I’ve spent a bit of time on this, as the long post may demonstrate!
In working out my rankings, I’ve relied heavily (although not solely) on reviewing each race this year, giving each driver a rating out of 10, and averaging the results over the season. I think the discipline of having to assess each driver in each race forces you to make a proper assessment of their season as a whole, rather than hugging the WDC standings and just tweaking a few places based on what you remember from the season. I think it also makes you focus on the performance of each driver relative to the potential of their car.
It was an interesting exercise, with some surprises. The results tended to punish those who were inconsistent (eg. Grosjean, Maldonado) and reward those who consistently performed well relative to the potential of their car (eg. Ricciardo, Hulkenberg).
That said, I did alter some positions from the averages, where a driver’s preliminary ranking seemed too high or low to me.
Anyway, here goes:-
25. Narain Karthikeyan – Universally regarded as the weakest driver in Formula One, Karthikeyan may have been an average driver at his peak, but at 35 was well on the downward slope of his career in the slowest car in the grid.
24. Jerome d’Ambrosio – Had a difficult task in his one off appearance at Monza, particularly given the lack of testing allowed in modern day Formula One. Drove a solid if unspectacular race to get his KERS-less Lotus to 13th in the race, but hardly the sort of performance to get team managers asking about his 2014 plans.
23. Pedro de la Rosa – The 41 year old probably drove his last season in Formula One, as HRT seems unlikely to be back. A solid season, did nothing spectacular, but then spectacular probably isn’t possible in an HRT. Thrashed his team-mate on all fronts, but that says more about the quality of Karthikeyan’s driving than anything else.
22. Charles Pic – A solid rookie season from the young Frenchman against a much more experienced team-mate. Occasionally finished ahead of Glock on merit, and will be hoping for better things next year with Caterham.
21. Bruno Senna – The FW34 was a rocket, and Williams should have been challenging Sauber and perhaps even Mercedes in the Constructors Championship, not languishing behind Force India in eighth. That result was down to the inability of its drivers to extract the car’s full potential over the course of the season. While Senna’s supporters will point to his 10 finishes in the points, his car was much quicker than that. Terrible in qualifying (FP1 absences notwithstanding) he was better in the races, but as Maldonado showed in Spain he had a car capable of podiums. Minor points finishes weren’t enough. Replaced by Bottas, and deservedly so. If he stays in Formula One next year, it will be thanks to his surname and money, not his performance in the Williams this year.
20. Vitaly Petrov – Surprised me a little with his performance this year. Beaten by Kovalainen over the course of the season on all measures except highest finish, he was nonetheless decent and his qualifying towards the end of the season was impressive. Critically, his eleventh place at Brazil secured Caterham 10th place in the Constructor’s Championship.
19. Heikki Kovalainen – I thought that the 2011 hype about Kovalainen was a little overdone, his relative performances being exaggerated by a poor team mate. Petrov provided a better benchmark in 2012, and while Heikki outdrove the Russian over the course of the season, it certainly wasn’t a thrashing. He gave the impression of being somewhat dispirited towards the latter part of the year, perhaps explicable by the question marks over his future. His refusal to countenance trying to raise funds to secure his 2013 drive suggested someone who maybe didn’t have sufficient desire any longer.
18. Romain Grosjean – If this list was ranked solely on speed, Grosjean would be much, much higher. His pace was never in question, his judgment and spatial awareness were. The first job of a driver is to get the car home, and for reasons well documented, the Frenchman failed in this task far too many times. If he can keep the speed and eliminate the errors next year, he could be anything. That of course assumes he is signed by Lotus for 2013, which was unclear at the time of this post. If he is given another chance by Lotus, it will surely be the last.
17. Jean-Eric Vergne – Some good points finishes in a car that lacked fundamental pace, interspersed with a couple of driver errors which cost others their races. Although he finished ahead of his team mate on points, on all other measures he was outdone, particularly in qualifying. Proved adept at making up places in the race, but too often started too far back on the grid. He has definite potential, and if he can stop overdriving on the Saturdays, should do much better on Sundays. Next year may very well be an audition for a 2014 Red Bull seat, and with a certain Mr da Costa nipping at their heels, Vergne’s ongoing battle with Ricciardo should be fascinating.
16. Michael Schumacher – Admittedly suffered from bad luck with mechanical faults, but the highlights were few. A pole at Monaco (before losing it to a penalty), a podium at the European GP, and a concluding 7th in the wet at Interlagos provided something to smile about in a generally disappointing season. The lowlights included running up the back of Senna at Spain and Vergne at Singapore, and a truly bizarre starting incident at Hungary, all of which suggested that perhaps his concentration levels weren’t what they once were.
15. Kamui Koboyashi – A hugely popular driver, it seems to me that there can be a tendency to remember the good and quickly forget the bad with KK. His podium at Suzuka was one of the year’s highlights. Not so good was his tendency to be involved in incidents with other drivers. Particularly unimpressive were his impersonation of a 4 wheeled torpedo at Korea, and managing to take out 4 of his pit crew at Silverstone. Given the speed of the C31, he should have done better.
14. Pastor Maldonado – It’s easy to summarise his season. Quick in qualifying, superb in Spain, far too many crashes and incidents elsewhere. Often, he managed to wreck not just one race but the following one as well, with the penalties he carried over. After his incident with Perez at Monaco I wondered if they should take his superlicence away. That said, I have to credit him for his much better second half season, when it seemed to sink in that he needed to change his style, although points finishes were still too rare. Mind you, his crash at the last race of the year raised old doubts. Like Grosjean, if he can keep the speed and cut out the rubbish, he could join the top tier of drivers.
13. Paul di Resta – Overall a reasonable season on paper, but beaten by his teammate and he flagged badly in the latter half of 2012. Although he blamed chassis issues, he had a new one for the last 3 races and it didn’t seem to make much difference. Touted as a potential 2013 driver at Ferrari and McLaren, his dip seemed to coincide with missing out on both those spots. Will need to do much better next year if he is to revive his dreams of ending up at a top tier team.
12. Timo Glock – For me, the clear star of the backmarkers, and the most under-rated driver on the grid. An heroic effort to take it to the Caterhams all season, despite lacking KERS. His Singapore drive was magnificent, and suffered terrible luck to be taken out by Vergne while running just outside the points at Brazil, cruelling Marussia’s chances of beating Caterham in the Constructors’ Championship. Deserves a better car.
11. Felipe Massa – Hard to believe that it was the same driver in the two parts of the season. If this was just a second half ranking, he would be in the top six or seven. But since we are ranking the drivers over all 20 races, it’s hard to justify a higher spot. Proved a superb wingman to Alonso after the summer break, and manfully copped being forced to sacrifice track and grid positions for the sake of the top rooster. Of course, he had no-one to blame but himself for being so far behind his team mate in the points that any team, not just Ferrari, would have expected something similar. He was very lucky to be signed for 2013 at the time, although the decision is not looking so crazy now.
10. Daniel Ricciardo – OK he’s my favourite driver, so I may be biased. However he consistently wrung the neck out of a generally uncompetitive car, and his second half was particularly impressive with 5 finishes in the points in his last 9 races. His qualifying was outstanding given the underlying pace of the STR7, and 6th spot on the Bahrain grid was truly special. If he had a weakness in the first third of the season, and Bahrain was the worst example, it was that he would start poorly in the race and fall back, but he quickly rectified that issue. Didn’t have more than one bad race, didn’t do anything stupid to wreck anyone else’s (unlike many other drivers) and showed some outstanding driving, both attacking and defensive, when points were on offer. I really do think he will end up at RBR in 2014.
9. Nico Rosberg – Finally got to demonstrate his class and speed at China. Unfortunately, Mercedes ill fated obsession with DDRS, and its inability to develop a car that didn’t chew its tyres, meant that a repeat wasn’t really possible, although he still drove great races at Monaco, Valencia and Singapore. His true abilities will be tested when Hamilton arrives as his 2013 team mate.
8. Sergio Perez – Some outstanding results, but diminished a little by a terrible run of 6 races after his McLaren signing was announced, for which he was largely responsible. Three podiums were testament to his potential, although the pure pace of the Sauber, and its kindness to tyres, shouldn’t be forgotten. Perversely, relatively poor qualifying often helped him, given that missing Q3 offered the opportunity to run alternative tyre strategies to the front runners. He’ll have the chance to prove his true worth in a front running team next year, but with that will also come enormous pressure.
7. Mark Webber – Apart from victories at Monaco and Silverstone, a relatively disappointing year for Webber. He has a tendency to excel on some tracks (including the aforementioned pair) and not on others, more so than the other top tier drivers. It also seems that the EBD effect does not suit his driving style, and as Red Bull managed to slowly recover the exhaust related downforce it lost at the beginning of the season, the Australian seemed to do worse. Given that Vettel has outpointed Webber in every year at RBR, you can hardly blame them for developing the car to the German’s strengths. A great bloke but it’s hard to see next year being any different, in what may be his swansong.
6. Nico Hulkenberg – The up and coming star of 2012, notwithstanding the hype about Perez. Unsurprisingly took a little while to get back in the groove after a year off, but by Valencia he was showing the potential first glimpsed in 2010. Outstanding in the wet, he thrashed his teammate after the summer break and by the end of the season what had looked like a close inter-team battle ended comfortably in his favour. The highlight was of course Brazil, even though he took out Hamilton and cost himself at least a podium and very possibly his first win. Hopefully next year’s Sauber will be as competitive as this year’s. If so, a maiden win is not out of the question.
5. Jenson Button – A class act with three wins for the season, but his dip from Spain through to Britain can’t be forgotten. It’s hardly news that he is very sensitive to car set-up, and seemed unable to overcome the troubles he had with front tyre temperatures for those 5 races. However, when the car was to his liking he could be as quick as anyone. Strangely, the moment from his season which sticks in my mind was when he was overtaken by Vettel at Abu Dhabi. It was absolute class to fight firmly but not touch wheels and then to concede the position when he was beaten. More than a few drivers on the grid could watch a reply of that moment to learn how wheel to wheel combat should be conducted.
4. Kimi Raikkonen – It was like Kimi had never been away, he was quick from the beginning of the season and his consistency put even Alonso to shame. Another who showed how to drive firmly but with situational awareness, when to fight and when to back off. His win at Abu Dhabi was arguably the most popular of the year. Would have finished every lap of the year, but for his amusing off track excursion at Brazil. If Lotus can step it up a notch, he could win the title next year.
3. Sebastian Vettel – The fact that I have ranked him 3rd is not to suggest in any way that he didn’t deserve to win the WDC. The top three drivers (indeed, top 4 including Kimi) were all superb and there was very little to separate them. Vettel drove brilliantly all season, not merely during his winning run from Singapore to India. In the early races, he banked some solid points finishes and a win in Bahrain, even though he struggled with the early season car. Superb recovery drives in Abu Dhabi and Brazil, with the championship on the line, showed enormous mental strength. A worthy champion in every respect, with stable regulations for 2013 he must start at strong odds to make it four in a row next year.
2. Lewis Hamilton –His off track behaviour might leave much to be desired, but his on track talent is unquestionable. Probably the fastest driver in the world. Only a combination of poor pit work, car unreliability and assorted other bad luck cost him a real shot at the title. Still managed 4 wins and 7 pole positions, and with a fair share of luck would have achieved more, maybe enough for the WDC. Blisteringly quick when his car and other factors permitted, McLaren will miss his driving terribly next year, if not the gangster boy antics. For the sake of the sport, I hope that over the next three years Mercedes can give him a car worthy of his talents.
1. Fernando Alonso – It’s hard to think of anything to say about Nando that hasn’t been said already. He clearly didn’t have the quickest car all season, although from Spain onwards the car’s race day pace was usually very competitive. The car also seemed to have great mechanical (if not aerodynamic) grip, allowing both Ferrari drivers to gain places at the start. That said, he could hardly have been more supreme in turning relatively poor grid spots into consistent podiums. It must be incredibly testing mentally to have missed out on the WDC by a handful of points for a 3rd time. If anyone can come back from that, it’s the world’s best racing driver.