The best of the best, 2008 (part 1)

November 3, 2008

In the spirit of being a judgemental old coot, I have decided to rank this year’s Formula 1 drivers in order of how well they performed in 2008.  For the record, this season saw absolutely no mid-season driver changes, which is unprecedented.  So, we can assume the teams all thought their drivers did OK.  Or, the drivers’ contract lawyers are better than ever.  Places 22-11 today and the top ten tomorrow.

22nd: TAKUMA SATO (Super Aguri Honda) No championship points; unplaced

21st: ANTHONY DAVIDSON (Super Aguri Honda) No championship points; unplaced

Sato and Davidson drove just four races in 2008, before their Super Aguri team went bust, so it’s difficult to draw any detailed conclusion as to how well they’re performing right now.  However, the facts are very simple.  Davidson outperformed Sato when it mattered in 2008.

20th: KAZUKI NAKAJIMA (Williams Toyota) 9 points; 15th position

Nakajima’s first full season of Grand Prix racing saw him take five points finishes.  Notably, however, four of these came in the first half of the season, as Nakajima’s performances tailed off.  Towards the end of the season he was more likely to come to anyone’s attention as a result of a prang with someone else rather than through his own prowess.  Out-qualified 14-4 by his teammate Nico Rosberg, Nakajima – confirmed in the Williams seat for 2009 – needs to improve very quickly to prove his place in the sport isn’t just on account of his nationality and his team’s engine supplier.

19th: DAVID COULTHARD (Red Bull Racing Renault) 8 points, 16th position

For all of the emotion of Coulthard’s farewell season, it’s impossible to argue that he hasn’t made the right choice in calling it a day.  His performances against that of his teammate, Mark Webber, were very weak: 2-16 in qualifying and 8-21 in Championship points.  Coulthard only troubled the scorers twice in 2008, and whilst this included a canny drive to 3rd in Canada – his team’s only podium of the year – DC’s problems on race day were not confined to a lack of results.  He was frequently involved in accidents with his rivals, most often when being passed.  He looked, sadly, like a man whose best days were long behind him.

18th: ADRIAN SUTIL (Force India Ferrari) No championship points; unplaced

17th: GIANCARLO FISICHELLA (Force India Ferrari) No championship points; unplaced

Sutil and Fisichella are virtually inseperable based on their performances this year, a sure sign of two evenly-matched drivers hamstrung by a not-competitive-enough car.  Sutil’s exceptional drive in Monaco, where the German was running 4th before being taken out of the race by Kimi Räikkönen, was Force India’s best Sunday afternoon of the season.  However, Fisichella shades it by virtue of a slightly superior qualifying head-to-head (10-8, including his team’s only appearance in Q2 of the year, in Italy) and a more consistent record on race day.  Sutil finished four less races than Fisichella this year, and will need to improve if Force India want to score points in 2009.

16th: JENSON BUTTON (Honda) 3 points; 18th position

To be fair to Button, his year has been another disaster through little fault of his own.  For the second consecutive season, his Honda car was so fundamentally flawed as to be a lost cause.  However, he was noticeably shown up by his teammate Rubens Barrichello.  Barrichello has more experience than anyone else in GP history, certainly, but Button – who will enter his 10th season in 2009 if Honda decide to retain him – has done little to persuade me that if Honda keep just one of their 2008 drivers for 2009, Button would get the nod for any reason other than his relative youth (he is 28 to Barrichello’s 36).  The Brazilian outqualified, outraced and outscored the Briton this term.  Button was not good enough.  Simple.

15th SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari) 4 points; 17th position

Bourdais’ 15th position is, yet again, a result of absolutely filthy luck.  So often in 2008, he did a solid job, only to lose out in the race – no more so than in Belgium, where he lost out on the last lap due to the weather, or in Italy, where his car failed to fire up on the formation lap from 4th on the grid.  Still, he always looked second-best to his young teammate Sebastian Vettel, who went on a spectacular run of points finishes in the second half of the year as Bourdais floundered.  History will probably look back on Bourdais more kindly – I suspect “beaten by Vettel” will, in 10 years time, be nothing to be ashamed of on one’s CV – but whether or not he’ll be on the grid in 2009 is very much in the balance.  It must be remembered that this was Bourdais’ rookie season, but I also feel that he was too easily bullied by his on track rivals this year and it may cost him his ride.  It would be harsh, but Formula 1 is.

14th: NELSINHO PIQUET (Renault) 19 points; 12th position

Another rookie who, like Bourdais, may find his shaky first year will see him pay with his drive.  Piquet’s saving grace is perhaps that this year’s Renault was really not much good until mid-season, and that as it improved so did his performances.  However, Piquet looked suspect in qualifying all through 2008 and it usually cost him on race day.  His best result – 2nd in Germany – came about due to a fortuitous pit call before a safety car, but his best drive was a strong 4th in Japan.  That race, however, was won by his teammate Fernando Alonso, the Spaniard also condemning Piquet to the fate of being the only driver in the field to be outqualified by his teammate 18 times out of 18.  Lucas di Grassi, a GP2 driver, waits menacingly in the wings.  It’s hard to see Piquet – not 24 until next summer – not getting another chance in Formula 1.  Whether it will be at Renault, however, is another matter.

13th: NICO ROSBERG (Williams Toyota) 17 points; 13th position

Rosberg remains one of Formula 1’s hottest properties for now, but another season like this one will probably see him slip into the “solid but unspectacular peddlers” class.  Much of it was caused by his car, which was perhaps the most maddeningly inconsistent in the field from race to race.  Rosberg also scored two podium finishes this year, 3rd in Australia and 2nd in Singapore, but the remainder of his points came from three 8th place finishes, meaning he only got as many points finishes as his largely disappointing teammate Nakajima (>19).  He’s fast, but there needs to be more return for it in 2009.

12th: MARK WEBBER (Red Bull Racing Renault) 21 points; 11th position

Webber was yet again solid and not a lot else.  His car was usually the culprit, unable to match the turns of ultimate speed it could reach in 2007.  Webber scored points in 9 of the 18 races and beat his teammate (>20) 14-4 on Saturday afternoons.  However, the highest of these finishes was only 4th, and the frequency of the top-8 appearances decreased through the summer and into the autumn, a result of the increasing speed of Red Bull’s “junior” team.  Webber deserves his place in F1, and deserves a decent car to show us exactly how quick he could be more than anyone.  Whether or not he’ll be able to match Vettel in the same team next year, though, I doubt.

11th RUBENS BARRICHELLO (Honda) 11 points; 14th position

Like Jenson Button (>16), the overriding factor behind Barrichello’s year was that his car was a piece of shit.  It was Rubens who acquitted himself the better, though.  As well as outqualifying Button 10-8, he also outqualified him where it really mattered, making more appearances in Q2 than the Briton.  He outraced him, too, his best result of the season was 3rd following a characteristically brilliant wet-weather drive at Silverstone.  Adding two other points finishes (three compared to Jenson’s one), the rumours that Barrichello, rather than Button, will be making way for Bruno Senna are all the more strange.  I suspect Rubens has now driven his last Grand Prix.  He couldn’t have done anything more to retain his place at the top level this year, though.  He would be a victim of nothing else but his age and in-team politics.

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