Saturday, 6 December 2014

My Top Ten Drivers of 2014

Here is my personal rating of the top ten F1 drivers of the 2014 season, seeking to take into account their performance in their circumstances 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. Daniel Ricciardo
What do we know. A guy said by some only in a Red Bull so not to pose a threat to his world champion team mate. A guy whose skill set on display in the Toro Rosso was considered by few to be complete. There were good qualifying laps of course, a Button-like smoothness and precision too. But could he race? Yet what do we know as I said? In 2014 Daniel Ricciardo is in with a shot - straight to the top of the pile.

Throughout the campaign the perma-smiling Australian demonstrated that he is a driver without much recognisable weakness. The smoothness continued and this with his related gentle touch on the Pirelli tyres allowed him most times to employ longer race strategies than his team mate Sebastian Vettel, and usually to lap more quickly as he did them. While the quali pace proved to be stunning. Indeed he managed to beat qualifying master Vettel by 12 times to 7.

Yet even within the first few rounds of this year he squeezed in confirmation that he's good at just about everything else too. He was flawless under pressure in his run to second place (on the road) in Australia and in robustly repelling Fernando Alonso in Malaysia. He was excellent in the wet, such as in Melbourne qualifying as well as later in his Hungary win. In Bahrain in his radio communication as Vettel held him up he demonstrated just how rapidly he'd got his feet under the big team's table. This was no callow new boy.

As for his ability to race? Well his crisp overtakes, usually immediate, often creative, were virtually a race-by-race occurrence. They fall from the tongue: around the outside of one Williams then the other in the wet Suzuka esses; double shuffling and smartly outbraking Vettel in Monza and Alonso in Austin; vaulting past Hamilton on the outside exit of Hungary's turn two; his unorthodox move at Bahrain's fast turn 11 on Nico Hulkenberg, allowing his opponent to block the inside line on entry so that he could cut underneath him smartly in the corner itself..

And in a season wherein the Mercedes W05 domination was exasperating, Ricciardo and only Ricciardo beat them to the chequered flag in first. Moreover he did it three times. Each of his wins were cut from the same cloth: all pace, consistency and sympathetic tyre management supplemented by neat and timely passes, and cemented by blitzing the rest at a vital juncture.

Like all good showmen he kept his strongest performance for last; from a pit lane start in Abu Dhabi he ghosted to fourth by the end without it being immediately obvious how - all pace and other-worldly tyre longevity.

Even a devil's advocate search for flaws in his canvas doesn't give us a great deal. He binned it in Suzuka practice, but homing in on that only underlines just how rare errors from him were. Possibly the closest is that - like his predecessor Mark Webber - his race launches were rather iffy. Perhaps in a car good enough to challenge for the title this would have been punished more ruthlessly.

Maybe his perma-smile and engaging personality meant a few of us were guilty of underestimating Daniel Ricciardo before this season. No one his underestimating him now.

Photo: Octane Photography
2. Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton's F1 career, and his 2014 F1 campaign in many ways, are very distinct from Daniel Ricciardo's. But this year Lewis just like the Australian demonstrated that nobody knows anything.

You only need to go back two-and-a-bit years to when most of us were convinced he'd committed career suicide by dumping McLaren for Mercedes. Yet the silver egg he laid then hatched this season, and turned out to in fact be golden. Lewis six years on added finally to his World Championship total.

Early in the season it looked for all the world indeed like he was going to achieve that well ahead of time. His car failed him immediately in Melbourne, but then he won the next four races - imperious in two and solid in defence even though his team mate Nico Rosberg looked quicker in the other two.

But then of course we had Monaco's qualifying. And after it we were witness to the closest we got this year to what might loosely be termed the bad old Lewis. It was clear what he thought of it all, and whatever the cause and effect it preceded a run of tough qualifying sessions: two in which he pushed too hard and then one, notoriously, in which he gave up too early. Dumping salt into an open wound he then barely featured in the next couple of Saturdays due to mechanical failures. They all contributed to him spending much of the year with points ground to make up. Generally indeed, curious tying up in the final throes of Q3 was something that dogged Lewis for much of the season, with it featuring again in the final round in Abu Dhabi.

Each time however he bounced back immediately and was stunning in the race. By his own admission in previous years he would not have been nearly as well equipped so to do. Once the red light had gone out he tended to be one without equal; faulting him on a Sunday in 2014 is a largely unrewarding task. He was the habitual pace setter and mistakes were few, though his spin in Brazil was a major one. And in the late rounds when he finally allowed everything to flow he was as close as is possible to unstoppable, just like early in the campaign.

And if Monaco was where Lewis's dark cloud arrived, Spa was where it passed. It was well-concealed at the time, given the clash with Nico although the German's fault benefited Rosberg to the tune of 18 points. But it all changed the mood somehow; Lewis returned to his best and his subsequent run of wins this time totalled five. In three of them he hunted down and overturned Rosberg ruthlessly. In the other two he was in a race of one. After that the title was his barring disasters, which never arrived. And his towering total of 11 victories in the campaign is hard to argue with.

Even more generally than that, in 2014 we saw apparently the most balanced and content Lewis out of the car than we had in a while, possibly than we had ever. The occasional curious behaviour and moods appeared largely shorn. And the evidence is that it had a benign impact on his driving.

Lewis also was able to demonstrate this year that, contrary to some views, he's about much more than driving fast and making stunning overtakes. For all of the expectation that his team mate would have the wood on him in understanding the new complex cars, and in nursing tyres and fuel, there in fact was almost nothing to choose on any of these. Indeed you could make a case that Lewis was superior. These days he's close to a complete top-level F1 performer, and you suspect that 2014 was just the start of something.

Photo: Octane Photography
3. Fernando Alonso
If this list was a literal ranking of what was achieved this season with the machinery to hand then Fernando Alonso would likely be top; perhaps comfortably. But also in my rankings - and while this is no way Alonso's fault - some premium is placed on being in the fight for wins and titles. So this, combined with the sheer closeness of the consideration at the top, means that with a heavy heart the magical Spaniard is placed but third.

But what Alonso did with the F14 T this year should never be underestimated. Short on downforce, wayward on the turn-in, woefully short on power, as well as with a horrid loose rear end which had a knock-on impact of chewing its tyres. Having to be sprung stiff as a board to get any sort of lap time. Simon Arron likened it to a Routemaster bus. Calling it the fifth best car out there over the piece is probably as generous as is possible. Kimi Raikkonen - a guy supposed to really challenge Alonso - as we saw for the most part could do nothing with it, and that was shown mercilessly in results from whichever angle they were viewed. Fernando alone managed somehow to make the Ferrari look just about respectable. And how. It's easily forgotten that at the time of the summer break he was even in the mix for third place in the championship; only a run of foul luck, combined with the Ferrari seeming further away from competitiveness than ever, meant that was beyond even him. Even then he was still in the thick of the scrap for fourth come the final race. Not for the first time what he did with the red machine he was handed amounted to something close to F1 alchemy.

The fact that he can maintain such an imprint on our consciousness in a year that earned him but two podium appearances, neither a win, says a lot. Alonso, time after time on the car's very outer limits, bullied his recalcitrant red machine into halfway competitive lap times, and once again did it with almost nothing in the way of conspicuous error. His familiar blend of ferocious opening laps, extreme will and consistent pace was on show in pretty much every round. He also as usual gave us some of the season's most breathtaking wheel-to-wheel action, most notably in his desperate wrangle with Vettel in Britain.

He even damn near won a race. His effort at damp but drying Hungary was astonishing, first in his combativeness to get to the front and then to stretch out the life of a single set of softs far beyond what anyone thought humanly possible. In the late laps as he gave away near-nothing to quicker cars piling up behind it all was genuinely reminiscent of Villeneuve, Jarama and all that. Only Ricciardo sneaking past with three laps left deprived him. Still it was possibly the drive of the season.

Come the second part of the year as mentioned hard luck kicked in with a penalty in Belgium, two mechanical retirements (his first in upwards of four years) plus in Singapore he looked well on the way to second place before being mucked around by a safety car appearance. And long before the season was out his Ferrari relationship was, unofficially, officially over. Yet still it was hard to cite occasions on which he gave up, or indeed provided anything sub-optimum from his machine or in battle.

It of course is a matter of huge regret that his five-year Ferrari partnership, that promised so much, did not deliver the world title that both driver and team clearly considered a minimum expectation. But Alonso has nothing to reproach himself for. Indeed when it comes to his legacy his years of hauling his red car to places it had no right to be, and consistently, will surely ensure his place among the sport's very best ever. Alonso, in 2014, as well as before at Ferrari, made even the sport's most sober observers accept the incredible as normal.

Photo: Octane Photography
4. Nico Rosberg
It seems extremely odd now to think that for years we wrestled with the 'how good is Nico Rosberg?' question. We knew he was clever; talented too. But what of his outer edge of pace? And his ability to battle? Was he, some of us wondered, much more than a better version of Nick Heidfeld?

The reply to such questions in the thumping positive for Nico started in 2013 and had its full stop provided by his 2014 campaign, one which he oh-so nearly ended as world champion. He was once again with the same equipment able to go toe-to-toe with Lewis Hamilton, never giving him a moment's rest, performing almost everywhere, and having a knack throughout of when he looked finally down and out suddenly jumping to his feet to deliver a counter-punch. There was little to choose between him and his revered stable mate on any front, and for all of the narrative of Lewis's raw pace over a single lap it was indeed Nico that was ahead in the qualifying match-up of all things. His nursing home of a sick car in Canada is right up there among the drives of the season from anyone.

For much of mid-summer Nico looked every inch a man having his time in the sun. A year in which nothing would go wrong for him, and that it would total up indeed almost inevitably to the World Championship. Lewis was having his ill-luck of course, but Nico could not at all be faulted for driving the ball firmly into the open nets presented to him.

But things started to unravel in the Hungary race when while leading an ill-timed safety car left him in the pack, then of course we had Spa - a real turning point. While the error therein was undoubtedly Nico's (and if Lewis is correct that Nico felt the need to 'prove a point' then you really have to ask why?), the reaction of his team to what appeared merely a misjudgement was excessive. And whatever was the case Nico seemed to lose a little of his swagger after that. Being taken to the cleaners by Lewis at Monza - the pivotal point being Nico leaving the track - changed the mood. Then Singapore wherein Nico barely got started due to car woes changed the mathematics. He added another vital error at the first turn in Russia. By the time Nico rediscovered his mojo the title was as good as gone.

Perhaps though the season's latter part wasn't that much of a departure, as while Nico wasn't nearly as cruise and collect as his detractors might have it he also even before Spa wasn't quite as error-free as his defenders claimed (see Monaco qualifying, Canada, Austria and in Hungary both in qualifying and the race). The only difference in the latter part was that suddenly the mistakes started to bite him. Possibly therefore it reflected merely the law of averages catching up.

But whatever your polemic of choice regarding Mercedes driver politics this year what likely deprived Rosberg of the title more than anything was that of his impressive total of 11 poles but three were converted to race wins; but two (one at Monaco...) when Lewis started alongside. It seemed that while his qualifying pace - built up analytically over a weekend - was devastating come the race with others cars around and where improvisation was more required he seemed to lose something relative to his team mate. And he admitted as much after the year ended. While others pointed out for him that not once had he made a pass on the other Merc stick in 2014.

Perhaps the irony is that while Rosberg has demonstrated by now that he is much more than a better Nick Heidfeld, it was one of the reasons we suspected he might be so in the first place that contributed most to the 2014 drivers' crown remaining out of his reach.

Photo: Octane Photography
5. Valtteri Bottas
As mentioned the contenders at the top of this ranking were tightly-packed, more so indeed than I can remember in years. And this very much applies to Valtteri Bottas, who deserves consideration and commendation alongside any of the first five. But in a competitive field small things make a difference and Bottas's slightly slow start to the campaign more than anything nudges him down to fifth place. In most other years though a season such as his would have placed him higher. In some it would have made him a contender for top spot.

The 2014 F1 season had a lot of the changing of the guard about it, and Bottas was a conspicuous part. Indeed there were a few parallels between his year and Daniel Ricciardo's; of course both are young stars that burst into an intense light when given access to a competitive car. But in addition just as Ricciardo did the Finn demonstrated that he's a pilot apparently without glaring weakness, who belongs absolutely at the front. Indeed a Finnish colleague likes to tell all that Bottas is just like Mika Hakkinen, except more intelligent.

Many have noticed the similarity, with his understated and uncomplicated persona allied to an unmistakably steely focus as well as an ability to let all bounce off him, displayed for example in the Germany and Austria races in both of which he was utterly imperturbable under severe pressure. Then there's his stunning speed and robust abilities wheel-to-wheel - seen especially in great drives in the pack in Australia, Silverstone, Monza and Abu Dhabi among others. And as for his brain power, his ability to coax life from the Pirellis has people at Williams raving.

Bottas's campaign as intimated was a little bit of a slow burner. In the season-opener in Australia while a finish in sixth (that became fifth) from 15th on the grid looks good on the face of it, that he tagged a wall and that it cost him a podium appearance was a black mark. For a while too his efforts were mainly in the fairly good category and some reckoned that he over-drove on occasion, though he was unlucky at points also and in Spain he was excellent. But it was in Austria that things really picked up for him; as the Williams improved Bottas like all top drivers stepped up to the plate. It was the start of three consecutive podium runs, each highly impressive in their own way. And from that point on indeed in 2014 only on rare occasions was he not a factor.

And while Ricciardo finished as the first non-Merc in the table Bottas can claim possibly to be the silver cars' most consistent threat on pace all things being equal. His stellar and spirited run to third in Austria, just eight seconds from the winner, was the closest anyone came to the Mercedes this season without unusual circumstances disrupting their progress, while in Russia he came oh-so close to snatching pole from under their noses and kept them well in sight for the race's duration.

Bottas's first Grand Prix win surely is only a matter of time. And as far as a few are concerned his first championship has something like the same status.

Photo: Octane Photography
6. Jenson Button
All smooth and smart performances, with a complete lack of ostentation. And even though our attention might have been taken a few times by fireworks elsewhere he claimed a gluttonous feast of points, that far exceeded those of his fast young team mate. The 2014 campaign was more of the same for Jenson Button; at something like his best.

Unfortunately for him, and just like last season, he suffered by association with an underperforming McLaren. As was the case in the latter part of last season too for a time a vague sense of disappointment at Jenson's drives emanated from the top of the Woking squad, which Ron Dennis decided to firm up by issuing a very public shot across his charge's bows mid-year. Quite why this view was held was not at all clear to outsiders, given even then Jenson was bagging the clear majority of McLaren's points, as well as was doing a lot right and not a lot wrong. Some reckon that the Jenson-Ron relationship has been a distinctly cool one for a while.

But almost as if the criticism extracted renewed determination from him Jenson performed at greater heights as the year went on. Indeed as the grapevine got louder in the late rounds that he was out of McLaren, and by extension of F1, the affable Englishman seemed to take ever-increasing pleasure at waving two fingers at the absurdity of it all. Or perhaps it was the case that he was performing all along and it was merely that the MP4-29's improvements meant his efforts became more noticeable.

All-in it was hard to fault Jenson's year. As mentioned he well and truly trounced the young team mate in the form of Kevin Magnussen where it really matters in the points column, his advantage proportionately being not too far short of even Alonso's over Raikkonen. His advantage was aided especially by his vastly superior ability to manage the Pirellis over a race stint. Yet too he even emerged on top in the McLaren qualifying head-to-head - not these days thought of first as Jenson's strong suit.

As ever errors were close to non-existent, as were tantrums (though he was heard grumbling about his strategy in Austin). He showed his habitual speed of thought to vault several places around a safety car appearance in Australia and Japan. And despite what was said in the opening paragraph his ability to race was as sharp as anyone's, such as in plundering two places in one swoop in Canada's late laps as well as in his battles with Alonso in Britain and the USA. It does not seem hyperbole to say that this season, particularly in its latter part, he was driving as well as ever. The only major downside was his familiar over-sensitivity to handling on occasion, which contributed to days when he wasn't close to Magnussen on raw pace, relatively common mid-year.

At the time of writing his place in the sport for 2015 remains uncertain. One can sympathise with McLaren, given Alonso's arrival has left it with a classic here and now versus future potential conundrum in choosing between Button and Magnussen to fill the one remaining ride. Plus contemporary F1's warped ways means there's nowhere else for the discarded one to go. But whatever is the case it cannot be denied that if the curtain is indeed about to be brought down on Jenson's F1 time it is an act years in advance of when it should be.

Photo: Octane Photography
7. Sebastian Vettel
Sebastian Vettel is another to reflect that just as a week is a long time in politics, a year can be an age in F1. As Daniel Ricciardo's star rose Vettel's plummeted at the same rate, and the two were related as the four-time champion was for most of the season made to look a little ordinary by his new whipper-snapper team mate.

The sane statistics of the 2014 Red Bull driver match-up speak for themselves, and would in March have read like something from outlandish fiction. He who we thought the modern sport's standard bearer in pressure-on qualifying laps was beaten 12-7 by his team mate on the Saturday match-up while in races matters were even more stark, being 13-6 to the Australian (and without the Melbourne disqualification it would have 14-5). Perhaps bad luck with reliability and the like for Seb exaggerated the gaps, but with an even hand dealt it would have remained a fairly clear win for Ricciardo. Watching Ricciardo smoothly move clear in races with crisp passing and much superior tyre longevity became almost an expectation. It was exposed most pitilessly of all in the season-closer in Abu Dhabi.

As we know even as he accumulated his towering records there were those who maintained Seb wasn't all that. This year doesn't necessarily vindicate them, as what he did before then cannot be disregarded entirely, but his previously pristine image has taken a hit undoubtedly. As to what happened, the most probable explanation remains that it was his abilities with a blown floor (and in the case of the Red Bull, a very good blown floor) that set him apart. Now that in 2014 cars were more conventional his trump card was removed, just as in those spells before when the blown floor was less powerful there was in fact little to choose between Seb and his then team mate Mark Webber. Indeed Seb in 2014 appeared guilty of fighting the last war, with an aggressive turn in no longer able to be controlled by throttle blasts, and contributing to the excessive tyre wear that as mentioned was a bugbear.

For a man who'd built his haughty image in part on a cerebral and holistic approach it seems odd that he never found a way with the RB10. He nevertheless kept his calm out of the car at least and didn't bin the thing while in it, and remained even with Ricciardo's success the team's fulcrum. Next year, choosing to be the latest to try to lead Ferrari from the gloom, he'll need such characteristics more than ever. In some ways it suits too - the challenge of making sense of the Scuderia as his hero Schumi once did has enticed clearly, and Seb is one more than most mindful of his place in history. This season too there were flashes at least of the old form in there, with them happening with more regularity towards the year's end, such as his pace and battling in Singapore as well as in the Suzuka rains, him gobbling up the road late on in Austin as well as with a grid slot his car probably didn't deserve then a feisty race in Brazil.

It's worth however reflecting on what a few cynics reckoned was the main reason that he'd timed the Ferrari move as he had - as another year being beaten by his team mate would leave him likely consigned in most minds as damaged goods.

Photo: Octane Photography
8. Nico Hulkenberg
Nico Hulkenberg like his partial namesake Rosberg was another to have a 2014 campaign conspicuously divided into two.

Up until Hungary his season was one in which of all his talents that we've grown to admire were on show. Having returned to Force India one could hardly see the join as it was brilliant business as usual. He immediately was extracting as much as anyone could expect from his wheels with a series of Q3 qualifying showings and mid top 10 race finishes. He demonstrated too that he lacks nothing for a racer's spirit, with his frenzied battling with the sport's star names in Malaysia and Canada as well as a great opportunistic pass of Kevin Magnussen at Monaco's Portier - not a likely scene of overtakes. Heading into Hungary only he and Fernando Alonso had scored everywhere. Like Alonso too he always looked quick as well as was one not given to off days.

But his Sunday on the Hungaroring's perfidious surface featured him losing a load of places after running wide and then managing to slide into the side of his team mate Sergio Perez in trying to get one of them back, and thus removing himself from proceedings. This heralded a succession of mediocre drives, often far behind his team mate, and only really come Brazil did the impressive guy of before return properly (though he was pretty good at Suzuka too).

It may have been a hangover from his Hungary error, but others near-at-hand noted that for all of the Hulk's talents looking after his rear tyres is not one, and is something that he's less skilled at than Perez. And this was shown up more as Force India slid further back in the development race as the year went on, and the team as a result became more reliant on stretching out longer race strategies. But it can't have been entirely that, as Hulk only qualified ahead of Perez three times from eight in the season's second part (compared to 9-2 in the first).

Still, his early-year advantage contributed to him being well ahead of Perez on points, by a trouncing 96 to 59.

For 2015 Hulkenberg faces another year at Force India; yet another year shunned by the top teams. This omission continues to baffle many. Some say that the lack of a single stand-out result counts against him (indeed Perez took the Silverstone team's only podium finish this year); rather absurdly his relentless brilliance instead of flashes in the pan appears to be counting against him. But his not being snapped up owes much to misfortune too - him never quite being in the right place at the right time for a much-mooted Ferrari drive for one - as well as occasional odd thinking from certain team principals. You worry now though that since he's been on the shelf for so long - combined with that he's just put in a year marginally less strong than the two that preceded it - that's now he's condemned to remain there.

Photo: Octane Photography
9. Felipe Massa
Anyone who remembers Felipe Massa's qualifying lap in Singapore in 2008 knows what skill lays within the Brazilian. Indeed much of that season, particularly its latter part, likely will go down as Massa's finest time in F1. The challenge with him has been extracting that sort of thing consistently, with his biggest obstacle apparently being him believing that he can. As we headed into this season 2008 seemed both literally and metaphorically a long time ago for the pleasant Felipe.

In a new abode at Williams, confessedly relieved to be away from Ferrari polemics as well as from a stable mate put on the planet possibly to make the other guy look average, Massa improved as the season went on, both in mood and in driving, and by the time the year ended plenty could see a few creeping parallels with his balmy glow of six years ago.

It was tempting at the season's mid-part to assume that little had changed for him since his Scuderia time, other than that Fernando Alonso's name had been supplanted by that of Valtteri Bottas, but such a conclusion was on the harsh side. A series of accidents - many off the line; many not his fault - rather undermined his progress, as did a botched pit stop in China. His season's low point was in Hungary, when the repeated crashes meant he had to drive an old-spec car, contributing to yet another weekend firmly cast as the other Williams.

Still, there were some things in there that you could reproach Felipe for too. Of the accidents mentioned he looked a little careless in the one in Germany, arguably in the one in Canada too, while the latter race more generally could go down as win that got away, him looking a little timid in traffic when it mattered. At one point he forget to deploy his DRS when lining up Vettel. Indeed for the most part of Massa's career it has been a legitimate criticism of him that the odd, often slightly baffling, mistake rarely feels too far away.

As we have seen before with Massa though it appeared that a single good result heralded something of a breakthrough, and it arrived this time at his 'other' home race at Monza, where he staked third place behind the Mercs after a flawless drive. And it begat a strong end of season run. He followed his Italian result up immediately back at his former happy hunting ground of Singapore with possibly his best weekend of the season. On a track that didn't suit the FW36 he was habitually quicker than Bottas and nursed his car and tyres home in the race for a fine fifth place, leaving his team mate to hit the cliff. And he sprinted through the line at the season's end with two more podium finishes, first off with another third at home at an Interlagos track on which he's always found extra urge (though he made a couple of pit stop errors that would have cost him on other days), while in Abu Dhabi he went one better with second place. Indeed the way that he hunted leader Lewis Hamilton down in the late laps on an aggressive strategy was vintage Felipe. Without a battery problem he might even have ended his win drought - another run that stretches all the way back to his lauded 2008 campaign.

He's not quite in 2008 spec, but both in and out of the car Felipe Massa finished this season looking a lot closer to it than he had in a good while.

Photo: Octane Photography
10. Jean-Eric Vergne
For a few reasons the Red Bull young drivers' programme and its way of doing things isn't universally loved. But it cannot be denied that these days it's producing some rather good driving talent. And deserving of his place among them on the basis of 2014 is Jean-Eric Vergne.

We all know that he missed his opportunity knocks chance of a step up to the Red Bull big team last season. Probably it left him on a hiding to nothing. But while a few as a result placed him in a mental recess for this campaign Vergne himself didn't give in and this year we saw a more complete performer than at any point before in his brief stay in F1. Plenty who have worked with him rate him highly. He's a proper and willing racer; blessed with fine car control. This campaign he adapted to the demands of the new machines much more effectively than most. And while his fast young team mate Daniil Kvyat had the edge in qualifying come the races, wherein the Frenchman was far superior at managing the tyres, Vergne outscored him by close to three-to-one.

In Australia and Canada he maximised the car and bagged healthy hauls of points. And the race in Hungary was perhaps his best of the lot, him ambushing no less a figure than Nico Rosberg and staying ahead for several laps, running as high as second for a while, on the way to a ninth-place finish beaten only by quicker cars - a drive he reckoned was perfect.

Indeed his bag of points might have been even weightier. A haughty finish in Monaco was lost to the car stopping before the end (and in that case to an unsafe release too); technical gremlins struck in Malaysia, Bahrain qualifying, Spain practice (an errant wheel resulting in a grid drop) and Austria.

His reward for his fine Hungary drive was the sack; his three-year lifespan coming to its end and him being forced to make way for the fledgling Max Verstappen. But just when we suspected that he was drifting almost unnoticed out of F1 in Singapore his race was supreme, gobbling up the road and several opponents - particularly in scintillating final laps - to overcome two penalties and finish sixth. He gave a fairly good account of himself for most of then-on, including a brave effort in Japan's rain.

In the debit column however he had a few subdued weekends, such as in Austria, Germany and Brazil as well as, perhaps understandably, in the couple of rounds that followed his unceremonious ditching, in Belgium and Italy. He also had too much first lap contact - seen in Malaysia, Bahrain and Silverstone.

But what really shows Vergne in a good light is that last year essentially the only difference between him and Daniel Ricciardo paired at Toro Rosso was in qualifying in the dry. And qualifying Vergne by his own admission focussed on and sorted to a large extent this campaign, with a run of top ten qualifying slots particularly early in the year as well as rarely giving too much away to Kvyat. So, given how Ricciardo has wowed us in 2014, you do the maths. But now with the Australian riding a wave and Vergne apparently stranded ashore, another thing that we can take from the comparison is that the margins between success and failure in modern F1 are absurdly thin.

1 comment:

  1. Nice write-up, as always.

    I'd personally rate Massa a little higher. My memory fails me, but there were at least two occasions in the first half of the season where he lost out on point finishes because of bad strategy or poor pitstops, in addition to the accidents you already mentioned.

    I'd put him ahead of Vettel and Hulkenberg this year.

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