10 Valtteri Bottas
Difficult to know if the final place in the top 10 should go to Bottas or Pérez. They have quite different strengths and the latter had a more compliant car and a team with a better understanding of the tricky tyres. But for the purposes of this rating Bottas gets the nod on account of no apparent weaknesses. His lack of flamboyance counts against the perception. But his annihilation of Felipe Massa was almost total. Those races where he sank backwards from his grid position were 100 per cent car-tyre traits, as even Williams would admit, and on the occasions where the tyres somehow fell into the right window – such as in the cool of Montréal – there he’d be, an unrelenting, error-free presence.
9 Carlos Sainz
Toro Rosso’s fall in competitiveness meant Sainz’s performances largely fell under the radar. He began the season continuing to push and occasionally beat Max Verstappen in the same car, just as he had throughout 2015. In three of those four races he set faster qualifying times than the Dutchman and in the two races they both finished it was one apiece. There really wasn’t much in it – and Verstappen’s instantly sensational performances in the Red Bull only further Sainz’s cause. He’s brave, quick and becoming ever more consistent. He frequently flattered the Toro Rosso, was devastating in the wet and at Monaco would have been in the podium’s spotlight… but for a jammed wheel nut.
8 Romain Grosjean
He remains one of the very fastest, but unsurprisingly a team in its first season did not improve his ability to tap into this consistently. He’s very good at saying what he doesn’t like about a car, but perhaps less illuminating when it comes to giving his engineers a direction. Combine this with the frustration about a great career – momentarily within reach in 2012 and ’13 – that seems to be falling through the cracks and even the great performances of the last couple of years were being delivered less frequently. The limitations of the Haas – primarily its braking – robbed him of the biggest asset in his armoury; the ability to carry big speed into a corner. But early on, when the car was working well, his drives in Melbourne, Bahrain and Russia were the cornerstone of the team’s flying start. Thereafter, among the smoking tyres and radio rants there were occasional reminders of a very special raw talent.
7 Kimi Räikkönen
Rejuvenated, Räikkönen became Ferrari’s main threat in the season’s second half. His emotional flat line was a strength in a team suffering considerable internal turmoil. He was a much more suitable ‘shut up and drive’ character for the autocratic management than was Vettel. There were also crucial changes to his engineering personnel during the season – and finally his wishes, always expressed in a low-key way, were being translated. He just did his thing, as he always has. The politics around this were significant. Up until the confirmation of a contract extension, he had looked the same inconsistent Kimi as he’d been since rejoining the Scuderia in 2014 and his woeful form at Monaco and Montréal made it seem inevitable he’d soon be gone. Yet almost from that moment, it all turned around. Not quite the Räikkönen of the golden McLaren years, but a pretty good facsimile.
6 Max Verstappen
Make no mistake, he is sensational. His urgency, phenomenal racecraft and lack of respect for reputations lit up the sport. His inner certainty is beyond mere self-belief and into Senna/Schumacher realms of an incapacity to believe he can be wrong. But he can be – and his repeated crossing of the defensive line, notably on Räikkönen in Hungary and Spa and on Hamilton at Suzuka – required a new ‘Verstappen regulation’ to be written. Ironically, first to fall foul of it was Vettel in Mexico in a situation instigated by Verstappen… In the wet of Interlagos and into the last few races it seemed as if he might be gaining the upper hand upon Ricciardo. A freeze-frame of how good everyone was at the end of the season would surely place him higher than sixth. But his seasonal average reflected a guy in just his second year and the inevitable errors and off days that come with that.
5 Sebastian Vettel
The end of his Ferrari honeymoon seemed to affect Seb. Still a very great racer, the frustration and anger readily apparent on the surface sometimes permeated into the driving. Was there not an edge of desperation in his first-turn moves at Sochi and Sepang? As the team parted with James Allison, in whom Vettel had so much faith, was it coincidence that he stopped automatically being Ferrari’s cutting edge? Vettel attempted to take matters in hand, tried to be the leader he was employed (by a different man) to be, but met only management rebuke. Some who know Vettel well cannot see the relationship being repaired. But still he could put in a beautiful race like Singapore. In the year’s latter half such a drive was notable for how it stood out. How different might it have been had circumstances not induced the team into decisions that lost him likely victories in Australia and Canada?
4 Nico Rosberg
There is much that is impressive about Rosberg’s game: the one-lap qualifying pace or the logical way he can work with his engineers in decoding tyre complexity, but the single most impressive thing about him is his ability to bounce back from defeat. Three years against a phenomenon on the other side of the garage would be mentally exhausting for even the toughest. Yet he has an ability to wipe the slate clean and in 2016 he seemed more relaxed than ever, recognising he was never going to out-Hamilton Lewis, competing in a different way, playing to his strengths. Barcelona and Austria demonstrated that he was prepared not to back down – and they were the reactions he had to make after being on the receiving end of Hamilton’s aggression in the past. He benefited from better reliability than his rival, but his inner confidence allowed him to maximise that opportunity.
3 Fernando Alonso
Here’s a giveaway detail that reveals Alonso’s special quality: at Spa (where he’d jumped 10 places from the back row of the grid by the exit of Turn One), he was running just ahead of the more powerful cars of Massa and Pérez. He was surely a sitting duck, so in the slow sections just before the DRS detection points he’d back Massa up into Pérez. That ensured the Force India would try to pass the Williams, forcing Felipe to defend for lap after lap. Eventually Massa used up his tyres and delayed them both. Pérez subsequently passed the McLaren, but Alonso had induced Massa into taking himself out of the equation, helping the McLaren to finish seventh. That tenacity and smartness, the opening-lap aggression and sixth sense of where to place himself in those moments of opportunity, are what he is still all about. If he ever again gets into a competitive car, there are more world titles within him.
2 Lewis Hamilton
Running for a third consecutive season with his team-mate as his only title rival, Hamilton’s biggest obstacle was mechanical unreliability, not Nico Rosberg. That’s the only thing that made it a title fight at all and in a straight run of it, there would have been no contest. In those races where circumstances allowed straight comparison, Hamilton was genuinely beaten by Rosberg only five times. Hamilton defeated Rosberg ten times. In qualifying the numbers were 12-5 in Hamilton’s favour.
The core of that advantage remained Hamilton’s unworldly natural speed. When everything comes together for him, he can conjure a lap time advantage over his team mate (and a supremely quick one) that no other driver on the grid this year could demonstrate. Seven tenths clear at Monza, four tenths in Sepang; these are not normal margins when the team-mate has suffered no particular problem. They were not usually so big, but the fact he could do them at all speaks of how incredibly high his peak is. Braking into slow corners or staggering momentum through the sweeps of Maggotts/Becketts or Austin’s Esses were just the tell-tales of limits that are way beyond the norm. Yet this is the same driver that can, when required, eke out his tyres as long as it takes – and his achievement in keeping his wets alive at Monaco long enough to miss out the inters phase was miraculous and decisive in winning him the race. He remains prone to occasional errors (starts, Baku qualifying) and can still head off down a set-up cul-de-sac that compromises his weekend and, as such, we’ve judged his average behind that of Ricciardo. But the peaks…
1 Daniel Ricciardo
He just keeps meeting every challenge thrown at him. Partnering an incumbent four-time champion around whom the team was built and outperforming him? Check. Taking victories whenever the car made them feasible? Getting the team around him with a winning combination of personality and performance? Perfect defence and exquisite ambushes? Finding an advantage from understanding these trickiest of tyres? Comprehensively outperforming the fast Russian chosen to replace the four-time champion, so much so that the new kid was demoted? Check, check, check, check and check. So this year’s challenge, once Daniil Kvyat had been sent back to Toro Rosso, was to measure up against what many feel is a once-in-a-generation talent – Max Verstappen – while still maximising everything Red Bull had to offer. Well, Ricciardo did that too, outqualifying him 11 times to six and comfortably outscoring him in their time together. He should have won both Spain and Monaco and the reasons he didn’t were not to do with him – and he did win in Malaysia. Even if that victory came only after Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes blew its engine, that was fair exchange for Hamilton having inherited Monaco after pole-setting Ricciardo lost the race through his team not having tyres ready at his pitstop. But they were just the headlines: his season carried through it a seam of gold. Should a Red Bull have been on the front row in China and leading the race? That qualifying lap was almost as scintillating as his later one at Monaco. It would have been fascinating to see what his China race would have been had he not picked up a puncture on lap two. In his recovery, he made up 20sec on team-mate Kvyat and was right on his tail at the flag. In Hungary he was as impressive in attack as he was later in defence. At Monza he pulled off the pass of the season on Bottas. In Singapore he split the Mercs on merit. The only challenge remaining? How would he handle a title fight? It would be great if we found out in 2017.