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.
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.