10. Romain Grosjean
A podium finisher who had for years stood on the verge of a breakthrough first F1 win, the Frenchman’s decision to move from his longtime home in Enstone to the all-new Haas F1 Team for 2016 was seen in many quarters as the biggest gamble of his career. But with Renault in a period of rebuilding, the top three teams bereft of free seats and with Grosjean entering his thirties, it was a gamble he felt he had to take. And in the short term, it appeared inspired. Aided by as close to a customer car as the sport had seen in almost a decade and the steely nerves of a brilliant strategist, Haas and Grosjean scored points on debut. Indeed, they would score three times in the first four races to shake the established midfield to its core.
But that was as good as it was to get. Even if the team had already switched focus to its 2017 contender, as it claimed, it appeared that the daily necessities of a racing team were slipping below expectation. The pitfalls that can affect all new teams seemed to take hold. Petty squabbles and empire building saw staff members leave. Inexperience in vital areas led to basic mistakes. A brake problem which first reared its head in Bahrain took until Mexico for a solution to be trialled. The car appeared, at times, to be undrivable.
But while Esteban Gutierrez allowed the frustrations to bubble over into public denigration of his team, Grosjean tried at all times to pull the squad together. His radio messages couldn’t hide his regular disappointment, but he recognised how the making public of his comments was affecting morale and vowed to keep calm. He would score points twice more, in Austria and fittingly in the USA, amassing each of the 29 points that took Haas to an incredible eighth place finish in their rookie F1 season.
Romain Grosjean took the gamble and did everything to make it work, carrying the heavy burden of the team’s hopes on his shoulders alone. While not his most successful season in terms of outright results, 2016 was one which showed how far he has come, how well he has matured, and how boldly he can lead a team to achieve more than it ever believed it could.
9. Sebastian Vettel
For the second time in three years, Sebastian Vettel has gone a whole F1 season without a win to his name. Seb’s detractors like to point out he’s never won a race from lower than third on the grid, and given he only managed to start a race that high five times in 2016, one perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that he failed to reach the top step. But, if we’re being fair to him, that he was able to get the SF-16H that high up the grid speaks volumes of what he was actually able to drag out of it. It also fails to recognise the fact that on at least two occasions this season, Ferrari threw away an almost certain race victory by gambling on an alternate strategy when they had absolutely no need to.
If one thing confused about Ferrari in 2016 it was that they genuinely didn’t seem to understand when they had true pace and when they’d lucked into the position they were in. This confusion was reflected in almost every facet of the team’s operation. They appear lost, their leadership not coming from the General in the field but from the Monarch on his throne in the safety and comfort of his palace. Ferrari has gone back to the way it was in the 80s and early 90s, run from the boardroom by a businessman rather than from the track by pragmatic racers who delegated responsibilities and got the job done with ruthless efficiency. They have, for want of a better phrase, become Italian again. And, much like the Italian football team, at times they seem so scared of defeat that it seems they’ve forgotten how to win.
Sebastian Vettel could and should have been the focal point around which the team rallied. At a time of apparent chaos they looked to him to steady the ship. But with James Allison’s departure mid-season, the German’s veil of positivity slipped and never returned. His frustrations boiled over, not only in the radio messages broadcast around the world, but inside the team and the garage. His words of optimism became forced, the same lines trotted out ad infinitum.
And his race performances suffered as a result. Despite a return to form in Abu Dhabi this was, without doubt, Sebastian Vettel’s most disappointing season in Formula 1. No, the car was not what he wanted or needed. No, the team was not operating as he wanted or needed. But, as a four time champion, one should have expected more from him than the often petulant feet stamping he displayed all too often. Sebastian’s own disappointment in his season will be dwarfed only by his team’s own disappointment in him as their leader. For while he outscored his team-mate and came fourth in the championship, he will be only too aware that he let them, and himself, down in 2016.
8. Kimi Raikkonen
The Finn has never warmed to the cars of the hybrid era. Their first iterations in 2014 left him scrabbling to get on top of brakes that lacked the feel he had become used to in the decade plus of his career in the sport. Lacking confidence in brakes takes its toll on a driver, even one disposed of Raikkonen’s apparent cool, calm and unflappable bravery. It has taken him time to grow accustomed to these new cars, at the same time learning to deal with one of the sternest challenges he has ever faced on the opposite side of the garage. For not only is Sebastian Vettel one of the finest racers of his generation, there is little question over his number one status at Ferrari.
But Kimi has never been one to dwell on such matters. He simply gets his head down and goes racing. And in the chaos that became Ferrari in 2016, as detailed above in talking about Vettel’s own season, never before had Kimi’s “Iceman’ moniker been so vital. Raikkonen’s qualifying pace excelled, and in race trim he looked better than I’d seen him since his return to the scarlet cars that brought him the 2007 world championship.
Kimi relaxed into himself again, allowing humour and smiles to ring out as he spoke. There was a joy present in him this season, an enjoyment of his racing and a love of his craft. While his team-mate lost his cool, it was the Finn who stayed dependable and calm.
With big tyres and mid 2000s levels of aero back on the cars in 2017, Kimi should be back in his element. And on the basis of 2016, he goes into the winter as by far the better performing and more at ease Ferrari driver. If Ferrari gets its sums right for 2017, a happy Raikkonen should make everyone fearful.
7. Sergio Perez
It was another astonishing season for Sahara Force India and the man who has scored every podium the team has achieved in its history, bar one. But while they and he had to make do with just the sole rostrum finish in 2014 and 2015, in 2016 they took two, one after an utterly incredible drive in Azerbaijan and one at the sport’s most famous race, on the streets of Monte Carlo.
The spectre of his failed season at McLaren still hangs heavy in the Mexican’s mind, not because he was disappointed in the way that he drove, but because he is so concerned that his career will forever be judged on the fact that he was let go by such a successful team after just one season. But since joining Force India, Perez has turned himself into one of the sport’s genuine stand-out drivers. His team-mate for the past seasons, Nico Hulkenberg, is widely regarded as one of the best in the sport and the one most deserving of a top-line seat. And yet he has not one F1 podium to his name. Perez has seven. Four in the past three years.
He has become the absolute master of the current regulations and managing Pirelli’s tyres. He has driven with maturity and intelligence, combining with Force India’s excellent strategist to concoct bold race plays that only he could make work. Behind Mercedes, if either Red Bull or Ferrari had a slip up you could have put your house on it being Perez standing by to pick up the pieces.
If one thing showed just how well Sergio Perez has done at Force India this season, it was Nico Hulkenberg’s announcement that he was leaving the team to join Renault. Sure, it was a good move for the German and a chance to join a factory team, but the bottom line was that he simply couldn’t afford another season of being shown up by the Mexican. Rather than wait for a big team to come calling, Sergio Perez has been the momentum behind turning Force India into one of the big teams on their own merit. Truly an incredible season for both driver and team.
6. Fernando Alonso
If 2015 was a season of abject frustration for Fernando Alonso, with his radio messages often providing the few moments of comic relief in a season which merited few smiles in Woking, then 2016 saw the green shoots of recovery from which McLaren should feel not only proud but hugely positive as they aim for the new start that 2017 represents. But while McLaren itself made huge steps forward this season, watching Fernando Alonso back to his bull-fighting best was perhaps an even greater delight.
For while the car still struggled for pace all too often, the drives the Spaniard put in were regularly mesmerising. In particular his race starts were things of beauty. Watching his on-board replays as he scythed through the field in the opening corners of a race, that champion’s brain constantly two steps ahead of the pack, was a joy.
When points became the expectation, that look of disappointment returned to him as the hunger burned for more. Next step podiums. Next step race wins. The fevered desire that had seemingly alluded him in the gut-wrenching toil of one year before was evident for all to see. Fernando Alonso was back.
The season hadn’t started at all well, of course, lest we forget that huge accident in Australia and the resultant damage it did to the driver that put him out of the next race in Bahrain. That his replacement should step in and score points in a car whose user manual he’d only read on the flight to Bahrain should tell Fernando Alonso everything he needs to know about the challenge he’ll face next season. He’s had a young GP2 champion to deal with before in the opposite side of the garage, but a decade older and wiser from the man who locked horns with Hamilton in 2007, one feels that Vandoorne and Alonso could form a potent mixture in 2017.
Certainly if the Spaniard is racing the way he was in 2016, McLaren Honda will have only the car to blame if results are not forthcoming. Alonso was a joy to watch this season. Not quite back to his best, but with fire back in his heart and determination in his soul, not far off it either.
Tomorrow: Positions 5-1