• Driver of the Year

ESPN's Driver of the Year - Part One

Laurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders
December 18, 2014

In our Driver of the Year awards, we look past the quality of the car and focus on the performance in the cockpit to determine which 10 drivers impressed us most in 2014

10. Felipe Massa

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Team: Williams
Championship Position: 7th
Points: 134
Best Result: 2nd

Though records will show Felipe Massa was the only non-Mercedes driver to claim a pole position this season, they also serve as a reminder he finished 52 points behind Williams team-mate Valtteri Bottas in seventh. Massa did not finish in the top six until Austria, the day after claiming a popular pole position, but was beaten to third by Bottas. In truth the FW36 did not live up to its pre-season promise until midway through the season but when it did Bottas was the man who initially excelled despite Massa's extra experience. The Brazilian could blame bad luck in places; suffering first-lap collisions in Australia, Great Britain and Germany, though he should shoulder the blame for the latter. His collision with Sergio Perez in Canada denied a probable podium finish and left both drivers pointing the finger of blame at the other. It was a racing incident but an example of a season of wasted opportunities; in all the races Mercedes slipped up it was Daniel Ricciardo, not Massa or Bottas, who took advantage. Massa improved in the latter part of the year, taking a podium at Ferrari's home race in Italy - fitting as he spent eight seasons at Maranello before his Williams switch. A popular podium followed in Brazil before he rounded off the season with second in Abu Dhabi. Massa divides opinion in F1 and continued to do so in 2014; at times flawless but more often than not erratic and, much like his days at Ferrari, overshadowed by his team-mate. He returns for Williams in 2014 but new talent will be circling for his seat if he cannot take the fight to Bottas.

Must try harder...

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  • The man who impressed us the least in 2014...
    There are plenty of ways to make a name for yourself in Formula One, but Pastor Maldonado appears hell-bent on his being a byword for disaster. He still holds the F1 record for most driving penalties in a season (nine) from 2012 but he seemed intent on smashing that record from the get-go this year. He had five but seemed to excel in destroying his Lotus at every given opportunity - at least he won a race in 2012. Whether it was launching Esteban Gutierrez skyward in Bahrain or crashing bizarrely in practice in both Spain and Belgium, it always seemed to be happening to him. One low moment was hopelessly beaching his car in the gravel at the entrance to the pits in China, met with a bemused shrug and shake of the head from a Lotus mechanic broadcast for the watching world to see.
    Nate Saunders

9. Romain Grosjean

Team: Lotus
Championship Position: 14th
Points: 8
Best Result: 8th

This list is less about what a driver achieved in terms of points and prizes this year and more about their latent potential. That may sound odd, but when you strip away the machinery and imagine what each of the contenders would have achieved with an equal Mercedes W05 at their disposal, you will hopefully start to understand why Grosjean is in our top ten. With a car as unpredictable as the Lotus E22, Grosjean's consistency was actually rather impressive. He made Q2 on 16 of 19 occasions and beat team-mate Pastor Maldonado 15 times in head-to-head qualifying battles. In Spain - the one track that seemed to suit the Lotus - he qualified fifth, which would have been unthinkable at any other point in the season and did not receive the praise it deserved at the time. Excluding his seven retirements (only one of which was due to driver error), he moved forward from his solid grid positions more often than not and would have added to his eight points in Austin had it not been for an overly-ambitious overtaking move by Jean-Eric Vergne. At this time last year we knew Grosjean had come of age in Formula One, but unfortunately we will have to wait a little longer to see him fighting at the sharp end.

8. Jules Bianchi

Team: Marussia
Championship Position: 17th
Points: 2
Best Result: 9th

Triumph and tragedy are never far apart in motorsport - the case of Jules Bianchi in 2014 is a grim reminder of that. Lauded as a future star and highly-regarded by Ferrari before his second season at Marussia, 2014 felt like a coming of age for Bianchi before his horrible crash in Japan in which he suffered a serious brain injury. He had underlined his credentials in Monte Carlo by taking Marussia's first points in a superb drive to ninth, a result that, at the time, seemed to give the team a vital lifeline in the battle with Sauber and Caterham in the constructors' championship. He progressed to Q2 on a drying track at Silverstone - at the expense of both Ferraris - on his way to a career-best 12th on the grid. He repeated the feat in Hungary - this time at the expense of the floundering Kimi Raikkonen - and then in Belgium. He tested for Ferrari at Silverstone at the mid-season test and it looked like a natural fit. Rumours he could replace Raikkonen in 2015 were wide of the mark, but his efforts had caught the eye of Ferrari and he was ear-marked for a future at the team, making the events of Suzuka all the more tragic.

7. Jenson Button

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Team: McLaren
Championship Position: 8th
Points: 126
Best Result: 3rd

If this year had turned out to be Jenson Button's last in Formula One, it would have been a clear indictment of the lack of meritocracy in the driver market. By his own high standards, 2014 will be a season to forget with no victories and just one podium, but his 15 years of experience at the top level shone through. Although this list is not supposed to be based on the final results in the drivers' standings, it cannot be ignored that Button scored more than double the points of his rookie team-mate Kevin Magnussen. Historically he has struggled with unbalanced cars - and the MP4-29 was far from perfect - but he proved he is still capable of grinding out results when they matter on race day. He was thrown a swerve ball midway through the season when his race engineer of the past four years Dave Robson was reshuffled in the McLaren pack and replaced by his performance engineer Tom Stallard. For a driver as sensitive as Button it proved to be a challenge, and by his own admission he missed out on results as he got used to working without Robson. But by the end of the year he was back at his best and the 32 points he scored at the final two races were the reason McLaren finished fifth in the constructors' championship ahead of Force India. When all of that is taken into consideration, Button fully deserves seventh place on this list ... not to mention another two years driving for McLaren.

6. Nico Hulkenberg

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Team: Force India
Championship Position: 9th
Points: 96
Best Result: 5th

Too often drivers are considered candidates for 'best of the year' review lists on the back of a strong finish to the season. Nico Hulkenberg enjoyed the opposite in 2014; a strong start of ten straight points-scoring finishes and a contender for overtake of the season to boot. His form tailed off slightly but that paralleled the inevitable struggles Force India suffered as its rivals caught up from the middle of the season onwards. He underlined his talent as one of the most promising drivers on the grid and the reduced importance of driver weight next year will only improve his chances, though he remains overlooked by the top teams. Hulkenberg's pass on Kevin Magnussen at Monaco stands out; diving down the inside of the McLaren at Portier during a solid drive to fifth. By Silverstone he was the only man to have scored a point at every race. His best chance of a maiden podium was in Bahrain but a poor qualifying effort hampered his chances and ultimately meant he played the role of rear-gunner (very effectively) while team-mate Sergio Perez clung on to third. A collision with Perez in Hungary triggered his downturn in form, but he finished strongly in Abu Dhabi. The lack of a podium is the only blot on his 2014 record - and career as a whole - but if his form continues into next year that is surely one milestone Hulkenberg will quickly tick off the list.

The top five will be published on December 22 in part two of ESPN's Driver of the Year