The F1 2018 report
© Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool
Who stood up and shone? Who stumbled backwards or stuttered? It's time for our top 10 drivers of the F1 season.
We're making a list, checking it twice … no, not that one, even if it is December. The final month of the year finally hears Formula One engines fall silent after the equal-longest season in the sport's 69-year history, and for some drivers (Red Bull Racing's Max Verstappen, for example), more Grands Prix (to extend his run of five straight podiums to end the year) would probably be welcomed. But the off-season does give us cause for pause and a chance to reflect on who and what was good in 2018 – and who underwhelmed or went missing when it mattered. Which is where we came in.
In this space this time last year, we ran the rule over the grid to come up with our top five drivers of 2017. Halfway through this one; a report card that handed out the mid-season grades (and who needed to do their homework or stay back after school for extra detention). This time, we're changing tack.
From the 20 drivers who lined up for the start of season school photo in Australia in March, we had a statistical anomaly this year – those same 20 drivers also posed for the end-of-year shot in Abu Dhabi last month, the first time in F1 history the same grid that started the season also finished it. But forget 20 – it's a top 10 list for the season that's of interest, and begs questions of how to arrive at one.
What were the expectations for each driver (and their teams) heading into 2018, and did they exceed those relative to their teammates, and the opposition? Who had outsize results in cars not worthy of them, or who squandered points and podiums in machinery that was superior? And do the final standings for 2018 tell the complete truth, or is context more important than counting points?
Before we reveal the top 10, two honourable mentions to those who just missed. Kevin Magnussen was comfortably the best Haas driver of the season for a fledgling team that finished a heady fifth in the constructors' championship, and the Dane had his best season yet, scoring 56 points to finish ninth overall. A better year than teammate Romain Grosjean, but not one that slid him into our top 10. And Carlos Sainz, who finished right behind Magnussen in 10th after a strong sixth-place showing to wrap up his Renault tenure in Abu Dhabi, missed out by a whisker as he prepares to head to McLaren for 2019. Both tough, tough omissions … but if 10 make it, 10 have to miss.
So who made the cut? From 10 to 1, let's count them down – the best F1 drivers of the class of 2018, and why.
10. Fernando Alonso
2018 summary: 11th in world championship (50 points), best result 5th (Australia), 15 finishes in 21 races.
The verdict: Was Abu Dhabi, where Alonso performed a series of celebratory donuts on the start-finish straight after the race with fellow multiple world champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, really the last time we'll see the Spaniard in F1? We don't know that for certain, but what 2018 taught us was that Alonso got everything he could out of a McLaren that, by season's end, was the second-slowest car. He scored 50 of the team's 62 points, and outqualified teammate Stoffel Vandoorne 21-0, the first driver to whitewash his teammate since … Alonso himself (Nelson Piquet Jr in 2008). Of those 50 points, 32 came in the first five races as he preyed on the customary early-season unreliability of rivals, taking a yard when an inch was on offer. Fifth in race one of 2018 in Australia was the best he could do all season. Let's hope we see him again; how much better would F1 be if Alonso was sharing the same piece of track with Hamilton and Vettel on merit, not for nostalgic purposes?
9. Sergio Perez
2018 summary: 8th in world championship (62 points), best result 3rd (Azerbaijan), 1 podium, 19 finishes in 21 races.
The verdict: Perez is the answer to what will eventually become a trivia question from 2018; by taking third in Baku, the Mexican was the only driver not from Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull to stand on the podium all season (Azerbaijan 2017, where Lance Stroll finished third for Williams, is the only other race in the past two seasons to end likewise, a stat fact F1 sporting boss Ross Brawn calls "unacceptable"). Nearly one-quarter of Perez's points came on that one crazy afternoon in Azerbaijan, and while he's a safe pair of hands who can be relied upon to pick up the crumbs thanks to his tyre-conserving style, his qualifying deficit to Racing Point Force India teammate Esteban Ocon (16-5) costs him a spot in our rankings from where he finished.
8. Charles Leclerc
2018 summary: 13th in world championship (39 points), best result 6th (Azerbaijan), 15 finishes in 21 races.
The verdict: How good was Leclerc's rookie season? Not since Verstappen (49 points for Toro Rosso in 2015) have we seen a newcomer this polished, and what made his maiden campaign all the more impressive was that he was driving for Sauber, which finished dead last in the constructors' championship the year prior. The Swiss squad's jump to eighth can be primarily pinned on the composed 21-year-old, who ended the year with a trio of seventh-place finishes on the bounce in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, the best realistic results on offer behind the sport's 'big three' teams. A brighter spotlight awaits as Vettel's teammate at Ferrari, but nothing we've seen so far suggests it should bother him. Put your hard-earned on him becoming F1's 108th race winner sometime next season.
7. Nico Hulkenberg
2018 summary: 7th in world championship (69 points), best result 5th (Germany), 14 finishes in 21 races.
The verdict: Seventh overall, seventh on our list, seven races started from seventh place on the grid … there's a consistent theme here for Hulkenberg, who was largely in control of F1's 'class B' in 2018 despite not finishing seven of the 21 races, the second-worst in that category on the grid (we'll get to number one on that list later, Australian fans). It took until round 12 in Hungary, where he finished 12th, for the Renault driver not to finish in the points in a race where he saw the chequered flag. Finished eight races in (you guessed it) seventh place or better in his best F1 season yet.
6. Valtteri Bottas
2018 summary: 5th in world championship (247 points), best result 2nd (Bahrain, China, Spain, Canada, Germany, Russia, Japan), 2 poles, 7 fastest laps, 8 podiums, 19 finishes in 21 races.
The verdict: The Finn finished fifth overall, but we're docking him a spot here based on what he did the year prior in the sport's best team, and what his teammate did in equal equipment in 2018. Rewind 12 months, and Bottas took three wins and scored 305 points to finish third overall; this season, he went winless while teammate Hamilton won 11 times, the first time a world champion's running mate failed to win a race since Mark Webber in 2013. Azerbaijan, where he suffered an untimely puncture within sight of the flag, was one that got away, but Russia, where he was ordered by Mercedes to gift the win to Hamilton to aid a championship quest the Briton eventually won by a mile, might have hurt his head as much as Baku hurt his heart.
5. Daniel Ricciardo
2018 summary: 6th in world championship (170 points), 2 wins (China, Monaco), 2 poles, 4 fastest laps, 2 podiums, 13 finishes in 21 races.
The verdict: Two wins in the first six races had Ricciardo considering a championship charge, but as the year unfolded, it seemed the affable Aussie had spent the off-season that preceded 2018 walking under ladders while crossing paths with a black cat and breaking a mirror on Friday the 13th. In 21 races, he had eight non-finishes, all but one of them from reliability gremlins that could have broken someone of lesser character (for context, the Mercedes and Ferrari pairings, plus teammate Verstappen, had 12 DNF's combined). When the car was fast, Ricciardo was often too far back with penalties to do anything with it, and when he started where he should have, the car regularly broke. In the final nine races of 2018, there were just two – Singapore and his Red Bull swansong in Abu Dhabi – where Ricciardo didn't come into the race weekend carrying a penalty, or the car cried 'enough'. His swashbuckling win in Shanghai (and those passing moves to get to P1) and his defensive masterclass while nursing a crippled car in Monaco were top-shelf memories from a season he'll be glad is over.
4. Kimi Raikkonen
2018 summary: 3rd in world championship (251 points), 1 win (USA), 1 pole, 1 fastest lap, 12 podiums, 17 finishes in 21 races.
The verdict: The Raikkonen of 2018 is more Steady Eddie than one who drives with the searing speed that characterised the early part of his career, but in his final season with Ferrari before heading back to where it all began with Sauber, the 39-year-old was the perfect beta to Vettel's alpha at Ferrari. He finished races (17 of them), didn’t get in the way (most of the time; many of the sport's insiders were surprised he qualified on pole ahead of title-contending teammate Vettel at Monza, particularly after Vettel spun on the first lap fighting with Hamilton), and bagged a long-overdue win in Austin on merit, snapping a 113-race skid that stretched all the way back to Australia 2013 for Lotus.
3. Max Verstappen
2018 summary: 4th in world championship (249 points), 2 wins (Austria, Mexico), 2 fastest laps, 11 podiums, 17 finishes in 21 races.
The verdict: If this list was being compiled from the second half of the year only, Verstappen would be a clear second; after scoring 105 points in the first 12 races, he gobbled up 144 from the last nine. Winning on Red Bull's home patch in Austria made him more popular than ever, while for the second straight year, he made the rest look ridiculous in Mexico, winning that race by over 17 seconds while driving in cruise control for the final stint. The error-prone ways of the first half of Verstappen's season seem like a lifetime ago already. Can Honda power lift the Dutchman higher in the standings (and this list) 12 months from now?
2. Sebastian Vettel
2018 summary: 2nd in world championship (320 points), 5 wins (Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Great Britain, Belgium), 5 poles, 3 fastest laps, 12 podiums, 20 finishes in 21 races.
The verdict: Freeze season 2018 on lap 51 of the German Grand Prix, and this list – and Vettel's standing in Ferrari's history books – looks a lot different. A lap later, Vettel crashed out of his home Grand Prix while leading in the rain, allowing Hamilton to take an unlikely victory after starting 14th, and stealing the championship lead from his rival to boot. From there, things went south for the German – spins while fighting for position in Italy, Japan and Austin were costly, and by Mexico, Vettel was runner-up in the championship for a third time, Ferrari's wait for its first drivers' title since 2007 extending another year. Hockenheim was Vettel's only non-finish of the season, but it was the beginning of the end.
1. Lewis Hamilton
2018 summary: World champion (408 points), 11 wins (Azerbaijan, Spain, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Singapore, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Abu Dhabi), 11 poles, 3 fastest laps, 17 podiums, 20 finishes in 21 races.
The verdict: It's amazing to think, given how Hamilton's season ended, that he didn't win a race until round four in Azerbaijan, and he lucked into that one to such a degree after Bottas' late puncture that he delayed the podium proceedings to console his Mercedes teammate before accepting the winners' trophy with a sheepish face. The afore-mentioned win in Germany, and another the following weekend in Hungary where he produced a mesmerising qualifying lap in atrocious conditions, gave Hamilton the advantage, and he pressed that home to such an extent that he wound up winning 10 of the final 16 races, becoming the first driver ever to score more than 400 points in a single season. For lap of the year, look no further than his pole position in Singapore, where he dazzled as bright as the night lights that illuminate the sport's most unforgiving track, and showed the gap he has over the rest when he's at the top of his game.