It seems everyone’s at it so I might as well join in the fun, time for my top ten drivers of 2010 in reverse order.
10. Rubens Barrichello: The old man pulled a great season out of the bag to almost take the title last year, but this year he’s been back in the midfield and showing strong. Williams have been hugely impressed by his experience and the clear move to them being regular Q3 contenders in the second half of the season reflected that this experience has paid off. Minimal mistakes often put Rubens in prime positions to score points in positions that flattered the car.
Best drive: Hungaroring – Keeping his foot in when Schumacher tried to kill him.
9: Heikki Kovalainen: Largely unnoticed all year there was an entirely different race going on for honours of the “new teams”. It must have been disheartening to go from running in a top team like McLaren to suddenly find yourself 5 seconds off the pace. Curiously, Kovi excelled and looked twice the driver he had looked as “The other guy” at McLaren. If there had been separate points awarded for the new team battle Kovi would have won by a mile, with 10 “Class wins” and, until late in the season, clear pace over Trulli. Watching him qualify at Monaco (And becoming the first team mate to outqualify Trulli on said track), you would have thought that pole was at stake. His enthusiasm all year was admirable and I hope that Lotus can move forward next year so he gets some reward.
Best Drive: Monaco qualifying.
8: Kamui Kobayashi: Early season unreliability and crashes started to make people think Kamui’s 2009 debut was a flash in the pan. But then suddenly we all sat up and noticed that someone other than Hamilton was overtaking. And, to add to the fun, this guy was overtaking where people say “Oh, you can’t overtake there!” He’s still an unpolished diamond, and only time will tell if that polish will come. But for now, he adds an excitement to races that reminds me of the early days with Juan Pablo Montoya. If he’s faster than the guy in front, he’ll find a way past.
Best Drive: Suzuka – Overtook everyone.
7: Nico Rosberg: At the start of the season it had been established as a foregone conclusion that young “Britney” would be totally destroyed this year by Michael Schumacher. That didn’t happen, and Rosberg went on to have a very solid, if unspectacular, season. In nearly every race he put the recalcitrant Mercedes MGP W01 where it deserved to be. Rarely did you feel like he was overstretching the capabilities of the car, but most of the time he was as far up the field as the car could deliver. Podiums in Malaysia, China and Britain were class drives and reflected that he was always there to pick up the pieces when RBR, Ferrari or McLaren faltered. Three retirements, none down to mistakes on his part, points to a well deserved seventh in the championship. The only question mark over Rosberg has often been his performances under pressure, and once the Schumacher threat was dealt with this year we didn’t really see him troubled in that respect, the pressure was off. If Mercedes can throw him a good car then he should be in championship contention, we’ll see if he can cope.
Best Drive: Spa – 14th to 6th in tricky conditions was more of an event than his well called podiums or lonely drives to 5th place.
6: Jenson Button: To an outsider it would have been easy to assume that Button had been driving for McLaren for years. The manner in which he enamoured himself to the team this year made it look like Lewis was the newcomer, and his perfectly judged victories in Melbourne and Shanghai only served to cement this position. Unlike Hamilton, Button is able to judge the grip level to perfection and direct the team on whether he wants to come in and what tyres he wants when he does, this alone allowed him to win twice this year.
His decision to run with the unconventional high downforce setup in Monza was also a clear indication that he is prepared to go his own way if there is something he believes in. Alas, Korea was an example of this risky process going wrong, but he was realistically out of the title fight by then anyway.
Ultimately, he lost out on pace to Hamilton, but not to any great degree, and the two of them spurred each other on to make sure McLaren took second in the constructors championship despite it probably being the third best car over the balance of the season. Button’s challenge faltered over the year, various updates to the car did not provide a comfortable back end, causing Jenson to lose confidence in the car and with it pace. Ultimately though, he made no mistakes all season, which is more than can be said of any of the other championship contenders, making this a fantastic debut season for McLaren and plenty of cause to be positive for 2011.
Best Drive: Monza, despite not winning this race was a triumph for free thinking on setup and also a superb drive under constant pressure from Alonso.
5: Sebastien Vettel: So he won the title, at the last gasp, with a flawless run to victory from the front in Abu Dhabi. I know, so how can I be putting the eventual champion in fifth place?
Well, it’s simple, he had the best car, he is constantly being talked up as the fastest driver in the universe and he started from pole ten times. With such car superiority there is cause to suggest that Vettel or Webber should have wrapped up the title a lot sooner. Intra-team politics seemed on Vettel’s side, so why did he not have it all done by Korea?
Vettel is stunningly fast on a qualifying lap, and can keep that pace up for a race distance seemingly with little trouble and minimal mistakes. However, ask him to overtake, or to take a victory from somewhere other than pole, and you’re in trouble. This season it almost seemed that he couldn’t overtake anyone without making contact, and how he escaped penalty during his “demolition derby” overtaking moves at either Silverstone or Spa is beyond me. Vettel made mistakes this year, but then so did Webber, Alonso and Hamilton. The difference being that every race changing mistake for Vettel was distinctly stupid. Crashes in Turkey and Spa were unnecessary rookie mistakes, and the safety car error in Hungary was a ridiculous mistake borne out of his consistently dangerous safety car restart behaviour (Which stewards also persistently ignore). Until Vettel can control his temperament, and keep from running into his opponents he will remain the unpolished diamond that he is. The only reason there were five drivers in line for the title this year was because Vettel seemingly tried so hard not to win it. Would Hamilton, Alonso or Kubica have waited until the final race of the season to clinch the title in an RB6? I think not.
Best Drive: Suzuka, inch perfect all the way.
4: Mark Webber: This may be the only top ten in the world where Webber is above Vettel. I am not sure how much this is down to marketing, but for most of this season Webber had every bit the pace that his team mate had, and all too often both RB6’s were on the front row. As mentioned, of course, the car was notably better than the others, but everyone expected Webber to fall by the wayside under the undeniable brilliance of Lord Vettel, didn’t they?
Webber wouldn’t have that, and the driver that most had down as “fast, but not fast enough” stepped up a gear this year, at times driven only by the sheer power of ultimate rage (see: Silverstone). After splendid flag-to-flag victories in Barcelona and Monaco the momentum in Red Bull seemed to be that Webber was “the man”, then came Turkey, and an ill judged collision from Vettel, and before we knew it the team changed.
Behind the scenes Vettel had been unhappy with being beaten by his team mate, and claimed there was “something” wrong with his RB6 chassis, after Turkey they changed that “something” and Vettel was suddenly in the pound seat. To this day, Newey will not reveal what that “something” was. However, the reactions of the team in Turkey and the subsequent Silverstone front wing scandal left Webber feeling distinctly unloved, and fighting harder and harder because of it. He drove the wheels off his RB6 and took the best results he could where he could, his second place in Spa being every bit as good a drive as his victories. His tendency to be outspoken in the press probably only served to make the Red Bull top brass dislike him even more, which is why it delighted me that he is prepared to maintain this candour, and his driving this year has put him in a genuine top five driver scene. Mistakes in Valencia and Korea were ultimately costly, but still left him with fewer mistakes than most.
Best Drive: Monaco – Senna-esque dominance.
3: Fernando Alonso: At the end of the British GP Alonso looked set to be having a pretty awful season. It had started well with a win in Bahrain, leading many to suspect that Ferrari had a car to challenge RBR. Following that, various heaps of bad luck in Melbourne and Malaysia, some notable mistakes in Shanghai and Monaco, and a bit of both in Valencia, left many tempted to write off the double world champion as done and dusted. A mistake for most, because those paying close attention would have noted that the pace of the Ferrari was very good indeed and so one had to assume that when things started going right, Fernando would be right on it.
And so he was, after a win in Germany that got the Fleet Street press delving right into their favourite “We hate Johhny Foreigner” subject matter, Fernando stood on the podium in Hungaroring, Monza, Singapore, Suzuka, Korea and Interlagos, three times on the top step. This ferocious run of consistency was what took him to Abu Dhabi as the championship favourite, only for a very “Italian” mistake to take him out of it.
At times this year Fernando’s pace was sublime, clearly having the measure of Massa from day one, Alonso slipped into the Ferrari team as a natural leader and, like Button, looked very much at home in his new surroundings. His pace in the final laps at Korea when his inters looked barely used alongside everyone else’s worn old boots was testament to Alonso’s amazing ability to extract pace without hurting tyres, and still many maintain that, as an all-rounder, he is the best out there. However, the pre-season hype that put Ferrari as favourites put him into a frustrating situation where his car was very fast, but not quite fast enough. Mistakes in Monaco, China and Belgium were borne of this frustration and were quite uncharacteristic. Fernando needs to get back to his 2006 levels of calm, consistent ultra-fast point scoring if he is to take another title. I’m sure he’ll spend most of the winter telling himself that.
Best Drive: Singapore, majestic around the city streets once again, under constant pressure for a flag-to-flag win.
2: Lewis Hamilton: Hamilton came on very strong this year. Whilst his driving was the usual “tour de force” of dramatic overtaking, unfeasible oversteer recovery and sheer balls-out speed, outside of the car he changed. He was much more mature in all of his dealings with the press and purportedly similarly relaxed and grown up within the team. The arrival of Button may have been of some help, as may have been the removal of his father as his manager. Either way, I found myself liking Lewis a whole lot more this year.
Alas, he once again did not have the best car in the field and so was left to make up the difference with nothing but heroics. He did not fail to deliver. He once again pulled off overtaking moves that no one else seemed to be able to, and was seemingly unable to give up at any stage. You always felt that Lewis was giving it everything he had, and at times he had that McLaren in places it did not deserve to be. Winning in tricky conditions in Montreal, in a race where sheer driver skill made the difference, was a sign of his ability. His victory in a tricky Spa was just as inspirational, and treading on the podium nine times (Would have been ten but for a tyre failure in Spain) reflected that Hamilton may be the fastest driver in the field. Crashes in Monza and Singapore were, like Alonso, the product of trying too hard in a car not up to the job. In a very strong field Hamilton singles out as not only the last driver you want to see in your mirrors, but also a man who will take more titles as soon as he gets a quick enough car.
Best Drive: Montreal, combative victory from a pole position that no McLaren deserved.
1: Robert Kubica: It may seem an odd choice, after all Robert was not involved in the titanic championship battle at the front, but there was one constant that impressed me about Kubica: In every race, he repeatedly flattered the performance of his car, and made absolutely no mistakes.
It is telling that Kubica made Q3 in the troublesome Renault in all but one race this year, and stepped on the podium three times in a car barely worthy of a top ten result, Kubica is an enormously talented pilot. His single minded focus has allowed the Renault team to really get behind him and the hard work being put in by the driver is reflected by everyone in the team. Renault made a big step this year and you feel that if they can take that extra step to race winners then Kubica is in with a real chance of a title next year.
In 2010 Kubica’s sheer driving talent was evident in various races. A fortuitous second place in Melbourne was only the beginning, watching him in Monaco from the first practice on Thursday was inspirational, small slides here, “dab of oppo” there, brushing the barriers with razor sharp precision. You really felt he had a shot at victory around the principality until the Red Bull showed it’s hand. His Spa performance was similarly amazing, though he was annoyed with his slight mistake exiting the pits that allowed Webber to take second, after trying to take Eau Rouge flat, one handed, on cold tyres. This man is a machine, a pure bred, race car driving unit from a cold, dark place.
Best Drive: Monaco, just looked better than everyone else.