If you’d asked me at the start of the season who would have been the top 3 in the Championship, having watched pre-season testing, I’d have said Hamilton, Rosberg, and Vettel. They’ve been the trio that have largely made up my fantasy formula one teams. Vettel nearly upset the order but as it finished, the top 10 drivers in the Championship finished 2 x 2. Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams, Red Bull, Force India. There were interesting battles within that, so here I’ve tried to look beyond the tables and say who I thought were the stand out drivers of 2015. #PlacesAlonsoWouldRatherBe not included.
10: Felipe Nasr
In winter testing it became clear that Ferrari had made a massive leap in power unit performance. Not because Ferrari were suddenly topping the time charts but because so too were Sauber.
While the team made headlines for court appearances as it fought to keep the highly financed Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericcson in their cars at the Australian GP they also had their best weekend on track. Ericcson finished 8th but Nasr took a mightily impressive 5th place. If you were going to put money on who would be the first rookie to score points, given the arrival of Sainz Jr and Verstappen at Toro Rosso, you’d probably have lost out.
In a season where the top 10 in the driver’s standings read like Noah’s Ark one of the more notable aspects of it is Felipe Nasr sitting in 13th, ahead of his teammate, two McLarens, a Toro Rosso & a Lotus. If the new regulations have made it less of a driver’s championship then Felipe Nasr is an anomaly.
Frustration set in for the Brazilian as a lack of budget meant Sauber stood still as others developed.
Brake issues would also become a common problem for Nasr in Canada, Austria and Mexico. A 6th place in Russia would be further reward for his hard work in a tough rookie season.
9: Daniel Ricciardo
As Statler and Waldorf would say “That wasn’t half bad. It was all bad”. Such was the torrid time that Red Bull had with the RB11 that there were a lot of races where neither driver got much reward for their efforts. Ricciardo beat Kvyat in the qualifying fight 12-7 but when it came to points it was the Russian that came out on top finishing better 10-9 with 95 points to 93.
There were some stand out performances by Ricciardo. 2nd place in Singapore, and a 3rd in Hungary (Where Kvyat was 2nd). Taking the fight to the Mercedes during the wet early stages at Austin and taking fastest lap at three races. This was however the season that Ricciardo emerged as team leader and during the course of the Championship he ended up behind a team mate that was in only his second season in F1.
There is an elephant in the room at Red Bull. Max Verstappen.
The Dutchman has been sensational this season and if Red Bull are to fend off the interest from Mercedes and Ferrari, then a seat will have to be made available. If Kvyat continues to improve against Ricciardo next season then it could be the Australian and not the Russian that finds himself moving aside.
8: Valtteri Bottas
A year is a very long time in Formula 1. Given a different season we may very well have seen Kimi Raikkonen exit the Ferrari stable and his fellow Finn justifiably replace him. That was the feeling last season. It’s slightly harder to justify buying a driver out of his contract when he’s closely matched by someone who you already released in the shape of Felipe Massa.
Back injury in Australia blighted the early part of the season for Bottas. He withdrew from that opening round but upon his return he managed to consistently finish in the top six in all but one of the next eight races.
If there was a criticism to be made of Williams this season it was that when there were calls to be made in the race they inevitably played it safe. A stronger result at Silverstone looked on the cards when for a time it looked like they would challenge Mercedes and finish on the podium. Ultimately team and driver took far too long in deliberating over whether or not Bottas should be allowed to challenge Massa (eventually he was) and it was the Brazilian who held on for 4th while the more aggressive Vettel/Ferrari took 3rd.
When Williams did challenge Ferrari it was invariably Bottas that was the driver to do so. He took 4th ahead of Vettel at Bahrain, 4th ahead of Raikkonen at Spain and finally grabbed a podium, again ahead of Raikkonen, at Canada. Massa took to the podium in 3rd at Monza, but after a midseason slump for Williams it was Bottas who took to the podium at Mexico.
Having challenged Mercedes in the second half of 2014, 2015 was somewhat of a disappointment. The slump mid-season more to do with a failed plea for Mercedes to supply the prototype 2016 engine that the World Champions arrived with at Monza. That aside, if Bottas is to fulfil the promise that he showed in 2014 then he will have to beat Massa more comprehensively next season.
7: Nico Hulkenberg
Maybe you’d expect to find the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours winner higher up on the list. Certainly by the midpoint of the season you would have. I won’t lie. I’m a big fan of the Hulk and he was originally much higher on this list.
When it comes down to it though this is a list about how drivers did during the Formula 1 season and as much as I loved the fact that Hulkenberg won on his debut at Le Mans, I’ve got to acknowledge that, as good as Nico was, Nick Tandy’s night driving was the most impressive thing to witness as the Porsche rookies ran out winners.
Back to the season with Force India. When it came to hustling the off the pace early spec car, Nico was the man. A 7th place finish in Australia and qualifying P5 in Austria. He looked good riding the crest of a wave as he returned from Le Mans, finishing 7th at Silverstone and robbed of a potential 5th place by a front wing failure.
Nico would take two 6th place finishes at the end of the season in Japan and Brazil but for the most part after the arrival of the B-Spec car it was Perez that had the upper hand over Hulkenberg culminating in Checo finishing 20 points clear of Nico in the Championship.
6: Romain Grosjean
If the best thing Lotus did for 2015 was switch to Mercedes power then the worse thing is lose Romain Grosjean to HAAS.
The Frenchmen annihilated his teammate this season. Some people might argue that Maldonado gets too much stick at times but he was comprehensively beaten this season and the golden rule in motorsport is beat your teammate. 16-3 in qualifying. 11-5 in the races. Game over, man. Game over.
Romain had a lot to prove this season. Last year’s Lotus was a disaster. So bad that the now Renault F1 Team offloaded their units. First order of business then was to remind people of how good he could be. The twist being that whenever now confirmed 2016 driver Jolyon Palmer got a run in FP1 he did so at the expense of Romain. How a driver responds to that can be telling. Romain’s answer was to almost make a point of ensuring that when he rocked up in FP2 he was on the limit and beat the previous incumbent’s time.
Financial strain was also something Lotus struggled with in the second half of the season. Something that played a big part in Grosjean’s decision to jump ship to HAAS rather than wait and see if Renault would save the team. It was a season where Romain could have wilted. He didn’t and 3rd place in Spa was just reward for both the driver and team.
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 26, 2015
5: Sergio Perez
We’ve seen recently how McLaren can be a devastating experience for young drivers. If Kevin Magnussen needs to look for inspiration on how to cope with life after McLaren then he may look no further than how Checo has rebuilt himself at Force India since getting a mauling in 2013.
Early in the season it was Hulkenberg who led the way for the Silverstone based outfit, but the arrival of the delayed “Flared Nostril” B-Spec at their home Grand Prix saw the return of “the tyre whisperer”.
Spa would leave us under no illusion that Checo was back. Having qualified on the 2nd row of the grid he would challenge Hamilton at Les Combes. That would be as good as it got, but 5th place would do for starters. There was another 2nd row start in the final race at Abu Dhabi and two more 5th place finishes both there and in Austin. The highlight of the season being a somewhat fortuitous podium in Russia after Bottas and Raikkonen fell over each other.
If there was one thing that Perez seemed to excel at, it was making tyres last longer than any other driver. Pour over the Pirelli data and you’ll see a tyre longevity only matched by the Mercedes pair.
4: Max Verstappen
Youngest driver to start a GP (17 yrs, 166 days)
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 30, 2015
I’ll be honest. There were times this season when the only reason I left the race on (Apart from the fact that I occasionally write bits like this) was that I wanted to see what Max Verstappen would do next. Don’t get me wrong. There were some bad moments in his 2nd ever season in single seaters. His aggression saw him set a time only 2nd to Hamilton on his first time out at Monaco, but it would be his undoing in the race where he took flight over Romain Grosjean, and as the season finished Max was halfway to a one race ban for penalty points accrued.
What Max has done is make a mockery of the farcical Superlicence system that was setup in the wake of his announcement as a Toro Rosso pilot. The plaudits he has received this season has shown up the new system to be nothing but a knee jerk reaction to people who want to force young racing drivers through a racing ladder that was at risk of becoming irrelevant.
While Mercedes were busying running away with Poles, Fastest Laps, Wins & Titles, Max was often busy providing the entertainment. It’s no wonder Toto Wolff has been seen walking side by side with him in the paddock on occasion…..
Sainz Jr kept him honest losing out 9-10 in qualifying and 8-11 in the races, which lends even more credit to a season where, at times, the Red Bull senior drivers were given a lesson by the junior squad. In the hands of the 17/18 year old Verstappen the maturity and skill belied his age. The move on the outside of Felipe Nasr at Blanchimount in Spa. 4th place finishes at both Hungary and the rain soaked Austin. Red Bull will need to position themselves to provide Max Verstappen a winning car soon. Otherwise they may well find their raw diamond finding itself a new home.
MOST OVERTAKES (2015)
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 26, 2015
3: Nico Rosberg
2015 is a hard year to judge the Mercedes drivers. By the time Nico Rosberg showed up for the fight the title was already Lewis Hamilton’s. If there is hope for a closer Championship battle next season then it is found in the fact that he took pole in the last six races and won the last three.
It has to be made clear that he did all this when Lewis Hamilton could be forgiven if he put his hands up and admitted at least part of him was already on his holidays after Austin. From the way it progressed over the season it would appear that the swing in performance had less to do with Lewis hitting the party circuit and more to do with the changes brought in by Pirelli after Spa. 1st and Monza and then following the bizarre non-performance at Singapore. When Mercedes did settle on a new setup to suit the change in tyre pressures it appeared that Nico now had the upper hand. Neutrals desperately need that to be the case.
There was another notable change in the 2nd half of the season. Last season Nico seemed shook by some of the Booing he received following the now overly hyped “NICO HIT ME” clash. Nico went from the swagger of Monaco bad guy in qualifying to overly nice guy Nico by the time we arrived at 2015. In Austin toys/caps were thrown. It seemed nothing but some petulance at the time, but something changed. Nico was angry that Lewis had forced him out in the first corner. Nico was angry that he hadn’t won. Nico was angry that he was the one being questioned. That he took pole and the win in the three races that follows gives me hope. Bottle that up. Bring it to next season please.
2: Sebastian Vettel
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) December 27, 2015
“It was all the car.”
“It was Adrian Newey.”
At the end of 2014 it would have been forgivable to think Seb hadn’t previously won four titles in a row. Having struggled to adapt to a hybrid non exhaust blown Red Bull Seb found himself outperformed by Daniel Ricciardo and heading to Ferrari with a point to prove. Kimi found out the hard way that the humorous German was still a formidable force. 15-4 in both qualifying and race comparisons. The most compelling reason for keeping the Finn at Maranello beyond 2015 was his relationship with Vettel and the subsequent atmosphere it created within the team.
The target was two wins. 2015 saw Ferrari exceed that and leap frog Red Bull and Williams to become Mercedes’ biggest threat. If there was hope to be found that Mercedes can be properly challenged next season it was found at Monaco where Seb sprung into life to get ahead of Hamilton after a terrible call to pit the Mercedes driver under safety car. It was found in three wins for Sebastian Vettel. Malaysia, when Ferrari took advantage of another safety car call by Mercedes. A fine win in Hungary when it all went pear shaped again for the Mercedes duo.
And then Singapore.
If you needed evidence that Seb on his day was untouchable it was found in qualifying. There were few moments this season that genuinely made you look at a driver as some kind of other worldly being. That lap in Q3 was one of them. Half a second clear of Ricciardo. Almost eight tenths clear of Kimi. This circuit was touted as an anomaly that would give others a chance to beat Mercedes. Seb’s left nothing to spare, left no space between himself and the walls, as he made sure that he was the one that did so.
Ferrari made huge gains to put Seb in the position to capitalise on Mercedes off weekends. If they can do the same again then the best chance of a non-Mercedes champion lies with the Red number 5.
1: Lewis Hamilton
There is no middle ground with Lewis.
You either love him or hate him.
He was either on it or on holidays.
The post Austin Grand Prix version of Lewis Hamilton doesn’t appear at the top of the drivers’ rankings. The post Austin Grand Prix version of Lewis Hamilton finishes behind Vettel and Rosberg. It would be easy to criticise his off track “fever” and the Monaco road crash. Missing the Autosport Awards to make a TV appearance in the States. Making his own music. Maybe the focus softened for Lewis in the second half of the season.
Then again why wouldn’t it?
Lewis Hamilton utterly dominated the first half of the 2015 season. He had the pole position award wrapped up by the midway point of the season picking up 11 poles in 12 races. At the end of the Austin Grand Prix he had racked up 10 wins to Rosberg’s 3. Up until that point Nico had no answer to the pace of Hamilton. The German looked a beaten man in the first half of the season and that’s down to one thing and one thing only. The relentless pace of Lewis Hamilton.
There are questions that remain. Questions that will need to be answered if Lewis is to move past his Senna equalling haul of 3 World Titles, a season where he move passed Senna in terms of race wins with 43. Did he switch off after Austin or did the change in tyre pressures genuinely swing the performance balance towards Rosberg? Can Hamilton and Mercedes iron out the strategy errors and bad calls they tended to make when under pressure.
These are the questions Lewis will need to answer if he is to match Alain Prost on 4 titles. Genuinely I believe it will be a tougher task for the British driver to do so. That said when it mattered this season there were very few times that anybody could match Lewis Hamilton.
That wraps up my F1 scribblings for 2015. Wishing you all a very Happy 2016.
until next year,