• F1 2012 review

ESPN's top ten drivers of 2012 - Part two

ESPN Staff
December 24, 2012

ESPN rates the drivers of 2012 in order, check here for 6th to 24th

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5. Jenson Button

An impressive run of form at the end of 2011 - when only Sebastian Vettel outscored him by just 15 points across the final nine races - hinted at a strong year for Jenson Button, and beating Lewis Hamilton in a straight fight in a dry race in Melbourne marked him out as a genuine title contender.

In Malaysia Button was all set to challenge Hamilton again, but a needless mistake trying to pass Karthikeyan cost him any chance of points, and while it wasn't his fault that he was restricted to second in China. Button's one major flaw soon surfaced; an inability to drive a car not to his liking. Monaco and Canada were the lowest points. In Monaco he retired having failed to find a way past Heikki Kovalainen for 14th place, and then in Montreal he was lapped by Hamilton en-route to 16th as his team-mate won.

But once again Button finished strongly, consistently scoring good points whenever the car allowed him. The highlight was a dominant victory at Spa where he also took his first pole for McLaren, and the win in Brazil ensured he ended his three years alongside Hamilton with the more points of the two. The importance of the Interlagos win was also huge psychologically for McLaren, because it shows the team that there is life after Lewis.

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4. Lewis Hamilton

It was another season of what might have been for Lewis Hamilton. Take away the mechanical problems and operational errors on McLaren's side and he would have been in with a very good shot of the title in Brazil, but more to the point, he would have deserved it.

On raw pace there were few who could match him. Team-mate Jenson Button only beat him in qualifying on four occasions and three of those were due to mistakes away from the track (in Spain he was excluded due to a team refuelling error, in Belgium he struggled with the wrong set-up and in Japan he limped around with an undetected mechanical issue). He lined up on the front row on 11 occasions yet only finished on the podium seven times. By comparison, Sebastian Vettel started from the top two eight times and finished on the podium at 11 races.

Such statistics will be hugely frustrating for Hamilton and no doubt lingered in his mind as he put pen to paper on a Mercedes contract for 2013. Arguably 2012 was one of his best seasons in Formula One, with no retirements due to driver error and four well-deserved victories over the course of the year. Unfortunately that doesn't come across in the final standings.

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3. Kimi Raikkonen

While Kimi Raikkonen's comeback was greeted with much excitement, Michael Schumacher's relative struggles tempered the optimism somewhat. Despite an encouraging pre-season, the concerns heightened when Raikkonen failed to get out of Q1 at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, but fast-forward eight months and he was about to start the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - three weeks from the season end - still with a chance of the title.

That win may have coincided with his championship hopes ending, but it was the highest peak of a season in which Raikkonen and Lotus had been threatening the top step of the podium throughout. He displayed that even with two years away from Formula One he had continued to improve with age and lost none of his racecraft; as highlighted by his now infamous "Just leave me alone, I know what I'm doing" radio message.

It's hard to attribute any mistakes to Raikkonen this year, save for a spin in Japan qualifying and having his progress halted by a closed gate after running wide at Interlagos. He finished every race, and the only time he failed to score was due to a poor strategic call by the team to leave him out on old tyres in China as he plummeted out of the points in the closing laps. The one main criticism of 2012 is that Raikkonen should have won more races than just one, but that was more because Lotus is getting up to speed with running at the front. Once the team gets there, it has a driver that already is.

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2. Sebastian Vettel

Sebastian Vettel made it three championships out of three in 2012, but it was far from easy. Rewind to the start of the season and Red Bull were struggling for the first time since 2008. The new regulations hit the team's design philosophy hard and it wasn't until much later in the year that Adrian Newey managed to get the car performing as he wanted.

The main issue was the restrictions on exhaust positioning and engine maps, which were intended to put an end to exhaust blown diffusers that Red Bull had pioneered and mastered over the previous two seasons. Talking about driving the car before its major update in Singapore, Vettel said: "I couldn't use my tricks or my style to make it work and manipulate the car the way I liked. I didn't have enough rear stability mostly to work with the brakes and get the car into the corners, to the apex, the way I like."

But when Abbey (the name he gave his RB8) and Vettel finally clicked he was unstoppable. He won four consecutive races between Singapore and India, turning a 49-point deficit to Fernando Alonso into a 13-point lead. Then came Abu Dhabi and arguably the biggest test of Vettel's F1 career to date. After being excluded from qualifying through no fault of his own, he started the race from the pit lane, but rather than panic he set his sights on the podium and delivered in style on race day.

It was by no means a straight-forward run to the title at the final two races and his determination was tested once more in Brazil. There were more signs of nerves, but he still got the job done in the most difficult conditions and with a damaged car. It's easy to underrate his season, but there is no doubt he is a worthy triple world champion.

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1. Fernando Alonso

In a year when seven different winners from the opening seven races points to fluctuations in form, car inconsistencies and chaotic races, there was one constant throughout: Fernando Alonso. Not only was he always a threat in any conditions, he did it with a car that shouldn't have allowed him anywhere near the title battle.

Stood on the inside of turn eight at the final pre-season test at the Circuit de Catalunya, Alonso was having to wrestle his F2012 through the high-speed right hander. Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel hunted him down on similar long runs and were quickly ahead of the Ferrari, allowing ESPN to ask Hamilton if he got much of a look at the car himself.

"Yeah, I did," he replied. "It didn't look very good."

"So is it fair to say you'd rather be in your car than his?"

"I'd say so, yeah."

Ferrari was in crisis. The drivers weren't allowed to speak to the media and Pat Fry uncomfortably faced questions on how bad his car really was. Nine months later, and Alonso had driven the car to within three points of the world championship. It's a remarkable achievement.

His drives ranged from imperious - Malaysia, Valencia, Monza - to relentless - Silverstone, India - and he was even able to deliver measured performances such as his win in Germany and second in Abu Dhabi. Alonso only made two real mistakes; spinning out of qualifying in Australia (but still recovering to finish fifth) and squeezing Kimi Raikkonen at the start at Suzuka which led to his retirement. If he'd finished eighth in Japan, he would have been world champion.

As ifs and buts go though, Alonso has very few. He himself said that it had been "a perfect year" and that "It's going to be nearly impossible to repeat that in my career". The look in his eyes in parc ferme in Interlagos as he stared into the distance betrayed just how much it meant to him, but he soon collected himself and could only exude pride at having delivered one of the most complete seasons in recent years.