The top 10 drivers of the 2014 season so far...

4 August 2014 by Graham Keilloh

Of course we're not actually right now at the mid-point of 2014 F1 season in the purest sense, rather we have 11 rounds of 19 completed. But still, now that we’re into the sport’s summer moratorium it seems an opportune moment to give a personal rating of the drivers thus far in one of those all-the-rage top 10 rankings, seeking to take into account their circumstances as well as the machinery that they had access to.

1: Fernando Alonso 

The Ferrari F14 T was a lemon almost from the get-go. Short on downforce, woefully short on power, as well as with a horrid loose rear end which has a knock-on impact of chewing its tyres. It may be generous even to call it fourth or fifth best car out there over the piece so far. So what on earth is Fernando Alonso doing in fourth place in the drivers’ table, with 115 points? That he is represents yet another glowing testament of his personal offering. To think too that some reckoned this year – suddenly with a proper challenge across the garage and without his strict number one status – he would somehow be found out. It can only be said that if 2014 is indeed Alonso laid bare then the solitary reputation shift is his own rising somehow higher than where it was before.

Alonso’s stellar 2012 campaign was one that didn’t appear likely ever to be equalled but so far 2014 looks at least as impressive. Perhaps he is in the process of topping it. His place among the very best that this sport has even seen already was assured, but this season he’s hammered in the foundations yet more firmly. Time after time he has hauled his recalcitrant red car as fast as it cares to go (or perhaps even faster), always being right among far more swift-in-a-straight line Merc-powered machines and far better-handling Red Bulls. Usually he beats most of them too. Further, pinpointing races in 2014 where he might have finished higher, taken more points, is near to a completely unrewarding task. And an auxiliary point to this and despite just about always being frighteningly close to the limit – modern F1’s equivalent of the trapeze artist going over the Grand Canyon without a safety harness – there barely has been an error worthy of the name in there either. And Hungary topped the lot with a stunning performance from the magical Spaniard; aggressive in coming through the pack after safety car adversity, and then almost winning thanks to stretching the life of his soft tyres far beyond what anyone thought possible, in a rear-guard action reminiscent of Villeneuve, Jarama and all that.

Relentless; complete; tenacious. There are many adjectives associated with Alonso routinely, but perhaps another should be added: unsurprising. He is a driver who just about every time makes the impossible seem possible. A miracle a minimum expectation. Alonso now is the modern F1 standard-bearer, the example to which his rivals must aspire. Most of his contemporaries know as much.

2: Lewis Hamilton

At the start of the season Lewis Hamilton appeared all set to descend straight upon the championship like a heat seeking missile. He had a fine car, and every inch in and out of it looked absolutely minded to maximise it; thus taking him in double quick time to his second world title. A fine pole in Melbourne evaporated to nothing almost immediately thanks to technical woes but he then followed it up with four decisive victories wherein he was hardly headed, and in two of them his team mate and sole championship rival Nico Rosberg got nowhere near. Nico looked flummoxed; everyone else mere specks in the rear view mirror. Some even started to speak of a new maturity that would be harnessed to his undoubted innate talent. 

Things weren’t quite as easy after that however, thanks in large part to a succession of six difficult (for unrelated reasons) qualifying sessions starting in Monaco, which gave him much to do on race day each time and thus Rosberg was able to stretch clear again in the drivers’ table. And this combined with him getting the lion’s share of unreliability (he’s had four compromising failures to Rosberg’s one) means that at the time of writing Hamilton still has ground to make up. There have been mistakes in there too though – Austria’s and Britain’s qualifying spring to mind – and his emotional reaction to Monaco’s adversity was a little redolent of the bad old days. But so too have there been errors from his team mate and it seems hard to deny that with an even hand dealt from luck, mechanical and otherwise, Hamilton would be topping the points standings, possibly comfortably. But he remains F1 in 2014’s go-to guy and habitual pace setter – no session can be said to be over until Lewis has had his say. His freakish pace and spine-tingling running at the limit often have been a sheer joy; his bare-knuckle rises through the pack in the likes of Austria, Britain and Germany and Hungary even more so. And with all of this it still will be a brave move to bet against him to prevail in the 2014 drivers’ championship.

3: Daniel Ricciardo

In Daniel Ricciardo in 2014 we have just our latest reminder that nobody knows anything. Rewind to the latter part of last season and when Ricciardo’s place in a Red Bull seat ahead of an apparently better-qualified Kimi Raikkonen was confirmed, many smelled a rat. Surely Ricciardo’s there as a lackey they said; to follow the haughty Sebastian Vettel at a respectful distance. What do they know. Seb’s been the one following this campaign.

We knew from last season that Ricciardo had pace over a single lap, but what else? Well this year thus far has demonstrated that he has just about everything. He’s fast both on a qualifying lap and consistently throughout a race. He has had hardly a single off day. Mistakes have been close to non-existent. He can be quick at vital moments too, as seen in his debut victory when he jumped his team mate with a better in-lap. He is a game and robust participant in wheel-to-wheel battles, and has drawn effusive praise from the very best this year on that front. He acted like he belonged at the top quickly, as seen with the firm way he dealt with his team when being held back by Vettel in Bahrain. He’s quick in the wet also, on show in Melbourne qualifying and the Hungary race. He overtakes like a dream too.

In 2014 only Ricciardo not in silver has reached the top step of the podium. And to underline the fact he’s done it twice. Both wins were cut from the same cloth too: all smart restraint to go with his fine speed, before blitzing opponents with dazzling passes in the vital final act, when opponents would be least equipped to react.

Even a devil’s advocate conscious search for faults doesn’t give us a great deal. Possibly the closest that can be unearthed is that – a little like his predecessor Mark Webber in that seat – his race launches have often been rather iffy. But he’s not let that hold him back. He also didn’t let the barrow-loads of ill-fortune in the first two races get him down either – and ever since he’s scored everywhere.  And his ever-smiling and friendly demeanour (and with him what you see is what you get) feels exactly what the sport needs on the wider level also. But even with this Karun Chandhok is spot on to say that there is a lot of the smiling assassin about Daniel Ricciardo.

4: Nico Rosberg

Both Nico Rosberg and his fans have cause to be disappointed with fourth place in this list. The top four was very competitive and one probably could make a compelling case for putting them in any order. Yet as is the case in F1 more broadly someone has to be placed first and last no matter how close things are. And thus it is with a heavy heart that our championship leader and four-time winner this campaign is placed thus.

It’s easy to forget now that this was meant to be a campaign wherein Lewis Hamilton – feet now under the Mercedes table – was really supposed to really show his pace mettle over Rosberg. And while Rosberg by his own admission has had a few cards fall for him in his intra-Merc battle thus far, it’s also been the case that when he’s been presented with open goals he’s almost always dispatched the ball into the back of the net with decisiveness. Only in Hungary did he not take full advantage of an opportunity, when he was messed about by a safety car appearance and from then on was rather subdued. More broadly it’d be harsh also to present Rosberg this season as on a cruise and collect; even up against the freakishly-quick Hamilton there rarely has been much to choose on pure pace, including on tracks such as Montreal and Hungaroring that Lewis usually has to himself. Indeed in Montreal and elsewhere Rosberg was the one ahead. A stat that may surprise also is that only once this year, in Spain, has Hamilton qualified ahead of the two in the dry.

But equally if he’s not been nearly as shy of Hamilton on speed as some like to suggest on the flipside he’s also not been quite as metronomic as his defenders like to claim either. In Monaco qualifying, the Canadian and Austrian races and then again in Hungary’s qualifying and race Rosberg left the track after errors, but in each case he got away with it (indeed the first of those rather perversely turned out to be to his benefit, while in Hungary quali he was rescued by a red flag then improved weather). But still Monaco’s qualifying session – whatever Nico might or might not have intended – underlined why he will almost certainly remain a stoic presence in this 2014 fight at the top. As the controversy swirled Rosberg was resolute, everything just bounced off him, displaying an inner steel that not everyone thought was there. He further underlined it with his race in Montreal nursing a severely hobbled car to second place and nearly to a win. Therefore, this year’s is a championship battle in which Nico is not going to go away at all easily.

5: Valtteri Bottas

The 2014 F1 campaign has had a lot of the changing of the guard about it, and not just due to the radical regulation changes and related alteration to the cars’ pecking order. It applies to drivers too, and in addition to Daniel Ricciardo’s star rising like a rocket I give you also Valtteri Bottas. We all knew that there was potential, potential that he hinted at when the rare opportunities came along in a difficult Williams last year. But in this 2014 season so far in a much-improved FW36 there cannot be too many out there that still doubt that Bottas is made of anything other than The Right Stuff.  Especially in recent weeks; had the season started in Austria rather than Australia the top four conundrum already outlined likely would have grown to that of a top five. 

Bottas’s campaign has had a little of the slow burners about it; in Australia while a finish in sixth (that became fifth) from 15th on the grid looks good on the face of it, it was tempered by him tagging a wall and the subsequent delay cost him a podium appearance at least. But his fruitful opening lap progress plus succession of spellbinding passes were a portent of what awaited later. For a while too Bottas’s efforts were solid rather than spectacular, though his run to fifth in Spain among the Red Bulls was excellent and he was unlucky on occasion too, such as with team orders in Malaysia, being nudged off by Rosberg in China and with mechanical problems in Monaco and Canada. But as mentioned in Austria things really picked up for him, as the Williams improved especially in its tyre handling and aero and Bottas like all top drivers stepped up to the plate. It was the start of three consecutive podium runs, each highly impressive in their own way. In Austria Bottas battled with faster Mercs like he absolutely belonged and at the end was but eight seconds adrift, still the closest anyone has run the Mercs without unusual occurrences this year. In Silverstone he again was brilliant in his first lap and then his subsequent robust progress in coming through to second place, from starting 14th after a quali error that wasn’t his, was again something to behold. Then in Germany he had an excellent run in Rosberg’s wake and was utterly imperturbable as Hamilton challenged late on. 

A Finnish colleague likes to tell all that Bottas is just like Mika Hakkinen, except more intelligent. With his understated yet unmistakably steely focus, ability to concentrate on the essentials, as well as his stunning speed and robust abilities wheel-to-wheel we can all see what he means. His first Grand Prix win surely is only a matter of time. His first championship win rapidly is establishing the same status.

6: Nico Hulkenberg

For Nico Hulkenberg even with a switch to a new/old team it’s business as usual in 2014. Brilliant business as usual. Brilliant consistency; brilliant pace; brilliant tenacity. Heading into Hungary only he and Alonso had scored everywhere. Returning to Force India for this campaign you could barely see the join as he was immediately extracting as much as anyone could expect from his machine with a series of Q3 qualifying showings and mid top 10 race finishes. About the only bum note in there was that Hungary race itself, wherein first he lost places by running off the track and then slid into the side of his team mate trying to get one of the places back, in a rare misjudgement. That and in Bahrain it was stable mate Sergio Perez that ended Force India’s long podium drought. In Spain and Austria Perez was on top too, as he was in Canada before the Mexican’s late smash, and rear tyre management has on occasion been a problem for the Hulk in races. But perhaps too it underlines the difference between the two Force India pilots; while Perez remains all flashes in the pan Hulkenberg is relentless and one who can be counted on to deliver an 8 out of 10 performance just about every time, and it’s demonstrated by him having more than double of his team mate’s points as things stand. That he’s 9-2 up on Perez in the qualifying head-to-head indicates he lacks nothing for raw pace. And he lacks nothing for a racer’s spirit either, as evidenced with his frenzied battling with the sport’s star names in Malaysia and Canada as well as with a great opportunistic pass of Kevin Magnussen at Monaco’s Portier – not a scene of previous overtakes as far as most of us could remember. For yet another season all scratch their heads as to why a bigger team has yet to snap Hulkenberg up, but perhaps the waiting on this one will be soon over. Surely not even the warped mind set of the F1 team principal can defy such glaring logic forever.

7: Sebastian Vettel

How the mighty has fallen. The four-times champion, and one that even his harsher critics had in the top three on driver talent, has in 2014 faced much adversity and no little ignominy. Not least of in the main following a team mate who was expected in advance to give him scant trouble. Seb’s had bad luck undoubtedly in reliability, but still even with that misfortune equalised it’s still likely he’d stack up behind stable mate Daniel Ricciardo (who had plenty of his own in the first two rounds lest we forget) on most measures. Even the former qualifying master has a 4-7 Saturday deficit to the guy across the garage, but it is in races that thing match-up is even more striking, Seb being 2-9 down in that head-to-head. Of course everyone’s had their tuppence worth as to what the problem is, but the passing of the exhaust blown diffuser, which Seb could make dance like no other (combined with Ricciardo being much better than any of us realised) seems the most credible explanation. Within it though he’s kept something like an equilibrium at his sudden adversity – he hasn’t started chucking it off the road nor trashing his team in public (aside from the radio rants that he’s always partaken in). There also is no evidence of his spirit or effort diminishing – his desperate race-day battles with Alonso as well as his refusal even now to concede the title demonstrate that. Despite everything, it’s way too early to talk of busted myths or similar. But still he needs to find some improvement fairly quickly. At least though in the last three rounds before the break Seb’s shown some signs – albeit patchily – of beginning to do himself justice.

8: Jenson Button

This year has been a lot like last year for Jenson Button. In an inadequate McLaren an air of vague disappointment has emanated from the Woking management about his performances. But still – again just like last year – he firmly has put his fast young team mate in the shade on hard results, scoring 60 to Kevin Magnussen’s 37, as well as has finished ahead nine times to two. Quite why his bosses – Ron Dennis even going so far as to issue a public shot across the bows before Silverstone – are so underwhelmed isn’t clear to the outsider. Perhaps they have reason to believe that there is more performance in there; perhaps Jenson’s reputation is suffering by association from having to drive a poor car; perhaps Jenson’s approach of all charm and even temper out of the car and smooth progress in – rather than tantrums and ostentatious slides and daredevil overtakes – seems inappropriate to McLaren’s desperate situation somehow. But still, as the results outlined show, few rival him for race craft and the ability to ghost smoothly into good finishing places even now. While his strong results in Australia and Canada owed much to his fine and robust opportunism and his Silverstone race, which oh-so nearly resulted in a podium, was all pace and crisp aggression. His firm repelling of Alonso that day even drew admiring words from the Spaniard. All in it seems that if indeed McLaren, and the sport, is set to give up on him it would based on current performances rather be premature.

9: Jean-Eric Vergne

Jean-Eric Vergne’s presence in the top 10 is one that may surprise a few, given as he is sitting on a mere 11 points, only five ahead of a rookie team mate. What’s more his retention at his team, and in the sport, for 2015 is a matter that hardly seems certain. But still, it all hides fairly persistently impressive driving from Vergne, whose modest points haul thus far mainly is a matter of foul luck, largely related to the Toro Rosso’s iffy reliability. And when Lady Luck has not been cruel he’s got the job done, such as in Australia and Canada where he maximised the car and bagged healthy hauls of points. A haughty finish in Monaco was lost to the car stopping before the end (and in that case to an unsafe release too); technical gremlins struck in Malaysia, Bahrain qualifying, Spain practice (an errant wheel resulting in a grid drop) and Austria; race-day scrapes compromised him in Malaysia and Britain. And the latest race in Hungary was his best of the lot, him ambushing no less a figure than Nico Rosberg and staying ahead for several laps, running as high as second for a while, on the way to a ninth-place finish beaten only by quicker cars – a drive he reckoned was perfect. In the debit column however his weekends in Austria and Germany were oddly subdued, while his propensity for first lap contact – Malaysia, Bahrain and Silverstone – may indicate something to be ironed out also. But what really shows Vergne in a good light is that last year essentially the only difference between him and Ricciardo paired at Toro Rosso was in qualifying in the dry, and this Vergne has sorted this campaign with a run of top ten qualifying slots. It’s a matter by his own admission he has focussed on closely and is now reaping the rewards. So – given how Ricciardo has wowed us in 2014 – you do the maths.

10: Daniil Kvyat

The fight for tenth place in this list also was a competitive one. By my reckoning there were about five candidates in the running for it. Felipe Massa was one, and although he’s had his moments particularly with his Austria pole position and has been unlucky too with some of his accidents as well as a botched pit stop in China, it’s hard to argue that this year has been much beyond more of the same for him, except substituting Alonso’s name with Bottas’s. It’s been more of the same for another contender in Sergio Perez; a brilliant podium finish in Bahrain, and a good race in Austria as well as in Canada until the final lap – elsewhere you’d hardly know he was out there. Kevin Magnussen seems to be having an F1 existence on fast forward, his debut half-season already containing the bursting onto the scene to seize ‘next big thing’ status (in his case with an immediate second place in Melbourne), before times got tougher and doubts began to swirl nearby. McLaren’s being devilishly coy about his future but Magnussen at least had strong showings in Austria and in Germany’s qualifying.  He needs to start out-racing Button with some regularity and soon however. Romain Grosjean remains highly rated but it’s been near-impossible to judge him this campaign in the wretched E22, the strange outlier of Barcelona aside, therefore he didn’t really enter the reckoning. The less that is said about Kimi Raikkonen the better. 

Which left two young guns with pistols drawn over the final slot; Daniil Kvyat and Jules Bianchi. And Kvyat takes it by a nose. Just like with Ricciardo Kvyat’s  was a race seat selection that was accompanied both by a lot of surprise and some cynicism directed towards the Red Bull programme’s priorities. But just as with Danny Ric he quickly showed up such reactions for what they were with a series of fine drives.  He just about always has been in Vergne’s vicinity in qualifying and races (and remember that as mentioned there’s evidence that Vergne’s improved to a high level this campaign) in or near the top ten, and on occasion he has flat beaten him. So much too for the complications of 2014 F1-style being too much for debutants, especially given the relative shortage of testing these days – Kvyat barely interrupted his stride in his confident strut straight from GP3 and impressed immediately. There possibly inevitably has been the odd example of rookie overreaching, such as qualifying prangs in Monaco and Hungary, as well as being at fault for a collision with Perez in Germany, but such things are to be expected. Equally too Toro Rosso unreliability cost him points in Monaco and Austria.  Perhaps most impressive of all is that Kvyat does not appear at all cowed by his rapid promotion – observing him out of the car is like observing a veteran, and his sheer assurance (but never excessive) can on occasion be astounding. And it reminds us all of the mental toughness and constructive approach that Helmut Marko said is what set him apart for the drive in the first place. Of course, at this stage it remains much more end of the beginning than beginning of the end for establishing Kvyat’s trajectory, and as Magnussen found out even the brightest young stars can lose some of their shine rather quickly. But Kvyat is another that is showing that he has all of the attributes to have a fine career, and that the sport’s future – in terms of driving at least – is in safe hands.