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.
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.