10) Carlos Sainz
Carlos only made it onto the F1 grid because Sebastian Vettel had gone to Ferrari, creating a cascade of opportunities within the Toro Rosso/Red Bull family, but once there he immediately caught the eye. While the outside world focused on his 17-year-old team-mate, Sainz demanded attention too by frequently out-performing Max Verstappen. Looking only where direct comparison wasn’t made impossible by engine failures etc, in the first half-season he was a genuine 6-3 up against Max in qualifying (4-3 down in the second half). He would typically attack the circuit from the off on Friday, finding the limits by going over them, though only rarely leaving the track. Come qualifying, he would put the pieces together in a very composed way. Inevitably, as with Verstappen, there were some quiet races between the peaks and overall Verstappen’s season showed a steeper progress curve. But partly this was down to poor luck with technical problems on Sainz’s side of the garage. Perhaps his most impressive feat was turning up at Suzuka for the first time and going fastest in Friday morning practice. Prior to a qualifying problem, he looked set to cause a major stir. Trying to learn Sochi in a hurry after the opening sessions had been rendered useless, he crashed heavily and watched qualifying from a hospital bed. He was then declared fit to race, started at the back and had worked his way up to seventh when his brakes gave out. Occasionally wild in his eagerness not to underperform, he’s definitely made of the right stuff.
9) Valtteri Bottas
As the Ferrari spotlight shone on Valtteri early mid-season, he suffered a poor run of form. That might turn out to have been the critical revolving door moment that comes to define his F1 career. His pace was hurt more than he revealed by the torn back muscles he incurred during qualifying in Melbourne and it took until the second half of the season before he was back to his best. His biggest strength remains an ability to soak up pressure as if it’s not there – see his defence from Vettel in Bahrain. He’s an incredibly difficult guy to pass. He’s unflamboyant in or out of the car and easy to overlook, but once he was fully fit he was invariably around at the end, squeezing the maximum result out of the sometimes difficult Williams. His best chance for a break-out result came at the British Grand Prix and, though there was an element of unclear instruction from the team, he must take some of the responsibility too. Asking if he could pass team-mate Massa for the lead, as he felt he was being held up, he asked for clarification at the very moment the best opportunity to pass was presenting itself. He would never see that opportunity for the rest of the season. Yellow flags on his final Q3 run in Austria spoilt his grid position there, left him behind cars that he’d have to fight past in the race. It gave him an extremely busy Sunday but he was irrepressible in overcoming the obstacles: while team-mate Massa was catching the eye as he fought with Vettel, Bottas’ drive in adversity was arguably even more impressive.
8) Max Verstappen
The 17-year-old rookie (he turned 18 at Suzuka) rubbished pre-season nay-sayers’ claims that he was too young for F1 – as he was always going to. His special talent has been obvious throughout his career and he’s been impeccably coached. His peak performances justified the hype: the amazing passes in Shanghai, Spa, Interlagos, second-fastest on Thursday morning at Monaco, his first ever time around there, the beautifully composed drives into fourth places in Austria and Austin. It would be easy to let all that colour the impression of his full season, though. In the first half-season there were several anonymous races (Bahrain or Silverstone) and he was comprehensively outqualified by team-mate Carlos Sainz during this time. He was having difficulty gauging how aggressive to be with the tyres over one lap, when a degree of abuse is necessary. This was all just part of the learning process after only one year of car racing. His second half-season was more consistently excellent. The way he can get rotation on the car so early into slow corners – already pointing at the apex with no lock applied, ready for him to get hard and early on the power, minimising the time those front tyres are scrubbing across the Tarmac – buys him tenths and is also partly behind those demon moves from so far back. It’s normal for him to have the car under yaw before the apex, a trait he can use to scrub off excess speed when passing, without needing to overwork the brakes and lock up. That facet of his talent is gold dust.
7) Jenson Button
There were many – Ron Dennis among them – who assumed Alonso vs Button would not be a contest. They were so obviously glaringly wrong at the time and Jenson duly proved as much. Button was only retained into 2015 because of corporate politics behind the scenes. Dennis’ preference was for Kevin Magnussen and the Danish investors that might have come with him that would have aided Ron’s boardroom fight. Instead, he was ‘saddled’ with Button who proceeded to shade Alonso in qualifying over the season (albeit with relatively few opportunities of direct comparison). Some of his Saturday afternoon laps in the hopelessly underpowered car were quite special – not least that at Spa, which he reckoned was the equal of his pole lap there in 2012 and which was 0.5sec faster than Alonso. He reckoned this was the first Pirelli-shod McLaren he’d ever driven with the handling traits he likes, and there were relatively few of those races of the previous years where an unstable rear took him out of the equation. In fact only Singapore could be classed as such this year. He was unlucky with the timing of a yellow flag right at the end of Q2 in Monaco – otherwise he’d have got into Q3, which would have been the only time all season a McLaren had scaled such giddy heights. His Sundays didn’t have the same gung-ho aggression of Alonso’s – he wasn’t driving around the outside of faster cars on cold tyres in the opening moments – but there were several races where the pair were locked in battle until one or the other of them was forced to retire. It would be fascinating to see this match-up take place in a properly competitive McLaren-Honda in 2016.
6) Nico Rosberg
Rosberg’s strength of character shone through again, placed as he was in that most psychologically demoralising position of having a fantastic car but a faster driver on the other side of the garage. There was nowhere to hide as Hamilton hit upon his sensational form up to Singapore. Only when Lewis couldn’t quite nail the sweet spot – Spain, Austria – did Nico have the beating of him. Often the differences in the races were negligible, but that means little in this Pirelli era when very few races can be run flat out anyway. Consistently losing out to Hamilton in qualifying meant he was always at a strategic disadvantage in races. Yet despite this constant pummelling, when new Pirelli constraints forced a set-up change that represented an opportunity, he was there immediately. He applied himself intensely to understanding the car’s new traits, determined to get something positive from the season. Once the car was reconfigured post-Singapore, he was literally never off pole position. Hamilton beat him a couple of times in these races – but had to resort to strong-arm tactics to do so and Rosberg was far too accommodating. By Mexico, he was finally ready to become the immovable object he should have been in Suzuka and, particularly, Austin. The fact this stuff doesn’t come naturally is a manifestation of his nature – a reasonable man in a sometimes unreasonable sport. In any case, that test of wheel-to-wheel resolve never arose post-Austin as Hamilton wasn’t ever close enough to try any 50/50 moves. In the reset car, running at the front, Rosberg was fantastic and that success fed on itself to raise his confidence in a virtuous spiral.
5) Romain Grosjean
There’s a significant gap between the supreme and the rest, but Grosjean again heads this second group. His qualifying domination over a very quick team-mate was just one manifestation of a freaky ability to put what he’s learned together over one lap. For much of the season he would miss the first 1.5 hours of running as his car was handled by Jolyon Palmer, but still he would invariably shade Maldonado when the moment came. In a financially beleaguered team his ability to stick the Lotus in Q3, from where the expectation of points was realistic, was vital. He might just be the best qualifier of all. But he put some great races together too, none more so than his unlikely podium at Spa. He was pressuring Vettel when the Ferrari’s rear tyre exploded, but what’s generally forgotten is that Seb was only ahead through strategy. Prior to the stops, Grosjean was running third and at 20 laps, just short of half-distance, before a virtual safety car triggered strategic divergence, he was just 15sec behind Rosberg’s Mercedes. He’d been on average 0.7sec slower than Rosberg’s Merc – in a Lotus. There were lapses – his scrape with Will Stevens in Canada was silly – but that applies to every driver in this list and he remains one of the most courageous overtakers. He got the maximum from a difficult situation at a time when it would have been easy to be disillusioned. At 29 his career should now be in full flower, taking its momentum from that stunning second half of 2013. Yet he remains positive. He’s opted for a new team with close Ferrari associations and refuses to give up on the dream of GP wins. He’s not yet fallen between the cracks, but this might be his final leap.
4) Fernando Alonso
Well, there wasn’t really much for Fernando to get his teeth into with the McLaren-Honda, the scope for his undimmed ferocious race pace and attack rendered irrelevant by a slow car that rarely held together for more than a few laps. Although it’s difficult to be definitive about his qualifying pace because there were only seven occasions out of the 19 events in which Alonso and Button could be directly compared, he was 5-2 behind. The only times he genuinely outqualified Button on merit in a car of the same specification came at Silverstone and Singapore. But as soon as the gantry lights went out, he came alive, invariably fantastic in the first few corners (Abu Dhabi excepted), pushing himself into places that threatened to get him prosecuted for trespassing. Invariably, the Honda’s diabolically bad energy recovery would then leave him a sitting duck on the straights and within a few laps he’d be right back where he started. But his raging against those circumstances was always one of the weekend’s highlights. He said all the right things when out of the car – how this is the only place available that gives him a (long-term) shot at another title, that he knows it will come good etc – but in the car, over the radio, is when we’ve seen the frustration of a competitive animal. On the one hand he says he was below his best in 2015, on the other Button says he’s saying that for a reason and that he’s actually a bigger handful as a team-mate than Hamilton was. He remains a supreme racing driver, never the absolute fastest on peak one-lap pace, but probably close to unbeatable over a sequence of them when in a car no worse than anyone else’s.
3) Daniel Ricciardo
Renault fell even further behind in 2015 and for the first half-season the Red Bull RB11 wasn’t even particularly good aerodynamically. Or at least not in a way the drivers could access. So the multiple race-winning Ricciardo of 2014 was never in a position to take up where he’d left off in that coming-of-age year. It led to some frustration, culminating in a terrible weekend in Montréal where he finished more than 20sec behind his team-mate. But even during the doldrums period there were reminders of his level. So afflicted by engine problems were the Red Bulls early in the season that it was only occasionally possible to make a comparison between the drivers. But, aside from Montréal where Kvyat qualified a few thousandths faster, whenever they both had clean runs Ricciardo comfortably eclipsed his team-mate in qualifying – by as much as 0.4sec in Sepang. Montréal triggered a rethink in both his approach and the car’s set-up: when that combined with aero upgrades from Silverstone onwards, he was back. He was quite thrilling in Budapest, throwing caution to the wind and staking everything on an against-the-odds victory. On faster tyres than everyone in the final stages and running third, if he could have scrabbled past Rosberg, the race-leading Ferrari of Vettel would have been a much easier scalp, on account of its lower top-end speed. Rosberg wasn’t prepared to be humiliated, Ricciardo had committed – and they clashed. Were it not for that he’d likely have ‘stolen’ Vettel’s win. His Merc-scaring pace through Spa’s middle sector was amazing to behold and at Singapore, despite the power deficit, he was the only guy able to live with Vettel’s Ferrari and was even able to pressure it until a safety car got Seb off the hook. And still that uncanny feel for the tyres. He’s got it all.
Had the season finished at Singapore, Hamilton would have been number one by a big margin. Up to that point he had taken the formidable Mercedes W06, using it as sledgehammer or scalpel as required, to lay waste to the opposition. That opposition was essentially team-mate Nico Rosberg – and Hamilton destroyed him. He’d resolved through the previous winter to change his approach to qualifying, to work on nailing that first Q3 run, ensuring that on its own would be good enough for pole. He didn’t always manage to do this, but in striving for it he was invariably out of Rosberg’s each – the tone to their season being set at Melbourne where in tricky, changeable conditions Nico couldn’t get within 0.6sec of him. In the early wet laps of Q3 in Malaysia, Hamilton’s remarkable ability to find the grip and commit instantly put him 1.2sec clear of the field. These were demonstrations of that phenomenal natural gift with which he’s been blessed, but in the more routine demands – where everyone has a chance to catch up and it’s no longer just about improvisation – that speed advantage over Rosberg narrowed but was still invariably enough to ensure him pole and the race strategy advantage that bought. And that was the formula for the seven wins from the first 12 races that essentially secured him the title. He remained a high-maintenance driver for his race engineer, constantly questioning, competitive paranoia never far away, but he was delivering magnificently. But then came Pirelli’s tyre pressure/camber changes – and the radically different set-up it imposed on the Mercedes. Coming at a time when his title was a mere formality, he did not invest as much of his attention into understanding the car’s new requirements as did Rosberg. And just like that, the tables were turned.
1) Sebastian Vettel
Seb’s first season for the Scuderia was brilliant, three beautifully judged victories and an inspirational, motivational force within a resurgent team. In Sepang and Budapest he was presented with unusual opportunities and jumped upon them with flawless ferocity, while Singapore was a red re-run of his best Red Bull glory days – a dominant pole, sprinting away from the pack at a breathtaking rate, then monitoring his options from there. There were only three opportunities for non-Mercedes victories all year – the W06’s tyre usage in Sepang and Singapore, Hamilton’s errors in Budapest – and Vettel nailed each one of them. He was re-invigorated after his difficult Ricciardo-dominated final Red Bull season and was a perfect fit in the role of leader that is a requirement at Maranello that many have been unable to fulfil. The lead Ferrari driver needs to command respect from his performances on track, to generate the support without histrionics while retaining that soft human touch on the surface. It demands emotional and mental intelligence as well as raw talent – and he fits the bill to perfection. He’s been fortunate to join the team at a time of a new and productive technical impetus, but just as on track he’s taken that opportunity and built upon it. His way with the team immediately made him – and not the incumbent Kimi Räikkönen – its natural focus and his advantage over Kimi built as the season went on. His scrappy races in Bahrain and Mexico were the only blemishes upon his seasonal performance and in the immediate aftermath he was his usual candid, self-critical but light, self. He was otherwise a relentless provider of performance and inspiration, sprinkled with occasional moments of brilliance – his driving and choices when the rain came down at Silverstone that conjured an unlikely podium, for example, or his fantastic Singapore pole lap. This was the performance of a fully formed, mature and very great driver.