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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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