Edd Straw is F1 Editor for AUTOSPORT magazine
Perhaps the most unpredictable season in the history of the Formula 1 World Championship came to a characteristically dramatic end at Interlagos last week. With eight drivers winning races and 13 standing on the podium during the season, selecting the 10 standout performers is not an easy task.
The following ranking is based on a combination of factors, taking into account each drivers experience and machinery, their speed, consistency, style, technical contribution and results to produce an inherently subjective list of the top 10 drivers of the season.
10 PASTOR MALDONADO
The Venezuelan's season was error-riddled and erratic. He scored only 45 points in a car good enough for a three-figure tally. He racked up penalties and punishments at an astonishing rate. He was often all over the place on-track.
Yet, for all that, Maldonado was seriously fast. In Spain, he even claimed pole position, albeit after Lewis Hamilton had been excluded from qualifying for having insufficient fuel for a sample. That laid the foundations for his day of days. Despite losing the lead to Fernando Alonso at the start, he knew that his Williams had the edge and jumped ahead in the pits. After that, he had Alonso breathing down his neck but never looked like cracking. Maldonado's first F1 win, the first for the Williams team since Juan Pablo Montoya in Brazil 2004, was thanks to a drive of the highest order.
A race later, what the man himself was fond of calling “a bad moment” began in earnest. In reality, this had started earlier, for he crashed out of a certain sixth place on the last lap in Australia. But after Spain, the regularity of such incidents increased. First, it was Monaco, where Maldonado crashed unnecessarily with Sergio Perez in FP3 before shunting at Casino Square. That led to a 10-place grid penalty. Then there was a qualifying shunt in Canada, the clash with Lewis Hamilton at Valencia. Another collision with old GP2 enemy Perez followed at Silverstone, as did a barging match with Paul di Resta in Hungary. All were Maldonado's fault, most led to some form of punishment.
The bad moment was brought to a merciful close at Spa, where after a three-place grid penalty for impeding another car, Maldonado proceeded to jump the start and, after a safety car period, hit Timo Glock's Marussia. Yet for all that, he continued to catch the eye in qualifying, particularly with his knack for judging changing track conditions to perfection.
After the August break, things were calmer. In Singapore, he qualified a brilliant second only for a hydraulics problem to put him out. As late as Abu Dhabi, he managed third on the grid, with a KERS problem relegating him to fifth in the race.
Well over half of his points came from that win in Spain. But that drive, combined with his mercurial turn of pace, justifies his position. If he could temper that speed with calmness, he would be a great. But his career history suggests that he can't.
9 SERGIO PEREZ
It's amazing how fickle people can be. At the end of the European season, the talk was of how Perez was the next big thing. But after his move to McLaren was announced before the Indian Grand Prix, a series of stupid mistakes on-track led to a widespread belief that his promotion to the big league will be a catastrophe.
The reality is somewhere between those two extremes. When he's good, Perez is excellent. His near-win in Malaysia was stunning and, in the circumstances, costing himself a chance to pass Alonso by running off the track was forgivable.
There were other spectacular days, too. In Canada, he charged to third late on thanks to a tire advantage and went one better at Monza having started on the hard-compound Pirellis, passing both of the Ferraris on his way to second behind Lewis Hamilton. There was also a great charge from the lower midfield to sixth in Germany.
The trouble was that he only backed that up with three more points-scoring positions, eighth in Australia, ninth at Valencia and 10th in Singapore.
In part, that was down to the capricious nature of the Sauber. In qualifying, it very often struggled and as the season entered its final stages, it became harder and harder to climb into points contention. But Perez also has to take some responsibility, binning it at Suzuka while trying to pass Hamilton and driving into Romain Grosjean in Abu Dhabi.
There's also the question of his performance relative to Kamui Kobayashi. The Japanese driver is the definition of a solid, mid-ranking F1 racer and Perez should have put him firmly in his place in 2012. The Mexican was the better Sauber driver, but not by much. While his peaks were generally much higher, aside from Kobayashi's superb third place in Suzuka, it was pretty close overall.
The qualifying battle was dead level, with 10 “victories” apiece for Perez and Kobayashi, while in points terms, the gap was just six points in favor of the former.
But for all that, Perez still impressed this season. The potential is there and if he can up his game in qualifying, not to mention improve his consistency, he could emerge as a real asset for McLaren, even if emerging as a straight Hamilton replacement will be impossible.
There's a lot of promising raw material in Perez. It's now up to McLaren to shape that into a top driver. It could go either way.
8 DANIEL RICCIARDO
It wasn't easy for either of Scuderia Toro Rosso's rookie drivers to get noticed this season. The car quickly lost touch with the midfield after the early-season flyaways and it wasn't until the end of the European campaign that it re-emerged as a points contender, helped by the improvement of both of its inexperienced drivers.
But it was Ricciardo who really seized the opportunity to shine. An opportunistic pass on Vergne on a chaotic last lap in Australia gave Ricciardo his first F1 points. In Bahrain three races later, he qualified a sensational sixth with his pace actually superior to that of Vettel's pole lap from Turn 5 onward. Arguably, it was the qualifying lap of the season and the fact that Ricciardo threw it away with what he admitted was a terrible first lap, slumping 10 places, was symptomatic of how uneven a performer he was in the first part of the year. Despite that, he regularly thumped teammate Jean-Eric Vergne in qualifying.
After the August break, things improved vastly. Ricciardo himself was grateful for the time to reflect and he seemed to come back a far more mature driver. He scored five times in the final nine races, a decent feat given the machinery.
At Suzuka, in particular, he impressed immensely. Circumstances meant that he found himself firmly in the points, with quicker cars dropping back amid traffic. In the closing stages, he had Michael Schumacher, whose Mercedes had a tire advantage, breathing down his neck. Yet the Australian was wise to the veteran's attempts to get past and turned a race that should have resulted in zero points into a 10th place.
In points terms, he was actually outscored by Vergne 16-10, but don't be fooled by that. Ricciardo emerged as the more accomplished Toro Rosso driver.
To that must be added the caveat that he came into 2012 with an 11-race advantage over Vergne, so it will be fascinating to see whether he can continue to outshine the Frenchman, who certainly had his moments, next year.
If he does, the future looks very bright. The feeling inside Red Bull is that both of the current STR drivers have progressed at a better rate than their predecessors in the energy drinks giant's junior team. If Ricciardo continues on his current trajectory, he could emerge as a credible alternative to Mark Webber for the A-team.
7 MARK WEBBER
The Australian's performances were plunged into the shadows by Vettel's stunning late-season run, but this wasn't quite a repeat of 2011 for Webber. His problem is one of consistency. The high points are very high, but Webber tends to fluctuate wildly between the man who can dominate grands prix and one who can't live up to his often dominant teammate.
Early in the season, Webber did get the better of Vettel. While the German searched long and hard for a car that would allow him to aggressively – but controllably – rotate the rear on turn-in, Webber got the best out of the Red Bull more regularly. The result was two victories in the first half of the season.
His second Monaco Grand Prix win was the highlight. The Red Bull wasn't quite the best car on the streets of the principality that afternoon, and he drove in the knowledge that one mistake might allow one of the queue of cars behind him to leap ahead. But he was faultless.
Three races later, at Silverstone, he repeated the trick. This time, his win came after chasing down and passing Alonso with just four laps to go. At that point, he was the Spaniard's closest rival in the title race, just 13 points down. But from then on, pickings were relatively sparse as Vettel re-asserted himself as unquestioned team leader. So much so that Webber managed just two podiums in the final 11 races of the year.
Up until Suzuka, Webber still fancied his chances of getting in the championship fight. Then, Romain Grosjean tagged him at Turn 2 at Suzuka, effectively ending his push. Webber's reaction, to storm into Lotus hospitality to give the Frenchman a piece of his mind after the race, told you everything you needed to know about his view on the matter.
A week later, he had a shot at victory in Korea after taking pole position. But there, as has happened before, the nerves appeared to get the better of him as, according to those in the team, smooth operation of the clutch paddles eluded him at the start and he dropped behind Vettel off the line.
The bottom line is that, on average, Webber's season was good but nothing extraordinary. Perhaps the fact that he equaled the record for fourth places in a season with six – a record that he had set in 2011 – tells you everything you need to know. On his day, he can be mighty but over a season he is very good rather than great.
And that's exactly what Red Bull needs.
6 JENSON BUTTON
Button's season was bookended by wonderful victories in Australia and Brazil. But the 18 races between yielded a very mixed bag of highs and lows.
At his best, Button is a classical grand prix driver in the best possible sense – precise, ultra-consistent, clean but not a soft touch in battle and very quick. But at his worst, Button can work his way into a downward spiral while chasing a car that will give him what he wants. For his best is generally only accessible when the car is in his relatively tight performance window. That equated to a season in which he was unable to carry over the advantage he had over Hamilton in 2011, despite starting the year in the best possible way in Melbourne.
The trouble was that Button didn't get on at all with the tires. Even late in the season, he admitted that he was still baffled by the 2012 Pirellis, something that was at the root of a five-race stretch from Spain to Silverstone during which he struggled badly having become convinced that a system on the car was giving him the wrong feedback. That misstep, combined with some reliability problems at inopportune moments that made it difficult to get back on the right track, effectively put him out of title contention.
His re-emergence came at Hockenheim. A major update to the McLaren made the car far more to his liking and, had it been dry in qualifying, he'd have had a good chance of winning rather than taking second behind Alonso.
Two races later, at Spa, he was imperious and dominated from pole position. And while Hamilton doomed his weekend by switching back to the previous specification – and slower – rear wing, Button deserves credit for not making that same mistake.
Over the next seven races, Button was back to his usual solid level of performance. But at the Interlagos finale, he was able to push Hamilton in qualifying and outperformed him on slicks in damp conditions, conditions in which he excels. Had the safety car not robbed him and Nico Hulkenberg of a massive lead, there's no way that Button would have been behind Hamilton again. So it would be unfair to use the fact that it was only his teammate's clash with Hulkenberg that allowed him to get back in front as a criticism.
In terms of sheer pace, Button wasn't quite Hamilton's equal. But despite getting lost for a quarter of the season, his class showed through plenty of times in 2012.
Coming on Monday: the top 5