The top five drivers from the 2017 Formula 1 season
#1 Lewis Hamilton
This was the most impressive of Hamilton’s titles, the one where he most consistently accessed extraordinary levels of performance. In the season’s first half he had difficulties with the Merc W08, through not being able to unlock the set-up of an often stubborn car. He would try to compensate by pushing harder – which in those instances made things worse. In between times were the familiar stunning pole laps and fighting victories – none more impressive than how he pounced on circumstance to deny Vettel in Spain. Then, with a better understanding of the car in the season’s second half, he became unstoppable. The Mercedes was faster overall in qualifying than the Ferrari – but not by the margin he made it look. Several poles were his, not the car’s. The retirement of Nico Rosberg – and a heart-to-heart with Toto Wolff – brought Hamilton a new serenity in his environment, and that played its part in him reaching a new level.
#2 Max Verstappen
Set to light up our sport for many years, a great driver came into full flower in 2017. A combination of talent with mentality – breathtaking audacity, no surrender from the opening second until the last – has established him as surely the greatest 20-year-old F1 has ever seen. That’s partly a reflection of the ever-earlier starting point for racers today, but he gave absolutely nothing away to anyone at any time, and simply doesn’t recognise the concept of seniority or reputations out on track. They are all there to be conquered and he’d ambush the best of them without compunction, whether that be Vettel in Canada/Mexico or Hamilton in Sepang.
His sequence of engine problems frustrated the hell out of him but he pressed on regardless and when finally the probability waves turned in his favour, just as the Red Bull RB13 came on song, he delivered those stunning victories in Malaysia and Mexico.
#3 Fernando Alonso
It’s almost impossible to judge a guy in an uncompetitive car on the same basis as those contending for victories – the pressures are less and an ordinary performance can be masked – but there were so many moments of astonishing tenacity that it’s impossible to overlook Alonso. At 36, in his third straight season with a weak Honda engine, that grinding intensity of performance was still there and left such a talent as Stoffel Vandoorne breathless. The way he adapted his approach in racing faster cars – either terrorising them or using their DRS to keep out of reach of those behind, the fighting spirit… all these things told you that he’d lost none of his special terrier ability. He several times retired healthy cars when there was no possibility of points – an unforgivable sin to some, but it was protest rather than surrender. It might not have been the best way to put pressure on Honda, but that’s just how he rolls.
#4 Sebastian Vettel
With a super-quick car beneath him, Vettel switched on to become an irresistible force once more, driving with all the panache of his title days. He was the gold standard of the season’s first half and unlucky not to be leading the championship by a greater margin at the halfway stage. He was up against it though, as the combination of the Merc’s superior qualifying pace and Hamilton’s confidence increased the pressure. Eventually it told – on both the team and Seb. He cost himself a victory with his Baku road-rage incident and lost another with an inappropriately aggressive move in Singapore. Those two incidents meant there was no cushion when Ferrari’s reliability imploded in the late Asian leg of the season, which probably cost him a further two victories. He’s inspirational within the team, but is trying to carry the Scuderia’s aspirations without strong senior management support.
#5 Daniel Ricciardo
A subdued season by his own standards, as the light shone brightly upon his team-mate, but it was stamped with quality nonetheless. Verstappen’s gung-ho style tended to bleed out the more subtle qualities of Ricciardo’s performances. Some of his drives from penalised grid positions were quite sublime, but relatively unheralded. Take Silverstone, for example: starting from near the back after yet another engine penalty, he scythed through the field but kept his super-softs in perfect shape for an amazingly long time. This was the foundation of fifth place, just behind Verstappen. Victory in Baku came after he’d crashed in qualifying and stopped very early to clear a blocked brake duct –but he can sniff opportunities from the most unpromising situations. He cannot be resisted and, once ahead, is almost impossible to break – as Räikkönen found out at Spa, after being ambushed on a restart and then frustrated by his defence.