Edd Straw, F1 Editor for RACER's fellow Haymarket publication AUTOSPORT, looks beyond the point totals in sizing up the contenders from the recently completed World Championship season.
10 KAMUI KOBAYASHI
For a driver branded do-or-die by so many in 2010, the Japanese certainly didn't do a great deal of the latter. There were a few robust moves, but by and large the Sauber driver's brand of incisiveness served him well. It took a while for him to get going this year, retiring six times in the opening eight races through a combination of mechanical maladies and a couple of his own mishaps, but at Valencia his confidence was boosted by a remarkable drive, passing Fernando Alonso and, at the last corner, Sebastian Buemi to finish seventh.
A sixth place at Silverstone followed, and although it was Kobayashi's proficiency at passing that caught the eye, it was an ability to lap consistently rapidly on prime tires in those races where he opted for an alternative strategy that really impressed. Suzuka was his defining moment, especially with the pressure of an expectant home crowd. He again opted to start on primes, running a long first stint and overtaking Jaime Alguersuari (robustly) and Adrian Sutil (cleanly) early on, setting up his charge to eighth late on.
Next season, he will be without an experienced teammate and must raise his game in qualifying, but Kobayashi showed this year that he fears no one, can pass like Lewis Hamilton and has the ability to execute a race strategy to perfection.
9 NICO HULKENBERG
Few drivers who have found themselves dropped after their rookie season have done such a good job. After a difficult start, when he struggled to match teammate Barrichello's remarkable ability to drag a qualifying lap out of an ill-handling car, things began to pick up midseason. Hungary was the turning point, as the GP2 champion out-qualified Barrichello and raced strongly to sixth place, but the defining moment where he showed true genius came in qualifying at Interlagos.
Along with the rest of the Q3 runners, he changed to slicks on a damp but drying track, maintaining tire temperature on his out lap and then nailing not one, but two laps good enough for pole position. The second was over 1sec faster than Vettel's effort for second place. It was the lap of the season, and although time spent battling with the frontrunners early on compromised his race, leaving him eighth at the checker, the point had been made.
By then, it was already clear that he was heading for the exit in favor of a funded driver and it will be a travesty if he does not get another chance in F1. Frank Williams has described him as a future World Champion and time will likely prove him right.
8 RUBENS BARRICHELLO
The Brazilian is driving as well as at any time during his astonishing 18-season Formula 1 career. The affable 38-year-old's results were good, scoring points in 10 races with fourth and fifth places at Valencia and Silverstone, respectively, but it was for the effect that he had on the Williams team that he really stood out.
At the start of the season, the FW32 was a tricky proposition, but after earning the implicit trust of the team, Barrichello played a central role in tweaking the car to make it vastly more usable and highlighting correlation problems between the wind tunnel and track. In the second half of the season, the car was of a similar pace to Mercedes and Renault and that was largely down to Barrichello helping to unlock its latent potential.
Technical director Sam Michael described Rubens as the missing link in the team, while veteran engineering director Patrick Head reckoned him to be the best development driver Williams has had since Damon Hill left at the end of 1996. Add to that his importance in helping Cosworth catch up on the three years of running knowledge that it missed during its F1 hiatus, and you have an excellent season's work.
7 JENSON BUTTON
A mixed bag of a season for Button. On the positive side, he fitted in very effectively with McLaren and formed a good working relationship with his new team, made some inspired tire calls to take early wins in Australia and China and was the only title contender not to make any major mistakes during races. He was also often quick enough to press teammate Hamilton in qualifying.
Unfortunately, not quite often enough: There were too many times when Button was unhappy with the car and struggled on Saturday afternoons. Ranged against that, there were some outstanding recovery drives, his charge to fourth from 14th on the grid at Silverstone for example. Perhaps these are the two sides of his sharp racing brain – the desire for the car to be perfect for one all-out lap in qualifying is balanced by an intelligence that allows him to look after his tires and drive to a plan on Sunday afternoon.
He came close to staying in title contention to the final round, but being wiped out by Vettel in Spa was ultimately the moment that really cost him.
6 NICO ROSBERG
Ross Brawn's hand was clearly visible in Nico Rosberg's performances in 2010. At Williams, Rosberg's form was patchy – and not only because his machinery was often inconsistent – but this year he was able to deliver lap after lap. Beating teammate Michael Schumacher hands-down is one thing, and being the best-placed driver from outside of the top three teams tells its own story, but the most impressive aspect of Rosberg's season is the way that he could adapt his driving to different strategies and, when the opportunity arose in races like Korea, mix it with the big guns.
He's quick, too, although question marks remain over his raw speed and whether or not he has the last 0.2sec per lap to be a genuine superstar. That question is unanswered, but that's largely because he hasn't had a fast, proven teammate alongside him since his rookie season.
A driver of underestimated intelligence, Rosberg has thrived in the Mercedes environment and rewarded the team's faith with top-five finishes in almost half of the season's 19 races. If next year's Mercedes MGP W02 is as good as the team hopes and expects, we will finally have the chance to assess whether Rosberg is a true top team leader. If he isn't, he has proved beyond doubt that, at worst, he's an outstanding number two.