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.
7: ADRIAN SUTIL
This was unquestionably Sutil's finest season in Formula 1, and in some ways his most challenging as he had to raise his game to take on rookie teammate Paul di Resta. Had he performed as he did in the second half of the year throughout, he'd have been several places higher in this list, but it was an uneven season for the German.
After scoring a couple of points in the first race of the season in Melbourne and then seventh in Monaco after throwing away a potentially better result when he put his Force India into the wall on shot tires, his season began in earnest at the Nurburgring. With grip at a premium, he excelled in low grip conditions to put the car eighth on the grid while di Resta struggled. He converted that into an excellent sixth place.
There were further points finishes at Spa and Singapore, but his really strong run came in the final three races of the season, with ninth in India, eighth in Abu Dhabi and then a remarkable sixth place in Brazil that stands as one of the drives of the season. It's true that his best performances correlated with the realization that he was fighting for his future but that late run played a key role in Force India's successful year.
Sutil proved beyond question that he belongs in F1 and is a very reliable performer, even though question marks remain over his ability to drive a team's development.
HIGH POINT: Devastating form throughout the Brazil weekend.
LOW POINT: The China nightclub incident and its fallout.
6: PAUL DI RESTA
The end of the Scot's season was a little underwhelming with a run of tracks that he had never visited before, but despite this it was a mightily impressive rookie campaign. In this era of strictly limited testing, it's easy to underestimate just how difficult it is to come into F1 and look at home instantly, which is exactly what the shrewd di Resta did.
In the early races, he was able to assert himself over teammate Adrian Sutil and went on to turn in two of the most remarkable cameos of the season. He climbed to fifth in wet conditions in the first part of the race in Canada before his race fell apart after a clash with Nick Heidfeld. Then, at Silverstone, he turned in a stunning Q3 performance to line up sixth on the grid at his home grand prix. On both occasions, he outperformed the par of the car by a long way.
Remember, this is a guy who hadn't raced an open-wheeler since winning the F3 Euro Series in 2006, and yet looked completely at home. There were a few scrapes in the first half of the season – hitting Jaime Alguersuari in Monaco, then having the Canada mishap and clipping Sebastien Buemi at Silverstone – but that's to be expected in a rookie campaign.
The raw statistics show that Sutil had the edge 10-9 in qualifying and by 42 points to 27, but he's had five years to get to that level. There's a lot more to come from di Resta.
HIGH POINT: Stunning sixth place in qualifying at Silverstone.
LOW POINT: Driving into Alguersuari at the hairpin in Monaco.
5: NICO ROSBERG
When you think about Nico Rosberg's 2011 season, it feels strangely innocuous. Aside from his race-leading stints during the Belgian and Chinese grands prix, it has been very easy to ignore his exploits. But just because he's been a little off the radar doesn't mean that he's had anything other than a strong season.
Ten times he finished between fifth and seventh – which, considering the Mercedes was, on average, the fourth most competitive car on the grid, was a decent return. He continued to dominate teammate Michael Schumacher in qualifying, although it was often nip and tuck in the races. Partly it was because Schumacher's race pace was far stronger than his single-lap form, but it was also down to the fact that Rosberg regularly struggled to make his tires last as long. Several times, this allowed Schumacher to jump ahead of him in races.
Ultimately, he finished seventh in the drivers' championship in a car that had no business doing any better. On five occasions, he was the best finisher from outside the top three teams and he was consistency personified. Only twice did he fail to finish, in Australia and Italy, and both of those were the results of assaults from other drivers for which Rosberg was blameless.
Rosberg's season was not great, but he was quick, consistent and showed us yet again that we need to see him in a truly competitive car alongside a known-quantity driver to judge his ultimate potential.
HIGH POINT: Glorious spell in the lead in China.
LOW POINT: A pointless Malaysian Grand Prix, struggling for pace and battling tire degradation.
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.