Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

Class of the Field
Adam Barton

A Formula One fan since he was six, back while Häkkinen and Schumacher were having many an epic battle, Adam has seen a great deal. From German domination (twice), to British determination (once) and a Spanish invasion. A near compulsive fan who one day hopes to write about the sport for a living, outside of F1 Adam also authors his own blog One Guy's Opinion.

The best of the best // Forget poles, wins and fastest laps, who is the best in the 2013 paddock?

Published

Over the past few weeks, I have compiled lists ranking the drivers on the 2013 grid (and Luiz Razia) on key categories, and some less desirable characteristics, that are needed for a Formula One driver to be successful. But now, as a finale to the pre-season top fives, it’s the top five best drivers on the grid, based on their overall skill set. The comments from last week give a little insight to who thinks they should be here, but here is the official Class of the Field Top 5 Best F1 drivers, the perfect way to pass the final few hours before we are able to watch Formula One in earnest, for the first time in four months. Brace yourselves; there may be a surprise or two!

5. The best of the next generation

Hülkenberg makes himself at home
Credit: Sauber Motorsport AG

The Hulk beats out Jenson Button because the Brit is simply too sensitive to conditions. At times it is an advantage, as Button shows feeling for the track like no one else in damp conditions, but it can prove costly all too often.

There is no limit to my admiration for Nico Hülkenberg’s skill, and he does appear to be the overlooked guy in Formula One today. His pace over the second half of the 2012 season was second to none, considering that he was driving a car that belonged in the back end of the midfield. He scored points in five of the last six races, as well as a fourth place finish in Belgium - a best of the rest finish behind Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen.

I have to be honest; I had lost faith in Hülkenberg. He had struggled in Williams, in a terrible car, and then again at Force India. But, on both occasions, he came good in the second half of the season, especially when driving in Brazil, with a shock pole in 2010 and then a fight for victory in 2012, which ended in a collision that ended Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren career.

I had hoped that Hülkenberg would get the jump up to a top team in 2013, but his poor early season form seemed to cost him. Instead, he starts again in a new team, Sauber, where hopefully, he will hit the ground running, unlike at Williams and Force India. Hülkenberg is the future, but he’s the only man on this list without a world title, so he still has a lot to prove.

4. Not the best ever - yet

It seems strange to rank the back-to-back-to-back champion so low on this list, but he does get marked down simply because of Red Bull’s mammoth success as a team. There’s no doubting his speed, he’s had a pole in more than one in three of his races, but there are still a few doubts about some aspects of his driving - and this is a triple world champion.

One of Sebastian’s great skills was shown time and again in 2011. He would maximise the advantage of pole position by putting in two great laps at the start and ‘break’ the DRS. Not only that, despite two qualifying laps with full fuel, he was still able to nurture his tyres and make them last as long as anyone else.

Until he severs ties with Adrian Newey, there will always be doubt as to where the pure speed is coming from

I have to say; the only way that I feel that Vettel can progress up this list is by moving teams. He can have all the success he wants at Red Bull, but until he severs ties with Adrian Newey, there will always be doubt as to where the pure speed is coming from.

The statistics can be read both for and against Vettel. He’s in a car that had 18 poles in 19 races in 2011- and countless front row lockouts, but the fact of the matter is he now has three more world titles than Mark Webber. I’m sure this is an argument that is being a long way from being solved, but another world title wouldn’t hurt his bid to finally silence his critics.

3. No doubting Lewis' credentials

Remember the days when Lewis Hamilton was unequivocally the best that Formula One had to offer. Somewhere around 2007-2008, he could do no wrong and would get the result even he hadn’t expected. He was on the podium in each of his first nine races; a feat that I doubt will ever be matched, and was the kid who was happy just to be where he was.

He changed the moment that his fuel linkage failed him in Brazil in 2007. Suddenly, he was not content and he has become a man obsessed ever since. If it weren’t for Timo Glock going slower than a mobility scooter on the final lap of the 2008 Brazilian GP, he’d still not be a world champion and the sudden dominance of Sebastian Vettel is clearly eating at him. The truth is, five years ago, that was him.

That’s not to say that Hamilton has lost it. The 2012 version of Lewis is the best model yet, but his naïvety in 2007 certainly seemed to give him an advantage over his competitors. Now that he is in a good place, in a healthy relationship, content with his skill, all he needs is a car capable of winning the world title and he will almost certainly finish the job. The fact is that McLaren haven’t offered that to him, and as a result, Hamilton has looked elsewhere. If Mercedes have made a car as good as it looks in testing, Hamilton may finally rest easy.

Lewis wants the spotlight and Vettel took it from him - is it more than coincidence that it was Vettel who nearly stopped him winning the world title in 2008?

2. Räikkönen warming to the right (frozen) temperature

Kimi Räikkönen is a special talent, as are each of these five drivers. He just has something a little special, both in terms of pace and charisma, which makes him someone that many support. Unlike Vettel, he’s had rather less luck in the cars that he has driven. He was a top driver in a McLaren that was either slow or unreliable, costing him at least one world title, he then had success at Ferrari before both he and the Scuderia faded away. And then he finds himself in a Lotus that was half a tenth away from race wins.

Kimi runs down the clock in Jerez
Credit: Alastair StaleyLAT Photographic

In a way, he’s a guy that hasn’t been in much of a title fight. He had an outside shot in 2003 and 2005 but a cloud of smoke was always following him like the Grim Reaper, ready to exercise the final blow to his title hopes. Then in 2007, the year he managed to win the title, he was a competitor but had been almost ruled out of championship contention as he trailed Hamilton by 17 points with 20 available (that points system was far simpler and generally better) so the pressure was off him, not that Räikkönen and pressure have ever been mentioned in the same breath before.

He then showed another great trick, by proving that it is possible to come back to Formula One and be successful, although there would be a massive gorilla on his back had he not won in Abu Dhabi late last term.

Räikkönen has another world title in him, and when he gets the right car, he’ll be there to deliver it. His consistency last year was phenomenal (he’s currently on a 17 race point streak, longer than any other driver having been the only man to complete every lap in 2012). If Lotus up their game, or are maybe even the same team as last year, then the Iceman could prove victorious once again.

1. Alonso still has something special

I'm not the fastest driver in qualifying, on street circuits, in the rain or in pit stops, but I'm a 9.5 (out of 10) in all those areas and I know how to get the best from the materials at my disposal.

- Fernando Alonso, Ferrari

The self-proclaimed best driver on the grid is the best driver on the grid. He’s special, he knows it, and he’s just waiting for the next opportunity to prove it. It’s bizarre to think that a driver who doesn’t really have a special skill is the best out there, but he is. He’s not amazing in qualifying, not the fastest driver, not even at the best team, but he is always there, somehow.

If Alonso does have a weakness, it’s his choice of team. He may have jumped ship from Renault at the opportune moment but he dived into a minefield at McLaren as Spygate went off. After coming within a point of a third world title, he was back at Renault which had collapsed since his departure. Another minefield later, this time race-fixing ensued, before he got his dream move to Ferrari, who, at least when you measure the teams at the start of each year, are clearly third best since he’s been there.

What he would have given to have fallen into a Red Bull. That would have been an unbeatable combination. He’s just never been in the right place and it is clearly costing him a final world title or two. We’ve already seen the effect that Vettel has had on Hamilton’s mentality, and the fact that he now has more titles than Alonso too, may have a similar effect on the Spaniard. That said, he’s never let anything bother him before, not even two major FIA investigations into his teams.

Alonso is also a master of politics, particularly intra-team politics. No one on the F1 grid is better at building a team around him, and his use of F1 politics is second to none - if Hamilton is Senna, he’s Prost without a doubt. Honestly, I think he’ll succeed in a political career when he finally hangs his helmet up.

It’s a shame that since 2007, Alonso has never been in a fair fight, he’s always dragging a dog of a car around somewhere near the front, and he’s still been in two very tight championship battles despite this. I only hope we see Alonso back in a top car for a year or two before he hangs his helmet up for good.

Now only four days away, we are nearly there. Testing has been promising and shows a title battle between up to four teams in the early rounds of the new season. It’s back to weekends without lie ins, getting up at dawn, and yet I couldn’t be happier!