4: LEWIS HAMILTON
The 2008 World Champion's season descended into near-farce during the second half of the year with a string of inexcusable errors that would have led to less well-established drivers having their right to be on the grid being questioned. His blunder at Spa, in particular – when he shunted after moving across on Kamui Kobayashi, who he claimed not to know was there despite defending on the run to Les Combes – was the nadir on track, but it was far from the only problem.
There was also driving into Felipe Massa and poor Pastor Maldonado in Monaco, colliding with Jenson Button in Canada (which Hamilton should only take a share of the blame in), spinning and recklessly recovering in front of Paul di Resta in Hungary, clipping Massa again in the Singapore Grand Prix and then steering into him in Suzuka. Then there were the weaving and yellow flag infringements.
Horrendous as his errors were at times this year, and it's impossible to think of a top-line driver who has ever put together so bizarre a sequence of blunders, we also saw enough to justify him taking a distant best of the rest behind the three standout drivers of 2011.
In Spain, he drove superbly, harrying Sebastian Vettel for the lead during the final stint. His victory in China, achieved courtesy of an opportunistic move when Vettel was steeling himself for an attack on the straight, was also among his best. As for Abu Dhabi, it was a cathartic victory for Hamilton, who had Fernando Alonso piling the pressure on all race but who didn't miss a beat.
There were only six podiums, half of them in the first five races of the season. And that, combined with his slip-ups, isn't good enough even though the high points were as impressive as ever.
HIGH POINT: Redemption through victory in Abu Dhabi.
LOW POINT: Blundering into Kamui Kobayashi at Spa, claiming he didn't know he was there despite defending against him on the straight.
3: FERNANDO ALONSO
The Spaniard is surely F1's most terrifying driver. Despite a car that was, by and large, third fastest and that left him fourth or fifth on the grid very often, you could rely on him to loom large in the mirrors of the McLaren drivers and the odd Red Bull on a consistent basis.
Silverstone was his day of days. A Red Bull pit stop slip handed him the lead over Vettel and he capitalized on that blip ruthlessly to eventually take his sole win of the season. Despite usually being thereabouts, his machinery never really let him do better than that and the real battle that he faced was to make the podium. His 50 percent strike rate in that regard was impressive, especially when you take into account that teammate Felipe Massa didn't manage to finish better than fifth.
He also kept the car in the victory hunt on several occasions when he really shouldn't have been able to. At the Nurburgring, he finished a close second, while in Abu Dhabi he was at his relentless best and never allowed leader Hamilton to relax. He was also brilliant to watch off the line, too. In Spain, for example, the Ferrari took off spectacularly, but it was Alonso's force of will that allowed him to squeeze up the inside into the lead. Sadly, that determination was not matched by the car, which left him a lap down after leading during the first stint.
There were a couple of occasions where the Alonso ennui set in, when even his determination couldn't keep his interest up, but they were few and far between. All things considered, Alonso had a fantastic season and, but for the fact that he has the advantage of a team built around him and a faded force as a teammate, he might have been higher in this list.
HIGH POINT: Glorious first stint lead in Spain.
LOW POINT: Realizing that his Ferrari wasn't even good enough to finish on the lead lap after doing that.
2: JENSON BUTTON
In a word, classy. Everything Jenson Button did on and off track during 2011 oozed the class of a driver at the top of his game. Smooth, consistent and able to balance the demands of managing high-degradation tires with KERS and DRS operation as well as seeing the big picture in races better than anyone else. He also established himself as McLaren's go-to guy once Hamilton started to hit trouble and would have sewn up second in the drivers' championship long before Brazil had he not suffered back-to-back retirements in Britain and Germany, thanks to a pit stop blunder and a hydraulics problem, respectively.
The crowning glory of his season was Canada, where he survived a controversial clash with Hamilton on the pit straight and contact with Alonso to pass Vettel on the final lap. At one stage of the race, he was dead last, and it's questionable whether any other driver could have pulled off such an impressive recovery.
He also won in Hungary, where making the right call to stay on slicks when the rain came might have allowed him to beat Hamilton even without his teammate getting a penalty. But in many ways, Suzuka was his best win. Having been edged out for pole by nine-thousandths of a second, he overhauled Vettel in a straight fight, passing him in the pit stops. It wasn't as spectacular as Canada but it was a brilliantly executed win.
Add to those three wins a further nine podiums, which included a superb drive at Monaco on a three-stopper that could have yielded victory but for the Vitaly Petrov-induced red flag, and you have a hell of a campaign even though on any given, single all-out lap, you'd back Hamilton to shade him.
HIGH POINT: Last-to-first victory in Canada.
LOW POINT: Cutting the track when passing Massa in Melbourne and expecting to get away with it.
1: SEBASTIAN VETTEL
Vettel was so devastatingly effective that he made a car that more often than not had a relatively small advantage into one that was utterly dominant, winning 11 out of 19 races and bagging a record 15 pole positions. It takes a true great to do that.
The 24-year-old adhered to a simple template in 2011. Rarely satisfied with the car during practice, he worked as hard, if not harder, than any driver in the field, leaving no stone unturned in search of each infinitesimal advantage. Come qualifying, he usually delivered an Ayrton Senna-style lap of ultimate commitment and speed, extracting the absolute maximum grip from the new Pirelli tires that so many struggled to master without ever overstepping the mark. From there, he controlled the race in a calculated way that meant he was often able to drive within himself and still be devastatingly fast.
There were a couple of errors. One while trying to get clear of DRS range on the last lap in Canada that handed victory to Button and another by allowing Lewis Hamilton to ambush him late in the Chinese Grand Prix – although the latter was a race that he was going to lose anyway, thanks to a strategic blunder caused by a radio problem. Aside from that, and four crashes during Friday practice, he was stunning. He could pass, too, as exemplified by overtaking Fernando Alonso at over 160mph on the grass to win at Monza.
It's a measure of the man that he pulled that move almost on principle, for had he waited for the pit stops, he would surely have won anyway.
HIGH POINT: That pass on Alonso at Monza.
LOW POINT: Mistake under pressure that cost him the lead in Canada.