1. Fernando Alonso – arguably driving better now than he did in either of his world championship seasons. His Ferrari this year is certainly not at the same level as his Renault in 2005 and 2006, yet he leads the championship by 40 points, a huge margin. That is to his immense credit, especially considering how far off the pace his team were at the start of the season. He’s made the most of every opportunity presented to him, either through the weather, the failures of his nearest rivals, or just incredibly smart driving, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
2. Lewis Hamilton – a number of operational errors from McLaren and a generous helping of bad luck have left Hamilton much lower in the championship standings than his driving has merited. If you were to make a list of the problems that blighted him last year, you’d soon realise that he has managed to eliminate nearly all of them. His driving is no longer so erratic, he is no longer taking unnecessary risks during races, he is qualifying the car where it should be and not picking up penalties (thus avoiding the need to race against drivers like, let’s say, Felipe Massa altogether), and he is not making any silly comments off the track that turn out to be distractions for him. Instead, he has secured the best qualifying results of all the drivers over the course of the season so far, and he has the joint-second most race wins after Alonso. He should have more, of course, but that mostly isn’t his fault – he can largely blame shoddy pit stops and strategy. If he carries on exactly as he has been for the second half of the season, and McLaren keep up with the pace of development, he will make the championship battle a close one.
3. Kimi Räikkönen – there were a couple of dodgy performances at the start of the season, and he still hasn’t quite found the right formula in qualifying, but to have picked up five podium finishes in eleven races after two years away from the sport is pretty remarkable. If you’re not convinced, just ask Michael Schumacher! His team-mate has occasionally looked quicker, but Räikkönen’s consistent performances on race day have given him an outsider’s chance of the world championship. A first comeback victory still eludes him – he would have got it in Hungary had the track allowed even the slightest bit of overtaking, I feel – but who would bet against him taking it at some point before the end of the season, perhaps even at the next race in Spa?
4. Sebastian Vettel – he might be behind his team-mate in the championship, but only by a margin of two points, which he would undoubtedly have overturned had his car’s alternator not failed in Valencia when he had already built up a huge lead. That was one of the most startling performances of the season by far by any driver, and made me think he was going to dominate the next few races. That he didn’t is probably down to a combination of the weather and Red Bull having to remove some of the tricks that their car had been previously employing. I don’t believe the team or the drivers when they say that removing them makes no difference, because if that was the case, they wouldn’t have been using them in the first place, surely? Regardless, I’m certainly not writing off his season. He’ll be challenging all the way to the end.
5. Mark Webber – he has done very well to win two races this year and go into the summer break second in the championship standings, but he has finished behind Vettel too many times (six, plus the likelihood of it happening in Valencia) for me to rank him higher. It’s telling that he has not finished on the podium apart from the two races he won. I’m not expecting him to keep up a title challenge over the rest of the season, which is unfortunate, because I’d love to see it. He will, however, score plenty of points and ensure that Red Bull remain the champion constructors for the third year in a row.
6. Sergio Pérez – I was impressed with Pérez at his very first race, the Australian Grand Prix of 2011, but this year has been a real breakthrough for him. With a car which was, on paper, only the fifth or sixth fastest on the grid, he came extremely close to winning in Malaysia in difficult conditions, and then to prove it wasn’t a fluke, he scored another podium in Canada in the dry. It’s no surprise that he has been heavily linked with a move to Ferrari, because he wouldn’t be out of place there.
7. Nico Rosberg – it’s been another solid but uninspiring season from Rosberg, with the notable exception of a dominant pole-to-flag victory in China. Second place in Monaco was another good result, but I can’t help but feel he and his team could have achieved more this season. Mercedes seem to have fallen behind with development, while Rosberg finished behind Schumacher three times in a row between Valencia and Germany. He has finished in the points more than anyone else outside the top five, but at some weekends he seems to be off the pace with no logical explanation.
8. Romain Grosjean – it was difficult to know what to expect from Grosjean before the season started. I felt that it wasn’t fair to judge him on his short stint with Renault, as the team was known then, in 2009, as that had been in extremely difficult circumstances. With that in mind, it’s tricky to say whether it has been a good or bad season for him so far, especially as he has been one of the most inconsistent drivers. At times he has looked blisteringly fast, even more so than Kimi Räikkönen, but far too often he has not had the chance to show that because he has crashed unnecessarily. Apart from the German Grand Prix, he has either finished in the top six or not been classified at every race. Still, he’ll probably be quite happy – he always seems to be – with the three podiums he has picked up so far.
9. Kamui Kobayashi – he has already scored more points in 2012 than in any of his previous years in Formula One, but he has been put in the shade a little by the performances of his team-mate. I think he has matured as a driver, because I can’t recall nearly as many “Kamuikaze” moves as we’ve seen in the past. With tyre conservation rather than gung-ho driving proving to be the key to success this season, that has probably helped him to score those points.
10. Jenson Button – he’s picked up three good results, but has finished outside of the points four times, while his team-mate scored at each of those races and even managed to win one of them. The qualifying head-to-head looks even worse, as Button trails 1-10. 2012 hasn’t quite been a complete disaster for Button, and a second-placed finish in Germany was an encouraging sign for the rest of the season, but he’ll be disappointed not to have stayed in the championship hunt after winning the first race in the fastest car on the grid.
11. Pastor Maldonado – the importance of getting Williams’ first win since 2004 hides a multitude of sins in Maldonado’s season, and is the only reason why he’s as high as eleventh in my rankings. As impressive as that victory was, he has only scored points at one other race, which is nowhere near good enough. All too often, he has caused collisions with other drivers through dangerous driving, which is evidenced by the three non-gearbox penalties he’s picked up already. He needs to sharpen up, both to avoid crashing and drive to the potential of the car.
12. Paul di Resta – although I’ve been increasingly impressed with Nico Hülkenberg, di Resta has to rank above him for his consistent points-scoring over the first eight races of the season. His car is not as high up the pecking order as it was last year, but he’s done a respectable job of hauling it into the top ten on multiple occasions nonetheless.
13. Nico Hülkenberg – he had quite a slow start to the season, but has now finished ahead of di Resta in four consecutive races, picking up the team’s best result of the season in Valencia in the process. His qualifying has also been strong lately. The decision to give him a seat ahead of Adrian Sutil will be justified if he can keep it up over the rest of the season.
14. Bruno Senna – despite (deservedly) attracting a lot of criticism for his early-season performances, he has still managed to finish ahead of Pastor Maldonado at seven of the 11 races so far, scoring points at six of those. That’s impressive consistency. He looked very quick in Hungary and is finally starting to show a hint of potential, I think. I’d back him to out-score Maldonado over the second half of the season.
15. Michael Schumacher – he has been quicker than Rosberg on a few occasions, and he picked up his first podium since he came back to the sport, but that isn’t enough to hide the fact that this has been a terrible season for Schumacher. Yes, he suffered from some bad luck at the start of the season when his car looked quick, but hitting Bruno Senna in Barcelona was his own fault, as was qualifying outside the top ten on a number of occasions. Hungary was the nadir for him, and that too was down to him alone. Time to retire.
16. Heikki Kovalainen – what more can he do? He is still the only driver from the three new teams to ever threaten Q2 – which he has managed to reach a couple of times – while he has kept up his consistent Sunday performances. I’m not surprised that rumours of a move to another team have started, as he will be so disappointed that the team haven’t yet given him a car to start racing for the lower points yet, as they keep saying they will. Petrov isn’t as easy a team-mate to beat as Jarno Trulli was, but he has still out-qualified him nine times out of 11, and he put in the team’s best performance of the season in Monaco.
17. Vitaly Petrov – I don’t think Petrov should be too downhearted at his current predicament, even though he was challenging for points and podiums last year and is now driving for one of the back-marker teams. Kovalainen is showing that it is possible to build, or re-build, a good reputation at such a team. Petrov is doing pretty well, finishing ahead of Kovalainen five times and out-qualifying him on a few occasions.
18. Felipe Massa – shockingly bad, whichever way you look at it. Statistically: Massa has scored just 15% of the points of his team-mate, with 0% of the podiums and 0% of the wins. In fact, it has taken Massa eleven races to score the points available for one victory. He is yet to out-qualify his team-mate so much as once. Even comparing Massa to drivers outside of his team doesn’t reflect favourably upon him. He is behind drivers from seven of the other eleven teams on the grid, despite having something like the fourth quickest car. In the history of Formula One, the team that contains the championship-winning driver has also been the leading constructor on 44 occasions out of 54. Alonso may well win the WDC this season, but Massa’s continued employment is costing Ferrari a chance at the WCC. The correct decision for them would be to let Massa go during this summer break, but I have a feeling he’ll stay until the end of the season.
19. Daniel Ricciardo – this is where it starts to get difficult to decide how to rank the drivers. Ricciardo and Vergne have been fairly well matched this season, and because their car is somewhat isolated in the pecking order, ahead of the three “new” teams but behind everyone else, it’s impossible to say how well they’ve actually been driving. I’m ranking Ricciardo one place ahead of Vergne because of his stronger qualifying record, and because he has finished ahead of his team-mate in the last five races.
20. Jean-Éric Vergne – see above.
21. Timo Glock – still doing his best at a poor team.
22. Charles Pic – he’s done reasonably well, considering it’s his first season, but has still been outperformed by his team-mate.
23. Pedro de la Rosa – he has crossed the line ahead of Karthikeyan in five of the six races in which they have both finished.
24. Narain Karthikeyan – sadly, the least talented driver on the grid.