Sebastian Vettel may have dominated the season 13 wins from 19 races is absurd but behind him (and very occasionally around him and even rarer, in front of him), the action was furious, close and fluctuated from race to race. Judging who deserves the most plaudits is Edd Straw.
By the end of the 2013 season, Formula 1 felt like it was all about one man Sebastian Vettel. But over the course of the year, a total of 23 drivers participated in the World Championship, some performing exceptionally well.
Based on a wide variety of criteria results relative to machinery, consistency, errors made, technical contribution, speed, racecraft and many more this is not a ranking simply of the best 10 drivers in F1. Instead, it is a ranking of the best 10 performers of the season just gone, taking into account their machinery and relative experience.
This covers a vast range of criteria based on numerous sources of data. Having compiled this top 10 ranking for RACER for several years, this has been unquestionably the most difficult to select the order.
But first, a nod to three drivers who didn’t make it
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BEST OF THE REST
Paul di Resta turned in some stunning drives in the first half of the season in particular and his likely absence from the 2014 grid is outrageous. But a run of three driver error-related retirements in succession in Italy, Singapore and Korea counts against him. So, too, does the bad reputation he picked up for criticizing the team (often perfectly legitimately), which made other squads wary of him. While teammate Adrian Sutil had a good season, in the final reckoning, according to one senior team figure, di Resta outperformed him “by all metrics”. Any IndyCar team wanting a potential superstar should get on the phone to him.
Jenson Button (ABOVE) was his usual classy self at times. But, as is often the case there were too many weekends when he struggled Bahrain, Britain and Abu Dhabi, for example. He did have the better of teammate Sergio Perez over the course of the whole year, but in the closing stages of the season he seemed to lose the initiative, costing himself a place in this top 10 ranking.
Jules Bianchi was also hugely impressive. His performances for Marussia earned the team its 10th place in the constructors’ championship and showed he has a bright future at F1 level. He earned Autosport magazine readers’ votes for Rookie of the Year. But in this ranking, he was not top rookie, as you’ll discover as you read on
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10 DANIEL RICCIARDO
Of all the cars in the field, the Toro Rosso was the most difficult one to judge. There were tracks where it was genuinely very fast, allowing Ricciardo to qualify and run in the top 10 comfortably, but others where he was able to drag an outstanding lap out of it to make it to Q3 before inevitably regressing to the car’s mean in the race, and somewhere it was simply lower-midfield filler.
How much of that was down to the car itself, what proportion of it was down to the team and how much responsibility the drivers should take for it is difficult to say. But one thing was beyond doubt; Ricciardo was mighty over a single lap and his crushing superiority over Jean-Eric Vergne, who is no slouch, on Saturdays is testament to his pace.
What was most impressive was the way he performed under intense pressure. From the British Grand Prix onwards, he knew he was pitching for the Red Bull Racing seat alongside Vettel next year, and his performances reached a new level. And they needed to, for in the previous races in Monaco in Canada he had under-delivered while his teammate excelled.
While his campaign tailed off in terms of results, Ricciardo still regularly qualified strongly and grabbed well-earned points in India and Brazil late on. In all probability, the team needs to take some of the blame for fading late in the season, and its propensity to try unusual strategies in search of points suggests the core relative pace of the STR8 simply wasn’t there any more. But there were also question marks over Ricciardo’s technical contribution, an area he has been keen to work on.
The bottom line is that his campaign was strong enough to convince Red Bull that he’s worthy of that seat on the “big team” in 2014. And recommendations don’t come much higher than that.
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9 MARK WEBBER
He failed to win a race in the best car. He finished only third in the world championship with half of his team-mate’s points. Yet Webber’s farewell season in F1 was better than it looked and there were times when his class really shone through. Not regularly enough to be a credible title contender and certainly not enough to be anything other than an occasional thorn in Vettel’s side, but sufficient to merit a place in the top 10 of the year.
Webber was nowhere near as adept as Vettel at adapting to the demands of exhaust-blown downforce, meaning he was very often at a clear disadvantage. But as the clock ticked down on his F1 career, he seemed to find renewed focus and had he not made a mistake late in his qualifying lap at Austin, he would have taken three poles in his final five races. In Abu Dhabi, too, Webber worked hard to tailor his driving to best suit the exhausts and earned himself a remarkable pole position at a track he has never got on with.
The Australian’s biggest problem was the early seconds of races. Eleven times he finished the first lap in a worse position than he started it. Again, Abu Dhabi is a fine example, as the eventual 30-second deficit to Vettel, which the German built up in the first half of the race, was largely thanks to Webber slipping behind Nico Rosberg at the start.
There was also some bad luck for Webber, notably a couple of unsafe releases from pit stops, but there were times when he made life difficult for himself both on and off track. Ultimately, he is not in Vettel’s class, but he is far from the first very good grand prix driver made to look average by a great one.
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8 VALTTERI BOTTAS
The Finn was understated and largely unobtrusive so it is unsurprising that most wrote him off as nothing more than another over-hyped rookie who failed to deliver. The truth was completely the opposite, as the 24-year-old had exactly the standout rookie season expected of him, just with the misfortune of doing it in a poor car. Look closely and the class is evident.
The Williams was a perfect storm of bad characteristics. It was not particularly quick and it sapped the driver’s confidence thanks to its knife-edge balance and the tendency of grip levels to be inconsistent. Yet Bottas never failed to extract a decent level of performance and often excelled. While he retired twice from races, neither of those were due to his own errors, an impressive record.
Say what you want about Pastor Maldonado, but he is capable of being very fast over a lap. Yet Bottas managed to have the better qualifying record, outpacing his teammate 11 times. It was also Bottas who pulled arguably the outstanding qualifying performance of the year in the wet in Montreal, sticking the Williams third on the grid. What’s more, he was the one who earned the team’s best result with a wonderful and hugely accomplished eighth place at the Circuit of the Americas.
But what really impressed about Bottas was his attitude. He kept his head and resolved to learn as much as he could. He never allowed the frustration that was inevitably there at the car’s weaknesses to show through. He never blamed the team (a few drivers could learn from him in this regard) and was always able to offer constructive feedback.
On the downside, there were times when he was perhaps over-cautious in race starts and there was a phase during the second half of the season when Maldonado did briefly assert himself, but these are minor criticisms. Bottas is a class act in the making.
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7 KIMI RAIKKONEN
There was a lot to admire about the way Raikkonen drove this year. His victory in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix was extremely well-executed, he was mostly exemplary in wheel-to-wheel combat and he could usually be relied upon to take home a hatful of points even in races that started unpromisingly. In effect, he was F1’s Mr Consistency.
Raikkonen is still fast over a lap, but not searingly so as he was in his McLaren pomp. Where he really excels is in race conditions. No matter where he started on the grid, which was more often than not a good, but not necessarily great, spot he always seemed to be able to go forward. That made him that most valuable of drivers, an absolutely bankable commodity who could always be counted on to bring home the points.
For much of the season, he was the foundation of Lotus’s success. That said, 73 per cent of his points came in the 10 races before the August break, with teammate Romain Grosjean growing in stature and some in the team questioning whether the Finn was quite as effective once he had finalized his move to Ferrari. As a caveat, it’s important to note that he missed the final two races of the season, which excuses some of the front-loading of the season points-wise, and was troubled with his back from Singapore onwards.
But with eight podium finishes in his 17 starts, there is every probability Raikkonen would have finished third in the championship had he seen out the season. Considering the team’s difficulties in paying him, that would have been a good return. But team members admit that the relationship was strained after Kimi made his decision to leave, so maybe both sides were less sharp than they should have been.
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6 LEWIS HAMILTON
Had this list been compiled during the August break, Hamilton would unquestionably have been ranked higher. But while his first half of the season was impressive once you took into account the fact that he had to adapt to life at a new team after years at McLaren, he did not continue on that trajectory in the second half of the year.
It was inevitable that it would take him a while to settle in. At times earlier in the year, he had to give best to Rosberg, but after being robbed of a likely British Grand Prix victory by a tire failure, he did finally claim his maiden Mercedes win with a supreme performance at the Hungaroring.
Yet as the season went on, there continued to be signs of him not quite having reached his comfort level. Throughout the season, there were some unforced errors going too slowly on his in-lap under the safety car at Monaco, which cost him second place, brushing Vettel and suffering a puncture at Suzuka and drifting into Bottas at Interlagos all stand out although his poor race in Abu Dhabi was down to a cracked chassis.
But there was plenty to be positive about. His tire management in a difficult car was much better than some made out, while his performances in the first four races of the season, when expectations were lowest, were very impressive. His pole position in tricky conditions at Spa was outstanding and his run to fourth at Austin showed that he was still capable of turning it on when struggling.
All things considered, this was still a pretty strong season from Hamilton, one that has laid the foundations for his long-term future with Mercedes. Relative to Rosberg, he scored more points and pole positions and had the better qualifying record, but he was far more erratic.
So if he can consistently deliver his best, which we saw sometimes but not enough in 2013, in the future he will be able to get that second title that he covets so much.
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5 NICO ROSBERG
He finished two places and 18 points behind new teammate Lewis Hamilton in the points, which raises the question of why exactly does he rank ahead of him in this list? The answer is that while Rosberg’s peaks of performance were probably not as impressive as the 2008 world champion’s, he was probably the most consistently effective Mercedes driver thanks to his methodical approach.
The highlight of his season was Monaco, where he beat Hamilton to pole position by a tenth and then controlled the race beautifully. He’s not the first driver to start up front on the streets of the principality and hold it all the way to the checkered flag, but the tire degradation worries of Mercedes meant that he had little margin for error that day, especially once it was Vettel behind him rather than his teammate.
While his second victory of the season, at Silverstone, was a little fortunate and would not have been possible without Hamilton’s blowout and Vettel’s retirement, there were plenty of drives in difficult circumstances that merited a lot of praise. In Spain, for example, Rosberg started from pole in the knowledge that the tire degradation meant he had no hope of victory, but he salvaged a very creditable sixth place that was probably the limit of what was possible.
But it was Rosberg’s form in the second half of the season, when the Red Bull/Vettel steamroller was in full flow, that earns him the nod over Hamilton. In both India and Abu Dhabi, he was the best non-Red Bull and by claiming a better result than his teammate in six of the last nine races, he showed he will not settle into a number two role behind the much-feted celebrity he partners.
There is still room for improvement from Rosberg; Hamilton will pose a stern challenge next year. But this was a very impressive season.
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4 NICO HULKENBERG
During the first half of the year, the German was largely anonymous. The exception was his brief stint in the lead in China, but that was founded upon starting on the harder tire and running long rather than on any great turn of speed from the Sauber. But that’s not to say he wasn’t doing the job. His delight over the radio after his qualifying lap in Spain, which turned to disappointment when he found out he was only 15th, tells you exactly where the car was at early on.
At times, his determination to drive the team forward didn’t endear himself to the managment, something Robert Kubica encountered in his BMW Sauber days. This led to some negative murmurings about him in the paddock, but reflect only his drive to succeed.
In the second half of the year, Hulkenberg was able to show his tremendous class. He’s a formidable qualifier, as his crushing Saturday performances relative to teammate Esteban Gutierrez showed. Granted, the Mexican was a rookie, but not a slow one and Hulkenberg’s relentless pace made Gutierrez look like he was struggling more than he was.
Once Sauber brought its rear-end upgrade to Hungary, the team’s form improved. Hulkenberg’s superb fifth place from a stunning third on the grid at Monza appeared at the time to be a low-downforce one-off, but it was not an isolated incident. Sauber was a Q3 regular for the rest of the year, and Hulkenberg put together what was arguably the outstanding race drive of 2013 in Korea. There, he held off first Fernando Alonso and later Hamilton for much of the race, combining outstanding racecraft with tremendous pace.
After scoring seven points in the first half of the year, Hulkenberg amassed 44 in the second half. Perhaps Sauber’s revival came a little too late, for Raikkonen pipped him to the Ferrari drive. That, combined with Lotus’s long wait for investment, frustrated Nico’s hopes of a leading drive, leaving him in the midfield again in 2014. Put him in a top car and he’d be right up there, week in, week out.
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3 ROMAIN GROSJEAN
After the Monaco Grand Prix, Grosjean’s F1 career looked to be on life-support. He was fast, nobody doubted that, but at Monaco he had spent much of the build-up to the race hitting barriers and his race came to an end in the back of Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso. Even those who believed most strongly in the 27-year-old’s potential were starting to question whether it would ever come together.
But just in time, Grosjean did sharpen up. As expected, the results were absolutely spectacular. It was not long before he asserted himself over Raikkonen to become the go-to guy at Lotus. The blunders were gone and he was cool, calm and collected.
The peak of Grosjean’s season was at Suzuka. There, Red Bull had comfortably the quickest car but Grosjean managed to jump into the lead at the start. Logically, there was no way he could win and it was expected that Webber would undercut him at the first pit-stop. But Grosjean kept him just out of range and retained the lead in the second stint. He eventually finished third having been jumped by both Red Bulls, but this was a drive of the highest class.
Inevitably, there were downsides. While from the British Grand Prix onwards (where he shaded teammate Raikkonen in qualifying and should have finished right behind him) he grew in stature, his first three weekends were conservative and he was nowhere near the Finn’s level.
But what is most important is the trajectory Grosjean was on. He started the year on his last chance and ended it as a fully-rounded ace. That only Vettel scored more points than him in the final six races of 2013 speaks volumes.
While his first half of the year was far less impressive, he ranks so highly here because 2013 marked the emergence of a new F1 star. An important phrase to keep in mind when compiling such lists is that “the second half of the year does not count double.” But given the progress Grosjean made and the level he reached, he fully merits so lofty a position.
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2 FERNANDO ALONSO
Alonso took every opportunity to remind the world that finishing second in the drivers’ championship in what clearly wasn’t the second best car was a pretty remarkable achievement. While his carefully-phrased comments were designed to underline the fact that Ferrari hadn’t done a particularly good job with its 2013 car, it is difficult to argue with his claims.
The opening seconds of the Spanish Grand Prix exemplified Alonso’s class in race conditions as he went around the outside of both Raikkonen and Hamilton at Turn 3, his finger on the KERS even while going through the corner. This laid the foundations for the second and last Alonso win in 2013. And it was in the races where he, as usual, excelled over teammate Felipe Massa
While the baseline Ferrari was reasonably competitive, aided and abetted by the high-degradation Pirelli rubber that acted as a limiting factor on Red Bull, as the season went on, little progress was made with it. Alonso fell further and further out of contention and managed only four podium appearances while Vettel was taking those nine straight wins after the August break.
There were a few occasions in the closing stages of the campaign when that old Alonso trait of losing interest appeared to show through. The trouble is, when Alonso gets into that mindset, he tends to try just as hard, but with less thought applied! Korea, where he finished sixth, was perhaps an example of this. He also has to accept responsibility for clipping the back of Vettel’s Red Bull in Malaysia, although Ferrari was responsible for failing to call him in for a front wing change before the assembly collapsed and pitched him into the gravel.
This was not as convincing a year as 2012 for Alonso, and he is very much a distant second this year although not the same distance as he was in the actual championship! Certainly, he showed enough class enough times to warrant such a high position in this ranking.
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1 SEBASTIAN VETTEL
Yes, the Red Bull-Renault RB9 was the undisputed car of choice in 2013. But the way Vettel used is was nothing short of sensational.
The German was at the heart of the car’s success, primarily through the remarkable way that he was able to harness the downforce generated by exhaust gasflow. With rear downforce closely related to throttle levels, Vettel was intelligent enough to master exactly when he needed to have the power down to maximize grip without ever overdoing it or sacrificing pace. This shows that not only is Vettel a damn quick driver, he’s an intelligent and hard-working one too.
The results were astonishing. A haul of 13 victories, nine in succession after the August break, was as mighty a run of dominance as grand prix racing has ever seen. After all, teammate Mark Webber failed even to win a race during 2013, so it was hardly easy.
Perhaps most impressive was Vettel’s unquenchable thirst for victory. At a time when others might relax, safe in the knowledge they had the world title in their pockets, Vettel simply never eased off.
The one criticism was what happened in Malaysia and the infamous Multi 21′ affair. Vettel and Webber had been given the go-ahead to race until the final pit-stops and the team ordered the pair to hold station. But Vettel, on the quicker tire in the final stint, closed in and passed the Australian contrary to the Multi 21 (hold position, car 2 then car 1) order. He was wrong to do so.
Beyond that, he passed people when he needed to, controlled races beautifully and rarely made mistakes. There was simply no other contender for top spot in this list.