F1 season review 2011

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Vettel’s brilliance, Button’s rise at McLaren and Alonso’s never-say-die spirit… Those were the topics served up for starters when Motor Sport met for lunch and a post-F1 season chat

David Coulthard has a lot to answer for. The 13-time Grand Prix winner was the glue that forged a lasting bond between the two men who have masterminded the dominance of an energy drinks brand over the most established and best-known racing teams in Formula 1. Boosted by Dietrich Mateschitz’s Red Bull millions, Christian Horner and Adrian Newey have out-thought, out-performed and, if you listen to some of their rivals, out-spent their way to consecutive World Championships. The axis of power has been completed by the young master in the cockpit, Sebastian Vettel, a driver who appears destined to deliver in the years to come on the formidable potential we’ve suspected of him since that first Grand Prix victory, for Toro Rosso at Monza, back in 2008.

As Horner told Simon Taylor during last month’s ‘Lunch with’ interview, it was in 2005 that Coulthard brokered the first contact between his new team principal and the most influential F1 designer of his generation. They met for dinner at The Bluebird on the Kings Road in London, hitting it off straight away – but apparently keeping clear of any deal to lure Adrian from his dissatisfied position at McLaren.

The negotiations came later, but it’s fitting that it should be in a restaurant that inspires a direct association with total speed where such a partnership should be born. The spectacular Art Deco Bluebird, built in 1923, used to be one of Europe’s finest garages with a strong link to Land Speed Record and British Grand Prix hero Malcolm Campbell.

The Bluebird also happens to be just up the road from Motor Sport’s office in Chelsea. Its motoring past – and specifically its place in the Newey/Horner story – gave us the perfect excuse to adjourn to its stylish dining area and review the F1 season just past. Joining your host Rob Widdows were editor-in-chief Nigel Roebuck, editor Damien Smith and associate editor Ed Foster…

Sebastian Vettel
Turning it all the way up to 11

RW Here we are at The Bluebird on the Kings Road in Chelsea, where Christian Horner and Adrian Newey first came to dinner and had a friendly chat. We know what that led to in 2011: Sebastian Vettel’s total domination of the Formula 1 World Championship. He has absolutely blown them away this year, hasn’t he?

NR Without a doubt he has, Rob. Of course, he hasn’t been faultless, and no Grand Prix driver ever will be, but this has been a season that any driver dreams of having once in his life.

It was the case of a guy who won the previous World Championship unexpectedly at the last dance of 2010 – he never led the points until that last race – and went off into the winter as World Champion, with his confidence unexpectedly off the clock, had a serene winter and came back for 2011 with Adrian having dealt the team another perfect hand. Sebastian drove the whole year like a bloke who turned up to every race expecting to win. And that doesn’t happen very often.

RW Is this success down to Vettel or is it because he has obviously got the very best car in the field?

DS It’s down to the whole package. It’s always been the case, a driver cannot do it on his own. The clever thing about Red Bull is the structure of the team. Dietrich Mateschitz was very canny putting Christian Horner in charge, then telling him to go out and put a team together that can win the World Championship. And Christian homed in on Adrian as the obvious man to help him do that. He’s given Adrian the structure and the team to work as he likes to. We know about the fabled drawing board and his very hands-on approach. But Adrian’s also got a very good team behind him to give him the support in every department. It’s just worked perfectly.

As for Vettel himself the thing that’s stood out for me this year is the comparison with his team-mate. In 2010 Mark Webber matched and was sometimes quicker than Sebastian. This year he hasn’t been anywhere near him. That might be something to do with Mark’s own performances, but the fact is that Vettel has raised his game and he has taken what is undoubtedly a very good car and made the very most of it.

EF What I find amazing about Vettel this season is that he’s made mistakes, as you mentioned Nigel, but they have nearly always been in practice sessions. When it comes to qualifying or the race he’s always there. He tends to have these mistakes early on in the weekend. He finds the limit and then usually goes on to completely dominate the race. And of course Webber has really struggled with the Pirelli tyres.

DS Christian said that after Abu Dhabi in 2010, with the season over and Vettel having just won the World Championship, Sebastian stayed on for the young driver tests, the first with the Pirelli tyres, and he wanted to know every detail that Pirelli could give him. The World Champion was already thinking about 2011.

NR Montréal was one of the only times during the year when we saw Sebastian under pressure. The only thing Vettel did in 2011 that surprised me was that he let Jenson Button get so close in the final stages of that race. I’m sure he was being canny, trying to do the Fangio thing and win by the slowest possible speed, but in allowing Jenson to get as close as he did that inevitably put pressure on him. Had he gone a bit quicker in the later laps and kept Jenson further away, that pressure wouldn’t have been there.

DS Does it give you hope, Nigel, that there is a chink in the armour and we’re not about to head into an era of domination?

NR Well, of course, I hate to see an entire era dominated by one driver. You think back to those years when you set off to a race every two weeks knowing before you left home that Michael Schumacher was going to win and it was quite difficult to find the motivation to pack on those occasions. I don’t want to see a return of that.

RW What seems more likely to me is that we will be going into yet another era of Adrian Newey domination because the man is clearly in a league of his own right now when it comes to designing a Grand Prix car. Coupled with Vettel’s extraordinary attention to detail I think one has to fear an era of domination.

NR It’s not fair to say that Red Bull were fortunate in any way this year, except in the sense that both McLaren and Ferrari began badly for different reasons. So the first quarter of the season Red Bull had it very easy because there wasn’t really any pressure on them. But that just says everything about Adrian and it’s a criticism of McLaren and Ferrari rather than of Red Bull.

Mark Webber
What the hell happened?

RW Poor old Mark, he’s been in the background a bit, hasn’t he?

NR He has. He did win the last race of the season in Brazil, but prior to that he’d only been second twice. And this is in a car that in his team-mate’s hands cleaned up. I’ve been a little bit mystified this season by the gulf that has suddenly opened up between Sebastian and Mark. In 2010 you’d say that Vettel had the upper hand, but it really wasn’t by much at all. There were occasions when Mark flat beat him and beat him on sheer pace. This year it’s almost entirely been a one-way street.

I know it’s a fact that Mark had the opposite problem of Michael Schumacher in that he did not care for the characteristics of the Pirelli tyres compared to the Bridgestones, whereas Michael was the other way round. So that certainly didn’t help, but it still doesn’t – to me – explain the extent of the gap between them.

There were times this year when I thought Mark seemed almost as baffled as we were. I’m hoping that in 2012 the gap will be reduced and it would be nice to think we could have a situation like we did in 2010 when once in a while Webber had the beating of him.

McLaren
Button takes control

RW I think most of us have been surprised by how Jenson Button has imposed himself on this team. He’s clearly adored by everybody at McLaren. He’s driven absolutely beautifully. I think most people assumed that Lewis Hamilton would have been faster every weekend, but it’s been very far from the case, hasn’t it Nigel?

NR It certainly has. I think that this year Jenson and McLaren really became comfortable with each other for a number of reasons. For one thing, Jenson did have some say and influence in the design of the car, in the sense that it was a car that suited him which he hadn’t had in the first year because he signed too late. Also, Pirelli and the new tyre regime – of having deliberately inefficient tyres if you like, or tyres that had to be looked after – could have been made for Jenson as it would have been made in his time for Alain Prost. Plus Jenson’s head was absolutely together while his team-mate’s patently wasn’t.

I think a lot of things came together for Jenson this year and he made the absolute best of them. It was apparent by mid-season that race in, race out, he was McLaren’s best hope.

RW Damien, can Lewis Hamilton bounce right back?

DS Oh yes, he definitely can. I think the victory in Abu Dhabi was evidence that if that Lewis turns up every weekend then he will win another World Championship. The interesting thing about Lewis Hamilton is that he’s had a bad season, he’s been beaten by his team-mate for the first time, but when you think about it, he’s still won three Grands Prix – so he’s not been that bad. He’s had a terrible season by his own high standards and he’s had personal problems to deal with, but he has the ability – if he can get his head together and get in the position that Jenson is in, where he’s happy with life – to win multiple World Championships. But this season will always mark him for the rest of his life.

RW I think Lewis, at some time this season, realised that the team really did adore Jenson Button. There’s a lot of energy around Jenson and maybe these factors came together just to dent Lewis’ confidence, and I think when you drive as close to the limit as Lewis does the one thing you desperately need is confidence and you need to feel absolutely on top of yourself.

DS I think you’re right, Rob. But McLaren couldn’t do any more to make Lewis feel part of the team. They have bent over backwards for him. But he’s shown himself to be very immature at times.

NR Yes, fragile…

DS Absolutely. And I think that’s the biggest question mark over him for the rest of his career. How will he react in these situations? Things in life don’t always go swimmingly and you’ve got to rise above personal problems, in any walk of life.

DRS, Pirelli and KERS
Did new rules pass muster?

RW I’m not in favour of gimmicks, but you can’t deny that we saw a huge amount of overtaking this year. Pirelli did a fantastic job overall, the racing was invariably exciting. What was your take on the new elements for 2011, Nigel?

NR I’ve written it many times, I don’t like anything artificial. Having said that, I thought the new tyre strategy – manufacturing tyres deliberately to have an effect on the outcome of the race – actually worked extremely well. Less so towards the end of the year because I think Pirelli became a little more conservative.

DS They were starting to do too good a job!

NR Well, exactly! They started doing what race tyre manufacturers had always done, which was to make good tyres. I was actually quite OK with the tyres that didn’t last and I was absolutely delighted that Ross Brawn said “we absolutely do not need DRS, the introduction of this new tyre regime was enough to transform the quality of the racing in F1”, and I agree with that.

I’m not a great KERS fan, but I understand that it’s popular because it’s green and we need to be seen to be responsible and so on, but again not all the teams have it. But overall, I’m perfectly happy with the tyres and I’d be perfectly happy to go down the road simply with the tyre philosophy we have now and forget the rest.

EF With the DRS I slightly disagree. Yes, there have been times when they have got it wrong and overtaking has become a bit of a joke. But the big thing I really hated in the past was when a much faster car just could not get past, or even close, to the car in front. It would completely ruin someone’s race through no fault of their own. That’s what I really love about DRS. It gives people a better chance to get out of that situation.

NR I entirely agree with what you’re saying Ed, but I would have preferred it if they had fundamentally addressed the actual cause of the problem rather than coming in with what is – to my mind – a fairly cheap sidestep around it.

Look at it this way. The best single moment of the 2011 season for me was Mark Webber’s pass on Fernando Alonso at Eau Rouge. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it now, but every time I watch it I expect them to have an accident. It was just a perfect piece of driving by both of them.

At Monza I was talking to Fernando about that and he said “you know, I couldn’t quite believe that he was going to do it, and then I realised that yes, he probably is! But I knew it wasn’t a problem because I knew that a lap later I would do him on the hill with the DRS”, which he duly did.

To me, that just negated it all. The greatest 10 seconds of the season were wiped out a lap later, up the hill. “Right, I’m behind him, open the flap, bye bye.” That’s not the same thing to me.

Ferrari
Alonso carries his team

NR Ferrari were disappointing, no question about it. They had a wind tunnel problem at the beginning of the year which they found out about quite late in the day. They were never able to understand why their wind tunnel figures were fantastic and on the track their performance was not a match for that. When it was eventually discovered that they had a major calibration problem it was almost ‘start again’. So they’ve had a very hard year. You know, they’ve won a race.

Having said that, and yes I know I’m absolutely an Alonso fan, I think Fernando was magnificent in 2011. To be able to qualify in the first three only three times and to finish in the top three 10 times says everything about his attitude. Alonso did more with what he had this year than any other driver.

At the same time I am frankly a little mystified by Massa… a fifth place.

DS I’ve really struggled to understand how he’s kept his drive for next year. There are so few top drives in F1 and there are so many young drivers knocking on the door that surely it’s time for Ferrari to take a chance on a Jules Bianchi or one of these up-and-coming drivers. At the moment I’m frustrated that they can’t find anywhere to go.

NR I’m not sure, Damien, that a top team is going to do that. It is only three years after all since Massa, for a few seconds, was World Champion. There were times when he was Michael’s team-mate at Ferrari when he plain blew Michael away, and it’s easy to forget now that in that period of 2006, ’07 and ’08 Felipe won a lot of races. He won them beautifully and dominated them.

Perhaps he isn’t the driver he was before his accident. Let’s face it, he was nearly always the lead Ferrari driver when Räikkönen was there. First of all, I think Alonso is that good, and I think perhaps Felipe is not quite what he was.

He was unlucky this year in terms of the number of incidents with Hamilton (five) and he did get punted out of quite a few races, but even so. He always qualified well – he was one of only four drivers to make it to Q3 in every race… Alonso’s races would always go better than qualifying, Felipe’s would go the other way, and that was disappointing.

DS Do you think there’s any way Massa can keep his drive beyond next year?

NR No, I don’t. I don’t think there’s any way he can keep his drive. If Robert Kubica was back and fit I don’t think he would have kept it for 2012.

Mercedes-Benz
Better – but not good enough

RW A lot of us thought that Ross Brawn would turn this team round, and why wouldn’t we think that? Benetton, Ferrari… Ross is known to be an extremely clever guy. But it hasn’t happened. They finished fourth in the Constructors’ Championship, but they didn’t get on the podium once in 19 races. Nigel, what’s going on here?

NR I’m not sure I can give you a definitive answer, Rob. I think it is just taking a bit longer than everyone expected. It will happen. Ross has been recruiting of late, Aldo Costa has gone there from Ferrari, and Ross and Aldo go way back. You know, it was a reasonable car this year – blindingly quick in a straight line, but not particularly kind to the tyres, which certainly compromised Nico Rosberg a time or two.

DS We should probably remember that when Adrian Newey joined Red Bull he didn’t just wave his magic pencil and suddenly Red Bull were there on the pace. It took them time to gel and create what we see now. I get the feeling that the synergy between what was Brawn GP and Mercedes-Benz hasn’t been smooth.

NR No, it hasn’t been the easiest.

RW Rosberg has been more than a match for Schumacher. In fact, Nico has outqualified him most of the time. Is it time for Michael to retire?

NR You have to say that Michael was considerably better in 2011 than he was the year before. I truly didn’t think that at the end of 2010 he deserved to keep his drive. And had he been anyone other than Michael Schumacher he would have been gone. Having said that, he was the very opposite of Webber this year, in that he liked the Pirellis infinitely more than the Bridgestones. We are never going to see Michael as he was – he is just simply not as quick as he used to be. But he still tended to start very impressively, he always seemed to make up places in the first minute of a race. His opportunism and awareness is as sharp as ever. But he certainly compromised himself in qualifying. It was 16-3 to Nico and that gives you a lot to do on race day.

DS There’s no sign of flagging motivation is there? He still seems to be up for it.

NR Yep, I think he is. It’s hard for me to understand someone who used to be on the podium, or on the top step of the podium, every fortnight and hasn’t once been on the podium since he’s come back. It’s quite hard to understand how the motivation does keep going. He’s one of those people who simply loves driving F1 cars.

Renault vs Force India vs Sauber
The midfield gritty dogfight

RW Let’s start with Renault. Should they have dropped Nick Heidfeld midseason, the ‘safe pair of hands’ who was drafted in to replace the unfortunate Robert Kubica?

NR Well, Heidfeld finished 11th in the World Championship despite the fact that he didn’t do a lot of the races. He virtually had as many points as Vitaly Petrov.

EF Yep, he was just three short.

NR The team started the year off very well with Petrov’s third-place finish in Melbourne. They were both routinely qualifying in Q3, and Nick was third in Malaysia. He made a great start and was up to third at the first corner. So I thought it was a bit harsh. Some of Eric Boullier’s decisions surprised me – let’s put it that way. Yes, there were times when Heidfeld struggled and they certainly lost their impetus. I suppose to a degree they felt ‘well our season will be average, so let’s give Bruno Senna a run’.

RW And get some money on board… I would have dropped Nick on the basis that he wasn’t going to do anything exciting. Why not try somebody with potential? But, as Nigel suggests, if you want to score points then Nick Heidfeld’s your man.

DS He’s always reminded me of a Thierry Boutsen-type character: a very good pro who – with a fair wind – could have won a Grand Prix or two like Thierry did. He never really had an ultra-competitive car, but he was always touted after his F3000 title as being a McLaren driver and that never happened.

NR I think in many ways he never got over that. Quite seriously. I think when Kimi Räikkönen suddenly, out of nowhere, went there that had a profound effect on Nick.

RW Let’s talk about Force India. A good year for the team?

NR Yep, absolutely. In general terms it was a much better second half of the year, particularly for Adrian Sutil. Maybe I’m biased because he’s a new young Brit or whatever, but Paul di Resta was quietly yet thoroughly impressive all year long. He qualified sixth at Silverstone – that’s pretty impressive.

EF The thing that always strikes me about di Resta and his first season is that he hit the ground running. That’s all very well if you’ve been testing non-stop like Hamilton did before his debut in 2007, but Paul didn’t need three or four Grands Prix weekends to get up to speed, he was just on it from the first race.

DS Deeply competent guy, Paul di Resta, and I think the key for his career now is next year to step it up another gear. That’s what he will need to do if he’s going to get a big drive in the future. But what a start, he’s done a great job and you can’t emphasise enough what an achievement it is to compare well to Sutil – who deserves better in F1 himself.

RW Sauber’s a funny team, isn’t it? They’ve been around forever yet nothing ever quite happens. They don’t have a lot of money, they inherited a lot of good resources from BMW, they’ve got two exciting drivers there – that’s the fun part, isn’t it?

NR Invariably Sauber start off a season pretty well and then as the season goes on they just get out-developed by everybody else. As you say, it’s not a rich team. They can’t compete with the top teams and they probably finish up the year with a car far closer to the one from the beginning of the season than most people.

Their drivers… Kobayashi has oddly enough been quieter this year, hasn’t he? I was thinking the other day, has he been quieter or is it simply that DRS has enabled everyone else in the world to overtake? In 2010 we were getting quite excited about some of Kamui’s overtaking moves. They were nearly always clean, they were incisive, beautifully executed…

RW Kobayashi sort of had a personal DRS, didn’t he?

NR Sergio Pérez I find quite difficult to read because some races he’s looked really quite exceptional – notably his very first race in Melbourne when he nearly ran the whole race without a tyre change which everyone thought impossible.

There’s obviously a huge amount of talent there, but I’ll be interested to see how he progresses in the future.

DS Sauber re-signed the drivers very early on and I wonder whether they should have kept them on tenterhooks for 2012 just a little bit longer.

NR That’s fairly typical Peter Sauber though, he’s not a tricky guy.

EF Heaven forbid, if I was ever a driver I’d like to know as early as possible. The knowledge that my seat was safe for the next year would make me perform better because I wouldn’t be worrying about whether I had a job or not. Hint, Damien… I think they benefitted from that, rather than every weekend going out and thinking ‘oh God, if I make a mistake that may be the end of my career’.

NR I think fundamentally drivers react well to job security. For example, it was a very smart thing for Martin Whitmarsh to get Jenson on a new contract for the future.

RW Back to Sauber, I don’t think Pérez has been the same since the accident at Monaco. To me, if you look at his season he didn’t have the fire in his belly, he didn’t have the incredible attacking verve that he came into F1 with and it seems to me that that was after Monaco. Just a view…

DS That midfield is so intense. I’m just looking at the drivers in the championship order here from Sutil, Petrov, Heidfeld, Kobayashi, di Resta, Alguersuari, Buemi, Pérez… That midfield group is incredibly competitive and actually as a battle it’s as intense and interesting as what goes on at the front of the field. We don’t see so much of it, but it’s amazingly tough to make your mark out of that lot and it’s so difficult to be noticed by the Ferraris and McLarens of this world.

Scuderia Toro Rosso
A team treading water

RW Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari have not managed to impress enough to be mentioned as potential graduates to Red Bull Racing, have they? Will they be dropped in favour of Daniel Ricciardo or Jean-Éric Vergne? Nigel, Buemi and Alguersuari are two good, very competent midfield drivers and that’s about it, yes?

NR I think so, yes. It’s not really fair to say that they both deserved to be dropped, but on the other hand you tend to think, well, really what’s the point in going on for another season with them because we’ve got a fairly clear idea of what we’ll get. I don’t see either of them ever being thought of in terms of promotion to the Red Bull proper team, so I would be very happy to see Vergne and Ricciardo in the Toro Rossos next year.

DS It just shows what a tough world it is in Formula 1, doesn’t it? Two guys who haven’t really done a lot wrong and their F1 careers are in danger of being more or less all over.

Williams
Hitting rock bottom

RW What can you say about Williams? It’s just been a very sad year. Sam Michael has gone to McLaren, Patrick Head has stepped down, Mike Coughlan has arrived. Nigel, will they bounce back, do you think?

NR I don’t know, Rob. Not that long ago I would have said ‘oh yeah, in time they will because they’re Williams’. Most of my working life I thought of Williams and McLaren in the same breath. They both employed Adrian Newey at different times. Both had their glory years and if they had a bad year they usually sprang back fairly quickly. Now, in Williams’ case, I’m really not sure. You know, Interlagos was the seventh anniversary of Williams’ last Grand Prix win with Juan Pablo Montoya. Since then it’s really gone from bad to worse to catastrophic. Even last year they had 40-odd points; this year they’ve got five.

Unfortunately, and sadly, it is increasingly a Williams team that is harder to recognise. Yes, Frank is still Frank and he will never change. He is Williams, the figurehead. Other than that it’s harder to find anything resembling Williams Grand Prix Engineering as we knew it.

There’s certainly been a regime change and thus far you can’t say it’s working out terribly well. I think to a degree Sam was too much of a one-man band, in the sense that he worked absurdly hard and it was probably more than one guy could cope with. Their car this year was in many ways quite radical and they did have high hopes for it and sadly it was a dud.

RW I have optimism for Williams. They have a new Renault engine, new senior management and I think there’s a really strong will to get back up from where they are. I cannot imagine Frank Williams accepting this situation ad infinitum. I think they have hit the low point and they are going to go back up.

Lotus vs Virgin vs HRT
Drop the ‘new-team’ tag

RW We call them the new teams, except they aren’t anymore, are they Nigel? These teams ought to be banging on the door of the midfield by now, should they not?

NR You have to draw a clear distinction between Lotus and the other two. Lotus did progress in 2011. And they certainly put some distance between themselves and HRT. But they were still mired in Q1. There are points for the first 10, and the fact remains that after two years not one new team has scored a point. Lotus has progressed – but still not to the point that they can score a point. I expect they will next year when they are Caterham, or Dorking, or whatever they are called…

RW Damien, does HRT deserve a place in F1? Should Jarno Trulli still be racing?

DS It was strange to see Trulli still pedalling around at the back. He was one of the fastest F1 drivers five or six years ago. But he’s clearly one of those people, like Schumacher… He’s an F1 driver, that’s what he does for a living, and he’ll do it as long as he can. It would be nice to see Lotus take on new blood.

Virgin is an interesting case – they’ve had a write-off of a season. The car didn’t work from the start, there was the embarrassment of the fuel tank being too small, they ditched Nick Wirth and the CFD-only philosophy, they brought Pat Symonds in as a great troubleshooter to give the team some structure. I’ll be interested to see what progress they make next year with a more conventional approach. There’s no point in judging them this year.

One of the big wastes for me in F1 is Timo Glock, who deserves to be in that midfield scrap. He’s much better than Virgin at the moment.

I’ve got nothing to say about HRT. I don’t know why they exist or why they’re in F1.

Nigel Roebuck’s top 10 drivers of the year

10 Heikki Kovalainen
Felipe Massa finished sixth in the championship with 118 points, but basing top 10 driver ratings on ‘what they did with what they had’ no case can be made for a Ferrari driver whose best result was fifth. Kovalainen didn’t come close to scoring a point, and made Q2 only once, but routinely got the absolute best from his Lotus (out-qualifying Trulli 17-1), and his unstinting resilience and motivation – having been a McLaren driver and a GP winner – were beyond price for a ‘new team’ still striving to take the next step. No surprise that Tony Fernandes stresses Heikki is not for sale.

9 Adrian Sutil
Lewi s Hamilton has always had a high regard for the abilities of his former F3 team-mate, and Sutil ended the season in Brazil with perhaps the drive of the race, finishing sixth for Force India after qualifying eighth, just as he’d done in Germany. Adrian’s inherent pace was apparent from the start of his F1 career, but whereas formerly his performances were erratic, in 2011 – particularly in the second half of the year – he drove with a new maturity, made fewer errors, frequently got into Q3 and scored points eight times. Whether he can become a natural team leader remains to be seen.

8 Paul di Resta
Di Resta looked like a born F1 driver in 2011, one of those who belongs from the start. In the points in his first Grand Prix, and in his second, Paul handled his arrival at the top level with calm and consummate maturity, and at circuits familiar to him – not least Silverstone, where he qualified a remarkable sixth ahead of such as Rosberg and Hamilton – was invariably at least a match for the far more experienced Sutil. There were inevitably a few errors, but di Resta always seemed quietly under-awed by his own performances, and that said everything about his confidence and self-belief.

7 Michael Schumacher
Unlike Webber, Schumacher was much happier with the switch from Bridgestone to Pirelli, and although he never made the podium in 2011, there were at least reminders of the driver we thought gone. In qualifying he couldn’t live with Rosberg, but in the races their pace was often similar – invariably he gained places at the start of races, and at 42 he remains a consummate opportunist. Some of Michael’s native speed is surely gone forever, and occasionally there is evidence of over-driving to compensate, but undoubtedly he restored some of the credibility lost in the first year of his comeback.

6 Mark Webber
In 2010 Webber was a true title contender, so this was a mysterious season, for although he won in Brazil, to that point a couple of seconds had been his best results with third or fourth a more normal finishing position – and this in a Red Bull almost unbeatable in Vettel’s hands. True, the Pirellis suited him less well than the Bridgestones, and poor starts cost him dear, but still Mark sometimes seemed baffled after a disappointing result. That said, he remains the hardest racer of all – his move on Alonso at Eau Rouge was the pass of the year – and it would be a mistake to ever discount him.

5 Nico Rosberg
In terms of points not a match for the season before, but Rosberg – still underrated by some, if not by Ross Brawn – often showed what he might do if a truly competitive car ever came his way, not least when he confidently led in Shanghai and when, from fifth on the grid, he briefly snatched the lead from Vettel at Spa. In qualifying he defeated Schumacher 16-3, but in the races it was much closer, and although Nico – always an incisive overtaker – usually made the most of what he had, sometimes his tyre management was not the best. Sooner or later the winning will start.

4 Lewis Hamilton
Occasionally sublime, sometimes atrocious. Lewis’s head seemed to be all over the place – there were driving errors unfathomable in one of his stupendous talent – and it seemed an inappropriate time to moan about McLaren, which he often did. When even vaguely at peace with himself his fundamental quality shone through, but although there were three wins, six podiums from 12 top-three starts sum up an uncomfortable year. Lewis sold himself short, as he knows better than anyone. To bring back 2007 – his rookie season, and also his best to date – he must sort out his demons.

3 Jenson Button
In Button’s second season at McLaren, driver and team seemed to find a perfect fit. In a car which suited him better – and in whose design and development he had some influence – Jenson looked better than ever before, not least in qualifying, never his strongest suit. The Pirelli tyre regime might have been designed for his fluid style, and as Hamilton floundered he became the man to whom McLaren looked on race day. The wins – particularly that in Montréal – were from the top drawer, the instant dismissal of Schumacher at Monza a moment to savour. Button keeps it simple – and it works.

2 Fernando Alonso
If ever a Grand Prix driver flattered his car, it was Alonso in 2011. The Ferrari was good enough to qualify in the top three on only three occasions, yet 10 times Fernando finished on the podium, and he did it with a blend of intelligence, relentless pace and unmatched opportunism. There were also – given that he ran constantly at the edge – remarkably few mistakes. You learn most about a driver when he is in a middling car, and Alonso – the best starter in the business – never lost motivation, nor once criticised his team. Only one victory, but in terms of pure driving, a magnificent season.

1 Sebastian Vettel
No Grand Prix driver’s season can ever be perfect, but in 2011 Vettel’s came unfeasibly close: 15 pole positions and 11 victories from 19 races. Yes, he again had quantifiably the best car, and this year reliability too was impeccable, but he could hardly have made more of it – races seemed to surrender to him. When necessary – as in the two-wheels-on-the-grass pass of Alonso at Monza – Bernie’s favourite driver raced with absolute commitment. There was a mistake under pressure from Button in Canada, but that’s about it. At 24, Seb’s maturity is already a match for his pace.

Season highlights
We choose the best bits

RW In all, a great season, Nigel. Exciting racing, and I know neither you nor I are keen on gizmos like DRS, but it was a good to watch with a wonderful lack of politics. Do you have a highlight of your year in F1?

NR I tend to remember memorable passes. I thought in Brazil… I know Jenson tried to tone it down by saying ‘oh well, I was backing up because Michael had put rubbish all over the track’, but I thought Alonso’s pass round the outside on Jenson was glorious. I’ve never seen a car overtake on the outside at that corner before.

The other times were when Alonso was the victim. One was Mark’s pass at Eau Rouge, which I thought was simply extraordinary. I don’t ever recall, in all my years of going to Spa, an F1 car making a genuine, competitive pass on another into Eau Rouge.

The last I thought was early in the race at Monza at the second Lesmo where Vettel was right behind Alonso and knew he absolutely had to get clear before DRS came into play. Fernando did what he always does on these occasions and, as Jenson says, he’s hard but he’s completely fair – so he put his car on the line and said ‘this is where I’m going and if you want to pass me boy, you have to go right or left, it’s up to you, I’m not moving’. Sebastian chose to go left and in doing so put two wheels on the grass, didn’t lift and got the lead. I thought, in the case of both drivers in every instance I’ve just mentioned, ‘that’s proper Grand Prix driving’.

RW For me it was Fernando Alonso’s demonstration laps at Silverstone in Bernie Ecclestone’s 1950s González Ferrari. For me that was an absolute high for the year.

Vettel’s four-wheeled slide through the Ascari chicane in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix. I’ve replayed it a few times and it makes me laugh every time. Absolutely fantastic.

And finally, everything about Jenson Button and McLaren. I just thought he was an amazing example of a great British racing driver in a great British team, having a good time and coming right back on top form. I thought it was a great year.

NR Agreed.

2011 Drivers’ Championship standings
1 Sebastian Vettel, RBR-Renault 392
2 Jenson Button, McLaren-Mercedes 270
3 Mark Webber, RBR-Renault 258
4 Fernando Alonso, Ferrari 257
5 Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes 227
6 Felipe Massa, Ferrari 118
7 Nico Rosberg, Mercedes 89
8 Michael Schumacher, Mercedes 76
9 Adrian Sutil, Force India-Mercedes 42
10 Vitaly Petrov, Renault 37
11 Nick Heidfeld, Renault 34
12 Kamui Kobayashi, Sauber-Ferrari 30
13 Paul di Resta, Force India-Mercedes 27
14 Jaime Alguersuari, STR-Ferrari 26
15 Sebastien Buemi, STR-Ferrari 15
16 Sergio Perez, Sauber-Ferrari 14
17 Rubens Barrichello, Williams-Cosworth 4
18 Bruno Senna, Renault 2
19 Pastor Maldonado, Williams-Cosworth 1
20 Pedro de la Rosa, Sauber-Ferrari 0
21 Jarno Trulli, Lotus-Renault 0
22 Heikki Kovalainen, Lotus-Renault 0
23 Vitantonio Liuzzi, HRT-Cosworth 0
24 Jerome d’Ambrosio, Virgin-Cosworth 0
25 Timo Glock, Virgin-Cosworth 0
26 Narain Karthikeyan, HRT-Cosworth 0
27 Daniel Ricciardo, HRT-Cosworth 0
28 Karun Chandhok, Lotus-Renault 0

2011 Constructors’ Championship standings
1 RBR-Renault 650
2 McLaren-Mercedes 497
3 Ferrari 375
4 Mercedes 165
5 Renault 73
6 Force India-Mercedes 69
7 Sauber-Ferrari 44
8 STR-Ferrari 41
9 Williams-Cosworth 5
10 Lotus-Renault 0
11 HRT-Cosworth 0
12 Virgin-Cosworth 0