Tuesday, 8 December 2015

My Top Ten Drivers of 2015: The Rest...

Photo: Octane Photography
Here are my views on those F1 drivers from 2015 who didn't make my top 10 ranking that I published a few days ago.

My top 10 drivers of 2015 can be read here.

Don't listen to what Mark Webber claimed about there not being the depth of talent in F1 that there used to be. This was possibly the most difficult task of whittling drivers down to ten that I can remember, and a number of them who you suspect would have got in, perhaps comfortably, in previous seasons this time had to miss out. This applied especially to, in no particular order, Romain Grosjean, Jenson Button and Carlos Sainz.

Photo: Octane Photography
Romain Grosjean is rated extremely highly by many and there apparently is Pirelli testing data that indicates he is the fastest guy out there, bar none, and consistently. In support of this we can cast our mind back to late in 2013 when he alone it seemed took the fight to far superior Red Bulls. Sadly for him though ever since the Lotus has almost never allowed him to build on that. This year's machine wasn't a disaster as in 2014, but with the team's desperate financial situation in-year development was near zero and there were other manifestations such as using race gearboxes in practice making grid penalties for broken gearboxes more likely (indeed this is precisely what happened to him in Spa). To make matters yet worse he had to sit out a number of opening practice sessions in order to give reserve Jolyon Palmer time behind the wheel.

But just like in 2014 on the solitary occasion that his car allowed Grosjean pounced on the opportunity, and superbly, by fighting through after a grid penalty to finish third in Spa. Perhaps his performances in the final two rounds of the year were about as good too. Also his intra-team qualifying match-up was the most one-sided there was, being 17-2 in his favour over Pastor Maldonado. What counted against him though was that in races Maldonado often looked the quicker, helped by his abilities in eking out life from the Pirellis. Crashes in Canada and Russia were black marks too. But the biggest problem for Grosjean is the creeping risk he'll become the sport's next Nico Hulkenberg in being ignored unfathomably yet repeatedly by those allocating the plumb drives, and indeed again none of them snapped him up for 2016. He does get a move though to the debutant Haas squad, and at least he'll have a good chance there of getting into Ferrari's eyeline.

Photo: Octane Photography
Nothing about Jenson Button's campaign should have surprised us. We know from his time alongside Lewis Hamilton that he relishes a battle with a top-liner team mate. We know too that in such match-ups he rarely gets humiliated, and is more than capable of winning out on occasion. And all of this is exactly what we got in 2015. Generally team mate Fernando Alonso did the better in races but seldom was Button left far behind while in Monaco, as well as in a few late-season rounds, he was the quicker. And although qualifying is considered his weakness he gave away nearly nothing to stable mate Alonso here too.

There's not much we can reproach him for in 2015, though even the ever-sunny Jenson in the desperate McLaren-Honda situation showed frustration like Alonso on occasion, particularly in comments on the team radio towards the year's end. He also clattered into Maldonado in China as well as seemed overly spooked by understeer in Spain. But his effort never seemed to drop, as indicated by that he ended the season as he started it, fighting off far faster opponents. Having repelled Sergio Perez somehow for 42 laps in Melbourne he held off Valtteri Bottas successfully in Abu Dhabi for a P12 finish he seemed delighted with. Perhaps we're guilty of underestimating Button, making the mistake of assuming that behind an easy demeanour and smooth style there is not special talent and considerable pace. As explained he is one who cedes little even to the very best. Perhaps even Ron Dennis, one not always convinced of him it seems, was converted this year as Button is retained for 2016, and indeed showed the confidence to play hardball over his terms. It was befitting of what he did behind the wheel.

Photo: Octane Photography
Were you to judge only by the championship points, or indeed by the plaudits, you'd think that this season Max Verstappen whipped his Toro Rosso team mate Carlos Sainz. It just goes to show the importance of digging deeper. Receiving a rather late reprieve (having apparently been just the latest the Red Bull programme ruthlessly looked over) after the ripple effect of Sebastian Vettel's unexpected flee to Ferrari and with eyes burning on his 17 year old stable mate Sainz was easy to forget about almost before he'd started his freshman F1 campaign. But in fact there was very little to choose between him and the lauded Max for the most part; little that is aside from the Spaniard's tendency for wretched luck. The persistence of debilitating technical failures for him at vital times in 2015, and when they didn't hit something like a botched pit stop would (see Australia, China and Austria), made most suspect that Sainz must have a previous of breaking mirrors and encountering black cats.

Those at Toro Rosso confirmed indeed that their two pilots were evenly-matched, indeed a coherent case could be made that Sainz's additional experience gave him a slight edge. Sainz's peaks were never as high as Verstappen's but he probably was more consistent. His colleagues reckoned too he was perhaps more versatile with an unbalanced car as well as was - certainly earlier in the campaign - more likely to nail it on a qualifying lap. Sainz out of the car was highly impressive too - a thinking driver good with engineers while more generally in his behaviour he displayed great maturity and composure. For more reason than one you had to remind yourself that we has just 21 years old himself. As for the debit column, if Sainz did indeed have awful luck he brought the misfortune on himself occasionally, such as knocking his front wing off entering the pits in Japan as well as in qualifying crashes in Singapore and Austin, and those in practice in Russia and again in Singapore. He also got a grid penalty in Monaco (of all places) for missing the weighbridge in qualifying. But he shouldn't lose heart. Surely his luck will turn at some point.

Photo: Octane Photography
Going through the remaining drivers in championship order brings us immediately to Kimi Raikkonen. While fourth place in the drivers' table and close to three times the points he got in 2014 looks like solid progress, in reality it was fairly hard to make a case that there was all that much improvement since that trying campaign. For Fernando Alonso, read Sebastian Vettel, and just like then the gap between Kimi and his Ferrari team mate gaped at often several tenths per lap in qualifying and races, and further he didn't have the get-out this time of a poor car not handling to his taste. The season even started pretty well for him, with him following up three good races with a masterful one in Bahrain that seemed right out of his Lotus days and oh so nearly brought a win. Many spoke at this point of him at last rediscovering his mojo. But that in the next round he was spooked by technical upgrade proved a portent, and one redolent of his struggle the year before.

On occasion too he looked like he may be able to perform a handy back up man service at the Scuderia - helped by him coming with a Sebastian Vettel Seal of Approval - and his drives in Hungary and Abu Dhabi were good in this regard, but even that wasn't done with regularity. Worse even his fairly long established attribute of being a safe pair of hands seemed to desert him. Losses of control on acceleration in Canada and then in the next round in Austria (having done something like it in Canada last year too) showed a worrying tardiness in learning from a mistake, in Britain he was too hasty in diving in for intermediate tyres, but it was all nothing on a run late in the year when he showed unusual clumsiness in colliding with Valtteri Bottas in Russia and again in Mexico as well as in slinging the thing off the road in America. The most curious thing is that in 2015 stuff that could have been straight from Kimi at his very best was seen in glimpses - Bahrain we've mentioned plus he qualified on the front row at Monza. But that's all they were. Ferrari must think it's getting something out of the relationship as it took up its option to retain Kimi for next year, even though there was no shortage of alternatives. Even though too the logic to outsiders wasn't clear. As for quite what Kimi is getting out of lingering, it's anyone's guess.

Photo: Octane Photography
Nico Hulkenberg used to be a fixture in top tens. You'd struggle to find an F1 observer who didn't rate him, even though top teams' bosses were weirdly tentative in making good on that by offering him a contract. With his modest equipment he'd bagged a fine pole position as well as had led a race in wonderful style, in addition to consistently outperforming his car the rest of the time. This year though things seemed to slide, mainly in that for much of the time he was off the pace of his team mate Sergio Perez in qualifying and particularly so in the races. Early in the year he gave the impression of biding his time waiting for the B spec Force India to come along. Later in the year when Checo was beating him again he didn't have much of an explanation, and was heard saying at one point he believed there was something wrong with his car.

Did it all reflect exasperation, related to what was said at the outset? That he did by far his best of the year in the balmy afterglow of his Le Mans win - his drives in Austria, Britain and Hungary, at least until his front wing failed in the last one, were all quintessential Hulk at his best - suggests that it might have done. But equally we can forgive Hulk for feeling exasperation, again given what we've said already. Consistent with this too were his slightly sloppy errors on show this year, as if trying to force the issue, in colliding with Felipe Massa in Singapore and spinning and being collected at the start in Russia after trying an optimistic vault of places. He's known too for being rather tough on his tyres, tougher than Perez is anyway, so perhaps it reflects that he wasn't on nodding terms with this season's brand of Pirellis, but that wouldn't explain the coincidence described.

Photo: Octane Photography
Felipe Nasr's debut season in F1 started spectacularly. Not just that he got a wonderful fifth place result in his freshman race, but that in the early part of the year, Malaysia aside, he was excellent, with a smooth, flowing and calculating style - and a high priority of feel - reminiscent of Jenson Button or perhaps even of Carlos Reutemann. His boss Monisha Kaltenborn spoke highly of him, particularly in his astonishing ability to manage a race for a rookie, while his team mate Marcus Ericsson usually was left far behind. Yes it was money that secured Nasr's seat, but in that modern way (or perhaps not so modern, see Niki Lauda) he brought a lot of talent at the same time as the readies.

But sometime around the season's one-third point he developed a problem with his car's brakes, both in not getting them to feel to his liking as well as in struggling to manage their temperatures and therefore their longevity in a race. Suddenly - even allowing for Sauber's time-honoured slide down the competitive order as the season progresses - his drives turned fewer heads and Ericsson got on top of him with increasing regularity. His brake materials were switched more than once and he even spent time at the Brembo factory before the Monza race in an attempt to resolve the problem. Late in the year he apparently still had not fixed it and said his race in Mexico was essentially an exercise in brake preservation. As mentioned like Reutemann there is considerable star quality in there, yet given what we saw in 2015 from him you wonder in another parallel with Lole if he has rather exacting handling preferences; perhaps also that a bit too much falls out of his effort when the those preferences are not realised.

Photo: Octane Photography
This season told a familiar tale of Pastor Maldonado. A useful talent somewhere near to the surface but undermined by maddening errors at crucial times. But in another familiar part of the tale he wasn't nearly as awful as some would have you believe. Indeed he kept a lid on it more this year than usual and you could make a case that Lotus this time got more out of him than anyone else ever has. Twenty-seven points and six points finishes in a hardly-stellar car supports this, and we can add that Pastor had almost Sainz-like levels of foul luck - on no fewer than five occasions he was caught up in someone else's accident on lap one (not that everyone bothered to stop themselves leaping to the conclusion that he presumably was at fault) while his brakes failed while well-placed in Monaco and his ERS went in Bahrain's qualifying. His rear wing failure in Spain too although initiated by him tapping another car you'll struggle to replicate however hard you try.

Yet while as mentioned his race day mistakes were relatively few this time China and Hungary showed that he can still get into negative spirals where errors follow errors. Most regrettably - and in another parallel with 2014 - the one time the Lotus looked really on it, this time in Spa, he threw it away, this time by running wide over a kerb which caused his retirement (for what it's worth though Gary Anderson said an F1 car should have been able to withstand that). His qualifying was poor too, only once did he qualify ahead of team mate Grosjean properly and again small errors on vital laps often compromised him. But come the races he often looked quicker than the highly-rated Grosjean, aided by his wholly-underrated attribute of being superb in managing the tyres. So there was progress this season, though there remains work to be done in stringing it all together.

Photo: Octane Photography
Marcus Ericsson got his second go at F1, this time in a Sauber, though in a certain way it was like a debut year for him in that last season in the Caterham habitually off the back he was more circulating than competing. Even with that experience over his team mate Felipe Nasr though Ericsson's year started much more slowly. While Nasr was winning lots of new friends in the early rounds the Swede got nowhere near, and about the only time in that spell that he was on top, in Malaysia, he binned it on lap four... This would all have been regrettable enough but it's especially so in a Sauber which as mentioned has long since tended to score most of its points early in a campaign. Something that dogged him throughout too was that he was often too slow, and lost places as a result, around pit stops as well as burned up his tyres too readily.

Things did improve for him however as the year went on and it peaked with three scores in a row between Hungary and Monza. And after the Monza race he spoke eloquently about his improvement, that it was based on a focussed and analytical approach with his engineer to progress throughout the weekend in getting the car to his liking, rather than over-stretching when things didn't go his way early. Things weren't quite as good for him after that but all in it ensured he ended the year not outclassed, and he gets another go alongside Nasr in 2016 to prove that he can amount to something more than a decent pilot with money. Yet perhaps also it's the case that from a different route he's reached a similar place to his team mate, that he needs the car to be just so and struggles to meet the thing halfway when is necessary. As after all, how often can an F1 car be said to be just so?

Photo: Octane Photography
Driving for a team whose car is usually two seconds a lap off the second worst is rather the ultimate thankless task. Distinguishing yourself in that situation is not impossible, see Jules Bianchi, but that's not to say it's easy. And it's not at all clear whether either of the two Manor drivers that started the 2015 campaign did so. Roberto Merhi came in with the more impressive CV from the junior formulae, having won an F3 Euro Series championship as well as kept Sainz honest in FR3.5 last year. Yet to begin with it was a real slog for him, and bottomed out in Bahrain where he was around a second a lap off his team mate Will Stevens throughout.

But he had at least a partial excuse, in that with him at the wheel his car/driver combination was 12kg over the minimum weight limit, in effect handling half a second per lap to his team mate for free who was just on the limit, as well as created problems in creating ideal weight distribution around the car. And Merhi did improve from around Monaco onwards, in that he seemed to learn to relax and stop over-driving as well as that the weight deficit got shaved (but not eliminated) over time. He plain beat his team mate in Hungary and Spa, two very different tracks, and some began to wonder about breakthroughs. But not long later, before Singapore, he was out, scheduled only to reappear in Russia and Abu Dhabi. The reasons for this odd decision presumably are to be kept strictly between Manor and its bank manager.

Photo: Octane Photography
It was Alexander Rossi, runner up in this year's GP2 series, who stepped in. And what really did for Merhi and Stevens is that he pretty much immediately was the lead Manor runner - something which never has been a good look but is especially not in our age of severely restricted testing time. In Singapore's race - presumably not your first choice for a F1 debut - he left Stevens behind before the race was out then was quicker in subsequent rounds too, aside from on Brazil's Sunday when he struggled with understeer. He also qualified ahead three times from five.

Photo: Octane Photography
As for Will Stevens himself, on the flipside to Merhi he started the season strongly compared with his stable mate, but underlining just how difficult it is to demonstrate your wares in that no man's land situation - in a car off the back and with an underperforming team mate - he found that many were unsure how much of that to attribute to Merhi's struggle as well as to the weight advantage mentioned. For a while things became rather nip and tuck with Merhi and Stevens seemed indeed to relish the fight.

But as also intimated it was Rossi's appearance in the other car in the late rounds that dealt a blow to his reputation, and worse he appeared to let the pressure get to him, by him locking up and flat-spotting in Singapore, and then in Japan spinning out with Rossi bearing down on him, having already speeded in the pit lane. He at least ended the season more strongly and outwitted Rossi with a better race set-up in Brazil, before finishing the campaign rather like he started it by leaving Merhi far behind in Abu Dhabi.

Photo: Octane Photography
And finally it's easy to forget about Kevin Magnussen. Sadly it seems F1 has. The man who as recently as the early part of 2014 was spoken of by Eric Boullier and others as a future champion now appears cast definitely to one side. His only go in a race car this year was stepping in for a concussed Alonso in Australia, and he did nothing therein to advance his cause. Admittedly the McLaren, awful then even by 2015 standards, hardly helped, but he shunted in FP2 and then was some six tenths off Jenson in qualifying. Typically of his fortune though he could not redeem himself in the race as his car failed on the recce lap. Before the year was out too Ron Dennis had rather savagely cut him adrift, claiming curiously the Dane hadn't met the targets set for him even though this year he was mostly consigned to linger in the garage watching on like a friend of a friend invited to a wedding.

Whatever you may think of F1 drivers, we shouldn't forget just what absurdity they often have to put up with.

No comments:

Post a comment