Now the dust has settled on what, let’s be honest, wasn’t an especially dusty 2013 F1 season, it’s time for the drivers’ end-of-term reports. True, Vettel cantered to the title in the quickest car, but which drivers impressed in less rapid metal? Here’s our countdown of the ten best drivers of 2013. Spoiler: this list contains no Pastor Maldonado…
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Our top ten F1 drivers of 2013
10. Sergio Perez
It now seems generally assumed Perez wasn’t really up to the McLaren job, especially off the track and in private, technical briefings. We don’t know about that, but frankly we are still bemused that McLaren decided against giving Sergio Perez a second year.
There’s a sense that McLaren regard 2014 as an interim year, its first with the turbo-ERS powertrain but its last with Mercedes. 2015 is the big year with Honda. And while we do understand that getting Kevin Magnussen ready for 2015 is important, we reckon with another season - and a decent car - Perez might just have got back all his considerable sparkle.
Never far behind Button, extremely racey, and flat-out-fast by the end of the season, it seems to us Perez just needed managing better, in the way Lotus have done with Grosjean. That is the way to shape champions, as McLaren well knows. The Woking outfit has, in the past, shown itself very capable of getting its drivers facing the right way. Quite why it elected not to with Perez remains a mystery to us.
9. Jenson Button
Oddly, in a season where McLaren gave him a car as lumbering as its immediate predecessor was nimble, Jenson Button delivered a more consistent season for the team. Maybe the MP4-28 was just so bad there was no way for JB to get lost trying to find that magical set-up that would allow him to beat his team mate. The car just couldn’t be made any worse. Or maybe the teammate was just easier to beat.
It hasn’t been easy for Jenson. Typically charming in interviews even after the very worst result, he looked properly strained this year, even more so than in last year’s ‘wilderness period’. And understandably so; you don’t sign to drive for McLaren for them to make misjudgements as fundamentally wrong as the thinking that allowed the team to completely throw away the advantage it had with the brilliant MP4-27 in a season where rule stability meant revolution just wasn’t required. Button isn’t the fastest man on the grid, but he is better than a fourth place in the race and a sixth in qualifying. The MP4-28, meanwhile, wasn’t.
8. Mark Webber
Webber drove superbly this year when his RB9 allowed him to (he scored five fastest laps against Vettel’s seven) but he was also obliterated by his team mate where it mattered; no wins against 13, two poles against nine. Webber, as easy-going a driver as we’re ever likely to see in F1, even admitted towards the end of the summer that he had scaled back the training, recognising that he simply no longer had the pace he used to. That’s quite a thing for a driver to admit, but he didn’t really need to tell us.
There were moments - that astonishing pole lap in Abu Dhabi for example - but generally you could see that neither his right boot nor heart was in the fight. If it had been, then maybe we would have seen more of an attempt to master the Red Bull’s exhaust-blowing system in the way Vettel clearly did. The pace was in the car, but without the motivation it wasn’t quite there in the driver.
7. Kimi Räikkonen
Third in the championship after an extraordinarily consistent run on no pay would, you’d think, see Kimi further up this table than seventh, but as regulars around here know, we are not always convinced by Kimi.
Having tipped him not to star this year, he promptly went out and won the first race of the season, at a canter. We were obliged to eat our words. But then it didn’t get any better and it became apparent that the Mk II Kimi is an altogether different machine from the Mk I.
Räikkonen showed himself extremely capable of driving the Lotus E21 to the required strategy, rarely having to add any extra ‘Kimi’ in order to get the result the team had decided on the evening before. Of course, when he did, like at Monaco, it was often extraordinary. That’s the Kimi we want.
Otherwise it was business as usual, only with a little extra needle as it became apparent that his relationship with Lotus was slowly unravelling. There’s no excuse for a team not paying a driver all season long when contracted to do so, with Kimi electing to drive on, maybe he could have kept his mouth shut? He’s not for everyone, certainly, and seems an extraordinary choice for a team as riven by politics as Ferrari.
6. Lewis Hamilton
Having walked out of McLaren, Hamilton expected nothing of himself or Mercedes this year. Five poles and one win for himself, and eight poles and three wins for the W04, then, is surely one hell of a result.
Well, yes, but that’s not how F1 works. After three seasons during which Mercedes seemed largely distracted by “the Schumacher project”, it finally came up with what was - across the season - the second fastest car on the grid. Forget what had happened in the past and allowing that to shape the team’s aspirations, Mercedes could have, should have been in contention for titles this year.
But it wasn’t, and there are two reasons for that. That, for the fourth season running, Mercedes produced the most capricious car out there when it came to tyre wear is, frankly, bizarre. And to make things worse, just when it seemed it had found a solution, Pirelli moved the goalposts, ironically following Hamilton’s spectacular blowout at Silverstone.
Meanwhile Hamilton himself must share the blame for the team’s evisceration at the hands of Red Bull. As fast as anyone out there on his day, Lewis’ ability to think himself into a corner does not appear to be abating. The team needs to sort this; they are paying Lewis a lot of money to be a lot better than Nico Rosberg and right now, he’s just not. And yes, it does pain us to write that.
5. Romain Grosjean
When it became apparent in the last handful of races that there was simply no way to get past the RB9s, Romain Grosjean also became the man you expected to be up there sharing the champagne with Vettel and Webber. And from where we were last year, that is quite extraordinary and a testament to Eric Boullier’s faith in Grosjean and his ability to manage the best out of his driver.
This year, don’t forget was Grosjean’s third and almost certainly final chance at F1. His first came in 2009 when he replaced Nelson Piquet Jnr in the Renault team following the ‘crashgate’ scandal. It didn’t go well, and to see Grosjean back racing in GTs suggested the F1 dream was over. Then he went back to GP2 in 2011 and dominated. He deserved a second chance in F1 with Lotus in 2012 but we all know how that went.
Understandably then, RoGro was a little subdued at the start of this season. But those narrow shoulders are strong and - not surprisingly considering the path of his career - he’s shown himself to be a remarkably cool customer, seemingly immune to pressure.
As the team fell out of love with Kimi, proved himself more than capable of leading the team both on and off the track. He’s always been fast, and now by force of circumstance he’s also the most mature of the new generation of drivers. Given the right car, a future champion.
4. Nico Rosberg
Nico two positions ahead of Lewis? Yup, and not just because we want to give you something other than your family with which to get cross with this Christmas.
Fourth place for Nico here is not just for keeping up by Lewis Hamilton this year, and therefore obliging us to completely reconsider how fast Michael Schumacher really was on his comeback. For the last four seasons, despite being cast as Number Two to an almost humiliating extent, Nico has so flatly refused to act like one, taking the team’s first pole, first win and doing the same again this season.
And all with considerable grace and charm. Vettel aside, there’s no driver on the grid who wears their talent so lightly; it must be something in the wasser. Historically we are so used to seeing talents explode on the F1 scene and continue to burn bright throughout their careers (Vettel, Hamilton, Schumacher, Senna…), that perhaps we forget it’s possible that talents may be grown and nurtured inside the hothouse of F1.
We’ve have seen that this year with Grosjean and, over the last few seasons, Rosberg: it’s a shame McLaren didn’t give Perez that chance. Certainly Lewis has underperformed this year and we expect he’ll bounce back, but Rosberg has, more often than not, over-performed.
3. Nico Hulkenberg
No wins, no podiums, no poles. Yet here’s Hulkenberg third in the Top Gear Sunday Afternoon Club F1 Driver Rankings 2013. Which is the biggest thing he’s won in three seasons in F1.
We all know the story now of how Lotus’s financial pressures forced the team to sign Pastor Maldonado and not Hulkenberg. It’s a portent of things to come in F1. If Hulkenberg can’t get a drive on talent alone then who the hell can? And while four teams - Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes - can still afford to pay their drivers, few if any of the other teams can.
Maybe the new team the FIA has invited to apply for membership might help. Or maybe we do now need to reconsider customer teams? Would you rather see Hulkenberg back in a Force India, as you will in 2014, or in a second Ferrari team? We know what would make for better racing.
In four years The Hulk has now gone from Williams (where he qualified on pole in his last race) to a sabbatical to Force India (where he led his last race) to Sauber and now back to Force India. If those two Brazilian GP weekend performances hadn’t shown the world the talent, then surely his drives this year in the reconfigured Sauber C32 Mk II did just that: Hulk out-qualified both Ferraris at Monza, and legitimately out-raced three world champions in Korea.
It’s taken a while, but the F1 community finally seemed to understand that with Hulkenberg it has not only a prodigious, precocious talent (a Vettel, Schumacher, Hamilton etc…), but one that through adversity has also matured. Too late? Maybe so, but there might just be a seat at Ferrari in 2015. We can only hope Force India give Nico every chance to earn it in 2014. For everyone’s sake, but especially for the sake of F1.
2. Fernando Alonso
No, shortly after that, Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo was asked to assess Fernando Alonso’s season. “I’ll give him eight of ten,” was the response. We can only assume that Luca already knows that he will not have Fernando Alonso in the team in 2015 because we can’t think of a less motivating thing for any manager to say, unless of course this was Luca’s attempt at motivation?
Or, rather, an attempt to motivate further, as there’s no driver on the grid right now who’s been obliged to drive equipment of a standard quite so out of whack with the level of talent behind the wheel. For four seasons now, Luca - four seasons! - the designers, engineers, scientists and erodynamicists have not been able to give the best/equal-best/second-best driver on the grid a car in which he can challenge for the championship.
Yet twice Alonso’s taken it to the last round, three times he’s finished second. But somehow because - and he’s only human - he dared to suggest that maybe this state of affairs is less than ideal, he deserves a public rebuke. Not only that, but Ferrari have welshed on the understanding Alonso had - either written or unwritten - that Ferrari is his team, and have signed the very personification of F1 passive aggressive, Kimi Räikkonen, to partner him in 2014.
Fernando only misses out topping of this list because what Vettel achieved in those last nine races deserves recognition. Which brings us neatly to…
1. Sebastian Vettel
When, earlier this year we suggested that Sebastian Vettel might be already be well on the way to earning himself the ‘Greatest’ moniker (subjectively that is, not statistically, although that too now that seems inevitable) you lot queued around the block to shoot us down.
And yet if you did bother to watch this year (and we understand if you might have found other things to do in the second half of the season) you might have understood what we meant. Yes, the RB9 was the class of the field, but compare what Vettel was able to do with it with Webber, hardly a slouch of a driver.
Fact is, the RB9 is as complex to drive as it is quick, and it took Vettel’s prodigious skill to wring the speed out of it: those drives, especially those last nine back-to-back winning drives, all required a subtle, nuanced application of the RB9’s strengths. Vettel is the whole picture, fast across a lap and across a race, mentally strong, ruthless when required and dedicated in the way Michael Schumacher taught him to be.
Eddie Irvine mouthed off this week that he believes Vettel needs to ‘do a Schuey’ and sign up for a lesser team to prove himself, gently ignoring the fact Red Bull had not won a grand prix when Vettel joined. And he’s young, Eddie. Seb has plenty of time still to take the winding road, and we suspect that, by the time he does, he will have nothing left to prove.