• Driver of the Year

ESPN's Driver of the Year - Part Two

Laurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders
December 22, 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. Now we count down the top five

5. Valtteri Bottas

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Team: Williams
Championship Position: 4th
Points: 186
Best Result: 2nd

In 2014 Valtteri Bottas showed maturity will beyond his two years of Formula One experience. When Williams finally started to extract the full potential from the FW36 it was Bottas and not Felipe Massa - a veteran of 12 yeas in the sport - who was getting the results. Between the Austrian and Belgian Grands Prix he took four podiums in five races and scored six in total over the course of the season. He had his off days, often in wet conditions or after a poor start, which is why he is not further up the list, but when he was on form he was the best of the rest behind the two Mercedes. He came tantalisingly close to beating both in qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on pace alone, offering a glimpse of the burning natural talent lurking behind his cool and calm personality. In the future he will only improve and in the right car has the potential to be a world champion.
LE

The missing champion

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  • By now you may have realised that Sebastian Vettel has not made our top-ten list. For a defending champion, Vettel's 2014 season was hugely disappointing as he struggled to adapt to the new V6 turbo engines and a loss of downforce compared to the cars he won his four titles with. That not only meant he was often off the pace of Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying, but that he also struggled with rear tyre degradation in the races. The disappointing thing is that Vettel has worked relentlessly on his weaknesses in the past, but couldn't master the 2014 regs. In 2011 when Pirelli first joined the sport, he went out of his way to understand how to get the most from the new fast-degrading rubber and quickly had an advantage over the rest. No doubt he has been his own biggest critic this year, and a move to Ferrari may be what he felt he needed to stop the rot.
    Laurence Edmondson

4. Nico Rosberg

Team: Mercedes
Championship Position: 2nd
Points: 317
Best Result: 1st

Nico Rosberg's season is an odd mix. On the one hand, he defied expectations alongside Lewis Hamilton -especially in qualifying - and made it a genuine championship fight until Abu Dhabi. On the other, his low pole-victory conversion rate and failure to make a move stick against Lewis Hamilton throughout the season ultimately was the difference between being champion and runner-up. His year was not without controversy either. His qualifying stoppage in Monaco, which denied Hamilton a late shot at pole, split opinion - the prevailing consensus in the paddock was that Rosberg parked up intentionally. However he followed that up with a flawless drive to victory and then his best race of the season, nursing a car with reduced ERS power to second in Canada.

But too often Rosberg was found wanting on Sundays; Hamilton successfully overtook him for victory in Bahrain, Japan and the United States. Rosberg let Hamilton's refusal to adhere to a team order in Hungary linger in his mind over the summer break and his frustrations manifested into a clumsy overtaking attempt at Spa, which led to a collision and then an internal reprimand. That moment and the subsequent vilification of Rosberg swung momentum back in Hamilton's favour and the Brit never looked back. Clearly, Rosberg possesses both the nerve and the intelligence to turn in a perfect lap on Saturday but his biggest issue is that he was sharing a dominant car with one of the most gifted F1 racers in a generation. Mark Webber won just three times in three seasons after losing the 2010 championship to Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel; Rosberg will need a big recovery in 2015 to avoid a similar fall.
NS

3. Fernando Alonso

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Team: Ferrari
Championship Position: 6th
Points: 161
Best Result: 2nd

There's a good case for putting Fernando Alonso at the top of this list. In terms of outperforming the car underneath him, it's hard to argue that anyone was a match for the Spaniard this year. He obliterated team-mate Kimi Raikkonen in both qualifying and races and scored 161 of the 216 points that ensured Ferrari did not suffer the indignity of finishing lower than fourth in the constructors' championship. Despite the obvious failings of the F14 T, he even came close to winning a race in Hungary and still managed an impressive second place that will go down as one of the most impressive drives of his Ferrari career. Towards the end of the year he finished sixth at three of the last four races, but pointed out that the limitations of the car meant he would have finished sixth even if he had started from pole position. It was a point well made.

Ultimately, however, the frustration of another uncompetitive car from the Maranello stable meant Alonso's main target for the second half of the season was not so much success on the track as an exit plan for 2015. At times that appeared to impact his desire, not to mention disturb the team, and results suffered. The Ferrari hospitality was a frosty place towards the end of the year and despite Alonso's claims that he was only doing what was best for the team, he undoubtedly made life more difficult than it should have been in 2014. If he's on your side there is still no better driver to have in the cockpit, but if he's against you he can be impossible to manage.
LE

2. Daniel Ricciardo

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Team: Red Bull
Championship Position: 3rd
Points: 238
Best Result: 1st

Daniel Ricciardo was the revelation of 2014. Red Bull decided to keep faith in its young driver programme and promote Ricciardo despite Fernando Alonso pushing hard to replace Mark Webber for 2014. It was a decision which immediately paid dividends. Though Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel faltered early on, Ricciardo stole the show in Australia by taking a popular podium only for it to be stripped for a fuel-flow irregularity. But it was no flash in the pan. It was immediately clear Ricciardo was phenomenally quick and had learnt valuable lessons from his days driving with limited downforce for HRT and Toro Rosso - a hallmark of the 2014 aero regulations.

He broke Mercedes' hegemony with a great drive in Canada, passing Nico Rosberg on the penultimate lap for the first win of his career. Back-to-back victories followed in Hungary and Belgium; the first secured by wonderful overtakes on Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, the second a dominant drive after the Mercedes pair faltered. Throughout the year Ricciardo demonstrated supreme overtaking skill - his battle with Alonso in Germany stands out as one of the year's best. All of this was made all the more impressive by Sebastian Vettel's struggles (see sidebar) in the other Red Bull.

Ricciardo's form in 2014 surely had some bearing on Vettel's decision to move to Ferrari and now the Australian goes into the new campaign as the team leader, a phenomenal story for a driver whose highest finish this time last year was seventh. The only negative has been his tardy starts which often saw him playing catch-up in the opening stages of races, but when you are equipped with the Australian's overtaking panache that hardly seems much of a disadvantage.
NS

1. Lewis Hamilton

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Team: Mercedes
Championship Position: 1st
Points: 384
Best Result: 1st

Lewis Hamilton's second world title was a long time coming. Since 2008 he has been through emotional turmoil on and off the track, defied paddock logic by switching from McLaren to Mercedes and taken a bunch of hits from the media along the way. But the driver that has emerged on the other side is more complete, just as tenacious and entirely relaxed in his own skin. Hamilton is a true champion.

But why does he top this list? Why not Daniel Ricciardo? Why not Fernando Alonso? After all, Hamilton still made mistakes and showed signs of cracking under pressure, especially in qualifying this year. The difference in 2014, however, is that those errors and slip ups used to be his undoing and now they only seem to make him stronger. Ricciardo won when he had the opportunities but wasn't carrying the burden of a championship challenge on his shoulders. Alonso was relentless in a sub-par car but was poison within the team, dividing it for his own means which arguably left both Ferrari and himself weaker.

Hamilton, however, was only ever interested in one thing: winning fair and square. Nico Rosberg tried every trick in the book to put him off, and at times it appeared to work, but Hamilton hit back with the most valuable weapon in his armoury, his god-given talent. It's always been there, but so often he has not been able to exploit it to its full potential. This year he had an answer for everything Rosberg and the rest of the world threw at him and for that reason he is ESPN's Driver of the Year.
LE

For the run down of 10-6 click here

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