F1 07 review: Driver rankings (3/3)

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Fuji Speedway, 2007 | Ferrari MediaHere are my top three drivers of 2007.

I picked Fernando Alonso as my driver of the year in 2006, because he’d been competitive at almost every track and hardly ever made a mistake. But in 2007, all of the three championship contenders made clear mistakes at one point or another.

That – and the fact that they were so closely matched – made it even harder to pick this year’s top driver. This is my verdict – please share your thoughts and your top drivers of 2007 in the comments.

3. Fernando Alonso

Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang, start, 2007I put Alonso at the top of my list for the past two seasons because he was competitive at almost every circuit, a gutsy racer, resolute under pressure, and largely error-free. For whatever reason, he just couldn’t replicate that performance at McLaren this year. At least, not at every race.

At the beginning of the season his performances were more inconsistent than we’d seen in the past – probably because of the difficulties of adapting to a new team and new tyres. He won at Sepang and Monte-Carlo but at other venues he was conspicuously below par.

He fell off the pace at Bahrain and was beaten by Nick Heidfeld in the BMW – one of few occasions a lesser car beat a healthy, unimpaired McLaren or Ferrari all year. An optimistic bid to pass Felipe Massa at the first corner of his home Grand Prix caused a trip across the gravel. He did the same at Montreal trying to pass Lewis Hamilton – and repeated the mistake several times during the race.

This was unheard of from Alonso. Over the past two seasons we’d become accustomed to how rarely he lost positions on the track and how rare his mistakes were. But whether the root cause was dissatisfaction with his team, his team mate or his car, the fact is they were Alonso’s mistakes.

Fernando Alonso, McLaren-Mercedes, Silverstone, 2007 | Daimler ChryslerOn the other hand, there were days when he turned up and blew everyone into the weeds – Lewis Hamilton included. Alonso simply drove away from the chasing pack at Monza. His opportunistic, ballsy pass on Massa to win at the Nurburgring was vintage Alonso – as was turning the psychological screw on his rival by making sure the TV cameras didn’t miss Massa’s tyre mark on his sidepod.

Hamilton had mental weaponry of his own, though, and when the Briton fired one off at Alonso at the Hungaroring (by not letting Alonso lead the pack at the start of the final phase of qualifying) Alonso’s reaction both inside and outside the car set off a disastrous chain of events for everyone in the team.

For all that he railed against the team for allegedly giving Hamilton favour, Alonso had a better run of reliability than his team mate. A gearbox problem left him tenth on the grid at Magny-Cours, from which he raced magnificently. He was poorly rewarded with a mere seventh – behind several drivers he’d passed that day thanks to the vagaries of refuelling strategies.

The arguments over exactly why Alonso didn’t attain the heights of performance in 2007 that he did in 2005 and 2006 will rage on. But I think third in the world championship was a just reflection of his performance in the cockpit this year.

2. Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, Interlagos, 2007, 2 | Ferrari mediaKimi Raikkonen snatched the world championship in the final round in a manner seldom seen in Formula 1. Not since 1976 has a driver overcome such a large points gap to win the title – and on that occasion James Hunt (Raikkonen’s preferred nom de plume, appropriately) beat Niki Lauda because the Austrian had missed several races through injury.

Raikkonen ended the season in fine style, scoring seven consecutive podiums and winning three of the last four races. Admittedly he had the pressure release of being so far behind in the championship that he could take risks, and Massa gave him a helping hand at Interlagos. But still these were not easy races to win – he never put a foot wrong in the wet/dry drama at Shanghai, and raced from 16th to third in pouring rain at Fuji.

Once he’d got the F2007 to his liking Raikkonen seemed able to win at will. At Magny-Cours and Silverstone he confidently took a heavier load of fuel in qualifying and used it to leapfrog his opponents on race day, Schumacher-style. After a bad crash in practice at Monza (which Ferrari seemed to blame him for but might actually have been caused by damper failure) he persevered to take third and a useful six points.

He won six races compared to Alonso and Hamilton’s four each, and he was the only driver in the top two teams to retire twice because of car failure. Given this, it might seem extraordinarily mean-spirited not to pick him as best driver of the year.

Weighed against Raikkonen’s bravura performances in the latter half of the season were some oddly indifferent drives in the first half of the year. At Sepang he seemed content to take third and rarely looked like passing Hamilton. At Bahrain he didn’t seem to be paying attention at the rolling restart.

Chinese Grand Prix 2007, Shanghai International Circuit, start, 2 | DaimlerAt Montreal he ran wide at the start and was passed by Nico Rosberg, which ruined his race. He finished fifth behind Heikki Kovalainen who’d made his way up from last on the grid. And he missed the pit lane while leading at the Nurburgring.

Worst of all came when he crashed in qualifying at Monte-Carlo – the very worst track at which to make such a mistake. He made a valiant recovery effort on race day but the damage was done and he finished eighth.

Viewed from the perspective of the end of the season it’s easy to overlook some of the problems Raikkonen had early in the year, and how he struggled to overcome them. On balance he had an exceptional season – the move to Ferrari seems to have rejuvenated him. That said, over the course of the season the Ferrari was marginally the better car (regardless of whatever traumas were going on at McLaren).

In this same feature last year I said that Raikkonen was “clearly overdue a world championship” and I would not argue that he didn’t deserve this one.

1. Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes, Spa-Francorchamps, 2007 | Daimler ChryslerLewis Hamilton looked like a championship contender from the first corner of the season, when he rallied from being passed by Robert Kubica to re-take the BMW driver – and Fernando Alonso for good measure.

His uncanny ability to judge the latest possible braking point – particularly at the first corner of a race – was one of several impressive weapons in Hamilton’s arsenal. He picked off both the Ferraris at Sepang and jumped from tenth to fourth at the Nurburgring (until he was hit by a spinning BMW).

He did it partly by outstanding natural feel and partly because, unlike the kind of drivers who fall asleep at restarts or drive into their team mates in safety car periods, you got the impression that he’d bothered to read the rule book. Before the Malaysian Grand Prix he admitted he’d studied the previous F1 starts at the track – and it showed.

No doubt he also picked up the Michael Schumacher lesson that you can shut a door completely on a driver on a straight and not get punished for it. Hamilton’s version of that trick was to give his opponent just enough room to get through – and then insouciantly re-pass them anyway. He did it to Massa at Sepang – twice – and again at the start at Monza.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes, Barcelona, 2007, 2Perhaps I am old fashioned. If there’s one thing I appreciate in a driver it’s an affinity for wheel-to-wheel race craft – and if there’s one thing that 2007-style F1 undervalues it’s wheel-to-wheel race craft. But Hamilton was strong in other areas, too.

The tragedy of his fall-out with Alonso this year is that they’re actually not that dissimilar. Hamilton, like Alonso, knows just how to treat a set of tyres to inject as much heat and coax as much grip out of them as possible, without destroying them. They traded heart-stopping opposite-lock slides through La Piscine at Monte-Carlo. And they bitterly fought over every last advantage they could wring from their team.

Despite his much-lauded blunders in the final two races, Hamilton’s mistakes were no worse than those of his rivals over the course of the year. There were inconsequential errors at Melbourne (kicking up the dirt on one lap) and Silverstone (almost leaving the pits too soon). His most serious mistakes at the Nurburgring and Shanghai were borne of his unfamiliarity with judging when to change between wet and dry tyres in mixed conditions – not something a driver can pick up in testing.

It’s quite right to point out that he should have been more conservative in the final two races. In particular, trying to race Alonso for third at Interlagos was utterly pointless. But his brief foray off the track at that point didn’t cost him the championship – that came when his gearbox broke a few laps later. His indefatigable charge back through the field, in which he seldom paused before leaping past each driver, made you think on more than one occasion that he just might do it.

It was not the first time his McLaren let him down. It did in qualifying at the N???rburging, provoking a big crash and leaving him tenth on the grid. And it did in Istanbul when his tyre let go. But crucially, unlike Raikkonen’s troubles, his race problems were not terminal.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes, Fuji Speedway, 2007 | Daimler ChryslerRace in, race out, Hamilton looked capable of scoring a podium anywhere. Indeed he led more laps than anyone else (321) and was second on more laps than anyone else (311). His consistency extended to qualifying, where he had more front row starts (12) and a better average starting position than any of his rivals (2.59 vs Alonso 3.18).

I don’t think Hamilton drove a better year than Alonso or Michael Schumacher did in 2006. But on balance over the entire season, Lewis Hamilton was the best driver of 2007.

And i didn’t even mention the fact that he did it all in his first year of racing in Formula 1.

Previous driver rankings