Mid-season: Top ten drivers of 2012 so far

Saturday 14th July 2012, 12:44 by Daniel Chalmers 

Who'll come out on top in 2012?

With nine races gone it's time to see who Features Editor Daniel Chalmers' top ten drivers of the season so far are.

With so many different drivers featuring at the front of the grid in the first nine races, picking a top ten is no easy task and as a result a few big names haven’t made it, whilst there are one or two surprise inclusions.

When putting together a list like this it's important to consider factors such as the ultimate peak performances of the drivers although one great performance and eight average races won’t get a driver that high up on this list.

It’s very important to consider the consistency of the drivers and how many mistakes they have made plus their performance against their team mates. Perhaps most important is whether they have made best use of the equipment at their disposal.

He is dead last in the championship and in the slowest car on the grid but De la Rosa’s performances have actually been decent considering the trying circumstances.

The season started slowly with no testing on the new car yet again, but the experienced Spaniard has been very impressive and done the very best with what he has at his disposal up till now.

Although performing miracles in this car has proved impossible over a race distance, De la Rosa has out-qualified a Marussia five times so far in 2012. Handy stuff considering Marussia had much better season preparation and are in a far healthier state than HRT.

Canada was his best performance where he out-qualified both Timo Glock and Charles Pic. He actually beat Glock by 0.409 seconds, which is impressive stuff when you think how highly rated Glock is.

He has also thrashed team-mate Narain Karthikeyan 9-0 in qualifying with an average gap between the pair of almost 0.576 seconds (this figure excludes Catalunya where Narain didn’t produce a clean lap). Narain is no slouch contrary to popular belief, proved by his good performance alongside Daniel Ricciardo in India last year. So to beat him by this margin is a good effort on Pedro’s part.

With the HRT he can’t really do much more so deserves some recognition for his efforts. He has been extracting more from his car than quite a few others have higher up the grid.

Perez has had some real moments of star quality and signs seem to suggest it might not be long until he hits the big time. He isn’t there just yet though.

His ability to look after the tyres is quite remarkable given his inexperience. His drive in the wet in Sepang was incredible. Although you have to question whether perhaps he should have won the race. If it wasn’t for that mistake late on, you feel he had Alonso in his grasp.

On the other hand the cautious nature of the Sauber team could have been just as much to blame. Nonetheless it was still a mesmerising performance from Perez.

In the dry his podium in Montreal was also an outstanding drive. He started 15th and made a one stop strategy work beautifully to make it all the way to the podium. Another successful one stop approach in Melbourne gave him eighth place.

However opportunities in Monaco and Spain were missed. In Monte-Carlo he hit the wall in qualifying, and in Spain he got a puncture on the first lap starting fifth on the grid. A big result was possible in both those races.

Although Perez has generally impressed you do wonder whether he should be achieving more great results, as this year’s Sauber is a very strong car. Peter Sauber says this is the best car the team have ever produced.

You have to ask what Alonso or Hamilton might be able to do with the C31?

The fact that Sergio has actually only finished in the points four times means he can’t finish any higher than ninth in this list. You can’t ignore his peak performances though, and with more experience there will be more of them to come.

Grosjean is a completely different driver to the one we saw back in 2009. In fact he has been one of the revelations of the season so far albeit with a few cracks still left to fill in. The promise has always been there so it’s great to see it coming to fruition now.

His raw pace has been very strong given that he has out-qualified his more experienced team mate 6-3. He has managed to qualify on the front two rows of the grid four times including an impressive third in the season opener.

He has two podiums to his name including a brilliant drive in Canada where he made a one stop strategy work brilliantly to finish second. In Valencia he might well have won the race had the alternator not failed on him, whilst running an extremely strong race in second.

His main downfall though has been his involvement in incidents. In Melbourne he touched Maldonado and was forced to retire. He touched Schumacher on the first lap in Sepang and then beached it as the heavy rain fell. He didn’t give Schumacher enough space at the start in Monaco and was forced into a spin. He got involved in another incident on the first lap in Silverstone.

Without those incidents he may well have had more podiums and maybe even a win. It’s what the E20 is capable of achieving.

Considering it’s the first year of his comeback and so much has changed in F1 during his absence Raikkonen has performed admirably. He has looked very motivated and up for the challenge. His desire to succeed is much better than it was in his last year with Ferrari.

His race performances have been particularly strong with three podiums to his name already this season. Furthermore he has only failed to score points in one race out of the nine contested so far, so good consistency there.

In Bahrain he did extremely well to drive from 11th on the grid to get himself into contention for the victory. If Lotus’s strategy was better he may well have won that race.

Kimi’s main issue has been his qualifying pace, which is the department he is lacking in compared to team mate Grosjean. If he can improve on that he could star in the second half of the season

On the downside the E20 has the potential to win races. Using the same argument as with Sauber could Alonso or Hamilton have won races in this car?

For example in Valencia had Kimi made the pass on Lewis much earlier Alonso was there for the taking. Then in Bahrain it could be argued he was slightly tentative when attempting to overtake Sebastian Vettel.

Had Kimi won races he would have easily made the top five on this list. However we mustn’t be too harsh as it’s almost like a rookie season all over again for the Finn so all in all he’s done very well. If the car stays competitive the wins will come.

Kovalainen is having another fantastic season for Caterham in a car which is still off the pace of the midfield despite the team’s best efforts.

Just as he did in 2010 and 2011 he is extracting as much from the car as he can and more at times. You can’t ask much more than that.

He has managed to reach Q2 twice in Bahrain and Valencia. This was done in normal dry conditions on both occasions, so achieved on pure pace, rather than the lottery of mixed weather.

His performance in Valencia was particularly special as he managed to out qualify both Toro Rossos. He also out-qualified Jean-Eric Vergne in Canada despite not making Q2 there.

Although he didn’t reach Q2 in Monaco his qualifying lap was extremely competitive. He was 0.866 seconds quicker than team-mate Vitaly Petrov, and just less than a couple of tenths shy of 15th place and therefore a passage into Q2.

In the race in Monte-Carlo he did extremely well to hold off Jenson Button for a large chunk of the race. He was running in 12th place and in touch with the midfield group in front. A point was possible until the light rain started to fall and brake temperature dropped as a result.

The downside has been bad luck in two or three races e.g. being hit by Vergne in Valencia, and having to pit again immediately after a stop in China (due to a problem with a rear tyre).

Overall Heikki deserves a shot in a quicker car next year on current performance.

Although he may not have had a headline result like fellow midfield drivers Pastor Maldonado and Perez, Di Resta’s season has been consistently strong. His season thus far hasn’t just been about one stand out performance.

He has already matched his points total from the whole of last season (27). This is a very good haul considering Force India’s car isn’t as competitive as last year’s. Generally Force India only have the eighth fastest car at the moment with Williams and Sauber a clear step ahead of them. Despite that Di Resta has still finished in the points five times already in 2012 (more times than Kamui Kobayashi, Maldonado and Perez).

His sixth place in Bahrain was one of the drives of the season so far, making a two stop strategy work brilliantly to beat quicker cars. It was even more remarkable considering Force India opted to skip second practice altogether.

In Valencia Force India tried an adventurous one stop strategy. If it wasn’t for the safety car Di Resta could have finished higher than his eventual seventh position. Paul made the most of the wet conditions in Sepang to drive from 14th on the grid to seventh.

He has also out-qualified his very highly rated team mate Nico Hulkenberg 6-3, plus he has scored more points than the young German.

It’s just a shame his British GP ended so early, but you sense there will be bigger and better home races to come for him in the future.

Webber has bounced straight back from a disappointing 2011. What we are seeing so far resembles the Webber of 2010 who fought for the championship right down to the wire. In qualifying he is ahead of his team mate 5-4 at the moment, very different to this time last year where it was 7-2 to Sebastian.

The Aussie has adapted to the Pirelli tyres, which was a big difficulty for him last season. He also seems better suited to a car which doesn’t feature the exhaust blown diffuser.

He has been the only man apart from Alonso to win two races this year. His victory in Monaco was underestimated. As light rain fell being the first man to experience the track conditions around a track as difficult as Monaco was no easy task, but Mark kept his cool and got the win.

His performance in Silverstone was also impressive outpacing Vettel all weekend, and holding his nerve to overtake Alonso in the closing stages. Perhaps his best drive was Valencia where he started 19th and came all the way through to fourth. Points rescued like that are often the most important in a title battle.

Webber appears to have enjoyed finishing fourth as he has finished in that position five times. However it’s put big points in the bag on a consistent basis. The only poor race we have seen from him so far was finishing 11th in Spain.

The question is will Mark deliver when it's needed most in the business end of the season?

His car isn’t dominant like it was last year, and the gap to team-mate Webber has vanished.

Although it’s clear Vettel has struggled slightly at times with this reality check he has still delivered some champion performances.  He has proven that he can race through the pack and he has been consistent enough to put himself in the title mix

Although he only qualified sixth in Melbourne he did brilliantly to work his way up to second place including a stunning move around the outside of Rosberg. His victory in Bahrain was also a very special performance. Lotus had the quickest car in that race and Vettel did a brilliant job to hold off the charging Kimi Raikkonen.

Sebastian had a tough qualifying in Monaco but had a very strong opening stint on the hard tyres which lifted him right up to fourth place.

His pace in Valencia was the most dominant we have seen from anyone in 2012. Unfortunately reliability prevented him from winning a fully deserved 25 points.

Although Webber is currently ahead in the title race Vettel’s ultimate peak performances have been slightly better, and he has three poles to his name too. Of course without that glitch in Valencia he would be ahead of his team mate in the standings anyway.

With Red Bull back on the pace its clear Seb will be a formidable threat in the second half of the season.

Hamilton has been learning how to control his immense talent this season, combining his speed with the need to look after his rubber. We have also seen much less in the way of errors.

If it wasn’t for McLaren’s inconsistent speed and mistakes (especially in the pits) Lewis could be toe to toe with Webber and Alonso at the top of the championship.

Whilst Alonso has been the most consistent man in races it’s Hamilton who has been by far the best driver in terms of sheer raw pace. He has qualified in the top three eight times out of nine. He has had three pole positions (including Spain where he got sent to the back due to a fuel infringement). It’s this raw pace that just puts him ahead of the Red Bull drivers in this list but it was a very close call for 2nd-4th places.

He won brilliantly in Canada. He showed his newfound maturity being patient when passing Vettel and Alonso in the final stages rather than going for an immediate rash move.

Had he kept his pole in Spain he surely had a great chance of dominating the race, as his pace was exceptional throughout that weekend.

His only major blemish has been the collision with Pastor Maldonado in Valencia. In hindsight Lewis may have been better off not fighting so hard for the place.

The championship leader is operating at the highest level we have ever seen him, even higher than his title years. At the start of the season nobody would have put money on the Spaniard leading the championship at this stage, considering the problems Ferrari have had. We should never have underestimated the incredible might of Fernando.

Alonso has been transcending the ability of his car at every race weekend and has been putting his car in places it has no right being. The only really disappointing race was China where he could only finish ninth.

Australia was perhaps the most remarkable race. When the car was at its worse 1.5 seconds off the pace he somehow managed to drag it to fifth place. In Malaysia he made the most of the opportunity the rain presented to him and grabbed it. His race through the field in Valencia from 11th was simply astonishing.

He might have won in Monaco too had the team left him out a few laps longer before pitting. Ferrari also made a big error on strategy in Canada which left him off the podium.

In one of F1’s most competitive seasons the theory that Alonso is F1’s most complete driver is being proven. He has been fast, consistent, determined and made the most of every opportunity presented to him. You can’t say he has put a foot wrong at any point so far, apart from a spin in qualifying in Melbourne, which he made up for in the race.

There’s a long way to go yet but if he can win this title it would have to go down as one of the most impressive title victories for years considering his equipment. At the moment we are potentially witnessing Alonso’s transition from a great to a legend.

He is the driver who is standing out at the moment in one of the most talented grids we have witnessed for many years.

You can follow Daniel Chalmers and The F1 Times on Twitter.

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