The 5 best F1 drivers of 2016

Who shone the brightest on four wheels in 2016, and why?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

The stats will show Formula One in 2016 was a two-horse race between Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton that went down to the wire in the final event in Abu Dhabi, but to suggest that the continued domination of the Silver Arrows duo was the only storyline in the world’s premier four-wheel category this season is well off the mark.

One of the sport’s giants reverted to its bad old days, a new star emerged as someone who could become a multiple world champion before too long, and some big F1 and manufacturer names alike were outshone by rivals with smaller budgets and greater momentum.

A significant regulatory reset should ensure at least a partial shake-up of the established order for 2017, but that’s for the future. What about the past? Who were the best five drivers in F1 this year, and why? We’ve assessed the grid statistically and chronologically, let the drivers themselves have their say, and enlisted some expert analysis to break down the grid from five to one. Here we go.

5. Sergio Perez

The stats
Points/championship position: 101, seventh
Wins: 0
Podiums: 2
Poles: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Perez 9, Nico Hulkenberg 12
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Perez 13, Hulkenberg 8
Points compared to teammate: Perez 101, Hulkenberg 72

The summary
The top four drivers on our list will come as no surprise, even if our order of them might raise an eyebrow or two. More on that later. Finding the right man for number five wasn’t as easy. Sebastian Vettel finished fourth overall, but Ferrari’s apparent resurgence of 12 months previously, when he won three Grands Prix, stalled in 2017, and the German managed just two podiums in the final 13 races. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen finished in the points every time he saw the chequered flag, but didn’t make the podium after round nine in Austria. Fernando Alonso drove the wheels off his McLaren, but barely made the top 10 in the championship. No, our No.5 is Sergio Perez, the Mexican whose F1 career looked set for the scrapheap after a miserable year at McLaren in 2013, but has become a driver who always seems to punch above his weight after three years at Force India. The 26-year-old had podiums at Monaco and in Baku, qualified on the front row in Azerbaijan before being demoted for a gearbox penalty, and finished all 21 races, 17 of them in the points, to crack the 100-point milestone for the first time. He spearheaded Force India’s charge to a best-ever finish of fourth in the constructors’ championship, ahead of the likes of Williams and Renault, and was always there to pick up the pieces when others dropped the ball.

The quote
“It has been an incredible year for us. We started the year lacking quite a lot of pace but we worked hard and developed the car. We have done an incredible job.”
– Perez at the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi

Expert view: Dan Knutson
“Sergio believes this was his best-ever season in F1, and I agree with him. The Mexican is a master with dealing with the current era of Pirelli tyres that need to be babied.”
Dan Knutson covers F1 for Auto Action (Australia) and National Speed Sport News (USA)

4. Max Verstappen

The stats
Points/championship position: 204, fifth
Wins: 1 (Spain)
Podiums: 7
Poles: 0
Fastest laps: 1
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Verstappen 6, Daniel Ricciardo 11 (at Red Bull Racing), Verstappen 3, Carlos Sainz 1 (at Toro Rosso)
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Verstappen 7, Ricciardo 10 (at Red Bull Racing), Verstappen 3, Sainz 1 (at Toro Rosso)
Points compared to teammate: Verstappen 191, Ricciardo 220 (in 17 races), Verstappen 13, Sainz 4 (in four races)

The summary
Where to start with assessing Max Verstappen’s second – yes, just second – F1 season? Memories such as his maiden F1 win on his first weekend for Red Bull in Barcelona, his sublime pass of Rosberg at Silverstone and his charge from last to fourth in Abu Dhabi would be showstoppers for any other driver, but what Verstappen did in horrendous weather in Brazil will live longest in the memory. Employing lines few of his rivals had apparently even contemplated, Verstappen stormed from 14th to third in 17 laps, producing a drive that evoked memories of Ayrton Senna’s second in a Toleman at a rain-lashed Monaco in 1984, or Michael Schumacher’s success at a sodden Spanish GP in a Ferrari in ’96. It was everything Verstappen has in spades – a calm head, sublime skill, total self-belief and a never-quit attitude – in one glorious 25-minute snapshot. Verstappen’s year wasn’t without its troughs – and his occasionally over-the-top defending irked several of his rivals – but for a teenager with 40 races under his belt, 2016 was quite something.

The quote
“I could hear the crowd going crazy when my engineer was on the radio, so I’m very thankful for the Brazilian fans for getting behind me. At the end when I crossed the line it felt like a victory, it was almost as beautiful as my race in Barcelona.”
– Verstappen after his stunning late charge at Interlagos

Expert view: Peter Windsor
“Verstappen never asks more from the car than he feels it can give. He perfectly manipulates the car in the braking/corner entry stage, creating a platform that makes the corner exit almost an after-thought: that’s why you rarely see Max (or Lewis Hamilton) with more than a few, subtle degrees of correction on the car as they leave a corner; that’s why from the outside, oblivious to the supple hand and foot movements going on in the cockpit, we’re lulled into the impression that Max and Lewis are making it look ‘easy’. It’s a product of their millions of unmeasurable, minuscule inputs through the steering, brakes (increasing and decreasing pressure) and throttle. Imagine trying to keep a set of billiard balls in the centre of a ‘floating’, constantly-moving table by very delicately changing the weight on each corner: that’s what Max and Lewis do better than any drivers on the F1 grid.”
– Peter Windsor is a long-time Formula One writer, broadcaster and analyst

3. Daniel Ricciardo

The stats
Points/championship position: 256, third
Wins: 1 (Malaysia)
Podiums: 8
Poles: 1
Fastest laps: 4
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Ricciardo 14, Verstappen/Daniil Kvyat 7
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Ricciardo 13, Verstappen/Kvyat 8
Points compared to teammate: Ricciardo 256, Verstappen/Kvyat 212

The summary
Ricciardo’s rise to third in the 2014 championship behind (you guessed it) the Mercedes drivers was an ascension that seemed ahead of schedule, but this year’s same finish behind the same Silver Arrows duo felt more sustainable after his 2015 blip. He had two more wins two years ago than his sole success in Malaysia this season, but with eight podiums, a further five races in fourth place and just off the rostrum and a perfect 21 for 21 in race finishes meant that 2016 was the West Australian’s best year yet. His pole lap at Monaco – the only pole not taken by Mercedes all year – was 73 seconds of ragged-edge genius, while the Singapore/Sepang double-header was the ‘Honey Badger’ at his dogged, persistent best. Now 27, next year’s rule reset comes an opportune time for a man in the prime of his career.

The quote
“I finished third in 2014 as well and that was pretty significant because I was kind of unproven then, and that year it put me in front of Seb, who was the defending world champion. But this year has been good because at the start of it, I didn’t expect to be able to finish third.”
– Ricciardo after the Mexican GP

Expert view: Tom Clarkson
“That solitary victory in Malaysia doesn’t tell the full story of Daniel’s 2016 season. He would have won Monaco, had it not been for a pit-stop blunder; ditto Spain, had the strategists on the pit wall reacted differently to the Mercedes collision on the opening lap, and he got ever-so-close in Singapore. The upshot is that for the second time in three seasons, Ricciardo was the first non-Merc driver in the championship standings. He must be doing something right. But don’t take my word for it; have a read of Fernando Alonso’s thoughts. “Daniel is always very committed to everything he does,” says the two-time champ. “On-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 of the time he will achieve the result he wanted. Obviously 2014, together with (Sebastian) Vettel, it was an amazing performance. He was way ahead of Vettel in every single point: in the driving, in the approach, in the starts, in the pit stops, in the overtaking; he was beating Vettel so easily.”
– Tom Clarkson covers F1 for BBC Sport and Network Ten in Australia

2. Nico Rosberg

The stats
Points/championship position: 385, first
Wins: 9 (Australia, Bahrain, China, Russia, Europe, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, Japan)
Podiums: 16
Poles: 8
Fastest laps: 6
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Rosberg 9, Lewis Hamilton 12
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Rosberg 10, Hamilton 10 (neither finished in Spain)
Points compared to teammate: Rosberg 385, Hamilton 380

The summary
For Rosberg to bounce back from two years of being humbled by Hamilton showed strength of character and mind that perhaps wouldn’t have come to the fore had he not endured the indignity of being brushed aside by his Mercedes teammate in 2015. The final three races of last year – which Rosberg won when Hamilton’s focus seemed to waver after securing his third title – set the German up beautifully for this season, and four straight wins before the teammates smashed into one another in Spain earned him a 43-point lead after five rounds. Victory in Singapore gave Rosberg the series lead again even before Hamilton’s engine eruption in Malaysia, and while he never looked likely to beat Hamilton across the final four races, he didn’t need to, his consistency and good fortune on the reliability front seeing him to a title 34 years after father Keke won the 1982 world championship for Williams.

The quote
“He’s just an amazing driver and of course one of the best in history, so it’s unbelievably special to beat him. The level is so high and that makes this … so much more satisfying for me. I took the world championship away from him which is a phenomenal feeling.”
– Rosberg after denying Hamilton a third straight title in Abu Dhabi

Expert view: Jonathan Noble
“Determination and a cool head. They are the two characteristics that stand out when you think about how Nico Rosberg turned the tables on Lewis Hamilton this season. Yes, you cannot ignore the reliability troubles that hurt his teammate, but equally there were events like Singapore and Japan where Rosberg dug deep and performed better. And in the finale – to keep a cool head amid the chaos and pull off a move like he did on Max Verstappen – shows why he is a more than worthy champion.”
– Jonathan Noble is Formula One editor of motorsport.com

1. Lewis Hamilton

The stats
Points/championship position: 380, second
Wins: 10 (Monaco, Canada, Austria, Great Britain, Hungary, Germany, USA, Mexico, Brazil, Abu Dhabi)
Podiums: 17
Poles: 12
Fastest laps: 3
Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Hamilton 12, Rosberg 9
Head-to-head vs teammate in race: Hamilton 10, Rosberg 10 (neither finished in Spain)
Points compared to teammate: Hamilton 380, Rosberg 385

The summary
Was Rosberg a worthy world champion this season? Yes. Is Hamilton still the fastest driver in F1? Again, yes. There’s no denying that Hamilton endured the lion’s share of Mercedes’ unreliability woes this season – of the eight drivers supplied with Mercedes engines this season, Hamilton had more than half of their failures on his own – and the Briton had more victories, poles and podiums than the teammate who ended his two-year stranglehold over the sport. Hamilton twice won four races in a row this season, and there were races – Brazil in the wet as one example – when he was in a different league to Rosberg. Hamilton’s tactics in Abu Dhabi – backing his teammate into the pursuing pack to play his last card to keep his crown – wasn’t a matter of right or wrong, more a case of completely predictable. It didn’t work, but 2016 was a year where Hamilton overtook Alain Prost’s mark of 51 wins to become the second-most successful driver in F1 history, and he could well hold the all-time record for pole positions by the end of next year, finishing this one with 61, seven behind Michael Schumacher. F1’s best driver in 2016? Yes.

The quote
“I’m losing the world championship, so right now I don’t really care whether I win or lose this race.”
– Hamilton to his team over the radio in the closing stages of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Expert view: Andrew Benson
“Apart from a couple of shaky weekends in Baku and Singapore, Hamilton drove as well as ever in 2016, which is to say he’s probably the out-and-out fastest man on the track. But some poor starts and a skewed reliability ratio unstitched his season. Without one or the other, he’d still have been champion. With both, it left him too much to do against Rosberg’s consistency, both of driving and reliability.”
– Andrew Benson is chief Formula One writer for the BBC

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