Just missed the top:
His lines are close to the geometric ideal established by Achille Varzi and from this point of view, the British veteran still stands as the most polished artist of our time.
10. Carlos Sainz
The Spaniard is in his 6th year of four-wheeled racing. This has been most noticeable in the qualifying duel with his ostensibly younger team-mate, Max Verstappen. He relies too much on his reflexes and car control, most often braking nearest to the feasible limit which puts him in a pesky situation when beginning to turn in. Nevertheless, his aggressive style builds the temperature up in the tires quicker which is why he’s come out better in the inter-team qualifying duel. The downside of this is the uneven and also higher degradation that his tires suffer on race day which lead to a less flexible race strategy. On balance, this has been a good debut season for the second Sainz that makes his way into the motorsport world who will benefit next year from a Ferrari hybrid power plant, clearly a cut above the peculiar Renault PU of 2015.
Similar to Juan Pablo Montoya.
9. Sergio Perez
He’s remained the same back-street brawler, but without an array of dirty or rather spectacular tricks up his sleeve, which is where his limitations nestle. He is at times awfully inconsistent and prone to beginner mistakes, his special sense for the rear axle being what saves him in the most perilous of situations. Overall slower than Nico Hulkenberg, he propelled himself ahead of the German thanks to the delicate manner in which he manages his tires, which gave him the opportunity to try riskier strategies, although it’s hard to pick the better man between the two of them. His high-points, Spa, Mexico, Abu-Dhabi, are a hair’s length above those of his Le Mans-winning team-mate. At the same time, his drops in performance were weightier than the German’s. Maybe the fact that he performed better in the second half of the season, possessing a better understanding of how to work with Force India’s latter updates, had it’s say in our decision. Take it as a matter of preference.
Similar to Pedro Rodriguez (prior to 1970).
8. Valtteri Bottas
Enjoying a constant streak throughout the season (barring for some off moments), but lacking the sparkle that should shine inside a future all-time great. Much too often has he been beaten by Brazilian veteran Massa in over one fast lap in qualifying, while in mixed conditions he was average at best. But from Hungary onwards Bottas raised his game and dominated the intra-team battle.Obviously, an under par Williams in wet conditions did not do much in the way of helping. Seemingly he lacks weaknesses striving for the all-round driver ideal, but of the second tier for now. He has adopted a more economical style when compared to previous seasons, his lines being unusually tight – which, in turn, helps him with tire management and when having to lap a track with wide, fast bends like Silverstone and Suzuka. While strong in defense (Bahrain, Barcelona, Sochi), he’s hesitant in attack (Silverstone), the fourth Flying Finn being at the moment just a safe pair of hands that needs to rise above the inherent limitations to be considered as part of the elite of the sport.
Similar to Ralph de Palma or maybe Hans Stuck?
7. Daniel Ricciardo
He was behind the wheel of a Red Bull powered by the Renault engine which is arguably the most inconsistent when it comes to power delivery. His team mate was an up-and-coming young lion with a desire to make a name for himself basing purely on his reflexes which helped him throw the car in a brutal manner as he escalated towards the limits of the car. These ingredients made some reckon that Ricciardo will share the fate of Sebastian Vettel in 2014. But, as it turned out, every time the chance of a big result presented itself (Hungaroring, Singapore, Austin are usually in the mist of the argument but his come back at Monza is just as impressive given the lack of power output), his foxy side came to life, putting the decisive move, playing his hand all the way until the end, always showcasing the same racecraft and finesse in his craft that made us compare him with Alain Prost in the past. What is more, he’s remained through the second year of the current turbo era one of the 4-5 drivers that are able to extract even the last ounces of performance from the car without hurting the frail Pirelli tires.
His optimism showed while going around the Mercs in the first two corners in Hungary makes us think of the Professor in his early stages, which is remarkable any way you look at it.
Similar to Alain Prost pre 1985.
6. Fernando Alonso
He’s had so few opportunities to show what he’s made of, that for some his presence here might come as a surprise. On the other hand, if we’d focus purely on the overall value and we’d take, as a benchmark, the gladiatorial attitude expressed on the track by constantly driving above and beyond the limits of the car, then the Spaniard would reign at the top of the list, as the rightful heir of Michael Schumacher.
An enigmatic character, boiling with frustration like never before because of a strained choice that echoes some of Chris Amon’s ill-fated picks, the Spaniard had for the first time in many years moments of hesitation, while sometimes his incentive played tricks on him. But in those rare moments when the McLaren did not fall apart, and the relentless warrior behind the wheel channeled all of his efforts on driving the car above its possibilites, we were again pleased to witness the man who would perform marvels driving the worst Ferrari since 1996 and who stands only 8 points behind reaching the status of five-time world champion. He nearly sneaked his way into Q3 in Bahrain with the engine set on ‘safe mode’, laid down some uncharacteristically banzai qualifying laps in Japan and Singopre, while on the wet, at Silverstone and Austin he proved once over that he’s a formidable racer, driving on the limit lap after lap, turn after turn. All of this, as I’ve previously stated, is what makes a great driver, one of the greatest twenty since the birth of motorsport 120 years ago.
Similar to Nuvolari in 1937.
5. Max Verstappen
Very few have been able to impress so deeply, none at such a young age and with so few races under their belt. Now, it’s important not to let ourselves be overwhelmed by his appearance in the limelight. Compared to what other bona fide geniuses were able to achieve in their first seasons – Stewart at Spa or Monza in ’65, or Bellof and Senna at Monaco in ’84, his results stop looking so impressive. But if we are to draw out his peaks in 2015 – second quickest first time out in Monaco, a Mansell-esque pass in Blanchimont and others alike in China and Brazil, 4th place finishes in Hungary and USA taking in account his young age and the fact that this has been only his 2nd year in four-wheeled racing, the picture starts to shift. And if he comes of age in the same fast-forward manner he showed this year, we may have a new Guy Moll in front of us lined up for a prodigious career. If we consider as well the low mileage ticked in testing, the way he adapted to his 850-horsepower car, to the brake-by-wire system, the DRS, ers etc, then it’ without a shadow of a doubt imposing. His sensitivity in feeling the tires so as to keep them for as long as possible in their window of peak performance, all without compromising his pace, is the attribute that can be bestowed only upon a handful of names on the current grid. A style similar to that of Jimmy Clark, guides him to begin turning in earlier than usual, being then able to dribble with the weight transfer in the same way Kimi Raikkonen was able to in his glory days. Just a slightly involuntary feeling acting as a brake, probably due to his inexperience, which makes him unable to fully exploit the front end is what pulls him down in terms of one-lap pace, just like the inherent debut mishaps. Showcasing a self-belief that echoes that resided inside the likes of Senna or Schumacher, only the time will tell how high will the young Verstappen be able to climb.
Similar to Guy Moll.
4. Nico Rosberg
For the second year running we’ve been faced with two Nicos. The first one seemed to be almost always cloyed compared to his team-mate, in spite of being extremely close to him in terms of pure speed, but always lacked the supporting qualities. The subsequent Nico emerged come Suzuka, the modifications applied to the front suspension in order to cope with the new tire pressure rules being better understood by the German hence the 6 consecutive poles that followed. The main issue of Junior Rosberg is that he’s incapable of working with as many variables as Hamilton can when the pressure of the Driver’s title stands heavy above him, lacking some ,,mind to spare’’. All the while, he’s much more calculated in his approach and his driving style ; If Hamilton does everything naturally, as an extension of his body, Nico has to remember himself to do it. The end result is often the same, that is until the afore-mentioned variables start to multiply. Being thoroughbred perfectionist the breed of Prost or Lauda, he finally understood what’s pulling him down and, to the bewilderment of everyone, in mixed conditions he was always the quicker and more consistent of the Mercedes drivers. His driving style is less dependent on an aggressive response from the front end that’s supposed to bite quickly upon entering the rotation movement which has been instrumental considering the higher tire pressure imposed by Pirelli. The geometrical lines adopted by Nico also played their part, just like the trick of downshifting mid-turn. Balance that with the apparent lack of pressure which, oddly enough, made him even more eager to find the perfect setup and you would be greeted by a Jim Clark armed with Lauda’s approach. The problem is that he appointed himself at the top at a time when victories were only a matter of silverware for Hamilton, and the Briton is not a ferocious beast that would fight corner by corner, straight by straight in an attempt to conquer all the trophies. 2016 will be, undoubtedly, very interesting to follow.
Similar to Hermann Lang.
3. Romain Grosjean
Ferrari should simply forget about either Bottas or Hulkenberg. The ideal man to fill Kimi’s shoes is a stone’s throw away from them. And that’s not a random opinion coming from a French fan screaming behind a smoke screen about some points finishes, but it’s Pirelli’s opinion who’ve claimed, just like last year, that they’ve not seen anyone quicker than him. And all that without destroying the car or the rubber. Armed with a car that was not upgraded from the Australian GP, Romain Grosjean firstly obliterated his wild but very fast team-mate in terms of pure speed. Then, he proceeded by doing small miracles once the car was at least half-decent with drives so ful of daring and panache it would almost have been Gilles under his helmet. Just like the wild Ferrari 126C of 1981, the Lotus E23 wasn’t far from ‘agricultural’ when compared to the other cars, but the Frenchman was still able to routinely drive the car above its limitations via some perfect pieces of driving, always without abusing the rear axle which would’ve shelved his race strategy. This top revolves around the peaks reached by each individual driver, and from this perspective, Romain is second to none, although the technical failures made this fact apparent only to those really close to the phenomenon. Spa is only the tip of the iceberg, but just as impressive are his constant finishes inside the top 10, as well as his come-back drives when his ability to modulate the throttle fitted like a glove to the qualities of the Mercedes PU. As a final note, we think it’s important to say that what Lotus has lost is a potential future world champion that’s still fighting with the twists and turns of a career that’s still plagued by those early mistakes.
Similar to Gilles Villeneuve.
2. Sebastian Vettel
The peaks are respectable, the consistency – formidable, the man seemingly reborn, with his chemistry with Ferrari surpassing even the classic Ascari, Surtees, Lauda or Schumacher clichés. Last year, he looked like a man who had lost his joy to drive, then struggled to adapt his style to the new hybrid era, and although he was most often as quick as Ricciardo, the way he consumed rear tires was downright alarming. That’s why many rushed to conclude that joining Ferrari would have sub-par results. It was the same story all the way back in 1974 when a young Austrian named Niki Lauda was picked to join the Scuderia next to the tifosi’s favourite, Clay Regazzoni. Oh, and how wrong were the naysayers in both cases…
The firmly planted front axle of the first James Allison-penned Ferrari played a key role in the revival of the four-time world champion. Add to that his work ethics that rival those of Prost and Lauda, the friendly approach which helped him grow on the mechanics and, last but not least, his undoubted natural speed. This is how we can piece together a picture of a reborn Sebastian, who’s performing again at the top of his game, sometimes even going beyond the limits of a car that is really gentle with the tires, but which lacks downforce and raw power.
An exciting competitor to witness at work due to his acrobatic style, which means he begins the corner rotation later than team-mate Kimi, but everything takes place more abrupt, his sensitivity in feeling the rear end being decisive, as is his skill to feel the next turn and his way of controlling the car through the quick direction changes. His approach which sacrifices a fraction of the entry speed to gain upon exiting the turn, which he shortcuts more than anybody, has delivered him 3 times to the top step of the podium to claim some hard worked, but equally deserved, wins and a pole for the history books in Singapore – the best qualifying effort of anybody in 2015.
It’s also true that he sometimes lost track of what he was doing, like in Bahrain and most noticeably in Mexico, but overall nobody had done fewer mistakes than Vettel. For the first time acting from the role of the opportunistic underdog, he was given the task to breach the menacing defense of the all-powerful Mercedes, a task he accomplished with flying colors, making the best out of all opportunities (13 podiums) and it’s questionable if another current driver could’ve done more with the Ferrari SF15-T. So far, nobody other than Gilles has captured the tifosi’s hearts so quickly and also in such a natural way. This is precisely why his exploits in 2016 are highly anticipated, especially since the hardest year with Ferrari is the second one.
Similar to Niki Lauda.
The way established himself, taking a third world title, was even more dominant than in 2014, but it still seems that Lewis does not posses the full package and he most likely never will. Probably the most gifted driver since Michael Schumacher in terms of fundamental qualities, the Briton is nowadays a multi-faceted individual and, as such, it’s essential that we draw a line between his racing self and his celebrity self to be able to draw an accurate image of his impact on the sport.
First of all, the Briton is a natural the likes of Moss, Clark or Senna and, as was the case with them, one his primordial qualities which made a difference is his special relationship with track’s surface, the way he feels even the least perceptible levels of grip, without asking too much of the tires, irrespective of the car’s manners. He starts cornering inches earlier from the ideal line, while also keeping good momentum all throughout the process which he seemingly attempts to lengthen. Between his corner entry speed and his exit speed there is a certain balance, likewise for the speed throughout the corner.
In contrast with 2014, this season brought us a more complete Lewis, with loads of trust in his own ablities, who was able to subdue Nico’s edge in qualifying. Thus, he clearly simplified his Sunday drive which he’d most often approach in Ascari’s manner, having been beaten only twice until Suzuka by Rosberg on merit and three times by a Vettel who was as opportunistic as ever. His domination that lasted for three quarters of the season was one of the most convincing in F1’s history, before Pirelli’s rule regarding tire pressures caught him with his guard down, but his fighting spirit remained unharmed, just like his skill to improvise and his off-the-charts cunningness. Binding all of that together he was able to come home with a win both at Suzuka and at Austin in spite of the fact that he started with the second chance.
A magnificent warrior when all is well mentally, Hamilton still has some voids at this level, although his frustration and indifference that occurred in the later part of the season can be traced back to his personal life. The best driver of 2015? Most definitely, granting the differences are smaller than they may seem upon a first glimpse. But is he a driver whom we could talk about in the same breath as Ascari, Fangio, Clark, Stewart, Senna or Schumacher? Most definitely not, but, like we’ve said in the past, the potential is overwhelming. A flawed genius.
Similar to Juan-Manuel Fangio distilled with a streetwise James Hunt.