As the final days of the year count down, we assess the star Formula 1 performers of 2018 – and those who should have climbed higher in the Grand Prix firmament during the season just past.
The following countdown, from 10 to one, is unapologetically subjective, based on our own perceptions of drivers who either made the most of what they had to work with – or fell short of the machinery beneath them.
Agree with our order or not, race wins, points and championship tables never tell the whole story, in a sport increasingly more complex than any other.
In his second season at Renault, the German finished as the unofficial ‘Class B champion’, to finish seventh in the standings and best of the rest behind the Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull pairings. In his ninth season in F1, Hulkenberg displayed the consistency and quality you would expect of his vintage. And yet he never really springs a surprise. Facing Daniel Ricciardo in the same car in 2019, will it ever get any better for a driver once tipped as a future Ferrari star?
9. Sergio Perez
Respect is due. Facing one of the most hotly tipped rising talents in Esteban Ocon at Force India, this could have been the beginning of the end for Perez. Instead, he displayed both speed and leadership to carry the team through a difficult season in which he was forced to trigger their change of ownership by initiating a move into administration. A surprising lack of maturity still surfaces – his clash with Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams in Singapore was petulant and downright dirty – but the monied Mexican remains a very good and effective Grand Prix driver.
Does the Finn even deserve to make our top 10, following a season in which he failed to win a race for the best team in F1 and finished 161 points off his world champion team-mate in the final standings? Yes, but only because of bad luck in Azerbaijan that robbed him of a deserved win and team orders in Russia that cut him to the quick.
Bottas was simply not good enough in 2018 and can count himself fortunate to keep hold of his drive. The improvement will need to be vast if he is to continue with Mercedes beyond the season to come, with Esteban Ocon the most obvious candidate waiting in the wings to grab a golden – or more suitably silver – opportunity.
7. Kimi Räikkönen
There’s some irony in Kimi Räikkönen finally losing his Ferrari drive during what turned out to be his best season at the team from his second, five-year spell in red. The victory in Austin and his first since Australia 2013 was vintage Kimi, and added to 11 further podium finishes, resulted in his best championship position since 2012.
But for all the consistency, Räikkönen was never more than a support act to Vettel over the course of the whole season. No wonder his friend was disappointed to see him let go for 2019.
The string of mistakes, the occasional temper outbursts… the four-time world champion must be enduring an uncomfortable winter as he reflects on a difficult and disappointing season.
Ferrari gave him the fastest car for most of the time, and he used it brilliantly to win in Melbourne, Bahrain, Montreal, Silverstone and Spa. But the errors, including that unforgettable slow-speed slither off at Hockenheim, push him far down our order.
In his defence, and in striking comparison to title rival Lewis Hamilton, Vettel never had the confidence or support he required from his pitwall. He cut a lonely figure at times this year. If the frustration continues into 2019, how much longer will the Ferrari marriage last?
5. Daniel Ricciardo
A passing masterclass in China and a cool-headed victory in the face of an engine problem in Monaco briefly suggested the Australian could contend for the title. But once team-mate Max Verstappen got his head straight, Ricciardo’s season thereafter slipped away – not helped by woeful reliability.
The guy is both a fantastic character and racing driver, and deserved better at Red Bull. Will his switch to Renault unlock further brilliance – or will it become a career-killing move he will live to regret?
Sauber was much improved the year, thanks in part to Alfa Romeo (Fiat) support and strong management from Fred Vasseur. But Charles Leclerc still over-delivered. The 2017 Formula 2 champion took a few races to find his feet, then finished a superb seventh in Azerbaijan. By the autumn Ferrari had seen enough to sign him for 2019 in place of Räikkönen.
From what we’ve seen so far, the 21-year-old appears to be the real deal.
3. Fernando Alonso
So high? Yes, based on his relentless over-delivery in a team that didn’t deserve to benefit from his talent. Points in nine of the first 15 races even lifted him into contention to be ‘Class B’ champion, as time and again he gained ground from starts and raced hard for minor points. Stoffel Vandoorne, once highly rated, has been left to resort to Formula E after being destroyed in qualifying, Alonso completing the only team-mate Saturday whitewash in 2018.
By the end, even the two-time world champion couldn’t drag McLaren into the points any longer, and a wonderful F1 career petered out. The team management and engineers must at times wake in the dead night haunted by the cold realisation that they had one of the greatest of all time in their car – and blew it in the worst possible way. What a waste.
What a recovery. The string of desperate mistakes in the early races as team-mate Ricciardo showed him how it’s done left us questioning – briefly – if the young Dutchman had what it takes to harness his obvious natural ability. But how he gathered himself, from Canada on, and rediscovered his mojo is a sure sign that Verstappen will be Hamilton’s greatest challenger in the years to come – if Honda comes up trumps for Red Bull, that is. Only two victories in 2018 is a reflection more on Red Bull than Max.
For the sake of F1 itself, the team simply must give him what he needs to take the next step.
1. Lewis Hamilton
It’s become fashionable to state that Alonso is the greatest F1 driver of his generation, and yes, the Spaniard is mighty. But let’s face it: given his prodigious qualifying pace and ability to pull out a pole position lap when up against it, Hamilton has everything to match his old rival – and actually a little bit more.
The five-time world champion has never driven better than in 2018. Mistakes were minor, and few and far between, as he put in the hard yards to get on top of another tricky Mercedes. Yes, the W06 was the quickest car eventually, but only because of relentless work from both team and driver. And when he had to – as at Monza, one of the greatest of his 73 victories so far – he could dig deep for that special performance.
He has many critics – but don’t listen to them. We are watching one of the greatest racing drivers in history right now, and he’s only getting better.