have lost something. It was said that Kimi didn't find the revised tyres on offer from Hungary onwards to his liking, and took a similar view on the long-wheelbase Lotus introduced at Monza. These may be so, but equally it doesn't entirely offer Kimi a way out, given it seems to betray a certain fussiness over handling, the sort that held him back at Ferrari. He claimed a couple more podium finishes in Singapore and Korea, which were impressive enough, but also both owed a little to the cards dealt by a mid-race safety car period falling his way.

But also while all this was going on that his love affair with Lotus was long over - thanks to the issue of unpaid wages - became increasingly apparent, and had whatever cover that remained was blown away by furious radio exchanges towards the end of the Indian race. Kimi not completing the season seemed a genuine possibility. Indeed it came to pass, but not for the reasons we predicted: as he sat out the final two rounds due to undergoing a back operation. His slightly clumsy first corner contact having been sent to the back of the grid in Abu Dhabi for a technical infringement thus was unexpectedly the last we saw of him in 2013.

Perhaps appropriately, there is rather a lot of the enigma about Raikkonen and in more ways than one. He remains very popular, and many of course rate him among or even as the very best of the very best. His ability to bring the thing home and to points-gather seems irrefutable. And yet there was a whisper among engineers in the paddock that there is something a little illusory about it and that the E21 was a car a bit closer to the Red Bull than Kimi tended to make it look this season. Next year with Kimi back at Ferrari and up against Fernando Alonso we'll get a degree of clarity on this whole matter.

Photo: Octane Photography
4. Lewis Hamilton
There is a thin line between madness and genius, as the saying goes. And this time last year we all were convinced that Lewis Hamilton had indeed committed an act of madness on his F1 career: choosing to flee from his perennial-front-runner McLaren nest to settle at perennial-underachievers Mercedes. Yet it shows once again that nobody knows anything - one year on and Lewis's choice looks inspired: McLaren having unfathomably fallen from its perch, and Mercedes finally getting it right, or at least a lot closer to right than it has at any point since its return as an F1 constructor.

Yet for the prodigiously-talented Lewis the shift wasn't always seamless, as getting his new machine to his taste - particularly via its brakes, and braking had long since been one of his trump cards - was a bit of a knotted problem. Plus the delicate Pirellis and the resultant need, especially in the opening rounds, to nurse them carefully didn't sit well with his press-on instincts. His frustrated radio barbs on the way to a lapped twelfth place finish in Spain was probably his season's low point. Moreover Lewis had to face a team mate who, perhaps to the surprise of a few, was threatening to get the upper hand. While Lewis was struggling relatively Nico Rosberg helped himself to three poles on the bounce and then after the final of those claimed Merc's first win of the year, and utterly imperiously, at Monaco of all places.

Then came the fightback, which reminded us that a driver of Lewis's worth was never going to be down forever. In Canada Lewis left Nico far behind on the way to third place, then in Silverstone Lewis undertook possibly the drive of the season. A puncture took him out of a comfortable lead, yet his fighting recovery drive to fourth place at the end, and hounding Alonso for the final podium appearance, was something to behold. In Germany Lewis sank grudgingly from pole in what proved to be the last of the Mercedes plus Pirelli 'specials'. And in Hungary Lewis finally gathered in his freshman Mercedes race victory, at a venue that has long been a happy hunting ground for him. His drive was all acrobatic pace and control, dusted with immediate and aggressive overtakes (his pass on Mark Webber was particularly memorable); arguably it was the most impressive win of anyone all year. Within this run Lewis also seized four pole positions in a row, all of which were fine efforts, some of which were unexpected. All of a sudden it was Nico's turn to feel a little bewildered, and we recalled Jenson Button's warning at the time of his former team mate's lean spell that there will be days wherein Lewis's sheer speed will leave you gasping. In 2013 there were plenty of examples that showed that all of the scarcely credible pace and flair is still there.

In the latter part of the year though things were rarely as good again for Lewis and indeed again for a time Nico got the upper-hand on him. This was however - at least in part - down to having a cracked chassis, and he was unlucky on occasion with punctures in Monza and Suzuka that precluded better results, as did some unfathomable pitwall calls from his team, particularly in Korea. And come Austin with a new tub underneath him he looked a lot like his old self with a spirited run to fourth. But Lewis this year displayed conspicuous emotional peaks and valleys out of the car too - and a tendency to beat himself up - that some who've worked with him closely reckon impacts his driving and not in a good way.

But let's not forget that when Lewis made his Mercedes decision it was justified largely by it being a good place to be when the new rules come in for 2014, given it's a works engine team. So much of the progress on show this year was ahead of time. And next year, if such prophecies are correct, and if also the Mercedes engine is as good as everyone says it is, and Lewis in the cockpit can extract his formidable best with regularity, then we might just have something unstoppable.

Photo: Octane Photography
5. Nico Rosberg
Finally this year we were bound to get the answer to one of contemporary F1's longest-lingering questions: 'just how good is Nico Rosberg?'. And via his very public intra-team comparison with none other than Lewis Hamilton we had it confirmed that Nico Rosberg is very good indeed.

It was all of little surprise however to many at Mercedes - including Ross Brawn - who had been working with him already. OK - Lewis as intimated didn't always find his new silver mount to his taste, and in these challenging circumstances it's possible that Nico raised his game too. But whatever is the case Nico's efforts in the 2013 campaign are not to be belittled and many onlookers - including this author - had to cede inauspiciously that they'd probably been maligning him somewhat before now. Alongside the instinctive and rapid Hamilton there are few places to hide, and whichever way you slice it Nico stacked up very well.

Rosberg ended the year with just 18 points fewer than Lewis, while the score was eight-apiece in being ahead when both finished; Nico claimed four podiums to Lewis's five, while on wins Nico was ahead: two to one. And this is despite Nico bearing the brunt of the Mercedes unreliability - having three failures to Lewis's none - as well as, notoriously, being on the rough end of team orders in Malaysia. Nico stacked up well in qualifying too (in a way that Jenson Button almost never did when partnering Lewis), starting ahead of Lewis eight times, including five times in the final nine rounds.

Rather like Button had at McLaren in the same situation, Nico appeared to approach his challenge by knuckling down and getting on with it, ensure he was always finishing and gathering points (indeed he scored everywhere aside from the three lots of unreliability already mentioned) and not allowing himself to be perturbed or disheartened on the inevitable days when Lewis would leave him behind. But perhaps even this sells Nico short, as there were plenty of occasions both on Saturdays and Sundays in 2013 that he took on Lewis on pace and came out on top.

We had the earliest indication that Nico was not going to cede meekly to Lewis from the off in Melbourne, with some fine pace in practice as well as in the early parts of qualifying. Nico soon helped himself to three poles in a row, the first of which in Bahrain was glowing testament to his cerebral approach: getting the most out of delicate Pirellis by a cautious sector one and then blitzing sectors two and three. Not long afterwards Nico was the first Mercedes driver in 2013 to get to the top step of the podium, and therein at Monaco all he was on a pedestal all weekend. Lewis - like everyone else - was left rather stunned. Lewis inevitably fought back from here yet Nico continued to give a good account of himself. His other win, at Silverstone, was rather inherited but at Singapore he was strong and unlucky to not get a better result, while in India and Abu Dhabi his progress to podiums seemed quiet, but were of a high quality.

It's not for nothing that in 2013 the conventional paddock wisdom was that the Mercedes driving line up was the best out there. And it was by no means down only to ratings of Nico Rosberg's stable mate.

Photo: Octane Photography
6. Nico Hulkenberg
Once again, in 2013 the Hulk was incredible. Nico Hulkenberg just as he did in the latter part of 2012 spent much of this season underlining that he's a driver with everything that you could ask for: one with all of the traits of a habitual front-runner and race-winner; perhaps even of a champion. He's confident, consistent, makes few mistakes, is effective and assured in wheel-to-wheel battle as well as appears unperturbed by reputation and status - when running among the sport's most haughty names, as he did often in the latter part of this year, by every inch he absolutely belonged. His record in the junior formulae is close to exemplary. Even his personality seems a plus-point: affable, mature and rounded in the Mark Webber mold. And most important of all he is extremely quick both on a qualifying lap and throughout a race.

Even over and above these perhaps his brain power utilised behind the wheel - another trait we associate with the very highest echelon of drivers - is his most impressive asset. This was shown most noticeably in his race-long rearguard in the Korean race, when for example he was happy to let Lewis Hamilton pass him at turn one, knowing his adversary would get marbles on his tyres and thus he'd be able to pass him back right away.

In the early part of the year Hulkenberg's apparent side-step from Force India to Sauber looked spectacularly ill-timed. The ambitious C32 wasn't competitive, and most surprisingly it appeared shorn of its predecessor's magic touch on the tyres. It gave Hulk's season the outward appearance of being a slow burner. In reality though it wasn't - not in terms of his personal contribution. He made the best of it, getting his machine consistently around the edge of the top 10, probably higher than it deserved, while in China he had a cameo run at the front and in Malaysia he ran and finished close to Kimi Raikkonen. A pit lane collision with Jean-Eric Vergne in Spain - which looked a little borne of frustration - was about the only black mark. And then when the car got good from Monza onwards - assisted by the mid-year tyre switch plus a rear end and exhaust solution that became the envy of much of the paddock - once again few were left in doubt of his star quality. Hulkenberg was among the top ten - often well among the top ten - habitually, displaying all of the attributes listed above and doing so meeting after meeting: Monza, Singapore, India, Japan and Austin were all drives that any pilot would have been proud of. His fourth place in Korea, staying unruffled and resolute with the brooding presences of Alonso and Hamilton behind for much of the way, was his crowning glory.

Hulkenberg is of course is victim of the - cash-strapped - age in which he operates. As Alain Prost noted, had the Hulk been around a generation earlier he long ago would have had contracts from the top five teams on his table, leaving him only with the nice problem of selecting one to sign. And he's been unfortunate too: probably had the Ferrari-Alonso relationship not entered a rocky patch, or had Kimi not signed on the line, Hulkenberg would be a Scuderia driver by now. He certainly would be a Lotus driver if not for that team's financial woes. And as if to prove that it doesn't rain but it pours, the matter of Hulk's weight and it not being conducive to prevailing under next season's technical rules lingers. But as things are the Hulk is to make yet another side-step for 2014, this time back to Force India, in part because Sauber wasn't being robust in getting his retainer to him. It seems that in the absence of a briefcase full of cash his only option is to keep on doing what he's doing. Surely even in the warped mindset of the leading F1 team principal Hulk's claims cannot be ignored forever.

Photo: Octane Photography
7. Romain Grosjean
What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago Romain Grosjean was a pariah. Derided commonly as a crasher; considered fortunate to retain his Lotus drive, even if it was strictly on a by-the-fingernails basis. But now we have in Grosjean the latest reminder that we should be careful in writing any F1 driver off, even if F1 more than most pursuits tends to make its collective mind up rather quickly. But nevertheless there were some - including crucially among the Lotus senior management - who recognised that Grosjean had the fundamentals in terms of pace and talent, and was therefore worth a bit more persevering with than is usually afforded. The task was to knock off the rough edges, and do so without losing the said fundamentals

And in the course of 2013 they did; the redemption of Romain Grosjean was one of the stories of F1 2013 - and one of the most welcome ones too. But in the opening rounds of the year it looked rather a lot like more of the same. He drove well to beat Raikkonen in Malaysia, and his Bahrain podium appearance was welcome. Additionally in his defence he was on occasion impeded by car problems as well as - particularly in Melbourne - by conspicuously second-best service from his Lotus team in comparison with that of his stable mate. But at the bottom line it looked like the same old from him: often strong pace but scuppered by too frequent errors. And Monaco was the nadir, Grosjean shunting twice in practice then driving into Daniel Ricciardo in the race. Plenty didn't envisage him being around much longer.

Yet even within his Monaco long dark night of the soul he showed his innate skill, demonstrating great speed between his scrapes as well as getting out on track with minutes to spare in Q1 (a result of his FP3 smash) and immediately banging in a great lap time, in the most challenging circumstances of a drying track in Monaco, to make it into the next session. The following race in Canada was spoiled by the ten-place grid drop as a result of the Monaco crash, but at the round after that Grosjean finally turned things around. He qualified ahead of Raikkonen in Silverstone, then in Germany things got even better, Grosjean looking perhaps even the favourite to win when running close to leader Vettel and with newer tyres - based on getting incredible longevity on the soft tyre in his opening stint - only to be scuppered by a mid-race safety car. In Hungary too he was combative and quick, though did err with clumsy contact with Jenson Button. But thankfully that was a last hurrah of the bad-old Grosjean rather than a slipping back to old ways.

And from Singapore onwards Grosjean's star really rose, not only leading the Lotus charge persistently in qualifying and races but being almost as persistently the haughty Red Bull team's closest, some would say only, race-day challenger. All the while he showed that he had sorted his old weaknesses by being assured and robust with other cars around and flawless when under pressure. Four podiums in five races were his reward - the last one in Austin probably being the best of the lot: splitting the apparently untouchable Red Bulls to finish second and never putting a wheel wrong with Mark Webber not far behind for much of the way. Lotus reckons much of the improvement from Grosjean has been psychological - that he now can concentrate on the essentials more effectively and it's clear that he no longer panics with other cars around. Grosjean noted before the season end that he has indeed been getting help in this area. And of course whatever is the case good results invariably will have a reinforcing effect of their own.

Had this list been based on Silverstone onwards then Grosjean would have been in the top five; possibly comfortably so. If it was an assessment of making the most conspicuous improvement on before he'd without doubt be on top.

Photo: Octane Photography
8. Mark Webber
The season turned out to be Mark Webber's F1 swansong. And for all of the fondness of the farewell from the fraternity sadly the campaign was one of broad frustration for him, and of the familiar sort. It was another year in a formula not to his taste, with fragile Pirelli tyres that rather work against his strengths and with exhaust-blown diffusers that he's never been able to master in the same way as his team mate Sebastian Vettel. Persistent poor starts left him swimming against the tide race after race. Conspiracy theorists continued to maintain that he was the recipient of the lion's share of technical problems and other team errors. And while his team mate racked up the wins Webber was left with scraps. Whichever way it is interpreted 13 triumphs for Vettel versus none for him is hard to defend.

Perhaps the opening two rounds rather hammered home that 2013 was going to be more of the same for the popular Australian. In Melbourne he started on the front row but another iffy start shop-soiled his race, and a distant sixth place was all that he could muster, while Malaysia we all know about. The act and especially the reaction of the Red Bull team's senior management perhaps served to underline Webber's status within that organisation (i.e. as 'the other driver'). Possibly related to this (though the man himself insisted not) as well as the factors outlined in the opening paragraph, not far into the season Webber was plotting his F1 exit and indeed at Silverstone he confirmed that come 2014 he would be driving Porsches in LMP1.

In fairness to him though there was next-to no sign outwardly that he viewed this year's races as mere things to be got through. Webber continued to give his all, continued to push, continued to be uncompromising in battle. And there remained occasions when he could all see him perform at his very best. His attack from the pack at Silverstone - the very weekend in which he announced that he'd be off at the season's end - was rugged, determined and fast, just what we've come to expect from him, and oh-so nearly resulted in a win. In Hungary there was a similar performance from him in rising from starting tenth to finish fourth on a contrary strategy. In Monza he showed typical spirit in his race-long battle with Alonso. While in Suzuka he led the Red Bull charge and reckoned (as did many) that he'd have had a better chance of victory with another strategy. While his pole lap in Abu Dhabi was a timely reminder that he's always been capable of going toe-to-toe with Seb on pace in ideal circumstances.

And on his final day as an F1 driver he indeed sprinted over the line. In Interlagos he looked typically combative throughout, and made fine passes on Rosberg, Hamilton (especially - around the outside of Ferradura) and twice on Alonso to claim the runner up spot. And while he didn't quite have the legs of his victorious team mate he kept him more than honest.

And there Webber gave the impression of being reading to step away from F1; of being at peace with his decision. This may gladden us, but at the same time most of us will feel a pang of regret that his wry observations and mature outlook off the track, as well as his all-action drives on it, are now a thing of F1 past.

Photo: Octane Photography
9. Jenson Button
Jenson Button is yet another on this list who must feel like this time last year may just as well have been in another age. Then he ended the year in good form, in possibly the quickest car out there and with his rapid team mate off to pastures new. Many - including this author - had him down as a 2013 championship contender. Not a favourite perhaps, but a contender nonetheless. Yet little did he or anyone else know that his team was about to undergo its most underwhelming season ever in its McLaren International guise, with not a single podium finish for the first time since 1980.

In the face of this unexpected adversity Jenson made pretty good on it early on, with a ninth place finish in Australia, fifth in China and he likely would have replicated the latter result in Malaysia but for a botched pit stop. And all the drives were typical Jenson: smooth progress and a sympathetic touch on his tyres, and most reckoned they flattered his recalcitrant set of wheels. But after then there followed a few races wherein he didn't really distinguish himself beyond his making of complaints about his team mate's driving standards, and it wasn't always that clear if Jenson was better than his car.

Things picked up from Germany onwards though, after incremental improvements to the McLaren as well as the tyre changes that appeared to also help his car's competitiveness Jenson was a more consistent presence well within the top ten, with his Germany and Belgium races among the better of them. On the other hand one or two efforts, such as in Austin, still remained rather tepid. Yet he topped his season off with his best result - and probably his best drive - of the year in coming fourth in Brazil with a classic Button performance: classy, consistent, aggressive when required. Nevertheless, some - including within the McLaren team - began to wonder at points of the campaign if that with a disappointing car and without Lewis Hamilton on his case anymore Jenson was quite bringing his best every time.

All in, Jenson Button was perfectly worthy in 2013. He did his job in a professional manner, brought the thing home just about every time, gathered points, and put his new team mate in the shade over the piece of course. He also avoided errors as well as avoided conspicuous rages or sulks with the team (though he came fairly close in some of his complaints about new partner Sergio Perez) - appearing to maintain a calm and equilibrium throughout.

But perhaps that's it, that while there wasn't a great deal wrong with what Button did on track this year, there was an element that perhaps he wasn't most appropriate driver for the situation that McLaren found itself in. The contented, sunny and affable Button - who's achieved everything he'd ever wanted from his F1 career with his 2009 world championship - doesn't seem the snarling, impatient sort who'd bang his fists on tables demanding improvement and wouldn't relent until the improvement arrived. With this it's probably not coincidence that the Woking team made little attempt to conceal its wooing of the (snarling, impatient) Fernando Alonso, and many reckon a mooted 2015 switch has a lot of mileage. All of a sudden, Jenson Button is drinking in F1's last chance saloon.

Photo: Octane Photography
10. Paul di Resta
Paul di Resta is not the most likely recipient of popularity awards; some of the reasons for this seem apparent, others less so. Perhaps it owes in part to an image out of the car that is all stern severity (that of the 'dour Scot' to coin a phrase), and a similarly unexciting one in it, one who ghosts into good positions via long strategies rather than forcibly seizes them in on-track battle. His habit of criticising his team in public no doubt irks a few (for what it's worth those closest to him insist these are not the characteristics of an objectionable character, but rather one who is serious about his driving as well as his career progression - thus is keen that he's not blamed personally for team errors - as well as has high standards of himself and others). Yet when it comes to actually getting the job done where it really matters it becomes much harder to find fault with Paul di Resta.

Nico Hulkenberg is rightly lauded these days, and history seems to have decided that last year when he and di Resta paired up at Force India in 2012 that the Hulk emerged well on top. Less well-remembered is that prior to a conspicuous slump in the final six races (which di Resta attributed to a cracked chassis) di Resta was the one with the whip hand, being 44-31 up on points. Whatever was the case though following the said slump di Resta entered 2013 without much room for error given the choppy waters his career had entered. But before long into this campaign he had steered his ship away from it: benefiting from a surprisingly competitive and gentle-on-the-tyres Force India he scored points in seven of the first eight rounds as well as got the better of his new/old stable mate Adrian Sutil firmly. His run to fourth in Bahrain, wherein he ran in the top three for much of the distance only to lose out to a more freshly-tyred Grosjean late on, was his high-tide watermark. And for all that some had cited the lack of examples of his aggression when wheel-to-wheel his spirited dice with Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone was a revelation in this regard (and those who'd tracked di Resta pre-F1 knew that he lacked little here).

But then... after Silverstone the tyres changed of course, and there is little doubt that the change impeded Force India more than most - the team had apparently put most of its resource onto the 2014 car, and rather entered a technical blind alley in response to the Pirelli switch. And worse for di Resta he not long later crashed out of four rounds in a row. The Spa one was definitely not his doing, but those in Monza and Korea almost as assuredly were (though in Monza di Resta had the mitigation of a weekend set back significantly by a brake failure-induced crash in Saturday practice). The other, in Singapore, was the most curious, as well as the most regrettable: di Resta couldn't work out what the error was and the team telemetry didn't offer anything obvious either. But the end result was the same, and sadly F1 doesn't always pay heed to such nuance.

It was a pity too as Singapore looked to be the race that he finally bounced back in. After starting seventeenth di Resta somehow got to lap 20 on the set of supersofts that he started with, on a day that most swapped boots between laps 11 and 15 (even Vettel only made it to lap 17). This vaulted di Resta right into the mix for a big points haul, and while a safety car period didn't really favour him he stayed in the fight until his late excursion spoiled it all.

But he was nevertheless able to undertake a fightback: his P11 in Suzuka was by consensus more than his car deserved, while he ended his points drought with P8 in India and then went ever better in Abu Dhabi with a P6 finish. And at the end of it all it added up to 48 points, not too far off double that of his team mate Adrian Sutil, just one shy of Sergio Perez who had access to an undoubtedly superior McLaren. And yet it is di Resta that - at the time of writing - faces F1's exit door, with the two diminished figures among others apparently being retained within the charmed circle. Strange are the ways of the F1 team principal.


  1. Good list mate :) I reckon you might have over-hyped Raikkonen a little but that's it really; my Top 10 would be something like this;

    1. Vettel (obviously)
    2. Alonso (Best of the rest)
    3. Hamilton (Hungary win, impressive poles, took a beating in the beginning; should have been 3rd in Championship)
    4. Rosberg (2 wins, lots of poles, kept Lewis honest)
    5. Hulkenberg (sheer brilliance, criminally ignored by Ferrari, Lotus, McLaren)
    6. Raikkonen (left on a sour note, good performances on occasion)
    7. Grosjean (That second half comeback)
    8. Bottas (Canada Quali, USA race)
    9. Massa (showed up Alonso every now and again)
    10. Chilton (finishing all 19 races in a rookie season - no first lap DNF's)

    Webber - well, 13 wins vs. none speaks for itself. That's a inter-team thrashing like any other I've ever seen. Webbo just wanted the season to be over from Britain onwards.

    Button & Perez - Not sure what they could have achieved in a good car. We'll never know.

    Di Resta - unremarkable. Finally losing the hype that surrounded him. Same for Sutil. Both are mediocre in the end.

    Maldonado - Says that his season was his best yet - Seriously? The guy is good, but not better than Hulk. Frustrating that money speaks louder that driving.

    Bianchi - should have been picked up by Force India. Deserves a better car.

    1. Thanks. Nice to see alternative lists too. I've noticed a few lists having Raikkonen lower down than I've placed him. Hey ho... :)

      Kimi apart though it's good to see our lists are pretty similar down to about seventh place.

      Just to pick up on a couple of points, I keep on hearing people say di Resta's been hyped (or similar) and it *really* confuses me. I can't think of any instances of him being hyped, not disproportionate to his abilities anyway. What praise he's got has been deserved in my view.

      As for Pastor, I'm often a bit of a defender of him. This year's Williams wasn't a car for him to show his abilities, and I got the impression he wasn't as crashy as in 2012 (though you could argue that's not saying much). And Austin apart there was little to choose between him and Bottas this year. He's not perfect of course, but I think he's not nearly as bad as some are saying right now.

  2. With respect to the difference between di Resta and Hulkenberg in 2012, it must be remembered that Hulkenberg was coming from a year out of competitive racing.

    1. The Singapore race that I mentioned, after which di Resta was ahead by 44 points to 31, was *14* races into the season. Hulkenberg would have been long since up to speed after his year as a tester. Or at least he should have been.