Why F1’s current driver line-up could be the best ever
Just as Harold Wilson said supposedly that a week is a long time in politics, an hour and a half on a Sunday it appears is a long time in F1.
For however long – almost to the point of not being able to remember anything else – the sport has been characterised by self-loathing and had proceeded through seemingly impenetrable murk. A sport rather writhing foetal in a therapist’s chair; not sure what it wanted to be beyond being certain that it wanted to be something other than it currently is.
Reflecting this state in some part, for this 2017 campaign we had a new formula introduced. And based on the opening round in Melbourne some things about it were an improvement too. The cars looked meaner, were quicker (albeit a few wondered the extent that this should have been a priority), and coincidentally we appeared for the first time since 2012 to have a genuine multi-car fight for the drivers’ title. We know that, compared with an intra-team fight, such scraps have additional edge.
Yet as if pressing a bubble under your wallpaper to find it pop up somewhere else, the new formula also contained new problems. Mainly that on Australia’s basis it seemed that the new racing cars couldn’t actually race each other. Nico Hulkenberg called it “almost impossible” to pass; Sergio Perez thought an advantage of two seconds a lap was required to make a place.
But round two in China gave us tentative hope that this will not in fact be so, thanks to a scintillating Sunday’s action there. Indeed in the space of the single hour and a half mentioned, we, if anything leapt straight to the other extreme, to feeling that for the first time in however long we were content with the racing balance struck.
Unlike the same race 12 months previously we didn’t get a succession of cars sailing past each other in the DRS zone, but that was a lot of the point, as instead while the total number of passes was far fewer than then many of those we got this time were thrilling – slow crescendos to desperate, brave moves in contested braking zones, featuring the possibility of attack and defence. It was a stark reminder of how important that is. And that quality trumps quantity.
Whatever else might have been wrong with F1 in recent times driver quality has emphatically not been one of them. On the contrary, you could make the case that in terms of driving talent and the depth of it the current sport is the best F1 has ever had.
Yet there was something else going on too. Not merely that F1’s racing was, perhaps, at last getting it right. Also that vital in it all was something that existed in F1 already; China’s race provided merely circumstances in which it could be demonstrated.
Yes – whatever else might have been wrong with F1 in recent times driver quality has emphatically not been one of them (ironic given one of the audible complaints in that period has been that the modern F1 pilot has it easy). Again on the contrary, you could make the case that in terms of driving talent and the depth of it the current sport is the best F1 has ever had.
A bold claim of course, as this current era isn’t short of competition from history. I was one fortunate enough to get their F1 initiation in the Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell era, and era which rightfully has gone into folklore and not least due to the sheer fortune of having three such high quality drivers around at the same time. Perhaps the broad driving talent of that era peaked in 1985 when to the above you could add Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg among many others.
The sixties and seventies meanwhile are with good reason considered treasure troves of F1 driving talent. Take the 1967 season line-up and it reads a little like a who’s-who: Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, John Surtees, Denny Hulme, Chris Amon, Jochen Rindt, Pedro Rodríguez, Dan Gurney…
The 1967 season line-up reads a little like a who’s-who: Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, John Surtees, Denny Hulme, Chris Amon, Jochen Rindt, Pedro Rodríguez, Dan Gurney…
Similar goes for 1973: Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Ronnie Peterson, François Cevert, Peter Revson, Hulme, Carlos Reutemann, Jacky Ickx, Carlos Pace, Clay Regazzoni, Jody Scheckter as well as a young pairing going by the names of Niki Lauda and James Hunt.
The 1982 season started with quite the star cast too: Gilles Villeneuve, Didier Pironi, Prost, Piquet, Reutemann, Rosberg, Lauda, Jacques Laffite, Rene Arnoux, John Watson… It might have been even better as the great Alan Jones to most people’s surprise had retired late the previous year. Sadly also, fate – some of it tragic – took some of those stars away before very long in that season.
And harking back to these does not merely reflect nostalgia either (though I grant you there’s some of it in there), as history tells us too that there is no guarantee of getting an all-star cast in an F1 era. The most top of mind evidence is the time of Michael Schumacher’s pomp. Without taking anything away from the great man, loosely between Imola 1994 and Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso emerging in the early 2000s there simply were very few other drivers around close to Schumi’s standards. He had one worthy adversary in Mika Hakkinen, but the rest – Damon Hill, David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve, Juan Pablo Montoya, Rubens Barrichello… – each for their own reasons were from a distinct step below.
What is especially impressive about now is the strength, and strength in depth, of the cast around the 'big three' of Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso.
But it’s not the case now. We can start with modern F1’s own long-established ‘big three’ drivers – Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso. All are multiple world champions, and while we can (and do) bicker about their respective merits their status as greats that would be considered as such in any era, as well as their place in the sport’s historical pantheon, surely are beyond contention. They all did themselves full justice in Shanghai.
Yes, you may be pointing out at this point, many F1 generations have had a ‘big three’. Senna-Prost-Mansell we’ve mentioned. But what is especially impressive about now is the strength, and strength in depth, of the cast around them.
We can start with Max Verstappen of course, who even at his tender age has long confirmed his status as a phenomenon. Just as in his tour de force Brazil’s rain last year, we started the recent China race with towering expectations of Max which he then exceeded. We knew after his difficult Shanghai qualifying and his lowly P16 starting slot that he was likely to provide fireworks come Sunday. What we did not anticipate was that come the end of lap one he’d be in P7… Then it seemed after another blink he was running second, and although later he had to cede to Vettel’s recovering Ferrari Max still completed the podium.
Then we have his team mate Daniel Ricciardo, who finished on Max’s tail in China and – lest we forget – finished 2016 in first place of many people’s top 10 drivers’ ratings (including that of your dear author). He is a driver with everything – speed, consistency, intelligence, charisma, a fine racer’s instinct – and one who with this hardly has an off-day or error. When he binned it in Melbourne’s qualifying you had to rub your eyes to make sure you weren’t imaging things. No one doubts that with tools even nearly good enough he’d win titles.
Carlos Sainz over roughly the last 12 months has been demonstrating that he is a driver of the highest order; Romain Grosjean in late 2013 almost alone took the fight to the then-imperious Red Bulls and fought at the front as if born to do it; Hulkenberg’s talents also have been long-known.
We can stay in the rather plentiful Red Bull camp for our next mention. Carlos Sainz, who over roughly the last 12 months has been stepping out of Verstappen’s shadow to demonstrate that he is a driver of the highest order in his own right. Fast, consistent, intelligent and error-free – he put all that and more to fine use in China, all alone starting on slick tyres on a damp track then putting in a consistent and swift drive. He finished as best of the rest behind the top three teams, well clear of all others, and even clung onto those haughty cars ahead for longer than should have been possible.
When can scan even further down the grid too. It’s easily forgotten but think back to the late months of 2013, when Romain Grosjean almost alone took the fight to the then-imperious Red Bulls and fought at the front as if born to do it, time after time it seemed. Given the opportunity he’d do the same again. Pirelli has data that indicates indeed that the Franco-Swiss is the fastest through corners of everyone.
Hulkenberg’s talents also have been long-known, and like Grosjean his shunning by the big teams has been long-lamented. Perez too has many advocates, certainly has improved vastly over time and is capable of fine results and, with increasing regularity, fine performances. His first two rounds’ efforts this year have been excellent.
We also should mention the Finnish pair of Kimi Raikkonen and Valtteri Bottas. Now you may be guffawing given both have had iffy starts to the 2017 campaign, but stay with me. If nothing else they must have been doing something right to get their sought-after race seats in the first place. We know that Kimi has been, and still can be, devastating when all is right.
While Bottas remains one who is fast – especially on a qualifying lap – consistent, imperturbable and possessed of a fantastic touch on the tyres. We can recall how much we rated him in his 2014 breakthrough and it’s hard to believe he’s lost all of his talents in the meantime. While without what he called his “amateur” mistake of spinning under the safety car in China his opening two rounds could have been filed firmly under ‘absolutely fine’ at the very least.
As an aside we can reflect that without his 2011 rally injury we likely would have had the excellent Robert Kubica in the thick of this as well. Many, soberly, rated Kubica the very best of the very best.
And while with Max around it’s easy to lose sight of this, in addition to him and Sainz we have a wider crop of young drivers with plenty of talent and potential – Esteban Ocon, Stoffel Vandoorne, Pascal Wehrlein (remember him?). Some still put Kevin Magnussen in this category too.
As an aside we can reflect that without his 2011 rally injury we likely would have had the excellent Robert Kubica in the thick of this as well. Many, soberly, rated Kubica the very best of the very best. Even against some of the names mentioned.
It’s perhaps an even bigger pity that all of this coincides with an age that, conversely, has an extreme paucity of plumb drives in which these guys can do themselves justice. Perhaps that’s the next one of F1’s many problems to fix…