It is that time of the year again to crystallise all that happened during the F1 season and commit to a top five of drivers for 2017.
It’s always a tough decision and sometimes controversial; fans don’t agree or don’t like the reasons for the positions. That’s all part of the fun of the exercise, to encourage debate.
This year the Number One is not really a question for debate as Lewis Hamilton was truly outstanding, making few mistakes and raising his driving to another level.
But the other four – and the order to put them in – is more of a challenge as there are many factors at play beyond the obvious.
For a champion it is very hard to accept a lesser driver beating you over a season in the same car and Hamilton dealt with it badly.
I bet he wishes he could go back and do 2016 all over again, knowing what he knows now about himself and about Mercedes. But it’s consigned to history and all he can do is win outstandingly for the rest of his career and let those records speak for themselves.
It is very appropriate that he should take the all-time record for pole positions from Michael Schumacher this year, as he is one of the fastest drivers ever in F1.
Mark Webber told me in Sepang that he believes we can now say that Hamilton is the best driver since Senna; better in other words, than Schumacher, who had many advantages in winning his seven titles.
Who knows? But Hamilton is in a good place, especially having worked to overcome difficulties with the set up of the Mercedes in the first half of the season. And with a team-mate whose inconsistency will always undermine a title campaign, he has another exciting year ahead of fighting against Ferrari and Red Bull.
I think he may find the 2018 title harder to win.
2. Max Verstappen
One of the best things about working in F1 for many years is seeing the young talents come into the sport, spotting what they have that marks them out and then watching them develop. As I get older and more experienced I find this arguably the most exciting part of my job.
When Verstappen came in I saw a driver who reminded me of Schumacher in his aggression and self belief. It has taken only three seasons to see that he is a world-beater; afraid of no-one, exceptionally fast, but also exceptionally good at racing.
He will not want to remember 2017 because his car let him down, especially the engine, so many times that it meant he couldn’t compete for the championship.
I think that will turn out to be a blessing in disguise, because he still had a rawness to his risk-taking instinct in close combat situations, which needed some refinement for when he does find himself in a title battle.
He’s a very fast learner and with nothing to lose in races like Sepang and Mexico, he put himself in a position to force the issue and got some useful experience of what the Vettels and Hamiltons of this world will do under pressure.
So while his results don’t justify P2 in any Top 5 of 2017, I have picked him because of what I think he has become this year – look at the way he crushed Ricciardo (one of the fastest F1 drivers) in qualifying – and now we look forward to him putting it all together in the next few years.
A very good season for Sebastian, but not a great one, as he and Ferrari let slip a world championship lead. Five victories and four pole positions was a decent haul after the traumas of the 2016 season, where he seemed to have lost his way with the team.
Vettel will reflect on 2017 as a year where he let his emotions get in the way on a few high profile occasions and it cost him; Baku and Singapore, arguably Mexico as well. Against that, he showed admirable sang froid when things went wrong in Monza and Ferrari were embarrassed not only by Mercedes, but by the Mercedes powered teams.
While other senior figures at Ferrari were throwing colleagues under the bus, Vettel played a strong leadership role. Later in the season when the updated engine let them down, throwing more valuable points away he was calm and statesmanlike, not emotional.
So it’s that lack of calmness at the wheel at times, especially at starts, that Vettel needs to conquer to become world champion again. Jackie Stewart won most of his races in the first few laps of a race during F1’s most dangerous time, because he learned to calm his emotions, while other drivers were wound up at the start. A bit more Jackie would help a lot.
Outstanding in 2016, from Spain onwards he found himself being out qualified consistently by his team-mate Verstappen. It was made more bearable by the fact that Verstappen’s car kept letting him down in races, so Daniel had a comfortable margin in the points table. But he is a racer and he knew that the true picture was something else.
It’s hard to fault his performances this season, he drove very well and almost always got the maximum result possible with the equipment at his disposal. He has become expert at taking his chances, both in overtakes and in race management.
But he wants to be world champion and there is a massive road block in his way in the form of the Dutchman, who is still developing and who has signed a massively lucrative contract with the team to the end of 2020, a huge sign of faith from Red Bull in its prodigy.
Daniel’s next moves will define his career, both on and off the track.
5. Esteban Ocon
This may seem a bit controversial to some readers, but Ocon’s performance this year was magnificent. As I said above with regard to Verstappen, it’s wonderful to observe the young talents coming through (Leclerc is another for next season) and with a reliable benchmark in Sergio Perez, we could see the development of a really exciting young Grand Prix driver, who will surely have a say in championships in the future.
With only half a season in a Manor behind him when he started the year, he quickly got onto Perez’ pace and by Montreal was ready to beat him. The summer was traumatic as Force India didn’t get on top of the race management quickly enough and many points were dropped in Baku and Spa in particular as tensions flared. But it was a nice problem to have for the Silverstone team, who revelled in the excitement of turning up every week knowing that they were going to be talked about, going to compete strongly and to enjoy their racing.
By the second half of the season Ocon was beating Perez regularly, which is bang on target for the development you would expect from a really special talent, as we saw with Verstappen for example. Ocon is different driver from Verstappen; he’s more cerebral and has a remarkable finishing record, which speaks of consistency and emotional management.
He probably doesn’t have that very special extra half-a-tenth of pace ultimately, that unique talents like Verstappen have, but he has total self belief and a bulletproof mentality – in the right car I think he will prove capable of being a champion in future.
But let’s wait and see whether he continues that impressive development curve in 2018.
I suspect that if he does, he could find himself in a Mercedes in 2019.
What did you make of these rankings? Do you have a different order, or different drivers? Leave your comments below
Season’s Greetings to all readers of JA on F1. Thanks for your support during 2017 and I look forward to engaging with you all in 2018.