5. Carlos Sainz
The Spaniard’s sophomore year in Formula 1 was desperately impressive. Consider for a moment that he and Toro Rosso entered the season with few expectations, running as they were a year-old Ferrari Power Unit which would receive no updates between lights out in Australia and chequered flag in Abu Dhabi. As such it was the early races of the season in which the team hoped to make its biggest push for points and yet Sainz consistently put his car in places it had no right to be, putting in performances that promoted his team to seventh in the Constructors’ Championship, just 11 points shy of McLaren Honda.
Factor in also the emotional gut punch that the promotion of Max Verstappen to Red Bull Racing created, and the realisation that a seat at the top team now could not be his for the foreseeable future, and the youngster’s ability to compose himself and carry on in the manner he did is all the more impressive.
He had nine Q3 appearances in 2016, which by all accounts should have been 10 save for the technical failure which put him out of Q2 in Austria, and despite the severe power deficit of his car leaving him with a target on his back in almost every race, he was able to bring it home in the points on ten occasions.
Canada (11 positions from start), Austria (7), America (4) and Brazil (9) stand out as exquisite drives, and one wonders what he might have achieved in Singapore were it not for the first lap contact with Nico Hulkenberg which saw him pick up damage and receive a meatball flag that relegated him out of points contention. But for me, one of the races which stood out the most was Japan. He qualified 14th and finished 17th. He was all over the place. But when the flag fell he attempted to make not one excuse. He merely apologised for his driving and said he hoped he hadn’t spoiled anyone’s race.
A driver who is so readily willing to accept when he is not as his best, seek to put no blame on anyone but himself, and use that introspection to further his racecraft is a rare thing indeed in the supposed pinnacle of open wheel racing. Not only is he critically aware however, he is quickly maturing into one of the most tenacious and impressive drivers in the sport. If I was Toto Wolff, I’d have no hesitation in putting in the call and paying whatever Helmut Marko asked to break him away from a Toro Rosso squad from which the Spaniard knows he has little chance of progressing within the Red Bull family. Carlos Sainz is a champion in waiting.
4. Nico Rosberg
The 2016 Formula 1 World Champion did everything he needed to do to wrap up the biggest prize in open wheel racing. And yet, for all his moments of brilliance, there will forever be question marks over the manner in which Nico Rosberg became champion. Even as the champagne was drying into the fibres of his race suit in Abu Dhabi, articles were penned and the debate initiated as to whether he was deserving of his place in the pantheon of the all-time greats.
Make no mistake about it, Nico Rosberg is a fine driver. His ability to put a car through its paces with metronomic efficiency, think around problems, extract the maximum from his equipment whilst also being kind to it, should be applauded. But with the finest car in the field at his disposal there were many who wanted to see more from the German in the year that he finally put it all together. There were many who left 2016 feeling deflated.
Rosberg worked harder than ever in 2016 to get on top of the niggles that had let him down in his previous two championship fights with Lewis Hamilton. It is inarguable that he started the season as by far the more prepared driver. He had spent the winter redoubling his efforts to understand both himself and his car, to use everything in his armoury to unsettle his now three-time world champion stablemate. Those in Hamilton’s corner will forever use either the shifting of mechanics at the start of the season or the Briton’s misfortune with car reliability as the reason for Rosberg’s successes in 2016, but the fact that these issues riled Lewis so much, the fact he allowed them to permeate his confidence, has everything to do with the fact that Rosberg in himself presented a more difficult prospect to beat than he ever had before. We should not forget that in their entire careers, Nico Rosberg had never beaten Lewis Hamilton to a championship. But 2016 spec Nico Rosberg was a different prospect to the boy and latterly the man whom Lewis Hamilton had taken it for granted he could not just match, but defeat.
Rosberg’s start to the season was sensational. And, after Hamilton’s incredible run of form which saw his comeback reignite the championship fight, Rosberg found it within him to pull another, previously undiscovered level. His race weekends in Singapore and Japan were nigh-on perfect.
But, and there is a but, Rosberg lacked in one key area. His racecraft. Be it in his defensive driving or his attacking acumen, he at all times appeared clunky. Spain, Germany and Austria proved he lacked the requisite ability to keep a driver behind him cleanly. His attempts at passing were all too often born of the same problems. He was penalised on multiple occasions for attempting to edge a driver beyond the limits of acceptable racing in situations which, frankly, should never have required such actions. It was as if he was overthinking his moves, and with that came an overall feeling that his racecraft lacked finesse and quality. His move on Verstappen in Abu Dhabi, even with the Red Bull on older tyres, was a heart in the mouth moment not just because of its audaciousness, but because it was the kind of thing we’d seen go wrong in races earlier in the season.
It’s all well and good having the fastest car and taking it to the top step, but when he was pulled into the fight, all too often one was left with the impression that he had been found wanting. In three years as team-mates he never once put a move on Hamilton and made it stick (no, race starts don’t count). In his entire Formula 1 career he never once won a wet race. And so the questions from the doubters will always remain as to whether he truly had the ability to fight in all situations, or whether he simply played the smart game by the numbers.
But such small trifles will matter not to him. With his retirement announced, his place is assured. Personally, I think it is a great shame we will never get to see what Nico Rosberg could have become, how he might have raced and how his mettle might have hardened without the pressurised constraints of the effort required to win that all important first title. But he’s done what he always set out to do. And for him that is enough, and all that matters. Nico Rosberg is the Formula 1 World Champion.
3. Max Verstappen
If Max Verstappen rocked the establishment in his rookie season, he began to completely take it apart in his follow up year. Many will name him their driver of the season, such was his impact and so large does his ability rest in the focus, but to do so would be to overlook the rough edges which still exist, and which we must expect to exist, in a racer who is still so young and still so comparatively inexperienced.
Nobody could fail to have been impressed by Verstappen’s ascent to the top, nor his stunning debut for Red Bull Racing in Barcelona. Of course, one could argue that the strategy that day was played out by the team to give their new charge a better chance of winning than that afforded to his team leader Daniel Ricciardo, but Verstappen still had to make it work. The way he toyed with Raikkonen in the closing laps, the manner in which he looked after his tyres and pulled away from the final chicane to leave the Finn just metres behind a realistic pass attempt and his ability to soak up the pressure was phenomenal. That the race itself was just the fifth time he had been strapped into the Red Bull RB12 after three practice sessions and one quali, makes the achievement all the more incredible.
Of course, Verstappen courted controversy in 2016 too. His defensive tactics were deemed to be highly questionable, with Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari leading the vocal minority who had an issue with his allegedly late moves. Verstappen’s methods led to the rule of what was and was not permitted under the auspices of defensive driving to be clarified under what became, slightly unfairly, to be known as “The Verstappen Rule.” I say unfairly, because the rule wasn’t actually changed, merely clarified. It also seems slightly unfair to have dubbed it as such as Verstappen himself was never found guilty of exceeding the legalities of the rule, while other far more experienced drivers were.
Verstappen was able to frustrate his rivals so much due to a deft feel for the brakes. That, combined with the aerodynamic efficiency of the RB12 and its ability to be stopped and turned on its nose, made the Dutchman an almost impassable prospect. But his audacious attacking abilities are what marked him out in equal measure. I’ve explained already why Brazil was a great drive but in reality nothing earth shattering, but the fact that he was the only driver willing or able, apart from Esteban Ocon, to try those lines is something we should all applaud. If there is a downside it is in qualifying. He has the pace, but too infrequently does he put it all together.
He is still rough around the edges. In contrast to the likes of Carlos Sainz, Verstappen’s ego-driven confidence makes one question whether he holds the ability to be self-critical. If not, he will find it harder to learn and to develop if he has to be told by either his bosses or his father when he needs to analyse what he is doing, than in being able to do so of his own volition. He’s also needlessly thrown away potentially great results. Monaco was a horrible weekend, and his spin at the start in Abu Dhabi was born of the youthful desire to get everything done on the first lap.
He will learn, one hopes. And when he does, he will become an incredible prospect. For now, he seems to be on the verge of true greatness. A sensational racer, with talent oozing from every pore. He can pass, he can defend, he can rile his opponents and dance around them in almost every weather condition. And he’s still so young.
When those rusty edges get cleaned up, he’s going to be ridiculous.
2. Lewis Hamilton
The most poles and the most wins of 2016, yet Lewis Hamilton saw the world championship slip from his grasp and into the hands of his team-mate. Was that the fault of his team or does he need to take this one on the chin and admit that he was, in equal measure, responsible for letting it get away?
There is no way of getting around the fact that Nico Rosberg entered 2016 as the better prepared of the Mercedes drivers. With a tricky clutch on the W07 Hybrid, it was the German who had gone to great lengths to understand its intricacies in pre-season, while Hamilton took time to get to grips with it once the season had started. The lost positions he suffered at race starts throughout the year is thus on him. Some will argue that Hamilton’s focus wasn’t fully committed to the sport in the early part of the season either, with so much time being spent Stateside playing at being a model or a musician.
From early on, though, something changed in Lewis Hamilton. Looking at the opposite side of the garage he could barely have recognised the man in the other silver car. This was not the Nico Rosberg of old. He was more focussed, more composed and more complete than ever before and Hamilton quickly realised he would have to bring everything he had to F1 2016 if he was to beat him and hang on to his title.
But with technical gremlins hitting seemingly only Hamilton’s car, the frustrations started to show themselves. The Briton regularly and publically questioned the shifting of his mechanics onto Rosberg’s car at the start of the season. The cryptic “Someone doesn’t want me to win this” quote, after yet another mechanical failure, resonated. To the outside world Lewis was either throwing his team under the bus or venting his annoyances at factors outside his control. Or, perhaps, they were the only way he could exhale the frustrations he felt in himself for either not being completely on it from day one or for allowing Rosberg to get under his skin.
Spain was, for me, the turning point. When Rosberg ran Hamilton off the road, I have little doubt that Hamilton’s mindset ran that if he wasn’t finishing the race he’d be damned if Rosberg wasn’t coming with him. From that point on he redoubled, and put in a quite magnificent run of form which lasted the remainder of the season. He overturned a 43 point deficit to lead the championship going into the summer break by an incredible 19, despite an off colour weekend in Azerbaijan.
He continued to drive quite brilliantly, but still lost out to Rosberg in the four races immediately following the summer holiday. Rosberg would put in another blinder in Japan, usually one of Hamilton’s happier hunting grounds, before the Brit went on to take the final four races of the season, eventually losing the title by five points. The engine failure in Malaysia, while leading, and the 28 point shift that put into play will be seen as the real nail in the coffin for Hamilton’s season. But, if we are being honest, it came far earlier.
Nico, Max and Lewis could have been put into any one of the positions from four to two on this list. There are positives and negatives in each of their seasons and finding the right order in which to place them has not been an easy task. For the simple fact that he overcame such a huge deficit and would, but for Malaysia, have entered that final weekend leading the championship, Hamilton thus nudges his way to the top of the pile of three.
He drove wonderfully for three quarters of the season. And while reliability woes of course played their part, one feels if he’d just been on it from day one, he might have finished a place higher. On this list, and the one that really matters.
1. Daniel Ricciardo
There isn’t a more rounded driver in modern day Formula 1 than Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian cemented himself as the sport’s leading light both on and off track in 2016 after a season born in equal part of frustration and fortitude.
“In the way he approaches racing he’s always very committed to everything he does. On the track you cannot see any mistakes when you are together with him. In the overtaking manoeuvres probably he is the best out there. When he commits to one movement, 99 per cent he will achieve the result that he wanted.”
These are the words of Fernando Alonso about a man whose approach to the sport and to racing commands the respect and admiration not just of the two-time champion, but of every other driver on track and of team bosses the length of the pitlane. Ricciardo is fast and fair, determined and dignified, and in 2016 took his racecraft and reputation to the very top level.
It is difficult to think of a single mistake that he made this year. He swallowed the strategy that put Verstappen onto the top step of the podium in Spain, and was even magnanimous two weeks later when a bungled pitstop in Monaco denied him a shot at victory. Too often in 2016, Red Bull’s strategy let him down on a weekend when he might have fought for the win, but as ever he kept smiling, kept plugging away and kept pushing with every sinew of his being. It’s his never-say-die attitude, combined with a racing style that is as tough as it is graceful, that has made him a firm fan favourite and unquestionably the driver of 2016.
He was honest enough mid-season to admit that Max Verstappen’s speed had caught him off guard, and he wasn’t too big to state on the record that he’d actually learned a few things from his new team-mate. His win in Malaysia was rich reward for the efforts he put in, and his consistent pace and relentless enthusiasm pushed Red Bull Racing into a position which was only a dream when the year began.
With Formula 1 moving back to an aero Formula from 2017, Red Bull Racing could find themselves back in the ascendency. And with Daniel Ricciardo not just at the top of his game but at the summit of the mountain of the current F1 crop, next season already feels like a tantalising prospect.
Daniel Ricciardo is the personification of the joy of motor racing. But behind the smile and the sparkling childlike eyes, lies a steely determination and an awe-inspiring talent. If he goes as well in 2017 as he did in 2016, he’ll start the year in his home nation as champion-elect.