In the new issue of Motor Sport magazine you will find my top 10 of F1 drivers 2015 and an accompanying piece on each man’s performance over the season. Inevitably no-one will agree 100% with it, but it represents a best-estimate based on having micro-analysed everyone over the season, listened to their engineers, pored through the lap times in race history charts and watched hour upon hour trackside. But it’s only a top-10. Here’s a summary of the performances of those that didn’t make that list.
11. Nico Hülkenberg
It feels intuitively wrong that a driver so fast, so able to wring a car’s neck, with such great racecraft should not be in the top 10. But Hülkenberg is here because he simply cannot feel the current era Pirelli tyres in the way many others can – and frequently this has prevented him from getting the best result possible from the Force India. There’s little question he is faster over one lap than team mate Sergio Pérez – the acrobatic way he has of maintaining momentum sees to that. But far too often he’s been unable to take advantage of that because of the hard time he gives the tyres – forcing him onto a less advantageous strategy. At both Bahrain and Barcelona he needed extra stops, finishing four and two places respectively behind the slower Pérez as a result, and the trait also forced him into less favourable timings of stops at Monza, Singapore, Austin and Abu Dhabi. Six races (almost a third of the season) compromised by his inability to marshal the tyres efficiently is just too much to consider him a top-10 performer in 2015. It’s not as though he was only made to look bad at tyre management because Pérez was so good at it; whenever the tyre durability was marginal, Hulk would invariably be the first of the whole field to expose it. There were also a couple of unnecessary incidents (the collision with Massa at Singapore and the first corner spin in Sochi).
Yet at races where tyre durability wasn’t an issue, he was terrific. His first laps were things of wonder – Silverstone especially comes to mind where he vaulted four places between the startline and the first turn, sweeping instantly into the tiny gap between the Ferraris an the pitwall. At Interlagos he spectacularly over-delivered, as he invariably does there. At Suzuka his in-lap was a monster, leapfrogging him past both Lotuses, leaving the Lotus pit wall shaking their heads in frustrated respect.
The best cars have been designed by the most brilliant brains using multiple millions, bit their performance is then neutered by deliberately degrading tyres. But for that Hulkenberg would likely be one of the elite top three or four drivers. But that inability to work with the tyres that are supplied is a serious flaw in F1 as it is currently configured – and not one that any of those above him in this list have.
12. Sergio Pérez
Unlike last year, Pérez this time comprehensively out-scored Hulkenberg. As has been evident ever since his rookie season, he has an unerring ability to accurately monitor the tyre life, ensuring he is always on the optimum race strategy. But ironically, this was nothing to do with how he achieved his best result – at Sochi he was the podium beneficiary of the late-race collision between Räikkönen and Bottas (and the retirement of two others that had been running ahead of him). On paper, third in a Force India was an impressive result. In reality, all he’d done was qualify the car in its rightful position, then benefitted from four of the six cars ahead of him crashing. Conversely, he finished only eighth at his home race of Mexico but it was a terrific drive, compromised by factors out of his control. The way he managed the rubber, then defended late in the race from much newer-tyred opponents was exceptional.
On the 15 occasions in which a comparison was possible, he was out-qualified nine-to-six by his team-mate, but his style of racing dovetails perfectly with the demands of the Pirelli era in that not only can he keep the strain off the rubber, but he’s also fantastically difficult to pass – especially in a Force India with its high end-of-straight speeds. This trait can still occasionally overspill into stubborn refusal to accept a move that’s already happened – see his collision with Grosjean at Sepang that earned him a penalty – but is less prevalent than in his early days. He also seemed to find a better technical direction with the VJM08B that was introduced mid-season. As a points-harnessing machine in the Pirelli era, he’s a great asset for a mid-size team like Force India but the missing last few tenths of raw pace mean he’s never going to get another chance in a top team. If you’re judging a top-10 by what proportion of a car’s potential points were harnessed during the season, he should probably be in it. But in judging driver’s ability in the round, that’s not enough.
13. Felipe Massa
Felipe remains a safe pair of hands who can occasionally be very fast indeed, but who still has the same weaknesses to his game after all these years. On the plus side there was the canny defensive drive to third in Austria, absolutely impervious to any pressure the delayed Vettel in a faster car could apply. There was the way he extracted the most in both qualifying and race in Shanghai from a Williams that was unsuited to the circuit. His Monza podium was built upon the foundation of an excellent qualifying lap that put team-mate Bottas in the shade. But on the other hand, there was the botched passing attempt on Ricciardo in Melbourne around the stops that lost him position to Vettel, a crucial pressure error in the late laps that allowed team-mate Bottas past in Sepang and the messed-up final qualifying laps in Barcelona, Singapore and Sochi that set the tone of those respective weekends.
His qualifying score against Bottas looks quite respectable on paper but was definitely flattered by the latter’s struggle with his back injury. In the last 10 races, with Valtteri back to full fitness, only at Monza did Felipe genuinely out-qualify him. On the remaining six occasions where a direct comparison was possible Bottas was faster (in Hungary only Bottas had the new wing, in Sochi Massa was caught out by yellow flags, in Austin Bottas’ inerter damper was found to have broken in Q2). Furthermore, Massa’s busy style on steering and throttle would invariably take more from the tyres than his team-mate, even when going slower. Occasionally, this compromised the timing of his stops, skewing his strategy. He’s fast and spirited enough to remain a good barometer for Bottas, but on 2015 form not top 10 material. The Toro Rosso rookies, for example, delivered comparable consistency and higher peaks.
14. Kimi Räikkönen
There were 12 races in which a direct qualifying comparison could be made between Vettel and Räikkönen. Vettel was quicker 10 times – by an average of 0.348s. That’s a bigger margin than any driver with serious claim to the top-10 can really be allowed – against any team-mate. Those mediocre qualifying positions set the tone for his season, prevented even his good race days from yielding the results they otherwise could have. In the autumn of his F1 career Kimi has fallen into the number two role. He stood and watched as Vettel arrived as the new boy and, without polemics, showed what it is to inspire and lead.
Initially, there was no significant difference in their raw speed, only in their ability to put the pieces together without fault over a single high-pressure lap. But as the season built, so did the gap between them. In three of the first four races he was, if anything, slightly faster in the races than Vettel – and in the other event we didn’t get a chance to find out as an operational problem left him without a clear track on the only available dry lap in Q2. Those operational errors were much more common on his side of the garage than Vettel’s, and while that contributed to skewing results and perception in Seb’s favour it also illustrated how his passive personality just doesn’t get things buzzing around him the way they do with a Vettel or Alonso.
The very first corner of the season actually said much about the dynamic between the Ferrari drivers. Arriving there side-by-side, Kimi on the outside, Seb took too much inner kerb, this nudging his car over towards the other Ferrari, forcing Kimi to take evasive action which in turn led to him being hit, taking a chunk out of the diffuser. Seb carried on unaffected, ending his day on the podium, Kimi later retired with an unconnected problem. It was an outward manifestation of the way he just fell into the role of accommodating Vettel’s thrusting approach in a way that Mark Webber, for example, never did. It was much the same when Alonso was Kimi’s team-mate.
However, unlike the 2014 car this was a driveable, balanced Ferrari – not one that allowed Kimi the excuse of it not suiting his driving style. There were still days when he looked like the absolute ace of old – had Ferrari not skewed his strategy in Bahrain to accommodate Vettel’s race, then he would likely have won as the Mercs hit braking problems. At Silverstone through the fast turns Vettel just could not live with him. At Monza he stuck it on the front row for the first time in years – before then fumbling the start procedure and falling to the back. Usually, he simply no longer had that cutting edge of raw speed and he faded into the background as his team-mate repeatedly starred.
15. Daniil Kvyat
On the surface Kvyat’s first season with the senior Red Bull team was quite successful. He narrowly out-scored his more experienced team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, stood on the podium for the first time and ran near the front on several occasions. But closer analysis reveals the reason why he was under pressure from Helmut Marko to up his game – something that almost certainly contributed to his big accident during Suzuka qualifying. Only twice did he genuinely out-qualify Ricciardo – by a few hundredths in Canada and one thousandth in Mexico. On every other occasion when he was credited with a faster qualifying time it was either when Ricciardo had suffered an engine problem or was in a different specification of car. In those races where the comparison was straight, the score was Ricciardo 8, Kvyat 2. He out-pointed his team-mate only because Ricciardo suffered more with reliability once the car had become competitive in the season’s second half. Ricciardo had a better reliability run in the first half – but that was when the car was way less competitive.
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Kyvat failed to do to Ricciardo what Ricciardo had done to Vettel the year before, wasn’t really putting the more senior driver under any pressure and had too many anonymous races even after the RB11 came alive post-Silverstone. In Hungary Kvyat got the second place, Ricciardo only third, but on that day Ricciardo was fighting for victory, Kvyat trailing a long way back and two places behind when Ricciardo and Rosberg clashed. He had qualified there almost 0.6s slower and was a similar chunky margin adrift in Malaysia, Austin and Abu Dhabi. His drives in Monaco, Canada and Mexico however were excellent. He ran up front in the early wet stages of Austin and even led for a few metres, but once Ricciardo got in front of him, he was able to pull away and give Kvyat a lesson in race craft as he then passed both Mercs within a lap, something that Kvyat had been trying but failing to do for several laps. Daniil later crashed out. He has a bold, aggressive way with a racing car and certainly doesn’t lack courage, but in 2015 it did not come together in a consistent enough way for him to be considered yet a genuine front-runner. There’s potential in there, but can he unlock it before he gets moved on for the next pretender?
16. Felipe Nasr
As a rookie driver teamed for most of the season with a rookie engineer, Nasr lost his way a little at Sauber. But his best drives illustrated very clearly that he’s a driver of great potential. In his debut at Melbourne he was a remarkable fifth, calmly keeping Ricciardo at bay for the whole distance. But his sixth place in Sochi towards the end of the season was, if anything, even more impressive. On that occasion the Pirellis were for once allowing everyone to drive flat-out and Nasr was revelling in it. Not only that but he made the exact right calls from the cockpit about which strategy to follow when a safety car offered two possibilities. He’s one of those drivers who needs everything to fit and feel right to maximise his potential, working with the nuances of feedback rather than attacking gung-ho. The right engineer could make a star of him, but things could go either way in this crucial early stage of his F1 career. Aside from pursuing a blind alley on set up with the car in the last part of the European season, Nasr also suffered with the braking feel of the Sauber and was constantly having to change between his preferred Brembos and the more durable Cabone Industrie components. These difficulties ruined his races in Canada and Austria, the latter after starring in qualifying by getting the Sauber through to Q3. When all was right with him he was capable of flattering what was a mediocre car and was on balance the quicker Sauber driver. But he desperately needs now to join up those peaks a little more convincingly.
17. Pastor Maldonado
Pastor remains an enigma, a bull who can wear ballerina shoes around Monaco – where he’s invariably quite superb – but who in his fifth season continues to get involved in incidents. In fairness, a lot of them weren’t his fault this year – he was assaulted on the first lap by other cars in Melbourne, Silverstone and Abu Dhabi – and his coming together with team-mate Grosjean at Barcelona, whilst avoidable, was just hard 50/50 racing. But his race in Hungary ensured he remained categorised in the endearingly crazy Brambilla mould. There, immediately after the final safety car, he incurred penalties for: overtaking before the safety car line, causing a collision with Pérez, speeding in the pit lane while taking his drive through for the Pérez accident and thereby incurring another drive-through.
On the other hand, in Austria he rescued an eighth-gear tank slapper when battling with Verstappen that just defied belief. The car was a full 40-degees out of line flat-out in top – and he brought it back. He’d initiated the situation himself of course, but still it remains one of the most remarkable pieces of car control ever seen in F1. Other than at Monaco he was invariably a couple of tenths slower in qualifying than Grosjean over one lap – but most of the drivers on the grid would be too. In the races, he would occasionally find a better way with the tyres than Grosjean and be quicker (see China), and occasionally he would hold it all together to put in a perfectly polished, quick and consistent performance – see his drives in Canada and Japan. But more usually, he’d invent a new way of messing up his weekend and that’s a shame. He brings something to F1 in his crazy, thrilling way.
18. Marcus Ericsson
Marcus is a lead-foot. He puts himself under massive pressure, stands on the brakes yet harder, gets on the power yet earlier – and only sometimes is it working for him. With a high-grip proper racing tyre, his approach would probably find him the lap time he seeks, but on Pirellis it often has him chasing his tail. The arrival of the rookie Nasr who was instantly quicker than him just made Marcus push yet harder – and the downward spiral continued. But occasionally circumstances allowed him to show what a gritty racer he can be – the weather-afflicted qualifying at Sepang was one such, as he got his elbows out against Kimi Räikkönen to retain track position over him in the one available dry Q2 lap. It was a lap that got him into Q3 and on the opening lap of the race he made a great pass on Verstappen. But he was maybe in a little over his head this far up the field, for a few laps later, trying to pass Hulkenberg from a long way back, he locked up and stuck it in the gravel, a day of great opportunity blown. He drove a good, hard race in Bahrain too but these highlights aside, he was struggling. As Nasr got himself into a set-up downward spiral of his own, so the pressure came off Ericsson a little and his form definitely improved mid-season, though there remained a few scrappy incidents. There’s something in there that the right car and set-up could bring out but 2016, his third season in F1, could be crucial for his long term future.
19. Alexander Rossi
The American GP2 front-runner came in for a five-race programme with Manor towards the end of the season and proceeded to gain the upper hand over the incumbent Will Stevens – and more resoundingly than had Mehri. He impressed with his calm approach and sensitive handling of the car. He took a lot of time out of Stevens to come from behind and beat him in Mexico and in Suzuka his relentless application of pressure upon Stevens led to the latter’s spin through 130R that finally allowed Rossi past. These were great, spirited performances, all the more impressive for someone who had just arrived cold from a different formula.
20. Roberto Merhi
Of the 12 races he was up against Stevens, Mehri came out on top seven times. This was despite a significant loss of performance – in the order of half a second – arising from his greater weight over the jockey-like Stevens in a car that could not be brought down to the weight limit. He was an amiable team player who accepted his lot, appreciative of the opportunity of driving for free. It took three races before he was settled in and had resolved a few issues with the car, during which time he was overshadowed by Stevens. But thereafter he came back fighting, to grind his way ahead – though his advantage over Stevens was less marked that was Rossi’s.
21. Will Stevens
Will followed up his one-off for Caterham in 2014 with a full season at Manor, showing plenty of have-a-go spirit and aggression. But after initially holding a comfortable upper-hand over Mehri (helped by that weight advantage) there was no denying the subsequent trend, nor the way Rossi came in and gained an almost immediate upper hand. But so far off the pace were the Manors that it’s difficult to gauge how their drivers fit in against those of the rest of the field. It could be unfair to have them all down here at the back, but until one of them gets in a faster car we won’t know.