Concluding the mid-season driver rankings, here are the top five racers of the year so far.
5. Valtteri Bottas
Key stat: Has taken all three of Williams’ podium finishes
Last year Bottas looked like a talent of the future in need of a better car, and his performances so far this season with the Mercedes-powered Williams FW36 have confirmed that impression.
He’s not been without room for improvement: his fifteenth-to-fifth recovery run in Austrlia was a fine drive but he would have finished higher had he not brushed the wall while trying to pass Fernando Alonso. And he missed a chance to take pole position in Austria when he skidded off at turn six.
But time and again Bottas has taken the best result available on the day with his car. He was fifth behind the Mercedes and Red Bulls in Spain, third behind the Mercedes in Austria, split the Mercedes for second in Germany and climbed 12 places to finish second at Silverstone.
He scored points in every race bar Monaco, where his engine failed, and is responsible for over 70% of Williams’ tally so far. He’s made three visits to the podium, which is three more than team mate Felipe Massa – and unlike his team mate he hasn’t participated in a full complement of practice sessions, making his achievements that bit more impressive.
4. Nico Rosberg
Key stat: Has never finished ahead of Hamilton having started behind him, except when Hamilton has retired
He’s leading the world championship, yet he appears only fourth on this list behind his team mate? It’s not hard to see why this may be considered an unduly harsh verdict on Rosberg. But results don’t tell the whole story, particularly in a season such as this when one team has the kind of performance margin we haven’t seen in more than 15 years.
Like Hamilton, Rosberg has the fastest car in the field underneath him and goes into every race weekend knowing he has a chance for victory. He’s taken four wins from eleven starts, the first of which came when Hamilton’s car failed on the first lap and the most recent of which was aided by Hamilton suffering a car failure during qualifying.
When the pair have gone head-to-head, Rosberg has tended to lose out, although his speed in qualifying and his resistance to errors is a key weapon in his armour, and arguably his best chance of prevailing in the championship.
Ironically his best performance of the season was probably one of the races he didn’t win. He took second in Canada despite an MGU-K failure, brilliantly holding off Sergio Perez by keeping the Force India more than a second behind at the DRS detection point.
3. Lewis Hamilton
Key stat: In the last three months he has taken one win and no pole positions
Five races into the year, Hamilton looked capable of a maintaining Vettel-esque run of uninterrupted victories. The opening round in Australia had been a setback – no points following an engine failure – but consecutive wins over the next four races, with Rosberg behind him, put Hamilton in the lead of the championship.
Then a series of slip-ups in qualifying handed the initiative back to Rosberg. It began in Canada, and Hamilton was on the verge of recovering from that error when an MGU-K fault contributed to a brake failure which put him out. In Austria he spun twice and lined up ninth on the grid, and at home he abandoned his final run in mixed conditions only for Rosberg and four other drivers to beat his time.
Matters turned in his favour on race day, when this time it was Rosberg’s turn to retire with engine trouble. But in the two most recent rounds further car problems left Hamilton starting near the back of the field. It’s to his credit that he came away from both with podium finishes, although in Germany contact with Jenson Button may have cost him second place.
Without his surplus of technical problems Hamilton would certainly be ahead of Rosberg in the championship, and probably by quite a comfortable margin. But while his own mistakes haven’t cost him as much, it isn’t just mechanical misfortune which explains why Hamilton is second in the standings.
2. Fernando Alonso
Key stat: Alonso is eight places ahead of fellow champion Raikkonen in the drivers championship – no other driver is as far ahead of their team mate
A fellow world champion may have taken over the adjacent garage and Ferrari may have produced an even more vexatious new car, but Alonso continues to be one of the most consistent and dependably fast front-runners. He’s the only driver to have finished every lap and scored at every race.
Hungary was the latest example of how a driver of his calibre makes virtue out of necessity. Alonso hit the front despite the inconvenience of an early Safety Car and, of course, the F14 T’s shortcomings, and wielded an aggressive strategy to very nearly pull off a shock win.
Other Alonso performances earlier in the season rivalled this one for brilliance. He came third in a dry race at Shanghai behind only the two Mercedes, taking advantage of the Red Bull drivers’ delays. In Germany he battled long and hard to find a way past Daniel Ricciardo, then had to use all his cunning to keep the Red Bull driver behind when he hit trouble on the last lap.
He has never failed to finish in front of new team mate Kimi Raikkonen, although in Spain Ferrari arguably gave their quicker driver a more advantageous strategy to help him get ahead. But Alonso has had little else handed to him this season, and it’s hard to imagine where he might have missed any opportunities to score more than the 115 points he has.
1. Daniel Ricciardo
Key stat: In the seven races where both finished, Ricciardo was only behind Vettel on one occasion
There’s no doubting Ricciardo has been better served by the reliability of his Red Bull than his four-times champion team mate. Yet on the two days when Ricciardo crossed the finishing line in first place not only did Vettel finish behind him in a healthy car, but Ricciardo had started the race behind his team mate.
It would be hard to ask more of a driver making his move up to a top team. Ricciardo was second on the road in Australia before being disqualified for a technical infringement. Whatever performance advantage Red Bull’s fuel flow infraction might have incurred, Ricciardo’s ability to run with the front runners could not be doubted.
In the second race an error by his team in the pits spoiled his race, but since then he’s never failed to score and it soon became apparent he was going to give Vettel a run for his money. In Bahrain and China Vettel was told to move aside to let his team mate by.
Spain finally yielded his first ‘real’ podium, to which he returned in Monaco and again in Canada, this time as the victor. A timely spot of traffic for his team mate may have helped Ricciardo get ahead but he took his chances when they came – beginning with an exquisitely-judged pass on Perez, with two wheels dipped into the dirt on the outside of turn one.
His second win in Hungary was another example of preparation meeting opportunity. Yes the first Safety Car moved him into position but it was the decision to pursue an aggressive strategy at the second – and Ricciardo’s flawless execution of it – which won him the race. This time he passed Hamilton around the outside and picked off Alonso to seal his second victory.
Ricciardo is only the second of Red Bull’s development drivers to graduate from Toro Rosso to the top team. Based on his first half-season, they’ve unearthed another star.
How the rankings are produced
Among the data referred to in producing the ranks are notes on each driver’s performance at each race weekend, compiled data on car performance, direct comparisons between team mates and each driver’s form guide.
Over to you
How do you think these five drivers have performed so far in 2014?
Have your say in the comments.
2014 F1 season
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Images © Williams/LAT, Daimler/Hoch Zwei, Ferrari/Ercole Colombo, Red Bull/Getty