Following on from yesterday where I gave my verdict on the drivers in positions 20 – 11 in the F1 table, I continue my F1 Half-Term Report by looking at fortunes of the drivers who sit in the top ten.
10th: Nico Hulkenberg, 26 Points. Best Finish: 6th x 2
Hulkenberg has been one of the standout, if not the standout performer in the midfield this season. The ever reliable German has been exactly what Renault needed in the form of a lead driver, a figurehead and a regular points scorer. Hulkenberg has absolutely obliterated teammate Palmer in qualifying by 10 races to 0, and has finished in the points on five occasions.
In Hungary, the Renault in the hands of Hulkenberg was in qualifying trim at least, the fourth fastest car in the field and was perhaps tying with the McLarens for fourth fastest during the race. Definitely a marked improvement from the start of the season. Renault are incredibly committed on their return to F1, and whilst they’ve have admitted that they’re unlikely to be challenging for race wins next year the progress in the hands of Hulkenberg is there for everyone to see.
I do like Palmer, but I wonder what Hulkenberg and Renault could achieve with two drivers performing on the same level as Nico.
9th: Carlos Sainz Jr, 35 Points. Best Finish: 6th x 1
Sainz is another driver who is absolutely wiping the floor with his teammate, Daniil Kvyat, in the points table at least. The two have been more evenly matched in qualifying with Sainz leading the way 6 – 5, but in race trim, Sainz has been head and shoulders above his teammate. Sainz has finished in the points in every single race this year apart from the three occasions he has retired. No other driver in any midfield team has managed to finish in the points every race they have taken the checkered flag.
There have been times this year when Sainz’s frustrations at his situation have bubbled through to the surface, most notably around Austria where he was publicly slapped back down by his Red Bull hierarchy. Renault has long been talked about as potential destination for Sainz, but with Kubica now back in the frame that opportunity appears somewhat slimmer. With Toro Rosso and Honda in talks about an engine deal for next season, and Sainz contracted to the team, it might just be that he has to spend one final year with Red Bull’s B-Team before moving on for 2019.
8th: Esteban Ocon, 45 Points. Best Finish: 5th x 1
What a season Esteban Ocon is having. Promoted ahead of highly esteemed teammate Pascal Wehrlein to the constantly improving Force India outfit, Ocon is proving himself to be a real star of the future and has kept the experienced and highly rated Sergio Perez honest. Ocon has failed to finish in the points just once this season, in Montreal where he was involved in a very public disagreement with Perez who appeared to be the slower of two.
Ocon has work to do in qualifying, as he trails Perez 2 – 9 on Saturdays but on race day there have been many occasions where has been the faster Force India driver. I fully expect Ocon to keep improving over the course of the year, and it’s only a matter of time before bigger teams come calling. Although that might not be until 2019.
7th: Sergio Perez, 56 Points. Best Finish: 4th x 1
Perez has once again shown us this season just how much he’s improved from the young fresh talent which struggled at McLaren in 2013. Consistent points scoring finishes have helped his Force India team into a safe fourth place in the constructor’s championship and Perez is ahead of his teammate in the championship table. He’s been part of some fantastic battles with teammate Ocon, and I can see him sneaking in a podium if we have a high attrition race later in the year.
6th: Max Verstappen, 67 Points. Best Finish: 3rd x 1
Though Verstappen in 50 points behind Ricciardo in the driver’s championship, he would have been much, much closer had it not been for a run of four retirements in five races from Spain to Austria. Pace-wise, Verstappen has been more than a match for Ricciardo so far in 2017, and there have been numerous occasions where he’s been the faster car on race day. Third in China remains his only podium of the year so far, but given his pace in Hungary, I think Verstappen could have challenged for the race win had it not been for the 10-second penalty he received for driving into his teammate.
Verstappen is still incredibly young, and most definitely one of the biggest talents to enter F1 in the last few seasons, but he needs to be careful that his aggressive defensive driving doesn’t get him into trouble. It’s great for the spectator to watch, but like we saw in Hungary, he could have left with a trophy to add to his cabinet. Fast, but incredibly unlucky are words I’d use to describe Verstappen’s season so far.
5th: Kimi Raikkonen, 116 Points. Best Finish: 2nd x 2
By this stage of the season, Raikkonen could have been sitting pretty with two wins to his name. In a much more competitive Ferrari than in 2016, we have seen glimpses of the Raikkonen of old and he now looks set to remain at Ferrari for at least another season. A fantastic pole position in Monaco failed to turn into victory and had Raikkonen qualified just slightly better in Hungary he would have easily gone on to win the race. Nevertheless, I think we’re seeing a vastly improved Kimi Raikkonen this year, but I don’t think we’ll ever see the Raikkonen we saw in 2005 – 2008. Post-Budapest it’s clear to see who Ferrari see as their number one driver (if we didn’t know already) so for Raikkonen to win a race this season it’s imperative that he qualifies ahead of Vettel.
4th: Daniel Ricciardo, 117 Points. Best Finish: 1st x 1
Ricciardo is enjoying another solid season at Red Bull with a run of five consecutive podiums between Spain and Austria propelling him to fourth in the championship table. If Verstappen is the slightly faster driver at Red Bull this year, I think Ricciardo is the slightly smarter one, who more often than not keeps himself out of trouble to bring home the points. He trails Verstappen 4 -7 in the qualifying race, but his drive to fifth from the back of the grid at Silverstone was one of the best of his career. Silverstone, alongside an unexpected win in Baku, have been highlights of the season so far.
Red Bull’s pace now looks to be extremely close to Ferrari and Mercedes but their inability to be able to turn up the engine for Q3 costs them in grid position and then subsequently the races. Spa and Monza might be difficult for Ricciardo and Red Bull, but I think he’s a real contender for the win in Singapore.
3rd: Valtteri Bottas, 169 Points. Best Finish: 1st x 2.
Bottas is in the midst of a great first season at Mercedes and has proved himself a match to Hamilton on numerous occasions. Two race wins and six further podiums have moved Bottas within striking distance of Vettel at the top of the table and I think he’s only going to get better. Bottas has been cool, calm, collected and incredibly fast, and although it hasn’t yet been confirmed I fully expect him to be re-signed to Mercedes for 2018.
How much a relief it must be for Mercedes to not have to manage the internal warfare like we saw between Hamilton and Rosberg from 2014 – 2016, I can’t ever imagine Bottas engaging in the same kind of behaviour. In qualifying the two are also neck and neck, with Bottas trailing Hamilton only 5 – 6 on Saturdays. It’s been a fantastic start to his Mercedes career and he’s still right in there for the championship battle. The next four or five races will be crucial if Bottas want Mercedes to back him for the title over Lewis. If he wants to challenge for the title, by the time we reach Malaysia and Japan he needs to be ahead of Hamilton.
2nd: Lewis Hamilton, 188 Points. Best Finish: 1st x 4.
We’ve finally got a battle on our hands between two of the greatest champions in F1 history. It’s brilliant to have a straight fight between Mercedes and Ferrari for the F1 title and Hamilton v Vettel has the makings of a classic title fight as we head into the second half of the year. Wins in China, Spain, Canada and Britain have helped Hamilton to second in the table, 14 points behind Vettel. Hamilton will surely be favourite for victory at Spa and Monza, but it’s essential that on tracks where perhaps Ferrari will be the stronger car (such as Singapore) that Hamilton stays close enough Vettel to limit the points lost.
As we go deeper in the season engine grid penalties will surely play a part, but on his day, Hamilton has been unstoppable. However, there have been occasions this year, such as Monaco and Russia where Hamilton has struggled with car set-up and outright speed. With Ferrari looking strong, and Vettel looking magnificent, Hamilton needs a consistent second half of the year to take his fourth F1 crown. That being said, he probably still remains the title favourite for now. Just.
1st: Sebastian Vettel, 202 Points. Best Finish: 1st x 4.
How great is it to see a motivated Sebastian Vettel at the top of his game fighting for the championship once again? After three seasons away from the pinnacle of the table, Vettel is back with a bang with four race victories in Australia, Bahrain, Monaco and Hungary. Ahead of Raikkonen 8 – 3 in qualifying, Budapest showed us that even at the mid point in the season Ferrari have placed all their eggs in one basket when it comes to the driver’s title, and that’s one advantage Vettel will have over Hamilton and Bottas in the next few races.
This year more than any in the last few years is a fantastic opportunity to score a win for Ferrari at Monza, which will truly be a moment to savour. It’s so close to call at the top of the table with the Pendulum swinging between Ferrari and Mercedes at each track we visit, but it’s imperative that Vettel keeps his cool to avoid more incidents like in Baku where if not for his penalty would have cruised to victory. It might be more difficult for Vettel to replicate his Hungary form in Spa and Monza, but bag good results at both of those, and a win in Singapore and Vettel could well be on his way to title number five.