2009 F1 driver rankings part 3: 5-1

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Was the world champion the best driver of the year?
Was the world champion the best driver of the year?

Over the last two days the 25 drivers who competed in F1 this year have been whittled down to a top five.

But who was the very best of the best? Read on for my verdict – and vote for who you think was the top driver in 2009.

5. Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso rose above the media furore at Singapore and finished third
Fernando Alonso rose above the media furore at Singapore and finished third

After all the speculation, Ferrari chose to end Raikkonen’s contract one year early and bring Alonso in for 2010, at a cost of several million Euros. All season long Alonso showed great persistence at the wheel of the uncompetitive R29, regularly dragging it into the top ten in qualifying and often into the points on race day. That his motivation seldom failed him even when driving a car not worthy of his talents was surely part of the attraction for Ferrari.

But, like another driver who conjured impressive results out of a troublesome car – Lewis Hamilton – Alonso’s reputation took a knock in 2009. After his victory in last year’s Singapore Grand prix was exposed as being a result of Nelson Piquet Jnr’s crash, he showed a disappoting lack of integrity by continuing to insist he deserved the win.

Alonso has often given his best performances on the track at the times of greatest stress off the track. Like at Monza two years ago while McLaren was imploding around him. It was the same at Singapore this year, where he silenced the criticism with a cool drive to a third place the team badly needed.

The R29 afforded few chances for Alonso to demonstrate his abilities. Front-row qualifying positions at Shanghai and the Hungaroring were largely thanks to race strategies that were on the desperate side of optimistic. At Hungary a fuel pump problem and a botched pit stop destroyed his hopes of translating pole position into a podium finish.

But he hung in doggedly, bringing the car home in the points eight times, which was far more than it deserved.

Great in a car that was average at best. He kept his head down, stayed out of trouble and grabbed points that he and the team needed. Unspectacular but his achievements were remarkable. Every point must have felt like a podium.

4. Mark Webber

Mark Webber scored a richly-deserved first Grand Prix win
Mark Webber scored a richly-deserved first Grand Prix win

It was heartbreaking to see Webber’s gutsy return from injury in the first race of the season ruined so quickly, bundled out at the first corner by Rubens Barrichello.

Eight races later it looked like another dose of bad luck – again involving Barrichello – would rob him of a maiden race win. Not a bit of it: this was finally Webber’s day and not even a (undeserved) drive-through penalty could keep him from the top step.

He followed that up with third place at the Hungaroring and at this point he was Jenson Button’s closest championship rival, the pair separated by 18.5 points at the time.

A five-race run without a point put paid to Webber’s title hopes. There were some car problems (his brake failure in Singapore, for example) and the occasional Red Bull pit blunder.

But part of the explanation is also how Webber didn’t always get the car set up as well as Sebastian Vettel. At Suzuka he ruined his race before it had started by damaging his car during practice.

However he ended the season brightly with a second win at Brazil, though it was somewhat overlooked as all eyes were on the championship battle. In the final race at Abu Dhabi he battled hard but fair to keep Jenson Button behind for second in the final laps

Out-performed by his team-mate, but had his best season in F1 to date and his drives were even more impressive when you consider his fitness before the season began.

3. Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton's two wins looked highly unlikely early in the season
Lewis Hamilton's two wins looked highly unlikely early in the season

The 2008 world champion began the season looking like he was heading for an annus horribilis. Despite being saddled with the wayward MP4-24 he dragged the car to third at Melbourne – which he then lost after colluding with the team to lie about how Jarno Trulli got in front of him in the closing stages.

As with Alonso this kind of thing detracts more from his character than from his driving. Like last year, Hamilton was sometimes inspiring and sometimes a little desperate but rarely dull.

He took consummate wins in Hungary and Singapore. Without misfortune there might have been two more at the Nurburgring and Yas Island. But mistakes cost him a podium at Monza and ruined his qualifying at Monte-Carlo.

Even at races where he had the same specification equipment as Heikki Kovalainen Hamilton’s margin of superiority was usually emphatic.

It’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve his place as the best non-Brawn or Red Bull driver in the final championship standings, and his rivals know if he has a better car next year to expect a Hamilton who’s as quick as ever and a little bit wiser to boot. His huge advantage in qualifying at Abu Dhabi will certainly have given them something to think about.

Forgetting all the controversy of the Australian Grand Prix, it was actually one of Hamilton’s best races of the year for me. The McLaren was amazingly slow at that time and the fact that Hamilton almost made it to the podium was quite remarkable. Some of his other best races was properly at Hungary and Brazil, but there are quite few that can be named.

People keep saying that the McLaren was transformed into a winner – but for the car’s true pace look at Kovalainen post-Hungary. Sometimes the only advantage McLaren had was Hamilton. He pulled that car up by the bootstraps and took it places it wasn’t supposed to go.

2. Sebastian Vettel

Sebastian Vettel's wet weather win at Shanghai was masterful
Sebastian Vettel's wet weather win at Shanghai was masterful

Interestingly, Vettel was voted the best driver in a poll of team principals. But you have to suspect he had both Red Bull and Toro Rosso voting for him.

When the RB5 was properly hooked up, Vettel was tough to beat. He romped home at Shanghai (another reminder of his wet weather prowess), Silverstone and Suzuka. And even when the car wasn’t quite on the pace he could usually be relied on to bring home points.

Although it’s true he suffered some engine reliability problems, they only kept him from finishing one race, the European Grand Prix. His Hungarian Grand Prix suspension failure had its roots in contact with Kimi Raikkonen.

What really hurt Vettel’s title-winning hopes were the kind of unforced errors the likes of Jenson Button didn’t make – the collision with Kubica at Melbourne (and subsequent penalty), the crash at Monaco and going off the track at Istanbul.

Those incidents aside, Vettel was deeply impressive this season.

When somebody outqualifies Mark Webber 15- 2 in his second full season, you know he’s fast.
New Flanders

Still has to learn some racecraft, and still makes the odd mistake. But considering he’s just starting his F1 career he’s a candidate, alongside Button, for driver of the year.
Pedro Andrade

1. Jenson Button

Jenson Button was unstoppable in the first half of the year
Jenson Button was unstoppable in the first half of the year

Before the season began we spent a lot of time discussing Bernie Ecclestone’s now infamous “gold medals” championship proposal. The consensus was that it was a bad idea – the F1 championship should not just go to the driver who wins the most races, but the one who is the most consistent.

By that measure, we can’t fault Jenson Button as world champion.

He blitzed the first seven races of the championship, winning all bar one. Some have put forward a simplistic explanation that this was all because of the speed of the Brawn in the opening races, but that’s not entirely true: Vettel in particular missed out on opportunities to win or score better in these opening races by making mistakes or failing to capitaise on this performance of his car.

From the halfway point of the season Button began to struggle in qualifying. But his consistency in the races brought home the points that made him world champion.

There were two crucial components to Button’s superiority. Even when he was stuck in the midfield he largely avoided making costly mistakes during the races (which is not something you can say about last year’s world champion). His only DNF came when he was taken out by Romain Grosjean at Spa.

Added to that was his skill in making the crucial pass when it mattered, pulling off essential overtaking moves which kept him from being stuck behind slower cars which would have scuppered his strategy.

His pass on Hamilton at Bahrain was a great example of this – the McLaren driver had drained his KERS early in the first lap, and Button’s pass at the start of the second tour was his last realistic chance to get the job done. Vettel, meanwhile, remained boxed in behind Hamilton despite having the pace to win.

Button did it to Alonso at Malaysia and Kubica at Suzuka. Together these are three drivers not exactly well-known for pulling over and letting their rivals past.

These vital passes built Button’s points advantage. A winning margin which might well have been greater had the Malaysian race gone the distance, as he was leading and Vettel was in a gravel trap when the red flags came out.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. This year Jenson Button was the man.

Did the business both from the front and in the pack. Several killer passes, kept his nose clean, kept the points coming and completed a hell of a feel-good story.

Outstanding. The Monaco and Brazilian Grands Prix were amazing to watch. Just kept grabbing the points when the car was down. One DNF when another driver took him out. Passing to win was Button’s forte.

Superb racing and precise overtaking (even against KERS cars) all season and continued to harvest points despite poor qualifying in the season’s latter half.

Complete 2009 F1 driver rankings

No rank: Nelson Piquet Jnr
24: Luca Badoer
23: Sebastien Bourdais
22: Kazuki Nakajima
21: Romain Grosjean
20: Jaime Alguersuari
19: Kamui Kobayashi
18: Adrian Sutil
17: Vitantonio Liuzzi
16: Sebastien Buemi
15: Giancarlo Fisichella
14: Timo Glock
13: Heikki Kovalainen
12: Jarno Trulli
11: Nick Heidfeld
10: Robert Kubica
9: Kimi Raikkonen
8: Felipe Massa
7: Nico Rosberg
6: Rubens Barrichello
5: Fernando Alonso
4: Mark Webber
3: Lewis Hamilton
2: Sebastian Vettel
1: Jenson Button

2009 F1 driver rankings part 1: 25-16
2009 F1 driver rankings part 2: 15-6

F1 driver of the year 2009 vote

Who do you think was the best F1 driver of 2009? Cast your vote for this year’s best driver.

122 comments on “2009 F1 driver rankings part 3: 5-1”

  1. christopher (sennaboy3)
    27th November 2009, 9:51

    the collision with Kubica at Montreal

    Keith, we can only wish there was a collision at Montreal this year! maybe today we’ll have confirmation for 2010!

    1. Thanks – have changed it :-)

  2. How can you rate Lewis and Fenando so high without no decent team mates to compare with? :)

    1. Because they made their team mates look so ordinary?

      1. Maybe that’s partly because they were ordinary or worse.

  3. Ferrari stopped development half way in a season and what Kimi managed with this underdeveloped car is simply amazing.

    1. Terry Fabulous
      27th November 2009, 10:40

      So that must be why they got rid of him?

    2. If you read james allen’s blog (jamesallenonf1.com), he says that some of the Ferrari engineers “couldn’t believe” that Raikkonen had managed podiums and wins with the car, given the figures from their data. I reckon the Alonso deal was done before his supposed ‘resurgence’.

      1. Actually this is the quote:
        “But his performances from July onwards in a car which Ferrari had stopped developing, were astonishing. Even the Ferrari engineers don’t fully understand how he managed to get some of the podiums he did based on the performance of his car, compared to the opposition.”

        1. Terry Fabulous
          29th November 2009, 21:37

          Hi Roland

          But if he did such a good job, surely they would have kept him on for another year?

          Maybe he didn’t do such a good after all?
          or maybe it was too late and they had already signed Alonso?
          or maybe he got sacked because of earlier disappointment rather then the second half of this season?

          I’m not sure but it doesn’t add up?

  4. Terry Fabulous
    27th November 2009, 10:38

    Yaah! I’m so glad you picked Button as the driver of the year. He was the MAN this year. Some of his passes were totally awesome.

    And the way he delivered in the first half of the season was exceptional. He is the World Champion and deserves his Winter as the main man.

  5. yes Kimi was so amazing Ferrari dropped him and Mclaren passed

  6. I knew this would be the top 5 but I don’t agree with any of it :-P

  7. I have to agree with IDR, S Hughes and some others! We are looking for the best driver, not driver-car combination. It means we should be able to judge and distinguish driving skills and achievements without taking into account emotions or faults in the somebody’s character, and ponder these skills against the quality of the car. With Brawn and Red Bull dominance this year I don’t believe any of their drivers did anything so spectacular to ascertain the No1 place on the list.

  8. F1 will always be a difficult series in which to judge best driver due to differences in car performance. We’ve all known it, and this year we’ve all said it enough times – to win you need the best CAR. Kimi’s win at Spa and Lewis’ two wins were opportunistic and showed great driver skill. But one or two races a season do not make.

    The fact that Button could not and did not win in the last ten races tells me that the car advantage was gone and that he did not drive that well. Rubens scored two wins in that period of time. Neither Vettel nor Webbo could capitalise on their speed and Button’s lack of it to overtake him in the championship. Lewis and the might of McLaren showed that even they could turn a dog of a car into a winner – but only Lewis managed to look competitive in the upgraded Macca.

    In Schumi’s first championship season he was by far the best driver as he won without being in the best car (TC issues aside). Button won in the car that in all reality was illegal at the start of the season and he built his advantage while the rules were changed/clarified and the other teams caught up. Once they had, as I mentioned, he was nowhere in the races. But by that stage the damage had been done.

    I, despite being an Aussie with an inbred dislike for all things British, have to agree with Autosport and more than a few fellow fanatics – Lewis was the standout driver this season. He smashed his teammate, motivated himself and his team to victory, and went balls out to pick up another place at Monza resulting in the most heroic crash of the year.

    Next year will prove just who should have been No.1 in this poll, and I’m betting it won’t be Button…

  9. Well as the best drivers will naturally gravitate to the best teams then i think in the main but not always you can discount the guy coming in a plucky 17th in a Minardi, there may well be an Alonso driving it but more as likely there wont be. Button made the least mistakes the most overtakes, won the most races and the WDC. Its fairly clear he should be up there, whether its 1st 2nd or 3rd is largely subjective.

    You will never get a pure measure of a drivers worth but certainly beating your team mate is the nearest to it and Button did that too.

  10. Whilst I’m not going to pan Keith for his choices and will simply I disagree (Vettel better than Hamilton is actually “more incorrect” – if there could be such a thing – to me than Button being top), I have to point out that many of Button’s overtaking manoeuvres were down to having awful starts, especially in the second half of the season. If we can fault Vettel’s lack of overtaking (which is at most only half due to the Red Bull being so bad in turbulent air), then we can definitely fault Button’s starts and ability to cope under pressure. I think the reason he rose to the challenge so well in Brazil was because it was his to win, not to lose.

    Button was indeed consistent, but that would have counted for nothing without the Brawn dominance and small doses of luck in the first 7 races (Button really ran his luck much more in the second half of the season). Keith has every right to judge him on consistency and put him #1 because of it (and other things, like the great drives which no-one can take away from him but didn’t really dwarf others’ amounts), I personally don’t think the evidence is clear-cut enough to give him #1.

  11. “Give me lucky Generals” *


    Button had his luck, so what. Pound for pound Chris Amon was as good a driver as any around him but he was never lucky, so he never won.

    1. Or, to use a similar quote but one taken from motor racing: “I’d rather be lucky than good” – Bobby Rahal, talking about the Indy 500.

      In motorsport it’s often said that you make your own luck, meaning that so-called lucky drivers are actually the beneficiary of their own actions rather than good fortune. Button, for example, made his own good luck in Malaysia (passing rivals to make his strategy work), Bahrain (ditto), Spain (incredible second stint) and Monaco (tyre management). He was also partly responsible for some of his problems – Belgium (qualifying too far back and making himself vulnerable to Grosjean) springs to mind. All drivers do it to a greater or lesser extent. But over the course of the season, Button generally got the most out of his car at most races and that’s why he ended up champion.

      Chris Amon was infamous for his bad luck whenever he looked like winning a race. But there were instances where he overthought things and psyched himself out. In his March days, it was said that the best way getting getting Amon to perform was telling him he hadn’t a hope in hell – then he’d stop worrying and just get on with driving…

  12. For me, the “best driver” premise works like this: who would win the WDC all the other factors (mainly the “car” factor) being equal? I honestly believe that Lewis would have destroyed Jenson if both of them had enjoyed the same equipment. How good that we will have the chance to see exactly this next year!
    It’s all a matter of personal opinion, of course, an the debate here has been very civilized (that’s one of the things that make this site the very best IMO), but I see a real lack of criteria consistency from Keith grading Kubica as the best last season (a fairly sound ranking IMHO) and… Jenson(??) this year.
    Alonso vs. Kimi seems a bit unfair, too.
    No problem with Badoer’s rating, though. :-)
    As for Hamilton’s crash at Monza, had he still had real chances for the WDC, I would have shaken my head in despair like so many times in the last races of 2007 and the whole 2008 season. But he had nothing to lose, and his Villeneuvesque drive there trying to snatch a better result from his inferior car was really one of his highligths of the season IMHO.

    1. I should say Gilles-Villeneuvesque so younger people don’t get me wrong…

      1. I couldn’t agree more. There seems to be a psycological gap in the British fans’ minds that appears to be pushing them towards closing ranks with Jenson. Take a look at the BBC webpage, PF1 or Motorsport Magazine, for example, and you will find a few “Why Button is a Worthy Champion” articles. One didn’t feel the need to do that in 2008, 2007,… and so on – when the champion is a worthy champion, it’s pretty much self-evident. And now Keith goes one better and ranks him as the top drive of 2009 – having become accustomed to his often sharp analyses, I can only look at this one with great amazement. It must be intent as a piece of support for the embattled British driver.

        1. I would argue the reason there are quite a few articles on why Button is a worthy champion is because there are a lot of people saying he isn’t, claiming his success is all because of the car, and the fact he didn’t win in the second half of the season means Button isn’t worthy.

        2. I seem to remember that there were a lot of people last year questioning whether Lewis was a worthy champion too, given that he won five races to Massa’s six. Before they remembered that the FIA took one win from Lewis and gave it to Massa, because he was driving a Ferrari.

          We can discuss ad nauseam who is more “worthy” on the criteria that we make up and change from person to person, unfortunately there are these things called rules and points that define the champion, and Button is champion this year.

          1. Funny that you should mention the rules decide the champion, but disregard the rules that took the win from Hamilton?

          2. The rules that decide the championship standings are well defined and clear, everyone knows it is the person with the most points who is champion and so drivers may sometimes race for points rather than trying to get the victory every race.

            The decision to penalise Hamilton at Spa in 2008 was based primarily on judgement, and split opinion. If it was clear in the rules that Hamilton should have let Raikkonen back through after taking the lead McLaren would have ordered him to do so rather than ask Charlie Whiting a few times if Hamilton had to let Raikkonen past, and if it was in the rules Whiting would have given McLaren a different answer.

          3. I don’t contest the fact that he IS the champion – you got the most points, you win the thing. Is he a worthy WC from a historical perspective? I put him right there with JV, D.Hill, K.Rosberg and A.Jones as the worst WCs I’ve had the opportunity to watch racing. But my grudge with the article above is not over Button being a worthy WC or not: he has never been the best driver of the year; not this year, not ever. He was lucky to find himself with a car a couple of notches above the competition in the beginning of the year and then, when his car became just one of the top contenders (see that it didn’t become a dog: even Barrichelo could win twice with it in the second half of the year) he became an also run. Regarding his passes, well, that is what happens in mid-field all the time. It only seemed especial because, since he was leading the championship, the cameras were on him most of the time during the races.

    2. trying to snatch a better result from his inferior car was really one of his highligths of the season IMHO.

      Yeah, it’s always a highlight for me when Lewis crashes ;)

      (sorry, couldn’t help myself)

  13. Alonso didn’t do anything to get that car developed. He didn’t show anything special either. I’m usually a fan of Alonso, but this year he clearly pulled a Heidfeld. He should be ranked similarly too then.

    I don’t understand Vettel above Hamilton either. Vettel drove by far the most competitive car of the field and yet with all his driver errors he managed to throw it all away. He was “lucky” that Webber had his 5 pointless races, because before that he was actually behind Webber in points.

    Personally I’d put Hamilton above Button, but I guess that’s debatable. Obviously Button was fighting for the championship and he couldn’t go full out and show what he was capable off. Hamilton had nothing to loose and could drive the wheels off his car just to have some fun.

    The thing is, there is just no way that I could imagine Button taking the WDC if Hamilton had been his team mate.

  14. “the collision with Kubica at Montreal” I don’t remember there being a Montreal race this year ;)

    1. don’t you? ha

  15. Pedel to the Vettel
    27th November 2009, 14:05

    Good number #1 Keith, you didnt roll over to all the Lewis Hamilton fanboys trying to make this into the next X factor or something.

    Button won this by miles, and Keith was very kind to put Hamilton in 3rd to keep the fanboys quiet. The fans who don’t support Lewis and are not biased know that Lewis doesn’t deserve to be in the top 5 this year.

    1. I very much agree. Admittedly I’m not much of a Hamilton fan, but I suspect people think the McLaren was so bad early in the year because Lewis kept telling everyone it was! Bourdais used to do the same thing and everyone called it ‘excuses’.

      I don’t want to come across as a Lewis-basher. The man is exceptionally talented, but there’s no way he should be ranked #1 for this year – those who think so need to watch more than one driver in F1.

      1. Yes the MP4-24 at the start of the year was really one of the best cars on the grid and Hamilton just couldn’t be bothered so he thought if he said the car was bad everyone would blame the car and not him, he also managed to get Kovalainen and the test drivers to go along with his story so he wouldn’t get found out.

        The reason Hamilton had a good second half of the season wasn’t because of any updates McLaren claimed to have come up with, it was just that Hamilton decided he would start trying again.

        Maybe people said Bourdais blaming the car for his performance was an excuse because his less experienced teammates were doing better than him.

        1. Don’t forget, he actually went so far to team up with Kovalainen. Kovalainen also underperformed on purpose during the first half of the season. Just so they could both complain that the car was bad.

          Wow, how much sense everything makes now.

    2. Why shouldn’t Lewis be in the top 5?

    3. I don’t know man, I’m not a fanboy, I don’t think, and I thought Hamilton gave me at least as much good racing to look at as any of the Brawn and Red Bull guys.

  16. I totally agree with Kubica being above Heidfeld, like Barrichello vs Button, Heidfeld is slightly better than Kubica when the car is not stable, much like Barrrichello being faster than button in a similar situation, but when the car is performing well Kubica has the edge over Heidfeld just like Button has the edge over Barrichello, and this has more value in F1 than just being good at getting a crap car in the points which Heidfeld is very good at, never the less i think Heidfeld deserves a fast car so we can really see what he is made of, but personally i predict more of the same with him, consistent safe hands, points and the odd podium, similar to his whole career.

  17. HA ! Agreed pja. I thought it fairly amusing someone even thought to compare Bourdais & Hamilton. They say love is blind but hate is erm blinder.

  18. this is true Damon, he may be fit but hes no Usain Bolt, without the car Lewis would undoubtedly have finshed last – well maybe still ahead of Badoer , come to think of it !

  19. Hi Keith,
    first pic comment contains a little mistake.
    Alonso finished second behind Glock in Singapore.
    Great article, great blog

  20. I dont think Button should be Number 1. We will never know, but how different would the season have been had Button not had the “double diffuser” advantage over the likes of McLaren and Ferrari et al early on in the season

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