5 MARK WEBBER
In many seasons, probably most, Webber would have been champion. At times in 2010, he was mighty, notably during that magical week when he dominated from pole position in Spain and then Monaco. But what cost the 34-year-old the championship was that he couldn't quite match teammate Vettel in qualifying over the whole season – often missing out by the narrowest of margins. That Vettel claimed twice as many poles tells a story, as does the fact that, during the five-race flyaway title run-in from Singapore to Abu Dhabi, the Australian never managed to beat the German on a Saturday.
But before his title bid unraveled, culminating in a poor performance in qualifying in Abu Dhabi that effectively killed off his hopes, there were times when he looked every bit the champion-in-waiting. As with other top guns, there were mistakes – clattering into Hamilton in Melbourne, rear-ending Heikki Kovalainen in Valencia at 190mph and crashing out in terrible conditions in Korea. But when Webber was in full-on, back-to-the-wall mode, as he was in winning the British Grand Prix after Vettel was handed “his” front wing, he was imperious.
Perhaps his biggest mistake was trying to recapture that mindset when he accused the team of favoring Vettel ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix, which angered senior management and backfired on him.
4 FERNANDO ALONSO
The way Alonso galvanized Ferrari was incredible and his astonishing run from Monza through to qualifying in Abu Dhabi, when he dragged his Ferrari F10 to the brink of the title, showcased an all-time great at his relentless best. He thrashed Felipe Massa in a team that once adored him and now looks set to be a Ferrari great.
So, you have to ask, why did he jump the start in China? Why did he crash, writing off his chassis and condemning himself to the back of the grid, in Monaco free practice? Why did he allow himself to become boxed in behind Karun Chandhok in Montreal, allowing Jenson Button past? Why did he overtake with all four wheels on the grass at Silverstone and expect not to be penalized? Why did he run wide and crash while on course to salvage a few points at Spa after his first-lap assault from Rubens Barrichello?
Partly, it has to be down to trying that little bit too hard in a car that wasn't quite up to it, but several of those errors alone could have made the difference between winning the title and finishing second. At the end of the year, comfortably the best driver, but over the whole season there were too many errors.
3 ROBERT KUBICA
The Pole's driving throughout the Monaco weekend was the greatest single performance of the 2010 season. Watching trackside as he slid the rear of his Renault toward the exit barrier at Casino Square lap after lap was to witness a genius at work. There, Kubica was at his brilliant best. He put a nimble, but not front-running, car on the edge but, unlike Fernando Alonso, he danced on the limit without ever overstepping it.
In fact, that was Kubica all year long, extracting the maximum out of an improving car and coming close to dragging Renault to fourth in the constructors' championship with only occasional help from teammate Vitaly Petrov.
Indeed, Kubica was a strong contender to top this list, but for the fact that his performances came outside of the pressure-cooker environment of a title fight and the few occasions, particularly late in the year, when he allowed frustrations at the car not behaving to his liking to blunt his performances. A class act who will be World Champion in the right car – and is good enough to do it even in the wrong one.
2 LEWIS HAMILTON
During the middle stages of the season, Hamilton looked every bit a potential champion. His aggressive (or, as he would have it, attacking) style was tempered by the ability to be a little more circumspect when the situation demanded it. After Spa, he led the World Championship following a great win, and a narrow escape after missing the barriers by an inch when he went off on slicks in the wet.
But things started to go wrong at Monza. He opted not to run the F-duct in qualifying, unlike teammate Jenson Button, leaving him with insufficient grip to do better than fifth. He then left his car's nose inside Felipe Massa's Ferrari heading into the second chicane. Inevitably, the Brazilian turned in and damaged the right-front suspension of the McLaren. Race run. Then, in Singapore, he attempted to pass Mark Webber for third shortly after a restart and the pair clashed, again putting the McLaren man out.
That one, though, was a racing accident, and with the McLaren MP4-25 struggling for speed in the closing stages of the season – save for Abu Dhabi – Hamilton did a remarkable job to stay in title contention to the last race in a car that wasn't quite championship material.
1. SEBASTIAN VETTEL
Yes, there were a few mistakes – triggering Red Bullageddon in Istanbul and spinning into Jenson Button at Spa were both reprehensible blunders. But during a season in which the ferocity of competition at the front of the field was greater than ever, Vettel stands out for three reasons. First, his searing speed and incredible ability under braking. Second, unlike most of his rivals he had to beat a teammate capable of consistently
pushing him to the limit. Third, he bounced back brilliantly from that engine failure in Korea to dominate in Brazil and Abu Dhabi. Add to the equation 63 points lost to mechanical problems and you have a remarkable season.
The best car? Yes. But also the best driver in the best car. Forget the image of a petulant, ill-tempered kid demanding number one treatment – that Vettel doesn't really exist. Instead, realize that Vettel is something truly special. Just ask Giorgio Ascanelli, who worked closely with the German for 18 months at Scuderia Toro Rosso. He talks about two drivers that he worked with achieving “perfection.” One of them is Vettel; the other was a driver that he race engineered at McLaren named Ayrton Senna.