As has become a tradition of sorts now that we are in F1’s summer break and at (roughly) the season’s halfway point here is my mid-year top 10 drivers’ ranking for 2015, seeking to take into account their circumstances as well as the machinery that they had access to.
For the most part it’s been as expected for Lewis Hamilton in 2015. As before he’s armed with the best car in the field, his own freakish skills and his instinctive combativeness. But with the assurance of a second title added he’s been yet more formidable this season than last. He remains the sport’s go-to guy on pace, only more so. No session can be said to be complete until Lewis has had his say. A few weekends as far as the win is concerned have indeed looked as good as over from the moment he first turned a wheel. On some occasions, such as in China’s and Hungary’s qualifying sessions, he has been stunning.
Nine pole positions, five wins and counting…
He’s also continued to combine all of this with his wholly-underrated brain power – he can do adequate restraint on his fuel gauge, tyres and everything else while maintaining complete command of a race as shown particularly in his China, Bahrain and Canada wins. Another forward stride from last season is that his curious troubles in qualifying from then now are expunged, and his nine poles from ten rounds are apt testament to this. Often his ultimate single lap pace has been untouchable and even when apparently struggling he’s shown a remarkable ability to deliver when it matters – at least a couple of his poles were won against the odds. Critics will point out that he’s converted ‘only’ five of them to race wins, though of those remaining four only his self-admitted “bad day at the office” in Hungary could his failure to triumph be said unequivocally to be his fault.
The only note of worry for him is that his campaign so far has tapered a little over time. In the flyaway rounds opening the season aside from in Malaysia’s extreme race day heat he looked on a plateau, but then poor starts from having a clutch not to his taste were first seen in Spain, while from Austria small errors started to bubble. There he binned it on his final qualifying lap (but got away with it) and wandered across the pit lane exit line in the race which earned him a penalty, and otherwise was flat beaten by his team mate. In Silverstone he left the track being too impatient in getting the lead from Felipe Massa (but again got away with it). Then we had Hungary which we’ve mentioned, and which worst of all showed some of the impetuousness we thought he’d left far behind. If this sort of thing continues it might well threaten his title number three. But you feel it’s the only thing that can.
“You know what, mate? It’ll be just his luck to go to Ferrari when they have one of their golden periods…”
So said Mark Webber a year or so ago of his old acquaintance Sebastian Vettel’s probable career path. Yet however much Webber’s cynicism might attract in the actual event it’s only so far proved prophetic up to a certain point. Yes Seb after making his move to Ferrari has again benefitted a little from an apparent charmed existence in joining at the precise moment of a mini upturn. But beyond that he’s made his luck.
Following a difficult 2014 when in and out of the car he seemed at odds with the turn the formula had made a change of scenery, and to F1’s most famous team, his rekindled the four-time champion’s enthusiasm and performances a treat. Suggesting that much of the Italian team’s competitive upturn owes to him as a few have is over-egging it slightly; it can’t credibly be denied that it owed a lot to coincidence. But it can’t be denied either that Seb’s made the very best of it all.
He slipped right in and right away at Ferrari; his calmness, industrious approach and ready smile were quickly appreciated. Also appreciated not least are his consistent strong drives – only really in Bahrain’s race did he let his standards slip with an error-ridden run. Flooring it to pass Roberto Merhi under a red flag in Canada’s practice also was a silly and curious aberration. Elsewhere though it’s been hard to fault him as employing his usual blend of extreme speed and strategic brain power he has clung to the Mercedes coat tails as much as is possible about every time – occasionally it’s helped draw error from the silver lot. He’s left Kimi Raikkonen behind about as decisively as Fernando Alonso did. His racing has been sharp, most notably in Canada where he had to come through the field. And when opportunity presented itself for his two wins he’s looked just his old imperious self from his Red Bull pomp.
Perhaps most important of all is that Vettel surely in 2015 has once and for all convinced even those most obdurate doubters that with him it’s not all about fine Adrian Newey-penned machines. Or blown floors. Or luck.
Another season at or near the front. Another season in which despite this we’re not entirely clear where Nico Rosberg fits. If his stable mate Lewis Hamilton’s season so far has been a gentle downward drift then Nico’s has been a rollercoaster. There have been peaks as high as we’ve ever seen from him. But nosedives too which are close to unfathomable.
In the first three rounds Nico looked lost, never on his team mate’s pace and swinging from gushing praise for him in Australia to odd barbs at him in China; as if to demonstrate the extent that it was open season on him somehow he managed to draw criticism for both stances. But in another Nico time-honoured characteristic just when we thought him down and out he bounced back. In Bahrain’s race he showed he still had fight, then in Spain he got it spot on to take a decisive pole and win, albeit the latter was assisted to some extent by Lewis being bottled up behind Sebastian Vettel for half the race. In Monaco he admitted he got lucky to triumph, in Canada although he pedalled hard he couldn’t usurp Lewis but then Austria was the scene of his high-tide watermark – plain beating his team mate in a straight fight for what many thought was the first time since the Merc got good. All of a sudden he had three wins from four and it looked like we were going to get a title fight after all.
But then the momentum was lost. In Silverstone he looked poised for another gain only for Lewis to snatch pole at the very last, although Nico was unlucky at points in the race. Then Hungary was a grand missed opportunity – him appearing off the pace with a wrong turn on set-up. He also in his radio calls betrayed an over-conservative mind-set and then after matters opened up for him he managed to ruin it by being at least imprudent in getting together with Daniel Ricciardo late on.
Thus after all that Nico seems back roughly to where he started. In every sense. The feeling remains that if absolutely everything comes together for him in a weekend he has enough to beat Lewis. But that’s the problem, in how many weekends can it be said that absolutely everything comes together?
As stated at the outset this rating of drivers is a measure of how they did with the equipment available. But on the other hand I’ve always placed some premium value on fighting at the front too, for a few reasons. And so it is after the first part of the 2015 season these two conflicting considerations meet head on in the case of Fernando Alonso. Rarely in the sport’s entire history can such a decorated and talented driver have been required to operate in such a poor machine as this year’s McLaren-Honda. But looking at Alonso’s personal contribution it’s hard to conclude that much more could have been asked of him.
Not the season he’d hoped for…
Of course even without the car being a dog and an often unreliable one at that many expected the worst for the double world champion’s return to Woking, given the previously-incendiary couple of Alonso and Ron Dennis were hooking back up. Plenty of them felt vindicated too when having sat out the first race as a consequence of a mysterious testing accident about Alonso’s first act upon returning was to publically contradict the team’s version of events.
But since of McLaren’s plenty troubles Nando has probably represented the least of them. As Nigel Roebuck noted the Spaniard has been a “soul of patience this year, to a degree that has surprised many”. Even with his current employers’ woes, even with his previous employers’ success, he’s stuck rigidly to the line that he has no regrets and that this project will come right. A radio rant about fuel saving in Canada has been his only most minor of wavering. Heck, he’s even got along famously with Ron.
More importantly still even in this trying situation not once has Alonso given the slightest indication of relent when behind the wheel. Errors on his first two qualifying goes let team mate Jenson Button start ahead but since Monaco aside (where his car broke down) he’s qualified ahead everywhere. Furthermore again Monaco possibly aside he’s been the team’s race day pace-setter every time, with even in this adversity his habitual will and aggression always on display. The sight of him in Hungary’s qualifying session pushing his broken down car back to the pits while being a sight that may sum up the car’s technical woe also was quintessential of Alonso’s prevailing unbreakable spirit. His stunning first laps remain too and he often can be found several places up on his grid slot after a few corners. But then again none of this should be a surprise, as Jacques Villeneuve said of the Spaniard he’s “a racing animal – without competition he would be lost…”
The man that topped many a top 10 last year, after a season in which it seemed all refused to go wrong for him, Daniel Ricciardo has so far in in 2015 discovered the flip side of the F1 front-runner coin. His disappointing RB11 with its even more disappointing Renault power unit has not begun to do his talents justice. And even the cheerful Danny Ric has shown a little strain.
He’s tended nevertheless to do as much as he can with his car, but his one weak point from 2014 of poor starts has continued and particularly compromised him this campaign, sending him into a dense pack of Mercedes and Ferrari powered machines that he can’t hope to out drag. Also unlike in 2014 in adversity small mistakes have crept in, such as triggering the first corner frolics in Silverstone with an ill-advised lunge after yet another poor start as well as errors in his final qualifying runs in Bahrain and Spain. While Canada was a low point in and out of the car, him not getting near to his team mate on track and saying in front of the media rather more than his squad appreciated about where he felt they were going wrong. But then again his team have let him down on occasion too, such as with brake problems in Malaysia’s race, a miscommunication on engine settings costing him a possible third place on Monaco’s starting grid and technical maladies in qualifying and the race in Silverstone.
There have been high points however – in Monaco he was excellent while he was very good in coming through the pack in Austria after a grid penalty as well as in his efforts in Australia, China and Bahrain. While his Gilles Villeneuve-style run in Hungary – which might have been rewarded with a win on another day – underlined in thick red ink that the talent and combativeness that we all adored in 2014 remains. He just needs the wheels with which to demonstrate this more often.
You might call it a second season syndrome of sorts, even though this is in fact Valtteri Bottas’s season number three in F1. His journey mirrors Daniel Ricciardo’s to some extent in that he developed a mighty reputation last year, but also like Ricciardo in a slightly less good car this year things have got more difficult.
When Bottas has been good this campaign he’s been very good – showing the pace, aggression and absence of error we admired so much last season. In Malaysia in coming through the field after a poor first lap; in Bahrain being unflappable in holding off Sebastian Vettel for many tours on the way to fourth place; in Spain in splitting the Ferraris; in Canada showing pace and calmness while being stalked by Kimi Raikkonen on the way to finishing third and in Hungary where he was unlucky to pick up a puncture. In all of these he was excellent. In Britain too he appeared to have potential race-winning pace had it stayed dry and the team been ruthless on strategy – though it can’t be denied that he created his own problems to an extent by qualifying behind team mate Felipe Massa and that later he lost a load of time in the wet. But there have been off days too, in China and Austria he wasn’t on Massa’s pace while in Monaco he simply was nowhere. More broadly and as shown in the Principality a little like his countryman Raikkonen he appears to struggle disproportionately when the car’s front end is weak. Also not good is that he sits behind Massa in the Williams qualifying match up currently by six to four. But then again Massa appears back to something like his best this campaign and that always included being very good on a single flying lap.
Reflecting this rather topsy-turvy time of it while rumours link Bottas strongly to a Ferrari move for next year there also are more recent whispers that the Scuderia is wondering whether the Finn in fact is all that. Even at this still relatively early stage Bottas now enters a crucial period for the path that his F1 career is to take.
“What we are seeing at the minute is definitely the best Felipe Massa that we have seen, definitely as good as 2008.” Some praise. And coming from Rob Smedley who is one who should know.
Such has been the enigma of Felipe Massa. We know from that fabled 2008 season that there is a lot of potential in there, it’s just that since – or some will argue since his Hungary 2009 accident – it’s rarely been extracted fully or consistently. But Smedley could be right that this season, building on a gently encouraging first one at Grove in 2014, he’s come the closest to it. And the proof of the pudding in the drivers’ table has Massa only three points shy of team mate Valtteri Bottas.
There have been several good drives from the Brazilian and a few that were very good – with his races in China, Canada (coming through the pack with plenty of aggression, including a thrilling pass on Marcus Ericsson) and Austria (never so much as putting a wheel out of line under pressure from Sebastian Vettel for half the race, and rewarded with a podium appearance) falling into the latter category. In Monaco he did a better job than Bottas with a difficult car and while in Silverstone many recall him apparently holding his team up early on he was quicker than him later on harder tyres as well as when the rain fell. He likely would have finished second there too without the elements’ intervention. Yet as was the case with Massa even at his best there still are curious off days. In Spain he didn’t get with the programme while he was rather all over the place in Hungary although most reckoned that there he had a good excuse. And Hungary aside Massa has gone a long way this season to remove the errors that often peppered his repertoire previously. No wonder Rob’s happy.
Things change fast in F1, and this season Kimi Raikkonen is the latest to be reminded as much. Go back to mid-April and he had just claimed second place in the Bahrain Grand Prix after a drive full of his vintage fingertip race car command, tyre sympathy and robust aggression. Indeed with another lap or so he might have won. And with this completing a pretty impressive opening part of the year generally, and with the car now handling to his taste, the air was rich of him finally rediscovering his ‘mojo’ after his egregious 2014 return to Ferrari.
Reliability has been his major downfall…
Yet now Kimi with less than half of the points of his team mate seems not all that much further forward than in that annus horribilis. Qualifying – in which he’s been put away by his team mate once again – remains a weakness by his own admission and often compromises his race results. Then it got worse as with conspicuous doubts in the ether about his Ferrari future race day errors crept in, him losing control on acceleration in Canada and Austria while a strong weekend in Britain was spoiled by a hasty tyre call when the first rain fell. In Hungary though he was excellent in Vettel’s wake only for mechanical woes to stop him. Indeed the Goddess Fortune hasn’t been all that kind to him this year, with him impeded in a few other weekends by matters beyond his control. But some critics wonder if this merely betrays a driver that needs everything to be just so to get the job done?
In terms of his retention at Ferrari for 2016 of course Kimi can hardly have become a bad driver since Bahrain and usually when in clear air displays good pace and tyre management. He also comes these days with an all-important Sebastian Vettel Seal of Approval. But it remains to be seen if it’s all enough. One way or another he this year hasn’t yet made himself indispensable.
Another year and another campaign in which Nico Hulkenberg, shunned unfathomably by the big F1 teams, does what he can in a midfield car. And in the first few rounds of 2015 while he wasn’t terrible there was a sense that he didn’t entirely meet his own high standards, which itself followed a rather tepid second half of 2014 from him. In Australia he did all he could but after that things tailed off and his Bahrain race as well as his weekends in Spain and Monaco were disappointing. Small mistakes, unusually for him, were in there in too such as him hitting Daniil Kvyat in Malaysia and spinning in battle with Sebastian Vettel in Canada. A few qualifying efforts were spoiled by mistakes also. Perhaps though given everything we can forgive him if he was beginning to feel exasperation, and it may not have helped that early on this season his Force India was behind on the development curve.
Whether by coincidence or not though his famous Le Mans 24 Hours triumph marked a return of his F1 performances to the level we know he’s capable of – all a perfect combination of pace, fight and polish – and every time. In Austria on his lauded return from the Circuit de la Sarthe the Hulk was superb in fighting Valtteri Bottas’s far superior Williams on the way to sixth place. Then in Britain he was right in the top ten mix throughout as he was in Hungary before his front wing failed.
As ever with Hulkenberg the big question is whether his talent will get its (over)due reward, and indeed there’s no secret that there is a Ferrari ride up for grabs for 2016 plus the Scuderia’s shown interest in him before. In this sense too his return to form in recent weeks has been highly timely.
I seem to say this every time but this was just about the toughest top ten rating I can recall compiling. Partly that from about third place down there was very little to choose between the competing cases, partly also because I could have done with it being a top 12. The battle over the final spot came down essentially to three very worthy pilots: Jenson Button, Daniil Kvyat and Max Verstappen.
And at the risk of incurring Helmut Marko’s wrath it was Jenson who just took the final spot. Kvyat has had a half season of two halves. Many doubts about the wisdom of his promotion to Red Bull swirled after a tough pre-season and opening five rounds. Much of the struggle wasn’t his doing but some of it was. But Kvyat is known as a hard-working, self-critical and analytical sort and he enacted a turnaround at Monaco with a good drive there which he followed with a very good one in Canada. Austria was so-so, Britain good again (though spoiled slightly by a spin) and while his Hungary result was superb he admitted it owed a fair amount to others falling by the wayside. Still it feels harsh to leave him out and he is showing plenty of signs of refining his canvas yet further after the break.
Leaving Max Verstappen out feels harsh too given he’s shown this year almost beyond equivocation that he is a star in the making. His easy talent has been plain to see right from his first pre-season test (comparisons with Michael Schumacher in the Jordan were not outlandish) and quintessentially in ending up second in Monaco’s first practice session on a track he had no experience of. He also displays astonishing maturity which came in handy when brushing off F1’s almost inevitable desire to bring fine young talent down a peg or two, when he was rounded upon for a clash with Romain Grosjean in Monaco which many observers thought unfair. The only drawbacks of sorts have been a slight inconsistency and occasional (sometimes careless) error. But he’ll be given plenty of time to iron these minor creases out.
Judging Button in 2015 meanwhile comes with the same considerations as judging Fernando Alonso, given they share the predicament of being a highly-regarded driver in a so far desperately disappointing McLaren-Honda. But kicking around in here somewhere is the upside for Jenson. He has one heck of a yardstick in Alonso as team mate and the Spaniard as explained doesn’t appear to have relented a great deal. Jenson for his part while tending to be the one following also has never been disgraced, there for the most part being little more than a tenth or two per lap between the pair. In the vital Monaco weekend he looked plain quicker than Alonso indeed even before Nando’s mechanical troubles hit in qualifying and the race. In short, if Alonso’s that good then Button must be nearly that good, and that’s what tilted it for Jenson.
While it is far less of a surprise coming from him than his team mate like Alonso too Jenson deserves credit also for maintaining a positive demeanour in public about how the McLaren-Honda project has been progressing (or not progressing as the case may be). Like his team mate there has also been no indication that he’s let his personal standards or effort slide. He’s been spirited and combative when other cars are near, indeed he somehow held off Sergio Perez for 42 laps in Melbourne in a car that was brick slow even by 2015 standards. By his own admission he erred however by driving into Pastor Maldonado in China and he also seemed a bit spooked by poor handling in Spain, but otherwise there’s been near-nothing to reproach him for. Little wonder that less than a year on from when his F1 career looked as good as over the grapevine has him possibly with more than one competing suitor in the pit lane for 2016.