1. Sebastien Vettel
392 points (1st) 11 wins, 6 podiums, 15 pole positions and 3 fastest laps
With the compilation of any top 10 ranking of drivers for a particular season, it is very easy to criticise the ranking of the drivers world champion first as favouring the driver with the best car. However, while the RB7 was the best car of 2011, in the hands of Sebastien Vettel it was astonishingly dominant. There are many examples of a good driver winning the championship in the best car, Villeneuve in 1997, Hill in 1996 and Button in 2009. In all these championships the eventual champion, despite having the best car, makes winning the championship difficult. Past greats of the sport have won the championship in cars that didn’t deserve to win it as shown by Prost in 1986, and Schumacher in 1995. However, it’s when a great driver is paired with the best car that championships are won in a canter. Such was the case with Schumacher in 2004, Mansell in 1992 and Vettel in 2011.
After 19 rounds of the championship, Vettel had accumulated 11 wins, 13 pole positions and 18 podium finishes. With current regulations bringing about further restrictions in the design of current Formula 1 cars, the extent to which Red Bull could be considered to have the best car in Formula 1 is small compared to the cars of yesteryear. Throughout 2011, the minimal performance advantage of the Red Bull could best be shown in the hands of Mark Webber who finished 3rd or worse in 16 of the 19 races. Despite his statistical dominance, Vettel’s wins did not always come easily. In Spain he held off Hamilton for the latter part of the race, in Monaco he held of Alonso and Hamilton with heavily used tyres following a failure to stop earlier in the race, he lead every lap except the last in the rain in Canada, and in Belgium he was victorious despite having to pit early due to blistering his tyres in qualifying and it took one of the most daring moves around the outside of Alonso at the Curve Grande to take the lead and ultimate victory in Italy.
However, without doubt the most impressive performance by the German wunderkind was his performance at the inaugural Indian Grand Prix. One of the many interesting aspects of a new venue to the Formula 1 circus is that it can even the playing field as drivers must learn a brand new circuit. As the weekend unfolded the new circuit only served to highlight the quality of Vettel. By the end of the weekend Vettel had achieved pole position, won the race with the fastest lap, and lead every single lap, a feat rarely achieved and unofficially known as the grand slam of Formula 1. The quality of the achievement is emphasised further by the frequency of pit stops in current Formula 1 that can enable another driver on a different strategy to temporarily take the lead of a race.
By years end, such were the performances by Vettel, that even McLaren were certain that they had the best car on the grid and that Vettel was proving to be the difference in performance, a rare compliment for a driver who is truly at the peak of his powers.
2. Fernando Alonso
257 points (4th) 1 win, 10 podiums, 0 pole positions and 1 fastest lap
After losing the title at the final race in Abu Dhabi in 2010, Alonso would have been expecting to receive a race-winning car at the very least for 2011. Instead, Alonso was given a car that was barely capable of getting to the podium and it was only the gritty determination of the double world champion throughout the entire season that has maintained Alonso’s reputation as one of the greatest drivers of his generation. Despite a car lacking the performance of the Red Bull and the McLaren, Alonso still managed to get the Ferrari on the podium 10 times. When Red Bull faltered in a pit stop for Vettel at Silverstone Alonso was ready to take advantage and cruised to victory at the same location where Ferrari achieved it’s first victory 60 years previously.
With the likelihood that Alonso will not be signed alongside Vettel at Red Bull and with no chance of returning to McLaren, Alonso is reliant on Ferrari to produce a race-winning car. 2011 has only reiterated that if Ferrari produce a competitive car Alonso will make it a winner.
3. Lewis Hamilton
227 points (5th) 3 wins, 3 podiums, 1 pole position and 3 fastest laps.
2011 will go down as one Lewis Hamilton’s toughest seasons but it is some indication of his quality as a driver that he still ranks third in this year’s top ten. For the first time in his career, Hamilton was beaten on points by his teammate Jenson Button who has been ranked ahead of Hamilton in the eyes of many F1 experts. So how does Hamilton rank higher than Button?
The first fact is that for sheer speed Hamilton is the superior driver. Throughout the year Hamilton out qualified Button 12 to 7, only twice being outside the top 5 and claiming the only non-Red Bull pole position all year in Korea. In contrast, Button was well off the pace in Germany and Korea, unable to stay with Vettel, Webber, Alonso and Hamilton. Hamilton’s victories in both China and Germany showed his supreme race craft. His overtaking manoeuvre around the outside of Alonso and battle with Webber in Germany were a season highlight. Hamilton’s victory at Abu Dhabi was assured from the moment Vettel left the road and many felt that Hamilton could have kept pace with the German that weekend.
While 2011 would never have been a title-winning season, Hamilton’s inability to cope with disappointments in his personal life and his frequent incidents with Felipe Massa were a notable blight on his season. Clumsy mistakes in Monaco, Belgium, Singapore, India and Japan were costly and enabled Button to keep pace with Hamilton in the championship standings. However, despite these errors there is no doubting that the quality of driving produced by Hamilton’s aggressive style are worthy of high praise and worthy of third place on the list.
4. Jenson Button
270 points (2nd) 3 wins, 7 podiums, 0 pole positions and 3 fastest laps
2011 was an important year for Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion looking to further cement his position within the team after an encouraging year in 2010. Although he was out qualified by Hamilton throughout the year he proved to be very reliable throughout the season and while lacking pace at some circuits, proved to make very few errors throughout the season. Both of his first two wins of 2011 in Canada and Hungary came where his Hamilton had been faster in qualifying and in the race but had been shunted by Button in Canada while trying to overtake and spinning in Hungary while leading.
The highlight for Button was without question his win in Japan, the significance of which was not lost on his performance engineer, Dave Robson, who immediately indicated that it was the British driver’s first win in the dry for McLaren. As in 2010, there still remains a large doubt over the ability for Button to beat Hamilton in a straight out fight but despite this however, Button displayed immense skill and consistency throughout 2011 against a formidable team mate and has certainly confirmed doubters that he is a worthy world championship holder.
5. Nico Rosberg
89 points (7th) 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 pole positions and 0 fastest laps
Once again Nico Rosberg proved far too good for his team mate Michael Schumacher at Mercedes. In qualifying Rosberg out-qualified his teammate 16 to 3. Such was the dominance of the younger German over the course of the 2011 season against a seven-time world champion within a works team that Rosberg’s inclusion in the top 5 is a certainty.
Highlights for Rosberg came throughout the season including qualifying third in Turkey and leading the opening laps at the Belgian Grand Prix.
Rosberg confirmed at the end of the season that he will be with Mercedes for at least two more seasons but this looks to be largely dependent upon whether the Brackley based outfit is able to produce a race winning car.
6. Mark Webber
258 points (3rd) 1 win, 9 podiums, 3 pole positions and 7 fastest laps.
Following his successes in 2010, the Australian looked to 2011 as a chance to wrestle back the ascendancy from his teammate within Red Bull. Unfortunately for Webber, the introduction of Pirelli tyres would prove to be his downfall as he struggled to maintain speed and tyre wear through the opening rounds of the season. In Australia he was 8 tenths slower than Vettel in Q3 and in China he was languishing in 18th. This poor qualifying set up one of the drives of the season with Webber recovering to finish third behind Vettel and Hamilton by race end. While Webber carved through the field the result was somewhat fortuitous however as the poor qualifying forced the Australian to adopt a three stop strategy to utilise his soft tyres, not used in the later stages of qualifying.
While comprehensively beaten by Vettel in qualifying 16 to 3, Webber obtains sixth on the list in large part to the recognition of the quality of his team mate and his accumulation of 7 fastest laps through the season. While not trying to downplay everything Webber achieved in 2011, it could well be said that Webber was able to obtain the fastest lap of the race as Vettel would not risk losing a win on the final laps when the track is usually at its quickest.
Prior to teaming up with Vettel, Webber was renowned for being a teammate destroyer, however it increasingly looks tough to see Webber regain the form he showed in Spain and Monaco in 2010. Nevertheless if he can get to grips with the Pirelli tyres in 2012 he may still create a few surprises.
7. Heikki Kovalainen
0 points (22nd) 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 pole positions and 0 fastest laps
With 22nd in the championship and no obvious statistics to show for himself how does Kovaleinen get a look into the top 10 for 2011 I hear you ask? Put simply, Kovaleinen absolutely destroyed his teammate Jarno Trulli in qualifying finishing 16 to 2 as Trulli did not compete in Germany. Almost always the lead driver of the new teams to Formula 1, Kovaleinen had some sterling drives in 2011 which gave hope to any brand new outfit entering Formula 1 that progress can be made.
Of most significance was his qualifying in Spain where he out qualified both Force Indias to finish 15th on the grid. In races Kovaleinen was equally impressive at times staying out of trouble, finishing 14th in Monaco or showing genuine speed finishing ahead of the Saubers in 14th at Korea. Kovaleinen’s highest finishing position in 2011 was 13th in Italy a result matched by his teammate on two occasions in Australia and Monaco.
While the list of achievements appear minimal at best, the ability for a former McLaren driver to continue to perform in difficult circumstances only heightens the performances of Kovaleinen throughout the year. If only Formula 1 awarded points to the final finishers his efforts would be that more obvious.
8. Paul di Resta
27 points (13th) 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 pole positions and 0 fastest laps
Making his debut in Formula 1 after competing in the German Touring Car Championship was never going to be easy for di Resta. Placed alongside the experienced Adrian Sutil at Force India would only make life tougher. However, as smooth as his Scottish accent and informed analysis off the track, di Resta’s talent on it are undeniable.
Season highlights were his 6th place qualifying in the British Grand Prix and his 6th place finish at the very challenging Singapore Grand Prix. While di Resta was outscored by his teammate, his eight points finishes and only one retirement in a debut season were very impressive.
Two factors that are commonly associated with the popular Scott are that his first cousin is Dario Franchitti and that he beat Sebastien Vettel to the F3 Euroseries crown when they were teammates in 2006. While di Resta’s Formula 1 career has taken a little longer to get started, performances as shown in 2011 will ensure he is fighting up the front very soon.
9. Adrian Sutil
42 points (9th) 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 pole positions and 0 fastest laps
It is certainly not a reflection of his on-track performances in 2011 that Adrian Sutil will not appear on the Formula 1 grid for 2012. The German driver proved his worth with 9 points finishes and a highest place of 6th achieved at both Germnany and Brazil.
While Sutil ranks below his rookie team mate Paul di Resta in the top ten, this is largely due to the lack of any spectacular performances by the German driver. For a five-year veteran, one can only feel that Sutil should have been able to achieve greater consistency throughout the year in a car that was capable of finishing consitently in the points. However, the one consistency of Sutil’s results was rewarded with no points, finishing 11th place on four occasions. In qualifying, Sutil displayed the true potential of the Force India Mercedes combination with 4 8th place qualifying starts across the season.
It is a great shame to the Formula 1 grid that a driver of Sutil’s quality will be absent due to his conviction or assaulting Genii Capital CEO Eric Lux at a post-race function following the Chinese Grand Prix. Even with a criminal charge against him, Sutil performed brilliantly in the later part of 2011 justifying his place in the lower par of the top 10.
10. Sergio Perez
14 points (16th) 0 wins, 0 podiums, 0 pole positions and 0 fastest laps
The presence of Sergio Perez in the 2011 top ten is extremely pleasing as it shows that a driver who has entered into Formula 1, clearly with the assistance of sponsorship, can move beyond the image of being a pay driver. In fact, on Saturday at least, the performances of Maldonado, Petrov, and Perez were comparable to their teammates. However, it is the combination of a mid-field team and a reasonably inexperienced teammate that have proven to enable Perez to stand out from the breed of new drivers in Formula 1.
Whether it be the increased expectation on Petrov to perform in his second season or the presence of Rubens Barrichello as Maldonado’s team mate neither driver was able to consistently impress throughout the races in 2011. Despite this however, and in light of some of the one-sided team performances, both Maldonado and Petrov were on the cusp of sneaking into the top ten for 2011.
For Perez the season was a case of contrasts with the highs being 5 points finishes including on debut in Australia (later disqualified for a technical infringement) with the obvious low being his violent crash coming out of the tunnel in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix. With a qualifying record of 9 to 10 against his teammate he has proven himself to be extremely quick and able to recover from a large accident.
Next season the expectations on Perez will increase however with rumours of a Ferrari drive making the rounds in the paddock together with the prospect of a home race in the near future, the young Mexican has every motivation to aim high in 2012 and beyond.
Why are they not there?
There are two notable absentees on the 2011 top ten list and these are Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher. Put simply, both drivers fail to make the cut as they were comprehensively beaten by their team mates in cars that, were they in the hands of the other drivers who made the top ten this year, would probably have performed better. For Massa, to not get a single podium in a Ferrari, the first time since Ivan Capelli in 1992 (and we all know how bad that season was) is irreprehensible. For Schumacher, his drives in Canada, Belgium and Italy were very encouraging and he was certainly on the cusp of making the top ten list however, too many clumsy errors, most notably hitting Petrov in Eurpoe, Kobayashi in Britain, and Perez in Singapore were strong indications that the magic has still not fully returned. It is no surprise that for both Schumacher and Massa, 2012 could well prove to be their last seasons in the sport.
Agree, disagree with the Racefans top ten for 2011? Have your say. All comments welcomed.