RACER asked AUTOSPORT Formula 1 Editor Edd Straw to map out his personal top 10 grand prix drivers from the 2011 season, based on objective and subjective analysis of their performances. Here is his response:
10: HEIKKI KOVALAINEN
Look beyond the statistics – namely 19 starts and zero points – and Heikki Kovalainen had the best of his five seasons in Formula 1. His qualifying record was exemplary, thrashing Lotus teammate Jarno Trulli which, even when the Italian spent much of the year battling with a power steering system that didn't suit him, is no mean feat. In the races he was always quick, always consistent and was regularly able to flirt with the midfield stragglers even though his machinery wasn't quite up to it.
Aside from an unnecessary shunt in Barcelona, caused partly by the team keeping him out for an extra lap on shot tires and partly by Kovalainen's flustered reaction to doing so, there were no significant mistakes. Team principal Tony Fernandes has a very high regard for the Finn and there's no question that he has rehabilitated himself since two years at McLaren during which he too often failed to live up to even his number two status.
The only real criticism you can have is that Kovalainen existed in a competitive vacuum. The midfield pack was way ahead in qualifying and the Marussia Virgin and HRT entries were a chunk slower. Save for beating ailing Trulli, there wasn't much for him to prove on single-lap pace. There were some impressive midfield cameos in the race, too.
HIGH POINT: Beating the "other" Lotus Renault team and Vitaly Petrov in Singapore in a straight fight.
LOW POINT: Unnecessary crash in Spain.
9: MICHAEL SCHUMACHER
Schumacher proved this season that, given the machinery, claiming a 92nd grand prix victory is possible. While his qualifying pace remains very patchy, in race conditions he excelled and was six times best of the rest behind the big three teams – one more than Rosberg managed. That suggests that his racing savvy remains razor sharp, even though there were too many mishaps.
Clashes with Vitaly Petrov at Valencia and Turkey and with Sergio Perez in Singapore were clumsy but ranged against that were his first-lap performances as he regularly made up places not so much through rapid getaways, but through plotting his way through the traffic on the opening lap as well as anybody.
The high points were races like Canada, where he climbed as high as second in damp conditions before slipping back as the circuit dried. At Monza, he managed to frustrate Lewis Hamilton for lap after lap with some robust defense and, on the 20th anniversary of his F1 debut, he came from last on the grid to finish a strong fifth at Spa.
He also showed far better relative to Rosberg and ended the season only 13 points adrift – and appeared to handle the challenge of managing the tires better than his younger teammate. By his own admission, Schumacher isn't – and can't be – as good as he was 15 years ago. But he's still good enough to cut it at this level and improved significantly from last year.
HIGH POINT: Charge to run in second place in the wet in Montreal.
LOW POINT: Hitting Petrov while exiting the pits at Valencia – rookie error.
8: MARK WEBBER
When your teammate wins 11 races, takes 15 poles and the World Championship with weeks to spare and you win just one race, by definition you've not had a great season. The bottom line is that Webber had a title-winning car and was nowhere near in the final reckoning.
But he did come through the season with three pole positions and a win in Brazil, although the latter owed more to the gearbox problem – and yes, it was legitimate – that teammate Sebastian Vettel spent much of the race battling. He also banked consistent points to ensure that Red Bull ran away with the constructors' championship.
While superficially he was miles behind Vettel for most of the season, he had a better year than it might appear. Small differences often added up to a big loss by the end of the race, such is the intensity of competition at the front of the F1 field. A little off in qualifying often added up to a place or two on the grid and his struggles to get the car off the line didn't help. And neither did his difficulties in making the Pirelli tires last, that too many times led to the likes of Fernando Alonso slipping ahead of him in races.
Did Webber make the most of his machinery? Unquestionably not. But this was a case of a very good grand prix driver being made to look very average by a teammate operating at the absolute peak.
HIGH POINT: Charge from 18th on the grid to third in China.
LOW POINT: Stupid attempt to pass Felipe Massa at Monza led to his one retirement of the year.