It’s New Year and the end of a decade. The “noughties” were pretty good in F1 terms with some very talented drivers battling it out for glory. I spent most of it very close to the action as the commentator on British TV network ITV and I observed and worked with all the drivers very close up.
I would argue that the decade ends with a stronger cast of drivers than we had at the start. I’m really excited about the array of talent in F1 now, with three out and out aces, one potential ace and some very strong back ups.
1. Michael Schumacher – There can be no doubt about this at all. Schumacher moved the Art of the F1 driver on in the noughties and set the benchmark everyone else has to follow. He has an exceptional talent but doesn’t rely on it, instead put in so much effort to the details of winning. The outstanding driver of the decade with five world titles in the noughties to add to his two from the nineties. He contributed heavily to the rebirth of Ferrari and then he caps off the decade with a dramatic decision to make a comeback. His career will span three decades; a phenomenon.
2. Fernando Alonso – Twenty-one times a Grand Prix winner, many of them in a car which was not the fastest and two hard fought world titles makes Alonso a truly great champion. Alonso is fast and relentless. All the F1 engineers will tell you that there is no better race driver out there today. But it could and should have been three titles; his season at McLaren ended with him just a point off the world title, but common sense tells you that McLaren should have managed that situation better.
3. Lewis Hamilton – A world championship in his second season and proved a match for Alonso, the benchmark driver in the sport, in his first year, few drivers in history have made an impact on the sport like Hamilton. Like the two drivers ahead of him in the list he polarises opinion, but he’s already proved his credentials as a rare talent and a ferocious competitor. Has 11 victories and 17 poles from his 52 GPs and I think he improved immeasurably during a tough 2009 so he’s now a far better driver than he was when he clinched his title. Alonso vs Hamilton vs Schumacher in 2010 is the fight everyone wants to see – it’s box office gold dust
4. Kimi Raikkonen – A favourite with many fans, who claim his weaknesses, such as poor communication, are in fact strengths. Easily as talented as any of the drivers he raced against, he let himself down by not trying on occasions. That said he performed heroics in the second half of 2009 in a truly awful car. One world championship, 18 Grand Prix wins and 16 poles tells of a pretty good career, but most savvy observers will say it could have been many more if Mercedes’ reliability and his own attitude had been better at times.
5. Felipe Massa - Eleven wins and 28 podiums so far for this likeable and very fast driver. On the cusp of making that difficult transition from a number two driver to a number one during 2008 and early 2009 and was still improving when he had that terrible accident at Budapest. Massa is admirable for keeping his head down after a dodgy debut and making himself into a really good driver.
6. Juan Pablo Montoya – I have to admit that I loved Montoya as a Grand Prix driver. He was fast, fearless, outspoken and always terrific to watch. He reminded me of Nigel Mansell in many ways. He took the fight to Schumacher on numerous occasions and had some no holds barred scraps with Raikkonen. He scored seven wins, 13 poles and 30 podiums for Williams and McLaren and was unlucky not to have hooked into a world championship.
7. Rubens Barrichello - Eleven race victories in the noughties with Ferrari and Brawn and an evergreen presence on the grid. On his day he could beat anyone, including the great Schumacher, but he also had off days. Kept Jenson Button more than honest during their time together at Honda and Brawn.
8. Jenson Button – Always had the talent, just needed a good car to show what he could do. We got an idea of what he could do in 2004 when he and BAR took the fight to Schumacher, with 10 podiums and then he took that unlikely win in 2006 at Budapest. This year Jenson got his just desserts in a terrific car, winning six races and the world championship.
9. David Coulthard – He had a long and distinguished career, spanning two decades. He won seven of his 13 Grands Prix in the noughties, but only had a couple of really good years, 2000 and 2001. He struggled in the days of single lap qualifying, which held him back because he usually put in really strong race performances. But a major presence nevertheless.
10. Sebastian Vettel – Only two and a bit seasons into his career he has established himself as a front runner and looks like he could become a real star. Five career wins and runner up this year, the key question now is has he learned from his mistakes and can he go on to be a dominant driver? I think he showed in Silverstone and Suzuka this year that he has what it takes.
Happy New Year to all the readers of JA on F1 and a sincere thank you to the half a million plus visitors who have come to the site during 2009, for spreading the word and contributing such interesting and inspiring comments.