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.
If you missed the the first half of the list, click here to catch up. Otherwise, read on.
-Edd Straw, F1 Editor for AUTOSPORT magazine
5 KIMI RAIKKONEN
The Finn had a great many doubters regarding his F1 comeback, and understandably so. Having left the sport behind after being ousted by Ferrari despite a McLaren deal being in the offing, it wasn't clear which way his comeback after two years in the World Rally Championship would go. But the Finn's appetite for wheel-to-wheel racing had been whetted to very effectively by his brief dalliance with NASCAR in 2011 and he had a strong season. Raikkonen was never worse than solid and was often superb, even though he arguably missed out on the best of the Lotus E20 while he re-adapted to F1.
But he was the 2012 season's Mr. Consistency, which was something of a surprise given the circumstances of his return. From the start, he got on well with the car, although it took a while to get on top of the Pirelli tire characteristics given that he'd missed the first year of the Italian company's F1 return. This caused his one pointless race of the year in China, where he plummeted from second out of the points in just two laps when tire performance plummeted off the proverbial cliff.
Yet, one race later, he fought toe to toe with Vettel for victory in Bahrain. You can make a case that had this duel happened in the same circumstances, the Finn would have prevailed for he seemed to be feeling his way back into wheel-to-wheel racing and had to settle for second.
While his qualifying pace in the first half of the season often paled in comparison to lightning-quick teammate Romain Grosjean, his race performances were often better. In Spain, he closed on the top two late on and in Hungary he latched onto the back of leader Hamilton but couldn't quite take that comeback win.
When it did come, it did so off the back of Lotus's introduction of an exhaust design harnessing the Coanda effect. Once Hamilton had retired from the lead in Abu Dhabi, Raikkkonen always had things under control – as his famous “Leave me alone, I know what I'm doing” attested – and he kept Alonso at bay to win for the first time since Spa 2009.
His final tally of 20 finishes, 19 top 10s, one victory, third in the championship and a laps completed column that was missing just a single lap was remarkable on his return. The question now is, can he kick on in 2013?
4 NICO HULKENBERG
After a year on the sidelines driving only on Friday mornings, it's understandable that the 25-year-old took a while to feel his way back in. But despite being a little rattled by teammate Paul di Resta's performances in the first half of the year, Hulkenberg soon seized the initiative and become the dominant force in the final six races of the season.
Hulkenberg oozes class on every level. Quick in all conditions and a wonderful opportunist in battle, it wasn't until the European Grand Prix at Valencia that he was able to catch the eye with a top result despite turning in some good performances. His fifth place came thanks to some calm driving in the closing stages while others around him were losing their heads and in a car that the Force India team was still trying to get the best out of. After the break, he got off on the right foot by finishing fourth at Spa after some good fortune in the chaotic start allowed him to jump to the front. But the important thing is that he was able to stay there.
But it was in the final third of the season that he proved to the doubters how strong he is. Seventh in Japan was followed by a wonderful performance in Korea, using every inch of the track but no more to pass Hamilton and Grosjean in one move on his way to an outstanding sixth place.
Eighth places in India and Austin sandwiched Abu Dhabi, from which he retired in a collision that started on the run to the first corner. But those first 19 races were just the prelude to an astonishing drive in Brazil.
There, he and Button excelled on slicks in damp conditions to open up a monumental lead before it was cut back by the safety car. Although he lost first place to Hamilton with a half-spin in difficult conditions, he was attempting to retake it when the rear of the car just got away from him while passing the McLaren. While he clobbered Hamilton's car, putting it out of the race, it was the most understandable of errors while chasing an unlikely win and the penalty that followed, very harshly given for the consequences rather than the magnitude of the offence, dropped him to fifth.
But, make no mistake, this lofty position is not down to one race. In often mediocre machinery he did a superb job, ultimately vanquishing a rightly well-regarded teammate in the process. The trajectory of his season, from establishing himself early on through going toe to toe with his team to eventual domination within Force India, was perfect.
3 SEBASTIAN VETTEL
To rank the man who took the ultimate prize only third is not to deny that he was a worthy champion. Any one of Vettel, Hamilton or Alonso delivered strong seasons and, as history shows us, they are all of World Champion caliber. But for all Vettel's heroics and remarkable achievement in becoming a triple World Champion at just 25, his campaign was uneven. While the final third was stunning, there were patches where he was less convincing as he grappled with a car that wasn't quite to his liking.
At the root of the problems was the ban on exhaust-blown diffusers. That robbed the Red Bull of a set of car characteristics that he was at one with. In 2011, his trademark was to rotate the rear aggressively on turn-in, in slow corners in particular, but in a way that ensured he had the car neat and tidy well before the apex. In the first part of this year, he couldn't do that consistently.
It took Red Bull a while to get on top of the new rules and harness the residual exhaust blowing effect and during that period that Vettel's performances were a little erratic. In China, he even switched to the exhaust setup with which the Red Bull had been launched. It was slower, Adrian Newey spent most of the weekend focused on Webber's car and Vettel recognized that he had to make it work.
The result was a victory in Bahrain next time out. But it was a false dawn and Webber took the next two Red Bull wins. Even then, Vettel was only denied victory at Valencia by a dodgy alternator.
There were a few errors, too. It's baffling that Vettel thought there was any chance of getting away with overtaking Button for second by running entirely off the track at the hairpin. The resulting penalty relegated him to fifth. At Monza, he attempted to pay Alonso back for forcing him off track in 2011, something that earned him a penalty under the new rules.
But from Singapore onward, it all clicked. He took the lead there after Hamilton's retirement to take the first of four consecutive wins that were the foundation of his title. It wasn't easy though. In Abu Dhabi, he had to charge from last to third after being excluded from qualifying and in the United States Grand Prix, he was defeated by Hamilton in a tense fight.
That set up the chaotic finale. But while Vettel had a hand in his own first lap disaster, swooping to the Turn 4 apex on a crowded track and encountering Bruno Senna, from there his performance in a hobbled car was superb.
It wasn't perfect, but it was a hell of a season and there is probably no quicker driver in F1 than a hooked-up Vettel on a qualifying lap.