2 LEWIS HAMILTON
Although the 2008 World Champion wasn't a factor in the title run-in, he had a brilliant valedictory season at McLaren. In fact, it was probably the best season of his F1 career.
As far as raw pace was concerned, he was as quick as ever. In qualifying, he defeated Jenson Button 16-4, and that margin would have been even more crushing had McLaren not sent him out with insufficient fuel in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix. But in 2011, that speed had been tempered by a penchant for rookie blunders and driving into Felipe Massa. What really impressed this year was his Sunday form.
At a time when everyone struggled with tire management, Hamilton fared better than teammate Button, an acclaimed master of the art. While he had to give best to Jenson in Melbourne, eventually finishing third after a badly timed safety car allowed Vettel to jump him, Hamilton was the man at McLaren for much of the season.
A series of pit stop blunders cost him a significant. It wasn't until Canada, the seventh race of the campaign, that he opened his victory account. But after taking his second win in Hungary under pressure from the Lotuses, the stage seemed set for a title push.
But it wasn't to be. Despite winning at Monza, he was wiped out by Grosjean at the start at Spa and lost victories while leading through no fault of his own at Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Brazil. Those disasters, coupled with the points lost earlier in the season, meant that he wasn't even a championship factor.
Yet his quite brilliant victory at Austin after stalking Vettel, proved what he was capable of. It was an opportunistic move, built upon Vettel encountering Narain Karthikeyan's HRT at a point in the track where there was no room to pass, and has to go down as one of his finest grand prix victories.
That Hamilton performed so well, with his only significant mistake not yielding to the wild Maldonado in Valencia and ending up in the wall (although it has to be pointed out that this accident was still the Williams driver's fault), against a backdrop of intense question marks about his future is testament to his focus.
Had McLaren delivered both sides of its bargain – a reliable car as well as one capable of being quick – it might have been a very different story in 2012. And perhaps the Hamilton and McLaren story might have stretched into the future.
1 FERNANDO ALONSO
The Spaniard rated 2012 as his greatest season. It probably was. Driving a Ferrari that was generally thereabouts rather than there, he came within three points of taking the World Championship.
The plan early in the season was simple; hang in there and don't lose too much ground in the driver's championship while Ferrari sorted out its early season car problems. By Alonso's reckoning, the car was a couple of seconds off the pace at the first pre-season test at Jerez in Spain and come Australia, he was unable to do better than 12th on the grid. A typically tenacious drive netted fifth place as the pattern for the Ferrari F2012 being stronger on race pace than qualifying speed was set.
Sadly for Alonso, while the car did improve, it never did so to the point where it was the machine of choice. Its relatively consistent level of performance was an asset in first half of the season for as McLaren, Red Bull and Lotus endured fluctuating form, Alonso continued to bank good points.
After the difficult first four races, the highlight of which was that surprise victory in the Malaysian rain, Alonso was on the podium 12 times in 16 races. But wins were harder to come by. At Valencia, he charged from 11th on the grid to second, capitalising when Sebastian Vettel retired with an alternator failure. At Silverstone, he took advantage of rain in qualifying to take pole position, setting up a second place in the dry race. He went one better at Hockenheim after similar conditions on Saturday.
That that meant that Alonso went into the August break 40 points clear of the pack. But without rain, he struggled to get into the mix for victories. Consistency only went so far and its value as always going to be diminished if one driver and team started to dominate.
Alonso suffered on both counts. He was innocent at Spa, where Romain Grosjean's flying Lotus torpedoed his Ferrari at the first corner. But the Spaniard has to carry the can for moving over on Kimi Raikkonen at the start at Suzuka. Those two blanks, combined with Vettel's emerging form, meant that Alonso was doomed.
But still, he hung on in there. Yet even in Brazil, where circumstances opened up beautifully for Alonso and he had to battle the stress of his most intense season, he couldn't pull it off.
The Ferrari simply wasn't good enough.
In this most competitive of seasons, several drivers can count themselves as unlucky to miss out. They are listed in car number order and no ranking is implied.
Felipe Massa finished the season superbly and was Alonso's superior in the final two races, convincing the world that he does have a future as a very credible F1 driver. But the first half of the year was so dismal that he has no place in the top 10.
Nico Rosberg won in China and was still pulling good qualifying performances out of the bag as Mercedes faded, but he missed a golden opportunity to win in Monaco and, for the first two-thirds of the season, couldn't assert himself over his teammate.
Michael Schumacher had his moments, both good and bad, with the illusory pole position in Monaco the highlight, although his form relative to Rosberg faded once he realized that he was on his way out of F1.
Romain Grosjean was stunningly fast at times and has a bright future in F1. Despite all of the mishaps, Lotus would be mad to get rid of him and he was very close to a berth in the top 10.
Jerome d'Ambrosio stood in for Grosjean at Monza and did a capable job. Had KERS not packed in, he might have scored a point.
Paul di Resta put together two-thirds of an excellent season, but dropped off terribly in the closing stages. Some in the team ascribed it to a questionable attitude after missing out on a hoped-for move to a top team. Expect him to bounce back next year.
Kamui Kobayashi pushed Sergio Perez hard at times and took a stunning third on home soil, but ultimately wasn't as consistent as he should be.
Jean-Eric Vergne struggled to string weekends together and often overdrove in qualifying but showed more than enough to justify his place at the team for a second season.
Bruno Senna was very often competitive in race trim, but consistently under-delivered in qualifying even on weekends where he did drive in the first free practice session.
Heikki Kovalainen seemed to lose his edge once he realized that his drive was in peril but was still a dependable performer.
Vitaly Petrov was predictably up and down, but his race pace often compared well to Kovalainen and his qualifying form gradually improved too. The mistakes were also vastly reduced.
Pedro de la Rosa was HRT's Mr. Dependable, doing exactly the job you would expect of him.
Narain Karthikeyan regularly got HRT's second-string equipment and did all that could be expected in impossible circumstances.
Timo Glock led Marussia very well, almost earning the team 10th place in the constructors' championship, although occasionally got the hurry-up from his teammate.
Charles Pic was the rookie of the year, showing great pace relative to Glock despite getting ambushed by Petrov, costing the team 10th, after a strong drive in the wet at Interlagos. Has a long F1 career ahead of him.