Sunday, 3 December 2017

My Top 10 F1 Drivers of 2017: The Rest…

Here are my views on those F1 drivers from 2017 who didn't make my top 10 ranking from a few days ago, which can be read here.

Photo: Octane Photography
The most conspicuous absence from the top ten is Kimi Raikkonen, for whom things somehow never quite came together in 2017. Frequently he looked to have pace but it tended to fall away at crucial moments, not least in the final throes of qualifying including just about every time after the summer break. In many race results too you'd look at the chasm-like gap between the Ferraris and wonder how exactly it came to that. Still pole in Monaco is a feather in the cap and with more benign team strategy he would have won twice. Also in mitigation some of Kimi's race strategies stretched credulity. Once again Sebastian Vettel couldn't live with him through Silverstone's sweeps. But even so it seems the main reason Ferrari keeps him on is that he doesn't offend Seb. On any count.

Going through the rest in the final drivers' table order brings us first to Felipe Massa, who got an unlikely second swansong this year. He started and ended the season superbly, while between times he tended to be solid. Fairly or otherwise the sense persisted though that he remained a few tenths off the ultimate pace; at the very least with a team mate struggling so obviously it was hard to judge the popular Brazilian. In the end he jumped (again) from F1 before Williams – still dithering – could push him, and as intimated he at least went out on a high.

Lance Stroll ended the campaign largely as he started it, as a much criticised presence. Usually he was well behind Williams team mate Massa on pace and visually about as far behind his car. He can't even point at gradual improvement over time as Brazil and Abu Dhabi concluding the year were likely his worst showings of the lot. Utterly incongruously though when he was good he was excellent, seen in his third place in Baku and fourth (and a net second) in Monza qualifying in the rain, with a best just three tenths off Verstappen and over a second quicker than Massa. His races in Canada and Mexico were pretty good as well. Some near at hand think Stroll has a harsh braking and steering style that needs everything to be just so to work. Qualifying seems a particular problem – two of his good races were after being vaulted to a higher position by exterior events. There is potential there, and professionalism, but perhaps a flipside of his money was getting an F1 drive before he's ready.

Photo: Octane Photography
Romain Grosjean is another for whom matters didn't move on this campaign. More complaints on his team radio broadcast on TV about handling and particularly brakes, which manifested in sometimes scrappy performances. It gave rise to two queries: should he not have sorted it all by now and is he more fundamentally asking too much of his machine? Observers note that he carries more speed into corners than others in the first place, which may be a lot of the problem. On occasion he showed what was possible when the Haas was working with him and/or he didn't over-drive, not least with sixth on the grid in Melbourne and finishing in that position in Austria. We know from late 2013 that he's as good as anyone when his machine is underneath him but he appears to have a mental block for meeting a car halfway.

The peripatetic Kevin Magnussen arrived at Haas this year hoping to put roots down. Despite scoring fewer points than Grosjean he seemed the more consistent of the pair; certainly was less troubled by the car's sometimes dread handling. Still his potency varied too which made you wonder the extent that this is a team/car matter rather than driver. He also wasn't deserving of the 'bad boy' reputation he developed as the year went on, but still there was occasional scrappiness there that cost better results. Speed and potential were there too however, not least in Azerbaijan – where he ran as high as third – and a stoic drive to points in Mexico.

Stoffel Vandoorne entered F1 with a towering reputation, but faced immediately the ultimate graveyard shift – debuting with a disappointing and unreliable machine, plenty of grid penalties and Fernando Alonso across the garage. It showed conspicuously in the opening rounds as he was way off Nando's lead and often looked rather lost, but Vandoorne from Austria onwards he got his feet on the first few rungs. His Silverstone and Monza weekends were good and Malaysia – leaving Alonso well behind with an earlier spec car – was his high point. It was never so good again, perhaps as he had little or no experience of most of the remaining tracks. But given everything no one is writing him off yet.

Photo: Octane Photography
Jolyon Palmer never looked close to taking advantage either of his unlikely F1 reprieve or that his reputation is as one who improves in his second season in a formula. His campaign started horribly in Melbourne and got little better as he tended to be horribly off team mate Nico Hulkenberg's lap times and perhaps in his desperation threw in plenty of errors, varying from the maddening to the disastrous. He bemoaned foul luck with some justification; some also noted his paucity of clean weekends, but it also was often his own mistakes that created the lack of cleanliness, and equally when his luck was even he wasn't doing much to impress. In Singapore he got sixth but, perhaps ironically, it owed much to fortune. Renault put him out of his misery four races ahead of schedule.

In the shape of Pascal Wehrlein a promising F1 career now looks over after just two campaigns. And from the outside it's not all that clear what he did wrong. Just like in his Manor debut Wehrlein this year at Sauber showed talent on occasion and scored all of his team's points. Like then too there were strong highs, in this case with excellent runs in Bahrain (bouncing back after harsh criticism for missing the first two rounds with injury), Spain (to points), Malaysia and Abu Dhabi. But perhaps also like last year things varied too much elsewhere and he didn't put away his stable mate quite as convincingly as anticipated, indeed there was a spell after the summer break that Marcus Ericsson was on top persistently. But then again in a struggling car and with a team mate better on raw speed than he gets credit for maybe it wasn't easy for Wehrlein to get noticed. Whatever, it looks now – in the short term at least – he'll have to be noticed for what he does outside of F1.

Daniil Kvyat's cat-like collection of F1 lives ran out this year, as Toro Rosso finally washed its hands of him before the season was out. His campaign had been a small improvement on his slow motion train wreck of 2016 – his performances though were more solid than spectacular while his Spain and Britain qualifying showings were unfathomable as were his first lap paths of destruction in Austria and Britain. Plenty believe there is a lot of potential there, which includes Red Bull seniority as evidenced by it going against its own ways to persist with him. But it seems Red Bull simply lost patience waiting for Kvyat to deliver his highs consistently. There was something dolefully appropriate too that in Kyvat's return for one race only in USA he delivered his strongest showing of the year.

Photo: Octane Photography
Marcus Ericsson is another derided as one who owes his opportunities to money not talent. The more durable Pirellis this year should have suited him but still it took him a few rounds to get with the programme. That he did though and after the summer break he started to show something like consistency as well as over the piece beat Wehrlein more often in qualifying and races than most would have expected. There still were stinker weekends in there though – such as Singapore and Malaysia – and his tendency to set himself back with errors remains as well.

Reigning GP2 champion Pierre Gasly got what many thought a belated Toro Rosso chance from Malaysia onwards (Austin aside). It was hard to judge him definitively given for most of this time he had an equally inexperienced (in F1) stable mate, a series of engine problems and grid penalties, and a car that seemed to be drifting from the pace in any case. But aside from the odd beginner's error, such as timidity in Malaysia's race, a lock up costing points in Japan and a spin in Abu Dhabi, he was accomplished at the very least. And alongside known-quantity Carlos Sainz in Malaysia and Japan Gasly was near to his pace.

Within just two race weekends Antonio Giovinazzi experienced F1's tendency to both prematurely laud and write off. Subbing at a moment's notice for Wehrlein in Melbourne he was a revelation, looking quicker than Ericsson for the most part and driving a solid race. But then in China while he again looked the quicker Sauber his reputation took a major hit by crashing in the same spot both in qualifying and early in the race. Fool me once… And with Charles Leclerc ahead of him now in the Ferrari pecking order his future is uncertain.

Photo: Octane Photography
In the final part of the Toro Rosso merry-go-round Red Bull went back to the future by bringing in old boy Brendon Hartley for the late rounds; the first time he'd driven any single seater since 2012. As with Gasly he was hard to judge given everything, and in Hartley's case you can add that he got a grid penalty in every round. But as with Gasly he at least looked accomplished, showed solid pace and unlike Gasly didn't make conspicuous errors. Only underwhelming qualifying in Abu Dhabi is in his debit column.

You didn't get the impression that Jenson Button was wild about the prospect of returning for the Monaco weekend to fill in for the Indy 500-chasing Fernando Alonso. But in that professional way of his he lapped close to Vandoorne's pace and made Q3. His race however was one of frustration, a decision to pit early was spoiled by Wehrlein doing the same and then touring around in his way. Jenson, out of sheer desperation or boredom, ended matters forcibly.

And last but not least Paul di Resta got the rare experience of living up to the reserve driver's role, stepping in for Hungary qualifying when Massa got ill, with less than two hours' notice. He hadn't done a practice session, indeed scarcely had experience of any hybrid F1 car. Yet he stunned – qualifying just three-quarters of a second off Stroll and splitting the Saubers. Then in the race he kept his nose clean before stopping with an oil leak. Despite the timely reminder of what he's about, at the time of writing it doesn't look like it'll get him a full time race drive.

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