It’s time for the final four. Who was my driver of the year? Read on to find out, and share your verdict below.
4. Felipe Massa
Mid-season ranking: 4
In my mind, Massa was definitely the best driver overall in 2008.
He was runner up in the world championship by just one point, he won more races that anyone else and he had the best average starting position. So why is Massa only fourth in this list?
Two reasons: first of all, the mistakes. No, he didn’t make as many as the world champion did, but still there were plenty. Crashes and spins marred his first two races, and wet weather still seems to vex Massa more than most: he went off at Monte-Carlo and lost control at Silverstone five times, in a performance that recalled his shocking drive at the same circuit six years earlier.
Some may feel he deserves the championship more than Lewis Hamilton because Massa won more races and suffered more breakdowns. I understand that point of view, but I don’t agree with it. Every F1 car is a compromise between performance and reliability: if Massa’s had been more reliable, perhaps it would not have been as fast?
There were a few days when Massa simply didn’t figure. One of them was Spa, where he lagged behind Kimi Raikkonen – but was later handed the win in controversial circumstances. At Shanghai, too, he fell so far behind Raikkonen the Finn had to go to great lengths to back off and let Massa past.
Those moments aside, Massa was deeply impressive in 2008, dispelling any notion that he would have to play second fiddle to Raikkonen. The suggestion that Raikkonen ended up behind his team mate at the end of the year because he was less fortunate than Massa simply doesn’t stand up: Massa was simply too quick for him, too often.
And that’s not something many expected to be the case when they paired up two years ago.
3. Fernando Alonso
Mid-season ranking: 5
Several mistakes earlier in the season (Canada and Monaco), but at the end of the season he was brilliant again. Completely annihilated Piquet.
Fernando Alonso was conclusively the best driver over the final four races, in which he scored two wins and a podium finish. Those performances weren’t just the consequence of hard work at the race track (or, in the case of Singapore, a slice of good fortune), they were forged over months of development work, an area where Alonso has always been strong.
Fuji was surely his best drive of the year. The first-corner melee shuffled some of the top drivers out of his way, but he still had to out-drive Robert Kubica to take the lead. He accomplished this brilliantly, grinding out the relentless, consistently quick laps we recognise as an Alonso trademark.
Earlier in the year, when the car was mired in the midfield and even the minor points were hard to come by, Alonso seemed to lack his usual edge. A wet Monaco seemed tailor-made for him: he’d won there twice before and is a recognised ace in the wet, but it didn’t come together. At Hockenheim his temperament got the better of him, and after gesticulating furiously at Sebastian Vettel (whom Alonso felt had blocked him in the pits), Alonso spun off.
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But by the end of the season he was back at his best, and with a rejuvenated Renault underneath him 2009 could see Alonso fighting for the championship once again.
2. Lewis Hamilton
Mid-season ranking: 3
Less brilliant than last year and often still given signs of being to hot tempered, but when he was in one of his days no one could come even close to him.
Hamilton’s season had ‘win or crash’ written all over it. On any given lap he could usually be found in one of the top two positions or toiling round towards the back of the field having tangled with a rival or been handed a penalty.
Plenty has been written about the world champion’s error-strewn performance in 2008. He hit Alonso, he hit Raikkonen. He received more penalties than anyone else, and ruined his starts at Bahrain and Fuji.
This is not an exhaustive list. But no driver ever attained greatness by avoiding mistakes, and on the flip side of Hamilton’s woeful moments were some examples of true racing brilliance.
Shown a wet track at Monte-Caro, Silverstone and Monza he sometimes lapped it whole seconds faster than his rivals could. Not for nothing was he voted F1’s best wet weather driver on this site a few months ago.
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Hamilton started from pole position more times than anyone else and won more races on the track as well whatever the stewards had to say about it. He pulverised his team mate, too.
Towards the end of the season he seemed to have finally learned the lesson that F1 championships these days are less about the points you win and more about the points you don’t lose. He trod carefully at Singapore while shadowing David Coulthard, and erred on the side of caution all weekend at Interlagos.
Some are asking if Hamilton now has a place among the all-time greats. Such talk is grossly premature – he may be the youngest ever champion, but that alone is not enough to make him one of the best ever. But if he can match his obvious speed and instinctive race craft to a cool head, that could set him on the path to greatness.
1. Robert Kubica
Mid-season ranking: 1
Even though BMW dropped off the pace, Kubica has still had a late chance for the title.
By the end of the season everyone has formed a view on which driver was the best. But I often find opinions about this sort of thing can get distracted by the later races of the year and ignore how the season began. If you fall into that trap, it’s easy to underestimate how good Robert Kubica’s performance was over the whole of 2008.
What makes Formula 1 such a challenging sport to analyse is the fact that every competitor is in a different car to all but one of his rivals. Three drivers conclusively got much more out of their cars over most of the season than their team mates, and they are the three drivers at the top of my list.
Kubica is top because not only was he consistently fast, he was the most error-free. And that was clearest of all over the first half of the season. Some produced better performances later on in the year, but taking the season as a whole, I fully believe Kubica was the better man.
At Melbourne he was hit by a lapped car. During the first half of the season he only finished behind the faster McLarens or Ferraris, and often ahead of a few of them as well. And at Canada, everyone was behind him. Some might suggest he lost a win at Fuji to Alonso. Looking at the data, I think he did an exceptional job in keeping Raikkonen at bay for second.
The only mistake worthy of the name all year was a spin in the pouring rain at Silverstone. Other drivers lost control many times in that race, but Kubica had the misfortune to spin into a gravel trap.
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BMW, for whatever reason, seemed less interested in throwing their weight into a title effort this year, and more concerned with remedying Nick Heidfeld’s qualifying problems and sorting their preparations for 2009. Making matters worse, Kubica’s race at Singapore was destroyed by the appearance of the safety car at an inopportune moment, and a slow pit stop ruined his race at Hungary.
BMW may come to regret their choice of priorities if Kubica switches to another team in the near future. With a MP4/23 or F2008 at his disposal he would surely have been champion. With a little less misfortune, he might even have done it in an F1.08. And for that reason, Kubica is my driver of the year.
Who’s your driver of the year? Share your verdict below and vote in the 2008 best F1 driver poll.