The 2013 season may not have had the knife-edge championship battle that its predecessor enjoyed, but it certainly contained masterful displays of driving from the world’s greatest drivers. Whether it was Sebastian Vettel’s record run of nine victories, Fernando Alonso’s battling displays in a below-par Ferrari or the heroics of new talents Romain Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg that kept you entertained, all had their place in another engrossing year of Formula One action.
There can of course only be one winner of the 2013 Top Ten – no prizes for guessing who – but it’s harder and harder to rank Vettel’s opponents in a sport where the margins between success and failure lie in thousandths of a second. 2013 was the swansong of a great many of the sport’s key players; Ross Brawn was forced from his pitwall perch after a long and overwhelmingly victorious career, Felipe Massa moves from familiar territory and of course Mark Webber, everybody’s favourite Australian, bid an emotional but timely farewell to the sport that has, at times, been rather too tough on him. Not to mention the last hurrah of the V8 era and the final season under regulations introduced at the start of 2009.
So here they are, the ten best drivers of the 2013 season…
1. Sebastian Vettel
It’s becoming harder and harder to summarise Sebastian Vettel’s achievements as the English language doesn’t carry enough superlatives to do him justice.
If you thought his record up to the close of 2012 was awesome, think again. 2013 proved he has his contemporaries over a barrel. Barring his Silverstone retirement, he was off the podium only twice before the mid-season shake-up of the Pirelli tyres and scored three unchallenged victories to boot that secured his already-comfortable lead in the title standings. Post-Silverstone, he proceeded to re-write another section of the history books by embarking on the most dominant display of superiority ever witnessed in Formula One. Forget Fangio and Schumacher, this was bordering on the superhuman. Of course, Malaysia’s ‘Multi-21’ scandal exposed the ruthless edge that some claim has been nurtured by a certain Mr M Schumacher. It was simultaneously sickening and admirable – a man willing to do anything possible for total victory, but at the expense of trust from his greatest supporters.
Behind every Vettel win, there has been an army of Red Bull-attired engineers, strategists and designers – something a great many fans point to as the real root of the German’s astounding success rather than any greater driving prowess. How easily some can forget how totally he dominated the 2008 Italian Grand Prix, in what three years before had been a Minardi.
The really worrying fact? He’s only 26.
2. Fernando Alonso
2013 was the year Fernando Alonso’s reputation as the cream of the F1 crop came under serious threat from the young pretender, Vettel. Now the pretender is king again, the Spaniard can ill-afford another season like this.
Wins in China and Spain belied the lack of pace in the F138, a shortfall excruciatingly highlighted after Silverstone as Vettel sped to victory after victory. Alonso’s class and perseverance ensured he was only outside the top 7 twice all season; but it mattered little when pitted against the insurmountable form of Red Bull.
3. Romain Grosjean
If 2012 seemed to be the last gasp for Grosjean’s dying chances in the big time, 2013 was the re-birth of a man who has regrouped, refocused and emerged as a powerful contender for future champion.
Grosjean began 2013 quietly, which aroused speculation that his over-zealous 2012 form had been over-compensated for. He really got going in July’s German Grand Prix, chasing team-mate Raikkonen and race winner Vettel across the line for 3rd and backing that up with strong points finishes in the next three races. He should have podiumed in Singapore but for mechanical woes, making up for it with a trio of 3rd places in Korea, Japan and India. His fine drive to 2nd in Austin confirmed he has truly arrived, and to lead Lotus in 2014 will be his reward. Surely he can be the first Frenchman to win a race since 1996?
4. Nico Hulkenberg
An amazing talent with a knack for choosing the wrong team.
Not that all this can be attributed to Nico Hulkenberg decisions. Money talks in Formula One and, despite Force India and Sauber being perfectly respectable F1 outfits, neither can deliver the goods on a consistent basis to allow this young man to take his rightful place among the sport’s fastest men. Even as early as summer, there was talk of a McLaren seat for 2014, followed closely by the attentions of Ferrari. That neither came to fruition was disappointing, but there was always Lotus.
Oh, then that came down in tatters too. Perhaps if Germany had more oil companies, Nico would be in with a shout. His performances from Silverstone onwards were nothing short of excellent, although Gutierrez remained an unreliable yardstick. What did matter was that given the car, Hulkenberg delivered above and beyond what was expected. His only problem? He’s entering his fourth F1 season.
5. Kimi Raikkonen
2013 did nothing to offer deeper insights into the world inhabited by the astonishingly popular Finn.
Winning in Melbourne proved Kimi can hack the strategical races as well as offer outright pace and eight podiums before succumbing to his back injury showed he has lost none if his skill. Yet once his shot at the title looked a forlorn hope his motivation seemed to wane, and his Japanese and Indian Grand Prix weekends looked far from top notch. He was unlucky to finish 2nd so many times and perhaps should have won more, but it was difficult in a year dominated by Sebastian Vettel. The definite low was his spat with Lotus management over his cashflow (or lack of it) that probably reinforced his decision to miss the end of the season with his back surgery.
Ferrari saw enough of a spark to re-sign him for 2014; he’ll have to do better than first time round if he wants a second world title.
6. Lewis Hamilton
This was the big year for Lewis, bigger perhaps than claiming his 2008 world title. Leaving McLaren was always going to be the greatest challenge of his career, especially given the dire form shown by Merc as he put pen to paper in September 2012.
Yet join them he did, and it looks like he made the right decision. As his old ‘parents’ struggled in the midfield, Lewis and team-mate Rosberg posed the only viable season-long threat to Red Bull, the only fly in the ointment of what was largely a crushingly dominant year for the Milton Keynes squad. You could guarantee that the only thing to worry Vettel and Red Bull in qualifying all year was a fired-up Hamilton at the wheel of an on-form F1W04, even if the race didn’t bring the desired success ratio. Problems with Pirelli’s defined his early tenure at the Silver Arrows, and a possible British Grand Prix win was cruelly snatched by exploding rubber. When he finally won in Hungary it was supposed to open the floodgates but, as ever, Vettel hit a higher gear and went into overdrive from there on in.
All things considered however, 2013 could have been a lot worse for Lewis. He’s got the poles and that first win – now it’s time to go for the World Championship.
7. Nico Rosberg
Somewhat in the manner of Jenson Button in 2010, Nico found himself under intense scrutiny from the British media as he prepared to square up to the arriving Lewis Hamilton over the winter. Only one difference – this was his team, and he was expected to win.
That he finished behind Hamilton in the championship was a cruel twist of fortune. Three mechanical failures to Hamilton’s spotless record dented his chances of overhauling the Briton, but he sits secure in the knowledge that he won double the races his old karting rival did, and took an excellent trio of poles to bolster an otherwise barren F1 career record. It was the year he finally proved his worth, showed he had beaten an on-form Michael Schumacher and even, possibly, gave glimpses he’s destined for greater things than his old man Keke.
Having said that there were lacklustre moments early season even while Hamilton got into his stride, but after the summer break he trounced the Englishman for seven successive races. Not quite as impressive when they were fighting over 5th/6th/7th places but equally as important. His spectacular front wing failure while passing Lewis in Korea summed up his season; close, but ever so slightly cursed.
8. Mark Webber
What is there left to write about Mark Webber? He’s a thoroughly decent bloke, a genuinely bonzer man and a great racing driver to boot.
Yet when you’re up against Sebastian Vettel, life is hard and such virtues count for little. 2011 and 2012 had been hard on the Australian as he struggled with Pirelli’s sensitive products, and the Malaysian Grand Prix debacle pretty much finished off any remaining faith he had in the Red Bull team. From there on in it was rather muted, but he always did enough to string together a competitive weekend and score valuable points for a team that gave him rather less than he gave to it. He knows he is no Vettel, but it must rankle that Dr Helmut Marko’s omnipresent form never frequented Mark’s side of the garage.
He must be applauded for recognising his time has come, and equally lauded for his perseverance over what has been an incredibly trying career. His reaction to winning his maiden Grand Prix in Germany in 2009 will remain a classic, and the much-loved Aussie leaves F1 with a record to be proud of. Making way for Daniel Ricciardo ensures the Australian challenge to F1’s greatest continues.
9. Jenson Button
F1 has a habit of moulding some driver’s careers in a way that sees them leaving the sport as prolifically unlucky men. Drivers like Stirling Moss, Jean Alesi and Robert Kubica.
Step forward, Jenson Button. Often guily of failing to find a way round a difficult car, 2013 was taking things too far for McLaren and the Englishman. The MP4/28 was an unwieldy and ultimately flawed beast, single-handedly ensuring McLaren’s worst season since 1980. And in their 50th anniversary year as well.
Button did what was expected of a former World Champion, collecting the points weekend in, weekend out, and standing up generally well to the rigours of life in the midfield. He’s been here before so many times. Yet there is also the worrying fact that Sergio Perez, an upstart in Button’s own backyard, virtually matched his qualifying record and outraced him in three of the last four races. Are McLaren letting the right one go?
What stands in Button’s favour is his relationship with former employer Honda, set to become McLaren’s engine partner from 2015 onwards. It might just be the lucky break he’s looking for if he is to secure a second title before the sands of time run out on his F1 career.
10. Valtteri Bottas
Touted as the rookie of the year before the season started, it all fell apart for Valtteri when the lights went out in Australia.
From that moment on the Finn struggled to make an impression as Williams toiled at the back of the grid, plumbing new depths not even touched in the flawed 2011 campaign. The one, brief moment of recognition was his 3rd on the grid in Canada in damp conditions, levelling the playing field adequately for him to show his talents for a fleeting moment in time. But the race was dry, much like his hope of points.
By the time Austin’s US Grand Prix came around many had forgotten Q3 in Montreal. Valtteri reminded them by using the upgraded FW35 to qualify P9 and finish P8. Suddenly, he was on the radar again and everyone realised just how good he had been. Pastor Maldonado, erratic as he is, is no mean qualifier. Yet Bottas outqualified the Venezuelan more often than not and a cool head on young and hungry shoulders served him well in races.
Sergio Perez could so easily have made it into the top ten, and would have done so were it not for Valtteri Bottas’s Austin performance. The Mexican showed well in the final few races, but it was all too little too late to save his McLaren career. Mediocre results the majority of the season and incidents in Bahrain and Monaco did him no favours.
Neither Toro Rosso man stood out sufficiently to make a choice either. It may have been Daniel Ricciardo who took the spare Red Bull seat, but the Australian did little to prove his worth over team-mate Vergne.
Likewise, Felipe Massa was largely anonymous in his final season with Ferrari. The Brazilian did finish 3rd in Spain but was otherwise invisible, largely thanks to the shortcomings of his F138. A frustrating final year in red.
Jules Bianchi performed apparent miracles in the uncompetitive Marussia, but was passed over for promotion by Ferrari and ranged against the unreliable yardstick of Max Chilton. He gets a second year at the team to further his experience, but deserves a shot in a points-scoring car.