November 29th, 2012 (F1plus / Paul Godley).- Instead of writing about the drivers that have just impressed me the most this season, I've decided to write the following piece looking at the drivers that have both impressed and surprised me the most throughout 2012. Read below to find out the five drivers that have surprised me this season!
Let's begin by looking at exactly what Kimi has achieved in his comeback season. He's ended the season in 3rd place, won a race, finished on the podium a further 6 times, scored in 16 consecutive races and completed every racing lap (plus a bit more in Brazil..) in 2012. Those are statistics that most drivers on the grid would be delighted with, let alone someone who's come back to the sport after 2 years away racing through snowy forests.
Not only has Kimi achieved these enviable results, but more surprisingly he's not appeared to lose any of his racing skills. You just need to look at the battles between himself and Lewis Hamilton in Japan and then with Michael Schumacher in Brazil to see that clean racing is not only possible, but darn exciting to watch. A few common links are visible from both incidents; the battles involved World Champions, experience and an awful lot of respect for the car, the track and most importantly their opponents. Any up and coming driver (including some already in F1) should have a study these battles and see what is possible to do without contact.
One thing that has surprised me in a slightly negative way has been the way in which Kimi has been outperformed in qualifying by his team mate Romain Grosjean, particularly in the early part of the season. After 8 race weekends it was 7-1 one to the Frenchman on Saturday's, something that cannot have pleased the Finn. His performances definitely improved as the season progressed, out-qualifying Grosjean in 3 of the final 5 races (well, 4 if you take into account Grosjean's penalty in Austin). Kimi didn't have a single front row start in 2012, something both he and the team will want to improve on in 2013.
There's no denying that Kimi has had a successful return to Formula 1 this season, but could the season have delivered more? Possibly. Lotus had numerous chances early on in 2012 to win races, but it took until round 18 in Abu Dhabi before the Enstone outfit finally tasted the champagne on the top step. One thing is for sure, Kimi has secured the title for 'Comedian of the Year'. Once he's finished with F1, a future in stand up comedy surely beckons. A fine, fine season for Kimi and Lotus. Let's see what 2013 brings.
If you've ever read anything I've written about Pastor Maldonado or Williams in the past then you'll know I'm a fan of the Venezuelan. 2012 has brought around a lot of surprises from Pastor; some good; some very good; some bad; some very bad. I'm going to begin by looking at the positives, of which I think there are plenty. First of all, he's a brilliant qualifier. He's made it through to Q3 in more than half of the races this season and gone on to start on the front row twice, including a pole position in Spain thanks to Lewis Hamilton's demotion to the rear of the grid. He's qualified an average of 3.4 places ahead of team mate Bruno Senna, who appears unable to match Maldonado on a Saturday.
I mentioned it briefly earlier on, but possibly the biggest surprise of the season came in Spain, around the Circuit de Catalunya. Not only did Pastor start from pole position, but he then went on to win the race! He and the Williams team didn't just beat Fernando Alonso; they outpaced, outraced and outthought the Spaniard and Ferrari to secure a first victory for the team for some 8 years. Now I knew Pastor was quick, much quicker than he was able to show in 2011, but I didn't think he would be able to not only win a race, but win a race in such a calm yet dominating way. People were now standing up and paying attention to the talented but much criticised Venezuelan.
Pastor Maldonado won the Spanish GP.
I'll now switch to the bad. There's no disputing that he was involved in too many incidents this season, with collisions between himself and Lewis Hamilton at Valencia, Sergio Perez at Silverstone and latterly the fiasco at Spa. The incident at Valencia was the one that frustrated me the most, not because of what Pastor did or didn't do, but because of the reaction by the fans. Pastor was on fresher, quicker rubber and catching Lewis hand over fist. Now I'm not going to be so naive as to say that Pastor wasn't partially to blame for the coming together with Lewis; he should've been more careful and chosen to overtake the next lap, but the abuse he took from certain areas was completely unjust and unfair. Lewis knew he was struggling, and just like Allan McNish said this past weekend, should have allowed Pastor to overtake and secure 4th place, instead of risking a coming together and a DNF, which consequently happened (Rant over).
Right, back to topic. Spa was undoubtedly a shocking weekend, well to be more precise, a shocking race day. A jump start and several collisions later left people wanting a race ban, like the one given to Romain Grosjean, to be placed on the front step of Maldonado's door. No such ban was imposed, but the calls for one may have clicked with something inside Pastor's head. From Spa onwards he became much more aware of his surroundings on track, picking up good points finishes in Japan, Abu Dhabi and Austin to end the season consistently.
Pastor is first and foremost a racer, one that will go for a gap if there is one and well, race. Drivers with this attitude, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso et al, ultimately become successful. They're there to race, to attack and to win. Pastor is like that. Of course I'm not comparing him to those previously mentioned drivers, but his attitude towards the sport is one of positivity, aggression and a desire to win; a sign of a true racing driver.
I think, or at least hope, that Pastor has surprised and impressed fans this season. Yes he's had his bad moments, but hasn't every racing driver, even the greats? Even as someone who's watched him since his GP2 days, Pastor has surpassed my expectations this season. I believe he deserves to be racing again in 2013. For me he's outperformed Senna for most of the season. Senna may be more consistent, but with Pastor you feel that a win or podium is possible, something I don't think you get with Senna. I hope he's learnt from the mistakes and criticism he's had thrown at him and comes back a more rounded driver in 2013, something I think we began to see in the final few races of this season.
If there was one driver to have a season of two halves in 2012, it was Felipe Massa. He struggled to get on top of what was widely regarded a poor Ferrari car in the early part of the season, although his troubles were further compounded by the impressive performances and victories of team mate Alonso. It took until Silverstone, round 9 of the Championship, before we started to see the real Felipe Massa again.
A run of 10 consecutive points finishes, including two podiums with a 2nd in Japan and a 3rd at his home race in Brazil, saw the likeable Brazilian leap up from 17th to 7th in the final standings. During this run he not only started to not only catch Alonso, but actually be faster than him on several occasions; Austin being the prime example. Massa's upturn in speed was not only good for him, but for the team as well as they were now able to use Massa as an aid for Alonso and his title challenge versus the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel. Incidents like breaking the seal on Massa's gearbox in Austin may be seen as unsporting or wrong by some, but in all honesty it was the right and sensible thing to do from a team and championship perspective. Massa is the number two driver, but has shown over this final part of the season that he can match and beat Fernando Alonso.
His seat at Ferrari appeared to be under threat for much of the season, before the Italian outfit decided to offer Massa a new one year deal to remain with the team for 2013. We can't forget what Massa has achieved at Ferrari. He was one corner away from being a World Champion back in 2008, winning 6 races in that season alone. Massa is highly thought of within the team and clearly liked by all, but his performances early on this season weren't good enough. He stepped his game up at exactly the right time, ending the season as arguably the man in form. He'll go into 2013 full of confidence and momentum, believing that he can not only fight for victories, but against his team mate too. Personally, I thought Massa's F1 career was over earlier in the season, but the way he's turned it around has been a joy to watch. Felipe is back.
It's not always easy racing for a team at the back of the grid, but we shouldn't forget that current drivers such as Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber began their F1 careers racing for Minardi. As one of just two rookies on the grid this season, it'd be safe to say that at the beginning of 2012 not many would have picked Charles out as a man to watch this season. In fact, until the past weekend in Brazil I'm not sure the media have really picked up on the job that the Frenchman has done down at Marussia.
He's never really been too far behind his much more experienced team mate Timo Glock, and in fact has matched Glock's (and the team's) best result in Formula 1 with a 12th place in Brazil. He's out-qualified and outraced the German on several occasions this season and in recent races really started to take the fight to Caterham, ironically the team he'll be driving for in 2013. I was delighted to see that Charles will remain in F1 for 2013 and beyond having been announced as one of Caterham's drivers for next season, having signed a 'multi-year deal'. His drives, probably along with his budget and nationality, have secured a much sort after drive in Formula 1 for next year, something I really do think he deserves. Too often young drivers are booted out after just one year and forgotten about, but Charles now has the opportunity to prove that he could be the next Alonso or Webber by starting at the back and working his way up the field.
He's by no means the loudest or most vocal character in the paddock, but he's clearly well thought of. His driving on the track appears to do the talking for him; and it's great to see that his work throughout 2012 has been noticed and rewarded. I've been surprised by his performances this season, especially relative to Glock. On the balance of things I'd say he's done a slightly better job than his predecessor Jerome D'Ambrosio did in 2011, again compared to Glock, and believe that he deserves his seat at Caterham. A good, solid job this season from the Frenchman, with hopefully plenty more to come in 2013, providing the car is significantly better than it has been this season.
Daniel Ricciardo (phot Red Bull: Getty)
He may have finished behind his team Jean-Eric Vergne this season, but for me Daniel Ricciardo has been the more impressive, all round driver of the two. There are several things that really impress me about this guy; his speed for one, but more noticeable for a driver of his age has been his consistency and racing ability. He's finished 19 races this season, having only retired from the Monaco Grand Prix because of a mechanical failure. He scored in 5 of the final 8 races of the season and finished now lower than 13th in any of them.
I think when you compare him to his team mate, which you inevitably will given their age, experience and the fact they're team mates, that the biggest difference between the two has been on a Saturday. Vergne has dropped out of qualifying in the first session in almost half the sessions this season, whereas Ricciardo has managed to drag the car into Q3 on a couple of occasions. In fact, it was 15-5 to the Australian in qualifying over the course of the season.
The car hasn't always been competitive and hasn't allowed both him and Vergne to showcase their talent, but when it has Ricciardo has been right there, scoring points and finishing races strongly. Has he done a better job than Alguersuari or Buemi would have done? It's impossible to say. One thing is clear, the 2012 car has not been as good as the 2011 car was for the aforementioned drivers. Both drivers have been re-signed for 2013; and out of the two it has been Ricciardo that has not only impressed me the most, but surprised me the most too. For a driver of his age and experience to show this level of consistency is something that must impress those up at Red Bull. He'll need to at least repeat his 2012 performances over the first half of 2013 to ensure his seat at Toro Rosso remains firmly under him, because as we've seen the team can be ruthless when it comes to driver changes. A strong, consistent and clean first full season in Formula 1 for Daniel; certainly a pleasant and welcomed surprise.
Other notable mentions
You may wonder why I haven't included drivers like Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg. The three podium finishes for Perez have been surprising yes, but apart from those 3 drives has he really done a lot else to make you stand up and take note? Obviously 3 podiums when driving for Sauber is a great achievement, but it could have been so much more. He lacks consistency and has a long way to go when it comes to qualifying, but he's only young and having signed for McLaren for 2013, couldn't be in a better place to progress as a driver. Why not Nico Hulkenberg? Because I haven't been surprised by what he has achieved. This is a man who has won every championship he competed in before arriving into Formula 1; a man who likes to win and who knows how to win. Of the drivers in their second season (himself, Sergio Perez, Paul Di Resta, Pastor Maldonado, Romain Grosjean, Daniel Ricciardo) he's been the most consistent and consistently quick. I'm expecting big things from Hulkenberg and truly believe that he should have been signed by one of the big teams.
So, there are my 5 surprise drivers of the season. Do you agree? Who has surprised you the most? Who's disappointed you the most? Let me know by commenting below! (and thanks for staying until the end!) Many thanks, Paul.