We have been running our annual end of year opportunity for readers to tell us who were their top five drivers of the season and this year we had a larger entry than in 2011; just under 800 entries.
This is probabiy due to the fact that the competition between the leading drivers was so close this year, with several outstanding performances.
As a fun sideline prize, three entries which match my selection, will be selected at random to receive a free signed copy of our review book of the season; James Allen on F1 2012: The Year of Living Dangerously, which is now on sale in our Online Shop.
As is reflected in most people’s entries, it was the most difficult choice between the top three drivers in the four years that we have been running JA on F1.
But here is how I see it:
In terms of race performances, getting the job done and all-round consistent skill and commitment, it’s impossible to separate them. Alonso did incredibly well to recover podiums from unpromising situations, while Vettel showed many times that he too can come through the field and cope with setbacks.
The cop-out would have been to make them joint first, but there was a small distinction between them, which was important for me; it was that Vettel was out qualified by his team mate Mark Webber eight times. Webber is a better reference point team mate than Felipe Massa, but nevertheless Alonso easily outpaced Massa until the final couple of races. It was odd that Fernando struggled with qualifying in the last two rounds, but it was the only question mark over an otherwise exemplary season.
His title hopes were killed by the two start line accidents in Spa and Suzuka. He was blameless for the Grosjean incident at Spa. He had a hand in the Suzuka incident, but when you are taking risks at the start on that scale and fighting to make up so many places, race after race, you can’t get it right 20 times out of 20. You are bound to drop one!
History will show that Vettel was the champion, but historians will have to dig a bit to find that the Ferrari was 1.5 seconds off the pace at the start of the season and struggling for consistent pace all season. This means that he had a mountain to climb.
I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea and in the internet age, it’s easy for fans to find others who share their view and demonise a driver. But, whatever you think of him, he’s one of the greats and we are fortunate to have a driver like him to provide a reference point for all the other drivers.
This is the first time in four years of JA on F1 that the champion has not been the Number 1, but it’s incredibly finely balanced and the reason is given in the section above. Vettel’s third championship in a row was the hardest to win in many ways, but he gave something away to Alonso at the start of the year as he adapted to a car without tons of downforce from a blown diffuser. He made a mistake in Malaysia, tripping up over a back marker and losing a podium there. And he was out qualified eight times by Mark Webber.
On the plus side, of course, he got the job done and clinched the title. He held his nerve brilliantly on the final day when he was 17th at the end of the first lap and he proved any doubters wrong with his ability to come through the field, pass cars and cope with problems.
This doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve to win the title; both men did, but Vettel has the satisfaction of knowing that it was he who got the job done.
Vettel and Alonso are the two most intelligent drivers in F1; Vettel is a shade faster in qualifying, but Alonso is a shade more consistent over a race and a season. There’s little to separate them and with Lewis Hamilton and other strong performers around at the moment, there’s little doubt that F1 is in a golden period for drivers.
Again, it was almost impossible to separate Hamilton from the others because in pure driving terms this was his best season in F1 to date. He didn’t get the job done and win the title, largely because of points dropped due to reliability and operational errors, like early season botched pit stops. McLaren are a fantastic racing team, but they always give too much away to the opposition. And this year – like 2007 – was a perfect example of that.
After a difficult year in 2011, where he was angry, out of sorts and lacking focus and joy in his work, Hamilton’s driving was more free this year and it was great to watch. His win in Austin, beating Vettel with his one opportunity of the whole race to pass was the highlight of the season. He scored seven poles (not including Spain) and four wins. But he didn’t always carry himself like a champion and he knows that.
To be a great driver, you have to be great in all areas and he still has some growing to do there.
4. Kimi Raikkonen
I have to be honest, I didn’t think Kimi would be as consistently strong this year as he turned out to be. He completed all but one of the racing laps in the 2012 season and was in the points at every race except China, where a good result slipped away when he went off-line on worn tyres in the closing stages.
The Kimi who left F1 in 2009 was tired, disaffected and out of love with the life of a Grand Prix driver. His motivation was clearly down after winning the 2007 title, he was being beaten by Felipe Massa and he wasn’t enjoying the expectations of life as a Ferrari driver.
To come back after two years on the sidelines and perform as he has is remarkable and is fantastic news for the sport.
His fine season was capped off with a win in Abu Dhabi and the award for Best Line of the Season – “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing”
Lotus was probably the most consistent car this year, but not the fastest in qualifying. Kimi’s best qualifying was 3rd in Spa and he only started in the front two rows on four occasions. As he got back up to speed, Kimi was out qualified by his hot headed team mate main Grosjean in ten races, but his race performances were fantastic and it’s great to have him on form and in F1.
This was almost as tough a decision as the top three. Many fans went for Nico Hulkenberg, who had a very strong end to the 2012 season, with 44 points scored from Spa onwards. This was great to see and he has grown a lot as an F1 driver this year. But he admitted to me himself that in the first half of the season, where he was beaten by Paul di Resta, he was still finding his feet after a 2011 season as a tester. Sergio Perez was another contender with his three podiums, but he was erratic, especially in qualifying and from the announcement of his McLaren drive onwards he didn’t score another point, which is a real concern for McLaren next year.
Also Mark Webber was a consideration with his two fine wins in Monaco and Silverstone and a greatly improved qualifying performance, outperforming Vettel eight times. But his race performances were not as strong, largely due to continued issues with poor starts and in six races he finished below his qualifying slot, which is never good.
So Button edged it, despite his five race wobble from Spain to Silverstone, because he scored three top quality wins at the beginning, middle and end of the season, with Spa the real highlight.
From Germany onwards, when the McLaren came good, he performed consistently well. His weakness is still qualifying strongly and driving around problems, which could be an Achilles Heel when he leads McLaren next year, but he knows that and will be working all out on it.
The signs are that the new 2013 Pirellis warm up very quickly, so they may suit Button’s style quite well.
Were selling out quickly; the JA on F1 2012 yearbook – The Year of Living Dangerously, priced at £10.99 is a 256 page large format paperback with stunning Darren Heath images, a Foreword from BBC TV’s Jake Humphrey. Make sure there’s one in your Christmas stocking, as the cupboard will be bare in January at this rate. Signed copies are available to order via our online shop now.