My top five F1 drivers of the 2016 season
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F1 drivers photo 2016
Posted By: James Allen  |  24 Dec 2016   |  9:41 pm GMT  |  511 comments

It’s that time again when it is time to take a deep breath and pick the Top 5 Drivers of 2016.

This is a tradition on this site going back to 2009, when the site first took off and this year is by far the most difficult to choose of the eight seasons to date.

Why? Well because all the standout drivers had good and bad moments this season, we had two unusual scenarios as well. A supposedly number two driver beat his champion team-mate to the world championship which hasn’t happened too often in the F1 of the last 30 years.

Second we had a high profile switch of a top team driver mid-season, which brought Max Verstappen into Red Bull Racing and he won on debut. Verstappen was outstanding at times this season and rightly won the FIA Personality of the Year category at the Awards Gala, but at 19 years of age he is far from the fully developed Grand Prix driver and he had some significant low points too.

F1 drivers

Frankly you could make the argument for any of the top four below to be placed in any order, depending on what you focus on.

So, before we dive in to the choices I need to explain my decision making criteria. First I measure the driver’s peaks during the season, the quality of his standout moments. Second – and equally – I consider the consistency of the season – was the driver up and down or did they bring their A Game most weekends?

Third I always reward drivers who deliver under pressure and that generally means drivers going for the wins and the titles, where there is a lot at stake. That doesn’t mean we don’t recognise drivers of poor cars who have to drive the wheels off it to get into the top five, but it does mean that there is a weighting towards the front runners.

Another thing I mark highly is competitive spirit; I love drivers who make things happen and who really stir the passions of fans.

Finally I always heavily reward the world champion because winning a world championship is always tough and to win the longest ever F1 championship, against arguably the strongest driver of his generation therefore gives Nico Rosberg quite a boost.

Against that is the fact that the Mercedes was again an utterly dominant car this season, so it’s really hard to benchmark the drivers.

So with that in mind and with a deep breath, as this won’t please everyone, here is the JA on F1 Top Five drivers of 2016.

Daniel Ricciardo

1. Daniel Ricciardo

This was an excellent year for Ricciardo, who finished a clear third in the drivers’ championship for the second time in three years. With the car and engine package that he has had at his disposal relative to Mercedes, that is a great achievement and when you study the numbers on his season, his consistency at a high level really stands out.

He had 20 points finishes in the season – equal with Rosberg – and qualified very consistently in the top four or five with only a couple of exceptions. He won Malaysia, but should have also won Spain and Monaco, but for strategy calls and a botched tyre stop. He split the Mercedes in Germany, Belgium and Singapore.

His overtakes are sublime and he’s very hard to pass.

The only downsides for the Australian were that he seemed to have his hands full later in the season to contain team mate Verstappen and there were a few races where the Dutchman was simply faster all weekend. We have to put this in context: Verstappen is only 19 and in his second season in F1 cars with much still to learn.

Ricciardo is now at the peak of his career and is the complete F1 driver; the next few years should see him crowned world champion at some point, provided he can keep a lid on his ruthless team mate.

It will come down to which of them is the hardest and in that I slightly worry for him.

Nico Rosberg
2. Nico Rosberg

It seems that it’s fashionable to downrate Rosberg’s season and to chalk his world championship down to having lots of luck and the best car. That is perhaps to look at it through the prism of the last few races only, rather than the season as a whole.

Rosberg brushed off two years of hurt, raised his game in 2016, focussed on himself only, won his world title and then quit F1 on his own terms.

Some might say that was him running away from the sport, proving that he is not a a true champion. But having watched Nico up close this season, it was incredibly impressive how he kept on delivering his best time after time and doing what he needed to do when it came to a crunch moment. He met all the challenges and did what he had to do when he had to do it.

Winning in F1 is about getting all the details right and not giving anything away to the opposition. Rosberg certainly exemplified that more often than not this year.

Of course he didn’t have as many peaks as Hamilton’s, but the turning point race was Singapore, his best ever drive in F1 and then Japan. He was outclassed by Hamilton several times, for example in Monaco, arguably his only real ‘off day’ this season.

But even when he couldn’t match Hamilton, he often found a work-around. An example was in Monza; he was blown away in qualifying, but he didn’t give up and silenced Hamilton on race day with a better start; he didn’t give Lewis a sniff for the rest of the afternoon. Hamilton was utterly dejected after that race.

Australia and Bahrain also followed that script.

Lewis beat Nico in qualifying 12 times to seven, when there were no reliability issues, which doesn’t look great, but the margins were mostly tight. Rosberg dealt with it, worked to a plan, one race at a time.

When he needed to get the lap in qualifying in Brazil he did it and drove the tricky race to bag the 18 points he needed from a championship point of view in horrendous conditions. That was a banana skin dodged. Yes there were no heroics about it, but there was a lot at stake. Likewise when he had to pass Verstappen and then soak up the pressure at the end in Abu Dhabi, with a world championship at stake, he did both.

No-one else faced that level of pressure this year.

I like sports stars who carry on developing even after many years, proving that you never stop learning. Mercedes engineers say Rosberg was still improving when he retired.

Many will disagree with this choice, because Rosberg had the best car, but we are not picking the Top Five drivers in F1, rather the Top 5 performers of 2016. Having seen the battle up close this year, he deserves it.

Lewis Hamilton
3. Lewis Hamilton

History will show that Hamilton lost the world championship to his less talented teammate in 2016.

They say history is written by the victors, but Hamilton has managed to make the narrative about how Mercedes’ reliability was the reason why he didn’t make it three titles in a row in 2016.

It’s certainly true up to a point, but he also gave away plenty of points for a variety of reasons. One was poor starts using the new single clutch system; there were four races blighted by that, so arguably 24 points dropped. And he also had three race weekends where he seemed to be mentally elsewhere; Baku, Singapore and Japan, so arguably another 14 points there.

That makes six weekends of giving something away to the opposition and for that I can’t put him as the best driver of 2016, or ahead of Rosberg, even if some of his qualifying and race performances were best in class.

Pole in Monza was exquisite, his race in Brazil was also an illustration of his sumptuous gifts. His brilliant drive in Monaco, looking after the tyres to the point where he could skip the intermediate tyre stage was another standout.

Engineers tell me that of all the drivers he is the one who has been most held back by the problems Pirelli have had mastering the tyre technology for the regulation tyre size of the last few years and that with the new 2017 wide tyres he will be able to express himself fully. Time will tell.

I certainly expect him to come flying out of the blocks next season and it will take something special to beat him to the championship. He is also likely to get the record for most pole positions; he is eight behind Michael Schumacher after a career half the length of the German’s.

That would be an appropriate record for Hamilton to hold.

Max Verstappen

4. Max Verstappen

When a talent and a character like this comes along, as a professional working in the sport for almost 30 years, you just have to smile. He makes people remember why they fell in love with motor racing in the first place.

It’s not all pretty and some of his defensive driving caused the rule makers to issue clarifications on what is allowed. But that also shows the ruthlessness of the driver. He is not here merely to compete or even to try to win. He’s here to fight against all-comers, to get under their skin. And in that he reminds me of Michael Schumacher.

I was struck by his calmness in the press conference room after Ricciardo won Malaysia due to a Red Bull strategy call similar to Spain, but which reversed the drivers’ fortunes this time. He had matured a lot in just a few months and it was as if he felt that he would have many more chances to win in future so no need to get upset now.

His early-career defining drive in the rain in Brazil is up there with some of the greatest wet weather performances ever seen. He drove brilliantly to take Raikkonen and Rosberg early on but found himself 14th with 16 laps to go after Red Bull made a big call on strategy, trying for the win instead of the second place he was assured. He passed his way back up to third, including his own team mate who was also on fresh rubber, unlike most of the cars he passed.

It is true that he had an up and down season; he had some off days, for sure. He was 2-2 in qualifying against Carlos Sainz in the first four races of the season before he was moved up to Red Bull. He adapted quickly and Ricciardo ended up 11-6 against him in qualifying from there.

But when you bear in mind that this was only his second season in F1 and it took him until around June to fully understand how to bring a Pirelli front qualifying tyre in for optimum single lap performance, that’s not bad against one of the fastest guys in F1.

Verstappen has had an almost vertical learning curve so far and there is still so much more development to come. He has a great race engineer in Gianpiero Lambiase, who will continue to nurture this exceptional talent and many fans will admit that he is one of the main reasons to switch the TV on on a Sunday to watch the race. For that, and the fact that there is plenty of evidence that he is getting teenagers to watch the sport, F1 owes him a debt of gratitude.

Fernando Alonso
5. Fernando Alonso

One of the benefits of doing the in-depth UBS Race Strategy Report after every Grand Prix, is that I get to speak confidentially to many of the top strategists from the F1 teams, who contribute insights, to help fans understand better what goes on in races.

Time after time, they flag up Alonso and his latest heroics. The Spaniard may have been a footnote in the tale of the 2016 F1 season, but some of his race performances were of a similar peak level to anything we saw at the front of the field. He was simply astonishing in Spa, Singapore, Suzuka and Austin – and McLaren owe him a lot. The balance sheet would look far less favourable without these amazing drives. He ended up with more than twice the points of Jenson Button and that is despite a monster accident in Australia and sitting out Bahrain.

Other drivers deserved consideration including Carlos Sainz, who drove at a consistently high standard, Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg, but Alonso makes the top five because of the sheer excellence of those four drives in particular.

Do you agree? Leave your top five drivers of 2016 in the Comments section below

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1

Kimi
Seb V
Nico R
Max V and 5th Jen B

2

Max vs Sainz q result 3-1 James and a lot of points ahead, he would have destroyed Sainz

3

Good choices but I would have had Alonso above Hamilton, possibly even in 2nd.

I think Alonso’s “nothing to lose” drives have generally gone unnoticed by many and glad he’s mentioned here.

Hamilton can’t be 3rd, too many startline failures and listening to the radio he just doesn’t seem to be on the ball like a few other drivers out there. Yes, probably the fastest driver out their but as 2016 showed, and many other times in F1 history, fastest does not maketh the champion.

4

I like the Ricciardo slot. He was very consistent. The most mercurial and talented has to be Verstappen but he’s yet to reign it in. Ricciardo is in the prime. I’m tempted to put Verstappen 2nd but I think early on he made some questionable moves and probably should have been penalized more. Very tight group in top 4 imo. My list:

1. Ricciardo
2. Hamilton
3. Rosberg
4. Verstappen
5. Alonso – great pick.

I picked Hamilton over Rosberg because, while LH could be knocked down because of a few bad starts, he consistently out-qualified Rosberg. And, in spite of several mechanical failures and the bad starts, won 10 races to Rosberg’s 9. I do think Rosberg raced really well, better than anyone, in several races (especially in Singapore when Hamilton’s car blew up).

5

Agree 100% James. Also would add it’s about time Hamilton started behaving as a mature statesman like World Champ – not like a petulant supercillious young brat.

6

1) Ricciardo
2) Rosberg
3) Max
4) Kimi Raikkonen – recovered the IceMan consistency and pace
5) Perez – great, consistent and intelligent year in a middle of the grid car made Force India “best of the rest”
NO Hamilton — his cockiness and overconfidence in the beginning of the year cost him the championship. Doesn’t deserve to be on the list
NO Alonso – great talent, terrible team choices and beating and ageing Button won’t make him top five

7

I would agree with you James. It is a logical choice of somebody knowledgeable about F1, so probably won’t please many fans 🙂

8

Barmy to put Nico ahead of Lewis. He didn’t win the WDC because he was more skilful.

9

Jim, as James said in his criteria, it’s not just about skill…

10

It depends…
Do you consider “self-development” a skill ?

11

“Ricciardo is now at the peak of his career and is the complete F1 driver; the next few years should see him crowned world champion at some point, provided he can keep a lid on his ruthless team mate.
It will come down to which of them is the hardest and in that I slightly worry for him.”

So… you sense a possible future for him as the next Ricardo Patrese….

12

I think people mis-read his smiley personality. His actions to date have shown he shirks no challenge.
The other point is that people assume that Max is bullet proof. A major shunt (which is a distinct possibility given his driving style), might see that suit of armour turn to tinfoil?

13

LKFE:

Thanks for your comment about ‘saving your fingers’ in relation biased Verstappen supporters which doesn’t seem to have been posted by the Mods so I’ll respond here. I’ll admit that I’m also a big Danny Ricc fan but I do try and look at things objectively and will be the first to admit that Verstappen outshone him in Brazil (as he did many others) and while I can understand his massive disappointment in Monaco I thought his reaction on the podium, in terms of body language and demeanour, was a little unsavoury. So I’m not a blind follower however my opinion is that Dan had the better of Verstappen this year but whether or not this continues with the new regulations next year we will have to see.

Cheers.

14

Adrian, thanks for your response. Monaco was obviously a side of DR that we haven’t seen before, and I know that some found it unsavoury.
Ive given it some thought, and frankly, i think i would have been more worried if he was still captain smiley in that situation. I was encouraged by his competitive beast showing through. If he had crashed out or had a mechanical failure, i would have thought he had overdone it, but the team (and it’s systems) let him down grossly. Personally, It was his career best performance over the entire weekend prior to that point, so I can appreciate that he took the filter off for a bit (even if he did choose his words carefully). Anything else, and i would have been checking for a pulse!

15

Seeing Alonso in the list may surprise some. But many F1 fans will agree he is one very talented driver.
Give him wings McLaren so he can fly..

16

Good list James. I agree with your 5, I’d just swap Alonso and Verstappen’s slots.

17

I think this assessment is spot on. People who rank MV above DR are having a laugh. The points table and the h2h record doesn’t lie – Ricciardo beat the next coming (according to some) by a good margin, and even if MV had the upper hand at a few race, he didn’t do a better job than DR on the whole.
I agree that Max is on a strong upward trajectory, but don’t discount Daniel also improving enough to fend him off. DR is 27 and still very young – a similar age as Alonso was when he left McLaren, and most would agree that over the next 5 years he took his performances to another level. The best drivers, as James alluded to, keep working, refining and improving throughout their career – that is what ultimately makes them the best.

18

Totally agree with this list!

19

I honestly believe that Sergio Perez deserves to be on the top 5, he did great with his car and passed many other top drivers with less budget than Williams and McLaren ….

20

As you say, with all the headlines on merc, could you expand on Alonso’s performances and the reasons for his inclusion. Completely agree with your top 5. Riciardo was superb and really impressed with ignoring the hyperbole around his teammate and simply doing his best.

21

About Verstappen, actually it was 3-1 against Sainz in qualifying and from P16 to P3 in Brazil.

22

If I may,
I would like to ask JAF1 – to post a new topic, if possible – why there is a big gap among JA Top 5 and FiA’s driver of the day.
Mad Max won head and shoulders above all.

23

Go on.. have a wild guess…

24

17+ million people wearing orange?

25
The Grape Unwashed

James, you’ve marked Rosberg on maximising his potential, not on his performance compared to other drivers; with regard to the latter, I couldn’t put him near the top, e.g. being passed by Verstappen through Becketts in the damp this year was something I’d never seen before, it was simply embarrassing.

26

Respectfully have to disagree with your rankings James. A driver ranked lower than his teammate despite finishing within 5 points of him in the championship having lost 3 engines to nil, and having a clear 32 point turn denied again by reliability? Losing the championship clearly due to reliability, it isn’t an opinion of speculative its a fact! And Rosberg could still only manage a 5 point advantage.

27

I hope Max & Dan don’t fall out. The respect and sportsmanship they have shown each other this season has been a refreshing change.

It would be nice to have a Nadal/Federer kind of rivalry in the sport.

28

If Hamilton won a WDC driving a gokart people would still come up with reasons why he only won because of some perceived advantage.

29

Best driver of the year? Hamilton. Simple. To have come back from so much misfortune and despite that still nearly take the take the title. I seriously doubt any other drivers on the grid given Rosberg as a team mate would have got as close. All the fluff about poor performances are just that, fluff. There are three factors between Hamilton and what would have been third straight title. The first which I believe has a lesser effect that the finally two, it being a few indifferent starts (although not that different to his team mate). Poor reliability – major impact on his championship winning hopes and finally the unexplainable catastrophic engine failure in Malaysia. That engine failure more than everything else no matter how you dress up other events that occurred, is by far the single most impactful event that cost Hamilton the title. Even up reliability or take away the 28-point swing to Roberg because of the Malaysia failure and would anyone seriously list Hamilton as the third best driver this year. I think not.

Let’s take his supposed poor races in Baku as a typical example of a reason for not rating Hamilton higher. Dominated his team-mate throughout practice, was expected by most to claim pole, but made a minor mistake probably of the order of a few centimetres which likely cost him pole if not the win – engine settings put to one side for a moment. Japan as another example. He qualified 0.013 seconds behind his team-mate, although experiences another indifferent start but battles his way back up to third and clearly had the pace to win the race, but was unable to do so because of the difficulty in passing at the circuit. Singapore is, of the races often sited, where I would agree he was below par. Show me a driver who hasn’t had a below poor performance this season and I’ll either call you [mod] not objective. The reality is Hamilton was beaten by poor reliability and a difficult to operate clutch, the end. Take those elements out of the equation and we are taking about the current the best driver of this year and arguable the best of his generation. And you know what, the team principles agree with me.

30

…and he drove Rosberg into retirement!

31

My drivers would be
1. Rosberg
He scored where it metter most even after getting defeated in quali he keep hus focus steady not at all an easy task n the best word i must copy from james absorving the pressure all over the year
2. Ricciardo
He is consistant driver in qualify n races even after max 1 race winning hype he keep him ahead
3. Hamilton
He must be in 2 but he lose his championship in the best car n he made me disapointed after losing 3 races from P1 so hope he will come back stronger.
4.Max
Like him or not he is a sensation would love to see him fight with sainz in 2018 in diffrent competible cars
5. Alonso
Well someone says perez someone says sainz but all of thm have forget he was driving HONDA POWERED MC’LAREN i understand it was his decision so should nt be blaimed anyone else for it but he has taken a lot out of this car which this complete package didnt deserve at all…….

32

James, have been following F1 for 40 years. Think you are spot on. Thanks.

33

Spot on.

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