Anyone fancy a rumble?

We haven’t had a decent argument around these parts since the last time I wrote a post containing the word “Bahrain”.  Since it’s beginning to look a bit like I might have to pick up that thread again in the near future, let’s have a little warm-up.  A starter.  An amuse-bouche, if you will.

Not a single one of you is going to agree completely with this, my selection of 2011’s top 10 drivers.  It was a season in which many drivers showed flashes of brilliance but only a few delivered on a sustained basis.  I could have put seven or eight drivers in the lower reaches of the top 10, but in doing so I’d have made it a top 16, so there’s no place for Adrian Sutil (average until he realised he didn’t have a 2012 contract, though now this is being taken to trial, he’s probably going to have to do without anyway), Sergio Perez (the perfect endurance sportscar racer from times gone by, but I’m not absolutely sold on him as an F1 driver just yet) or Felipe Massa (a lovely, lovely man who I desperately want to become a top-line driver again, but…).  There’s space for this lot, though:

10. Jaime Alguersuari

Out on his ear after Scuderia Toro Rosso refreshed its entire driving staff, Alguersuari’s Formula 1 career looks to be coming to a halt.  He doesn’t turn 22 until March.

I’m not about to present a case for the Spaniard as some kind of great lost champion, not least because I don’t believe he is one, but he did enough in 2011 to be considered worthy of a continued stay on the grid.  Hamstrung in qualifying by a car designed with Sundays in mind, Jaime came from 18th on the grid to score points in 3 straight races, with a charging drive to 8th in Valencia being a particular highlight.  Later in the season, his battle with Rosberg for P7 in Korea was won with a blend of racecraft, tenacity and sheer speed.

Never once did Alguersuari let his car down.  Having outscored team mate Sebastien Buemi 26-15, he could be forgiven for wondering what more he could have done.  He’ll be back.

9. Paul di Resta

Given that Paul di Resta entered this season as reigning DTM champion, had experience as Force India’s reserve driver from last year and beat Sebastian Vettel in equal F3 Euroseries cars in 2006, it shouldn’t be any great surprise that he’s acquitted himself well.

Quick, media-friendly and with his head firmly screwed on, Paul’s first season as an F1 race driver was, for the most part, a lesson in how to make an entrance.  Very occasionally, a good result was lost to impatience – think of what might have been had he got to the end in Canada, or had he managed to avoid hitting everything that moved in Monaco – but those drives don’t stick in the memory.  Mature, strategically driven runs to 6th in Singapore and 8th in Brazil do, as does a beautifully-judged run to 7th in the changeable, slippery conditions of this year’s Hungarian race.

8. Michael Schumacher

Now heading into year three of Schumi Mk II, it’s finally completely safe to say that Michael has a race seat not just because of who he is, but because of how he drives.

No, 2011 wasn’t perfect.  Schumacher crashed into too many people for that (didn’t he, Vitaly Petrov?), while his old ability to switch on and deliver one searing lap in qualifying seems to have deserted him forever.  The race pace is back, though, and in a season where the rules didn’t unduly penalise those who qualified badly in a quick car, that was enough to see Michael through.  Three of his drives – Japan, Belgium and one of the drives of the year on the Canadian boating lake – wouldn’t have looked at all out of place in his first career.  Indeed, before the Montreal track dried out and the natural order was restored, the Regenmeister was catching Vettel for the lead.  He’s still in there, if you look hard enough.

7. Nico Rosberg

I’m still not absolutely sure how good Nico Rosberg is.

I think Nico has something of the Jarno Trulli about him, in that he tends to pull out something ridiculous over a single lap in qualifying, then spend the entire race sinking backwards until he ends up in the position the car deserved all along.  2011 has given that theory some credence.  Look at how often Rosberg comfortably outqualified Schumacher, then at how often the Mercedes cars finished the race line astern.  To some extent, though, he still suffers from not having had a decent yardstick since being partnered with Mark Webber at Williams in 2006.

2011 was a year of consistently solid driving.  I can only really point to his cameo at the front in China as an instance of his Merc popping up somewhere it didn’t deserve to be, but I can’t really point to any race in which I thought Nico was letting anyone down.  Hard to knock someone who scores points 14 times in 19 races, but in this case, it’s equally hard to feel justified in going nuts about it.

6. Mark Webber

I know without thinking that I’ve just upset at least one person by ranking Mark Webber this low.  Here’s why I did it.

In 2010, Mark Webber lost the world title to Sebastian Vettel by 14 points.  In 2011, the gap between the two men was 134 points.  Having qualified an average of 0.053 seconds off Vettel’s pace in 2010, Webber could only get within 0.414 seconds on average this year.  One of Red Bull’s drivers adapted to the needs of Pirelli’s new tyres and went about the business of using the year’s best car to win an awful lot of races.  The other didn’t.

When everything worked for Webbo, as it did during his magnificent ascent of the field in China, he was sublime.  From 18th on the grid to 3rd at the finish, he might even have won that day given another 5 laps.  He drove superbly well in Brazil too, rounding off the year by taking his only win of the season.  The problem is that the chap on the other side of the garage drove like that almost without exception.

5. Lewis Hamilton

How many times do you suppose Lewis Hamilton had an accident during a race in 2011?

I’ve counted 13, while also disregarding his various adventures in qualifying this year, and I’m still not sure I’ve got them all.  Whether colliding with his own team mate, expecting Kamui Kobayashi to disappear or running his ongoing campaign to royally upset all of  South America, Lewis did an awful lot to damage his reputation in 2011.  That he still ranks so highly in this little list owes everything to his performances in China, Germany, Abu Dhabi and Korea, a trio of superb victories bolstered by one of the finest pieces of defensive racecraft you’ll see for years.

4. Heikki Kovalainen

This, I imagine, is the bit where you go and read something else instead, but think about it for a minute…

Whenever there was an opportunity for one of the minnows to sneak through the first part of qualifying, whose Lotus was always the car that made it to Q2?  Whenever you looked at the race order after a couple of laps and saw someone unexpected dicing with Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso, who was it?  Whenever you looked at a timing sheet and marvelled at how that driver had no business being so far up the field, who were you marvelling at?

Kovalainen.  If he’d driven a McLaren anything like as well as he drove that Lotus…

3. Jenson Button

During 2009, I wrote a selection of articles in which I maintained that Jenson Button was a perfectly decent Grand Prix driver but nothing more than that.  I may also have suggested that he was incredibly lucky to have enjoyed the performance advantage conferred upon him by that year’s Brawn GP car, that any man who won no races at all from June to November could count himself very fortunate to win a world title and, as the cherry on the top, that I didn’t really like him very much either.

So much of Jenson’s 2011 was from the very top drawer that it almost seems harsh on the rest of his year when you start picking out highlights, but let’s do it anyway.  Controlling the race from the front at Suzuka.  Another win in a wet/dry Hungarian race, just like his maiden victory in 2006.  That comeback in Canada, snatching victory on the final lap having risen through the field from the armpit of nowhere.  Oh, and this interview ahead of his 200th start in Hungary, in which he’s clearly winning a bet of some kind.

Jense, I was quite wrong about you.

2. Fernando Alonso

The bare statistics will tell you that in 2011, Fernando Alonso won a single race.  They’ll say he finished 4th in that year’s championship standings and that in doing so, he trailed the winner by some 135 points.

Bare statistics will make no mention of Alonso’s qualifying lap in Spain, when he dragged the Ferrari into P4 through sheer force of will alone.  They won’t tell you that he led the opening stint of that race, having put together as brave and combative a start sequence as you could ever wish to witness.  They will record that he finished the race a lap behind the winner, but won’t tell you that the F150 Italia simply refused to work on hard tyres and that, as was the case throughout the season, Alonso’s car never once left the ragged edge of adhesion.

I love statistics.  These ones are worthless.

1. Sebastian Vettel

Sensational.

The scariest thing about this man’s dominant 2011 campaign is that he built it all on taking pole position, building up a gap in the first few laps and then just maintaining it.  We will never know exactly how fast Sebastian Vettel could have been, because so many of this season’s races gave him absolutely no need to show us.  You can call it dull if you like – and let’s be honest here; sometimes, it feels like hard work even turning the TV on when you know in advance who the winner will be – but we might all be better served admiring this combination of driving and engineering brilliance while we have the chance.

Pick the bones out of that…

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