Tuesday 28 November 2017

My Top 10 F1 Drivers of 2017

Here is my personal rating of the top ten F1 drivers of the 2017 season, taking into account their performances 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.

1. Lewis Hamilton
Photo: Octane Photography
For years almost no one has doubted that Lewis Hamilton's peaks are higher than anyone else's. This year he strung them together more regularly than perhaps he ever has done, certainly since his prodigious F1 debut campaign a decade ago.

Clearly he relished his title battle with Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari as well as relished his focal point position in the post-Nico Rosberg Mercedes squad. And it all had an impact where it matters – nine wins and 11 poles are the stuff of crushing championships as well as demonstrate his status as the year's default front-runner. Crushing is the adjective for many of his race wins as well, though in plenty (China, Spain, Spa, USA) he had to fight as well as use his wholly underrated brain power. But it was his qualifying that really set him apart – particularly important in a year wherein overtaking was tough. In Britain, Italy (in the wet) and Malaysia his Saturday efforts stunned even his closest engineers. He showed in his drive through the field in Brazil he's lost nothing of his well-honed racing instincts either.

There were bum notes along the way. While the Mercedes was in Toto Wolff's words a "diva", equally in the year's first half when the Merc wouldn't get its tyres into range Lewis was less able to find a compromise than his team mate Valtteri Bottas, such as in Russia and Monaco as well as in qualifying in Austria and Hungary. He also binned it in Brazil's qualifying after the championship was wrapped up. Yet the fact is that Lewis was unflinching and fast in an intense title battle against a formidable driver and team foe, and when the championship hit its crucial phase Lewis reached for the stars – stepping well clear of Bottas and getting the best possible race results whether his car was on top or not. And it was his rival who wavered. It was likely Lewis's finest title. Little wonder plenty talk of the ever-enigmatic Englishman now finding a new equilibrium.

2. Sebastian Vettel
Photo: Octane Photography
We always thought a Sebastian Vettel campaign could go one of two ways. This year, for the first time perhaps, it wandered off one of them. For the first two-thirds it looked classic Seb with the scent of a title, maximising final qualifying laps as if flicking a switch then maximising race results as if he is the puppeteer of the whole show. In Baku he lost his temper with consequences for his points and reputation, but at the time many wrote that off as an aberration.

Come Singapore as he sat on pole for the race start his retaking of the championship lead looked inevitable, but we know what came next. Yes Ferrari unreliability sealed his fate in following rounds but once the title was as good as gone ahead of time some calculated the points ceded in Baku and Singapore and it didn't look flattering for Seb. Particularly as he showed more misjudgement in Mexico's opening corners then rooted his tyres in Austin.

But still his well-judged Brazil win was timely in reminding us what he'd spent the best part of the season doing – operating on a plateau as noted. This was whether he was dominating at the front (Bahrain, Spain, Monaco and Brazil), nursing mechanical maladies (Hungary), chasing down foes (Australia, Russia and Austria) or coming through the pack (China, Canada, Azerbaijan and Mexico). It was straight from his Red Bull championship winning pomp. It's easy to forget also that he would likely have got two more triumphs early in the campaign without unfortunate safety car appearances. These ended his title chances early as much as any of his errors.

3. Max Verstappen
Photo: Octane Photography
You know the one about not judging books by their covers. The meagre points total compared with his team mate suggests an underwhelming season. Yet it was anything but, as in 2017 the astonishing Max Verstappen continued his rocketing upwards trajectory and even that team mate cited – Daniel Ricciardo, who had been considered one from the top drawer – was left a little bewildered by it all.

The first two-thirds of Max's year were constrained by a series of early race retirements – none his fault. Yet even then when circumstances and machinery didn't failed him he continued the high and rising plots on his graph. Showing his ultra-fast and ultra-aggressive credentials, and his knack of sheer dramatic flourish. Not least in China when he picked off nine rivals on the opening tour in mixed conditions on the way to a podium finish. Come Singapore when from a front row start he was wiped out amid an intra-Ferrari contretemps it seemed he'd never catch a break. But then his fortune got even and he bagged immediately two imperious wins – and a second and a fourth – in the next four rounds.

He put the qualifying manners on Ricciardo too, winning that battle 13-7 and the time gap often was a chasm. Colliding with the Australian in Hungary showed his impetuous side – as perhaps did slightly stroppy weekends in Brazil and Abu Dhabi – but they're about alone in the debit column. This year removed whatever doubt lingered – Max Verstappen will win championships and in time be considered an F1 great.

4. Fernando Alonso
Photo: Octane Photography
It wasn't always this way with Fernando Alonso (see 2009) but these days he relents not a jot. No matter the circumstances. And in his third year in a still desperately disappointing and unreliable McLaren Honda circumstances that could not have been more trying.

Alonso nevertheless threw himself in headlong right from the Melbourne opener. Time after time he performed something like an Indian rope trick, getting his car into places that defy gravity. His sheer commitment never flickered – always he was pushing the car ahead of itself and being spirited in battle. Several points hauls were lost either to technical woe or other misfortune – not least in Singapore where his talk of a podium result wasn't altogether fanciful. Only in Malaysia did he underwhelm.

Given his sheer consistency, picking out high points is difficult. His qualifying lap in Spain was something from another world, while his series of runs to Q3 in the year's latter part impressed too. In Silverstone's qualifying topping Q1, bolting on slicks on a drying track and crossing the line with nanoseconds to spare, typified his spirit. In Hungary he was combative on his way to sixth and – astonishingly – fastest lap.

Hot-shoe Stoffel Vandoorne in the other McLaren mainly got nowhere near. And even with teetering on the edge of adhesion for the most part errors from Alonso were near impossible to cite. And thus the question remains the same – we await a car, or rather an engine, that will do justice to his towering talent and motivation.

5. Daniel Ricciardo
Photo: Octane Photography
F1 is indeed cut throat. Even its brightest talents can before they know it have wolves circling the door; even without doing much wrong themselves. Daniel Ricciardo remains one of F1's highest rated talents – one with everything, not least speed. But his reputation has been shaken slightly by this campaign, all to do with not getting on terms with his prodigious team mate Max Verstappen.

Particularly not in qualifying – Ricciardo was often the second Red Bull and sometimes by further than he'd be content with. It didn't help that he added atypical quali errors, binning it in Melbourne and Baku. Did it reflect that the Dutchman is a phenomenon, or did Ricciardo let something slip somewhere? Most likely it's both.

Ricciardo's race runs though were often brilliant and at least on Max's pace, with only rare exceptions such as Malaysia. His Baku win owed something to fortune but it also was reward for an aggressive drive after a setback. His charges through the pack at Silverstone, Monza and Interlagos were about as good – his ability to brake in a later postcode than rivals is alive and well. Running in the vicinity of the leaders for the distance in Austria perhaps was his best of the lot. And he finished on a high, being clearly the quicker Red Bull in Abu Dhabi.

But, reflecting what was said at the outset, come the season's final part strong rumours swirled that Red Bull was basing its future on Max and not him. All of a sudden, Danny Ric is facing a career crunch point.

6. Valtteri Bottas
Photo: Octane Photography
Valtteri Bottas's first year at Mercedes was an oscillation. To start with his pace gap to Hamilton gaped more than it should, his spin behind the safety car in China was ignominious while he was at least clumsy in first lap contact in Spain and Azerbaijan. But in that stoic way of his he improved, and took wins in Russia and Austria that were impressive both in attack and defence. His drives through the pack in Baku and Silverstone also were excellent. His softer turn in meant he was the faster Merc when it struggled with the tyres, and thus his results for a time were the more consistent. By the summer break he was thought even a championship outsider; certainly one who belonged in the front-running gang. But after the break things got tougher as the deficit to Lewis on Saturdays and Sundays again gaped, even more than it had initially.

Come the latter rounds he showed signs of getting his show back on the road – which again typically he attributed to hard work and resolving his set-up problems one-by-one. Indeed he ended on a high, first with his back-to-back poles (and, in the view of this author, the criticisms out there of his Brazil race were over the top) then beating Lewis in a straight race fight in Abu Dhabi's race. All at the team welcome the greater harmony he's brought compared with the combustible Lewis-Nico Rosberg pairing of before, and fortunately for Valtteri too his Merc retention for next year was sealed before the worst of his struggles. Next year should be easier with his feet more under the table. But if he wants to stay at Merc beyond that campaign he needs to string the highs together more.

7. Sergio Perez
Photo: Octane Photography
It shows you should never make your mind up on about driver. Time was we said inconsistency was Sergio Perez's biggest problem; today he's F1's stick-on to deliver in a middling machine. Demonstrating as much he's scored in 27 of the last 30 races and this campaign he again racked up the points with eight-out-of-ten type drives in most rounds. For much of this season his being best of the rest behind the big three teams was a positive race-by-race expectation. And remember this too was with more durable Pirelli tyres, as him being flattered by the previous gumball variety was another accusation we once flung his way. Some of his races, such as in Malaysia, were excellent.

But even so he is another ending the year with a hint of regret. His career progression wasn't obvious even at the season's outset, caught as he was in a strange purgatory between being almost too good for the midfield but also never quite convincing the front-running squads to take him on. But he has more than one reason to rue the rise of his team mate Esteban Ocon. We can debate how sensible his behaviour towards him was in Montreal, Spa and elsewhere, but even more regrettably Ocon started to get ahead in qualifying and races with regularity in the season's latter part. And such is F1's way before you knew it minds for potential promotion focussed on Ocon, while Perez was being consigned to a mental recess. Even more so than before, it's not clear where Perez goes from here.

8. Nico Hulkenberg
Photo: Octane Photography
This was a season in which Nico Hulkenberg continued to re-built his formidable reputation - that of one of F1's most respected talents. A reputation that at the mid-point of last year was looking a little tatty.

His first campaign at Renault was made up of excellent qualifying efforts and rapid races. Qualifying and finishing sixth at Silverstone – and he likely would have finished a place higher without a late technical problem – was his high point, along with running among the leaders in a tricky car in tricky conditions in Singapore as well as ensuring his team sixth in the constructors' table with a sixth place finish in Abu Dhabi.

As is often so with the Hulk there was obfuscation, and not really his fault. His performance against his team mates was hard to judge – one struggling; the other new to the car. But he did everything he could, only once being outqualified and that was when he sat out Q2 due to a grid penalty. Indeed his qualifying advantage over Jolyon Palmer averaged at seven tenths of a second.

Somehow he has not yet appeared on an F1 podium, though critics point to Baku this year when he wiped himself out against a wall when one was on, and point out too that it's not the first time he's done such a thing. Yet this, plus a poor run in Austria, were his only black marks this year. Everywhere else he reminded us what we liked so much about him in the first place.

9. Esteban Ocon
Photo: Octane Photography
How often do we hear these days that it's near-impossible for young guys to distinguish themselves in F1? Esteban Ocon this year gave lie to this concept emphatically.

After his Manor cameo late last year in his first full campaign, now at Force India, his upward trajectory has been smooth and sharp. His team talk of one who is mature, who continuously improves as well as has great car control that allows him to get away with most things. He is popular out of the car too, with a Sebastian Vettel-esque amiability, but unmistakable steel when required. He needed this as his relationship with team mate Sergio Perez this got testy as the season went on, and Ocon indeed seemed to react the better in and out of the car.

It's hard to find fault with him. His unblemished run of finishes (before Brazil) was well-documented but there is little wrong with his pace – evidenced by consistently matching strong yardsticks in Pascal Wehrlein and now Perez – nor with his willingness to go wheel-to-wheel. And only he didn't get a single stewards' reprimand this season. He was almost always close to 'Mr Consistency' Perez and in the late part of the year Ocon got ahead with regularity. His runs from Japan through to Mexico were his peak.

About his only blots were pinching Perez into the wall Baku, his spin in Malaysia and then his misjudgement on lap one at Interlagos, the upshot of which was the first time in his F1 career that he failed to see a chequered flag.

The strong campaign should not have been a surprise. After all Ocon beat a certain Max Verstappen to a European F3 crown. This is clearly a young man going places.

10. Carlos Sainz
Photo: Octane Photography
Carlos Sainz's season was rather bitty, something only partly explained by his mid-year switch of teams. At his best we saw why he developed such a glowing reputation last season – his run in China keeping up with the leaders was fantastic; he went well at Monaco as he always seems to; some likened his effort to get into Q3 in Austria to something from his hero Alonso; in Hungary his showing was superb in qualifying and the race, plus in Singapore he showed not for the first time fine judgement in tricky conditions and got fourth. But there were conspicuous misjudgements in there – wiping out Lance Stroll in Bahrain; forcing Romain Grosjean off on Canada's opening lap; getting into clumsy contact with Ocon in Malaysia and spinning in Mexico.

Yet it was his Austin weekend – the one after his midstream change of horses from Toro Rosso to Renault – that he gave the best indication of his star quality. In an unfamiliar machine he qualified in the top ten then finished seventh, including a pass of Sergio Perez which was as good as you'll see. In the subsequent rounds he was shy of Hulkenberg for the most part, but there is the mitigation of being new to the car, and for what it's worth he was much closer to Hulk than his predecessor was. His pace on old tyres in Abu Dhabi was superb and should have got him points.

Next year you suspect there'll be a crunch though. He's away from his Toro Rosso dead end – Red Bull still can recall him, and rumours of Ricciardo clearing a space persist. He is at a team on the up but also has a formidable stable mate. The ball is in his court.

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