As has become a tradition of sorts now that we are in F1’s summer break and at (roughly) the season’s halfway point here is my mid-year top 10 drivers’ ranking for 2016, seeking to take into account their circumstances as well as the machinery they had access to.
Table of Contents
1. Daniel Ricciardo
Daniel Ricciardo has in 2016 continued the same thread as he has pretty much the whole time since stepping into a Red Bull. The one that he’s a driver of the very top bracket. One with everything – stunning pace, resolute consistency, a voracious willingness to race, sound judgement and fine brain power. As for faults? Nothing obvious. In another matter that hasn’t changed a great deal from before we simply await a car, or more to the point a power unit, to meet him halfway and the probability is that championships will be his. Even so in an improved but certainly never table-topping package this season he should have two wins – Spain and Monaco; both were lost through no fault at all of his own.
He’s a driver of the very top bracket – stunning pace, resolute consistency, a voracious willingness to race, sound judgement and fine brain power. As for faults? Nothing obvious.
The talk of Max Verstappen’s appearance in the other Red Bull in Spain resulting in Ricciardo raising his game is wide of the mark, as the Honey Badger excelled from the very off in 2016. His run of fourth places at the season start at least were the most that the car deserved while in China his qualifying effort then his race recovering from a puncture were stunning. And then – after Max had appeared – in Monaco, a track that did most to conceal his Renault power deficit, Ricciardo simply was on another level. His lap for pole was extraordinary and wet or dry in the race he was noticeably, visibly, quicker than anyone else.
His team mates – even Verstappen’s prodigious pace – have only once in total beaten him in qualifying this campaign. Often his final Saturday advantage even to Max has been several tenths. The only black mark really was that in Canada and then Austria Verstappen got more longevity out of the tyres than he managed, which showed in results. But it was Monaco, in more ways than one, that told us most. His transparent simmering disappointment in the aftermath confirmed that with Ricciardo’s perma-smile he lacks absolutely nothing in seriousness and determination. As Karun Chandhok for one has pointed out, there has always been much of the smiling assassin about Daniel Ricciardo.
2. Lewis Hamilton
For all of the talk of turnarounds – that on results Lewis Hamilton’s campaign before and after the Spanish round are barely on nodding terms – really not a great deal changed. Aside that is from the rancid luck he experienced early in the season. Yes he said so himself, and many feel the need to resist what might be seen as Lewis’s bombast. Yet it likely was the most accurate explanation of the difference between then and now. Mercedes has the best car of course, and Lewis has a distinct edge still on raw pace and racecraft over the similarly-equipped Nico Rosberg. He just needed that intangible thing called random chance to get a bit more even for him to demonstrate as much in 2016. When it did even out he was – and is – close to unstoppable.
Lewis’s latest championship defence had a maddening reluctance to get into flight – all of his first four rounds were disrupted by a first corner contretemps or technical failures or both. Then of course in Spain we had that. In this period in the modern F1 equivalent of Pavlov’s Dog many pointed at Lewis’s ‘lifestyle’ – though quite how engine failures, gearbox failures and errant opponents can be explained by attending parties remains beyond my naïve understanding. The only thing that could be laid at Lewis’s door was a succession of poor starts.
For all we associate Lewis with pace and freakish reflexes he has much more in his repertoire.
And a run of six wins in seven really slammed his show back on the road. He got lucky in the first one in Monaco but a fast and brave drive meant he all alone was in position to take advantage of it. Only in Baku – with a hooligan performance in qualifying plus being overly spooked by technical problems in the race – did he let himself down. Elsewhere he rarely wavered. And his run too has demonstrated not for the first time that for all we associate Lewis with pace and freakish reflexes he has much more in his repertoire. In Canada he was calm and consistent when faced with Sebastian Vettel’s contra-strategy. In Austria he stretched out a set of ultrasofts much longer than anyone thought possible. In Hungary and Germany he managed races out front, saving his tyres and equipment, in a way that would have made Jackie Stewart proud. In Silverstone he ran away. He did it all too while nursing a very long-in-the-tooth power unit. And yes, though it’s another thing he says so himself, he’s a driver nearing his peak.
3. Max Verstappen
Whatever new challenge is before him, however towering, Max Verstappen simply sweeps it aside without breaking his confident forward strut. The latest one seen this season, being thrust into a ride at one of the ‘big three’ teams, and at a moment’s notice mid-season? Pah. Not a problem. Not only did he win his first race there only Lewis Hamilton has scored more since his Red Bull step-up. And while Max is associated primarily with youthful speed, aggression and bravery – witnessed quintessentially with his round-the-outside pass of Nico Rosberg at Becketts – what really impresses is that he is also good at things 18 year-olds really should not be good at. Brain power, poise, adaptability… In his Spanish win indeed his team was astonished by both his calm and ability to think about the big picture from the cockpit, that which all the greats seem to possess. There too his strong pace on the less-favoured medium tyre went a long way to setting up his triumph – showing his abilities to adapt.
While Max is associated primarily with youthful speed, aggression and bravery what really impresses is that he is also good at things 18 year-olds really should not be good at. Brain power, poise, adaptability…
On the downside, his opening race in Australia was clumsy and included some arguing with his team, just like last year at Monaco while he was fast he seemed incapable of keeping it out of the barriers, while some of his moves in defending his position, particularly with Kimi Raikkonen in Hungary, have drawn criticism. Not that it bothers him. To see him walk out of the Hockenheim drivers’ briefing, one in which his Hungaroring moves were discussed, was to see a man without a care in the world. There clearly is resolute steel with all of the talent. Also perhaps it is not entirely chance that his tendency is to stretch boundaries but almost never break them. He is one who learns too – his maddening errors of 2015 and struggles to prepare tyres for a qualifying lap early in that campaign seem long gone now. And where Max goes from here simply is uncharted, given the sport has never known someone in there this good this early in life. Even if he plateaus we have a fast and rounded performer, capable of wins and perhaps championships. If he continues to improve then who knows what awaits, for him and everyone else…
4. Nico Rosberg
Only Nico Rosberg, you suspect. He remains the enigma that somehow refuses to quit. Really, another half season in clearly the best car, and seven wins in a row over the end of last campaign and the start of this, and yet it still seems impossible to pin down precisely where he fits in the scheme of things? Only him, as I said. And another unenviable ‘only’ it’s looking like he could bag this year is to win the first four rounds of a season but not walk away with the title. Even three would have been unprecedented.
The four wins were near enough immaculately executed – as indeed was his subsequent one in Baku – but they also were rather open goals. It seems like a fair old while since he’s won out without something unusual befalling his stable mate. And as for the rest of the time, while he’s had some bad luck also he seems to have lost whatever ability he might have had to play a percentage game – in his team mate’s six triumphs only once has Nico followed him home for 18 points. Sometimes he has been clumsy, particularly when wheel-to-wheel, see Monaco, Canada and quintessentially in Austria. In the rain in Monaco and Silverstone he was timid.
While he’s had some bad luck also he seems to have lost whatever ability he might have had to play a percentage game – in his team mate’s six triumphs only once has Nico followed him home for 18 points.
At times though even in this sticky patch he has scaled the heights, the trouble is whether it’s a habit or not something has tended to dash them too. In Spain he swept around the outside of his team mate majestically at turn one, until he realised he was in the wrong engine mode and, you know, that happened. In Austria his aggressive race recovering from a grid penalty was a fine one, until the last lap… In Germany he looked imperious and took an excellent pole in considerable adversity, then he fluffed the start. Again, only Nico Rosberg you suspect.
5. Sebastian Vettel
To think that up until a few months ago we were convinced that Sebastian Vettel was living some kind of charmed existence. Reality has struck this year – he has become just the latest to discover that false dawns are not unheard of at Ferrari. Neither are impatience, recrimination and flux. Not for nothing are the smiles of 2015 now rather more strained.
Reality has struck this year – he has become just the latest to discover that false dawns are not unheard of at Ferrari. Neither are impatience, recrimination and flux.
It’s easy to forget therefore that with better strategy, or rather not bad strategy, he could have three victories this season nevertheless rather than his big fat zero. Much of the time we’ve seen Seb at his best, in and perhaps more importantly out of the car. And his fortune often has been foul – not only in the strategy goof-ups cited but also a red flag in Australia spoiling his day, an engine failure which meant he didn’t even get to the grid in Bahrain, being wiped out on lap one in Russia and a puncture in Austria. That’s even without mentioning that the SF16-H has sunk unfathomably from the pace since the European season started.
But you can make a case that Seb hasn’t always done himself justice either. He ran off the road in Australia and (several times) in Canada and as well as spun and later got a time penalty for forcing an opponent off the track in Silverstone. His run in China was scrappy and, whisper it, he might even have been somewhat culpable for the collision with his team mate. Certainly most reckoned his attempts to pin it all on Daniil Kvyat – and his screeching at the Russian during and after the race – were both unpleasant and ill deserved. In Silverstone, for perhaps the first time in his Ferrari career, he was downright anonymous.
Still though plenty of eyes will be on him after the summer break, not least as some observers reckon the only thing stopping the whole thing at Ferrari really unravelling is Seb continuing to be on his best behaviour in public. You feel that on occasion he is rather biting his tongue.
6. Fernando Alonso
Towards the end of last season Fernando Alonso described himself, back at McLaren and in a car off the pace, as being in “economy mode”. He possibly was being harsh, but this season still in an off the pace (but markedly less so) McLaren Honda we have witnessed him rather closer to his imperious best.
Just like last year there’s rarely been too much between the McLaren pilots but Alonso’s tended to have the edge on his team mate Jenson Button, evidenced by him being 8-3 up in the qualifying match up, and some of his efforts to get into Q3 have been brilliant. He’s ahead on points too by 24 to 17, in his case accumulated by three large (for a McLaren) hauls in Russia, Monaco and Hungary. All were cut from the same cloth – fast and imperturbable conversions of a race strategy. In his two main errors of the season, getting into a spectacular barrel-roll in Australia after clipping the back of Esteban Gutierrez’s Haas and having an almost as spectacular spin in Silverstone, at least he could point at mitigating circumstances. Though forgetting apparently about the need to save fuel and tyres in Hockenheim was a conspicuous blot.
With his habitual air of impatience and occasional barbs about the state of modern F1 there remains some sense of Fernando being one constantly on the brink of walking out. Yet that he’s still around should tell us something.
With his habitual air of impatience and occasional barbs about the state of modern F1 there remains some sense of Fernando being one constantly on the brink of walking out. Yet that he’s still around should tell us something, as should his desperation to drive in Bahrain when the doctors said no – to the point of doing press-ups in the stewards’ room. Trackside observers still note markedly more commitment from him than just about any other. His fervent and desperate battles with opponents have continued too, such as setting up Gutierrez for several corners in Hockenheim before striking at vast speed.
Really his predicament is rather like Daniel Ricciardo’s in that the considerable talent and motivation is there and he merely requires his engine supplier to get it right for full justice to be done to it all. Whatever his dissatisfaction, it is clear that for Fernando Alonso championship number three still irritates like an uncleansed sore.
7. Carlos Sainz
For various reasons Carlos Sainz is a man easy to forget about. Last season nearly all of the focus was on his 17 year-old whipper-snapper team mate. This year even with Max Verstappen away from immediate comparison for the most part, it occurred in Hungary when Sainz qualified well inside the top ten then brought the thing home quickly and with little rancour to bag another healthy load of points that we’d got near enough used to him doing such a thing in 2016. Almost to the point of not stopping to give him credit.
This year it has been more of the same from him only with 2015’s run of wretched luck from technical retirements and the like ending.
But credit is indeed due. Even last year while his peaks were never as high as those of the astonishing Max, Carlos certainly was nearly as good as the prodigious Dutchman as well as perhaps more consistent, better with an unbalanced car and probably a better technical head too. While this year it has been more of the same from him only with 2015’s run of wretched luck from technical retirements and the like ending. Even so however his results in Monaco and Austria likely would have been even better without slow pit stops – a podium in the former was not out of the question. The weekend in Spain was his high tide watermark, with an excellent qualifying lap followed by dicing with the Ferraris in the race on the way to a maximised result of sixth. Mistakes also have been few – binning it in Canada’s qualifying perhaps being the only one.
That Red Bull has gone against much of its own previous by keeping him on for another season in 2017 without a promotion shows that it recognises the talent it has. But with Red Bull ‘A team’ promotion blocked apparently for now (many believe he was unlucky to be overlooked by Ferrari too) and with his 2015-spec Italian power unit not due to be developed, perhaps the waters lying just ahead in Sainz’s career need to be carefully navigated.
8. Kimi Raikkonen
For however many years the debate has raged about whether this campaign would be the one in which the Kimi Raikkonen of old would re-emerge. That which we’ve been waiting on since about 2005 it seems. Akin to Waiting for Godot. As if to keep us befuddled Kimi’s often hinted at it in this time – at Lotus indeed it looked like he might even have an answer for us – but he’s also had conspicuous stretches of anonymity. It’s incongruent therefore that Kimi’s 2016 so far can be filed somewhere between adequate and fairly good. But likely no higher than that.
Kimi’s 2016 so far can be filed somewhere between adequate and fairly good. But likely no higher than that.
He doesn’t at Ferrari now have the handling excuses that he once had and there still tends to be tenths between him and Sebastian Vettel on a qualifying run – suggesting that a decade on from the stunning McLaren pace this is now the way of it. In a race though he stays out of trouble and comes on stronger; usually he’s good for healthy points. And, in another thing that feels a bit incongruent, it’s all added up to him currently sitting just above his team mate in the points table.
He hasn’t had many conspicuous off days this season either though his brief race in Monaco’s rain was pathetic, and one or two others were a little anonymous (though equally on a couple of occasions the strategy given to him by Ferrari was poor). His starting slots in China, Russia and Canada were tainted by qualifying errors, and indeed many thought he was good for his first pole in near enough a decade in the first of those. But there have been good races, such as coming through the pack in Hungary and pressing Max Verstappen for the win in Spain.
That Ferrari has hung on to Kimi for another year makes sense in some ways – for the reasons given plus he guarantees a harmonious relationship between the two Scuderia pilots. Yet now his fate in F1 appears strictly that of a good number two.
9. Valtteri Bottas
Valtteri Bottas has more reason than most to reflect on F1’s warped ways, particularly when it comes to drivers’ reputations. Two years ago – when he seemed the sport’s next big thing, destined perhaps for Ferrari – may as well be from other age. Furthermore not that much of this shift is his fault – instead the Williams since has flat lined and it seems Bottas’s own reputation has somehow suffered by association.
And once again in 2016 so far Bottas has done what he can in a car that is almost never on the level of the ‘big three’ ahead. Many of his performances have been very good and could have been right from his 2014 pomp – superb qualifying laps in China and Russia (to get onto the front row in the latter), and in Sochi he maximised things in the race as he did on Saturday and Sunday in Spain. His race in Canada was excellent too, with strong pace and tyre management getting him onto the podium there for the second time in two visits.
Some rumours have him driving elsewhere next season, with his name loosely linked with Renault for one. Perhaps he more than most would benefit from a change of scene.
His 10-2 qualifying lead over his team mate Felipe Massa is bettered only by Daniel Ricciardo, but it seems in an underwhelming car with an underwhelming team mate Bottas is rather in a situation where it’s near-impossible to impress. But equally too Bottas has done his bit on occasion to live down to expectations, such as poor qualifying performances in Australia, Bahrain, Baku and Hungary, and a poor race in Britain. Sometimes he didn’t keep his tyres in order on Sundays – see Australia, China and Austria – plus in Bahrain he clattered into Lewis Hamilton at turn 1. As seems to be annual event he didn’t do well at Monaco.
Some rumours have him driving elsewhere next season, with his name loosely linked with Renault for one. Perhaps he more than most would benefit from a change of scene.
10. Sergio Perez
As always seems to be the case the fight for the final slot was a competitive one. Jenson Button just like last year has never been especially far off Alonso’s lead and in Austria he was superb both in qualifying and the race. Pascal Wehrlein’s debut year has been frequently feisty, and his talent is obvious particularly on tracks he had experience of. Romain Grosjean started the season superbly but since often has struggled to get the Haas handling to his liking and treating its tyres favourably, and perhaps he hasn’t always got the best out of that situation. Nico Hulkenberg, like Grosjean a fine and overlooked talent, has improved as the season has gone on, loosely from Monaco onwards. But the dual suspicion lingers that the modern Pirellis don’t suit him and that his time for getting noticed by the big teams has passed.
As it is, Sergio Perez squeaks into the list just ahead of Button and Wehrlein, but it feels like a closer call than it really should have been for the Mexican.
Perez’s highs in 2016 have been very high indeed. But what else has there been? Without his three fine results he’d only have ten points, to offer some kind of perspective that’s less than half what Danill Kvyat’s got.
Perez’s highs in 2016 have been very high indeed, with him bagging two more podium appearances in what surely is a Checo special. In Monaco he timed both stops perfectly, benefitted from others’ delays and drove aggressively to third. While Baku was his best weekend of the year, with his qualifying mark good enough for the front row (though sight should not be lost that it was his own error that got him his grid drop) and then some more classic Perez gentle tyre handling pushed him up to third place in the race. In Silverstone he bagged sixth after he vaulted several places when his switch to inters coincided with the Virtual Safety Car.
But what else has there been? Without these three fine results he’d only have ten points, to offer some kind of perspective that’s less than half what Danill Kvyat’s got. His performances in Spain and in Austria from a lowly grid slot were good too. Elsewhere however there wasn’t much to write home about. Perhaps Silverstone also is a case in point, for all of Checo’s fine result he lost 26 seconds to his team mate in the final stint…
It feels that after his progress late last season Perez’s reputation has now come full circle, back to that of his Sauber days. On the odd day everything – particularly his touch on the voodoo-like Pirellis – comes together to get a very strong result that we’ll all notice, but what about the rest of the time? And what also about his ultimate pace?