Formula 1 was treated to an even more finely poised balance of power between the Ferrari and Mercedes than in 2017. Unfortunately, Lewis Hamilton had other ideas: bludgeoning the field with a string of truly extraordinary performances and a pole lap in Singapore that must rank as one of the finest snapshots of driving skill ever seen. It is doubtful even if Sebastian Vettel had resisted his barrage of errors that he would have had an answer for Hamilton’s prodigious speed.
Elsewhere in 2018, Ferrari’s rookie sensation lit his name up in lights ahead of a tantalising debut for the Scuderia next year. Whilst incumbent youngsters Ocon and Verstappen had their embarrassments this season, the armada of young talent continued to impress with ominous speed and maturity. However, the next generation will need to be patient because there was certainly no mistaking who remains very much at the top of the driver of rankings…
#10 – Sergio Perez – Racing Point Force India F1 Team
Beat team-mate in qualifying: 5/21
Beat team-mate in race: 5/14
Laps spent ahead of team-mate: 411/1021
Qualifying margin: +0.115s
In a year where the Mexican had to suffer the distress of bringing administrators into his own team, Sergio Perez had a season that didn’t quite match the lofty standards he had set himself in recent years. Sergio’s instinctive opportunistic tenacity continued to serve him well; serenely navigating the chaos in Baku to take the only podium for a squad outside the three ‘big teams’. More opportunism on the first lap in Spa also became the foundation for a similarly impressive fifth place.
However, it was only this Sunday wiliness that kept his nose ahead of his team-mate in the points, as Ocon tended to be quicker on pure pace. The realisation that the first lap was the best chance of eclipsing the Frenchman arguably explains Perez’s brutal opening lap tactics in China and Singapore. Overall, 2018 was a year where Sergio’s razor-sharp racecraft needed an extra infusion of pace, however, he can expect a more comfortable intra-team battle next year.
#9 – Nico Hulkenberg – Renault Sport F1 Team
Beat team-mate in qualifying: 13/19
Beat team-mate in race: 8/12
Laps spent ahead of team-mate: 526/878
Qualifying margin: -0.121s
Nico Hulkenberg’s second season with Renault was perhaps not as unambiguously impressive as his first. There were certainly no problems with speed: whilst Nico managed to come home as ‘best-of-the-rest’ on six occasions, none of his midfield opponents would do so more than twice. Also, despite lining-up alongside the highly rated Sainz, Hulkenberg rather emphatically kept his status as Enstone’s team leader.
Unfortunately, another crash in Baku squandered what could have been another shot at an elusive podium. An innocuous lock-up at Spa caused the latest in the string of iconic La Source pile-ups. Further crashes at Suzuka and Yas Marina slightly soured a season where the German continued to mark himself out as among the out-and-out fastest in the business. Against a team-mate with such audacious, instinctive racecraft in 2019, Nico will have to divert attention away from his one-lap heroics and clean-up his act on Sundays.
#8 – Esteban Ocon – Racing Point Force India F1 Team
Beat team-mate in qualifying: 16/21
Beat team-mate in race: 9/14
Laps spent ahead of team-mate: 610/1021
Qualifying margin: -0.115s
Given that 2018 only served to confirm Esteban Ocon‘s status as one of the sport’s brightest young prospects, his failure to capture a seat on the grid for next season is probably the most bitter subplot of the year (2020 prospects aside). In decisively overturning his qualifying deficit to Perez from 2017, Ocon’s new speed quickly became a crucial ingredient in the elasticated midfield battle – something that showed no signs of evaporating throughout the onslaught of driver market disappointments.
However, there were ragged edges. A potential podium was lost to a needless crash with Raikkonen in Baku, and despite his objections, a kamikaze attempt to un-lap himself from Verstappen in Brazil was nothing less than crazy. These blunders aside, 2018 was a year where Ocon’s star continued to rise, where he continued to show vast potential and immense speed in a variety of conditions – as shown by his superb third on the grid in the wet at Spa. Valtteri Bottas is right to be worried.
#7 – Kimi Raikkonen – Scuderia Ferrari
Beat team-mate in qualifying: 4/21
Beat team-mate in race: 8/16
Laps spent ahead of team-mate: 412/1100
Qualifying margin: +0.225s
Outwardly it felt like Kimi Raikkonen inflicted a small shift in the balance of power at Ferrari. Having finished in the top three in the standings for the first time since 2012, the Finn opened the season as the quicker Ferrari in Melbourne and proceeded to spend much of 2018 in closer proximity to his team-mate than he has been accustomed to. He still couldn’t get over his Q3 phobia but beating Vettel to the flag on eight occasions appeared impressive.
However, Vettel’s season was messy at best, and whilst Kimi broke his winning duck with an undeniably superb performance in Austin, his duel with Hamilton in Monza all too neatly showed the Finn’s deficit to a top line performer like Lewis. Unfortunately, Kimi couldn’t fully break the cycle of over promise and under delivery that has largely characterised his second stint at Maranello. In isolation, the decision to drop Raikkonen after what has unquestionably been the strongest season of his Ferrari return appears harsh, but that is overlooking the quality of the man tasked to replace him.
#6 – Sebastian Vettel – Scuderia Ferrari
Beat team-mate in qualifying: 17/21
Beat team-mate in race: 8/16
Laps spent ahead of team-mate: 688/1100
Qualifying margin: -0.225s
Sebastian Vettel nosedived out of title contention with perhaps the most distressing season of the German’s entire career. He started the year in fine form: a surprise win in Melbourne and a stunning 39 lap stint on the soft compound tyre to take victory in Bahrain. Classy drives in Montreal, Silverstone and Spa at the wheel of the versatile SF71H all pointed to the possibility of Vettel’s fifth world title. However, a clumsy clash with Bottas on the opening lap of the French Grand Prix heralded the start of an intractable string of errors.
Sebastian would announce the implosion of his season with a gut-wrenching crash from the lead of his home grand prix. A trio of close combat front axle spins ranged from clumsy to absurdly foolhardy. For a man who has only just shrugged off doubts about his overtaking ability, a season comparable to Hamilton’s crash-strewn meltdown in 2011 was the worst possible answer. Ferrari undoubtedly tailed-off towards the end of the season, but the bulk of the blame for the Scuderia’s championship collapse lies at Vettel’s door.
#5 – Daniel Ricciardo – Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
Beat team-mate in qualifying: 5/19
Beat team-mate in race: 4/12
Laps spent ahead of team-mate: 217/963
Qualifying margin: +0.179s
In 2018 Daniel Ricciardo produced two of the finest performances of the season – and arguably not much more besides. His victory in China was an utter gem of calculated, audacious racecraft. Daniel restarted the race sixth, and as his team-mate demonstrated, his new tyres were no free pass at victory. Instead, the Aussie executed five precise muggings on five of the finest drivers in the world; drivers that wouldn’t find a way past Ricciardo’s ailing RB14 en-route to his stunning redemptive win in Monaco.
That was Daniel’s final visit to the podium. Indeed, that was one of the final truly competitive showings from Ricciardo as the wheels fell off his season amid a maelstrom of power unit-related retirements – the most of any driver. When he did reach the chequered flag, he almost exclusively found himself behind his young team-mate. Verstappen’s astonishing pace may have edged Ricciardo towards Renault, but it will be a shame not to see the superb Aussie fighting for victories in 2019.
#4 – Fernando Alonso – McLaren F1 Team
Beat team-mate in qualifying: 21/21
Beat team-mate in race: 10/13
Laps spent ahead of team-mate: 773/938
Qualifying margin: -0.38s
“Now we can fight” probably stands as one of the most gut-wrenchingly ironic lines of the season. After a truly catastrophic year that left McLaren with no one to blame but themselves, it is perhaps understandable that Fernando Alonso‘s performances lacked some of the fizz and pop of his superb 2017 campaign. Of course, there was still characteristically Herculean exploits – his recovery to seventh in Baku at the wheel of a badly damaged car was a beautiful illustration of his insatiable determination.
Unquestionably, the Spaniard’s head dropped amid the realisation that Renault power was no route out of McLaren’s current rut; something that brought the inevitability of retirement into ever sharper focus. A stunning win at Le Mans and increasingly outspoken apathy saw Alonso slowly extricate his affections from the paddock. His disinterest in a point in Abu Dhabi was probably the first time in Fernando’s career where he has lacked motivation; justifiably feeling deserving of a better send-off.
#3 – Max Verstappen – Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
Beat team-mate in qualifying: 14/19
Beat team-mate in race: 8/12
Laps spent ahead of team-mate: 746/963
Qualifying margin: -0.179s
Max Verstappen confirmed his status as a flawed genius in 2018. Having scarcely made an error across a truly stellar campaign in 2017, this year the Dutchman started the season seemingly determined to squander his lofty reputation. A spin in the race in Melbourne and a bungled pair of passes on Hamilton and Vettel in China and Bahrain was only the start. A disastrous defensive serve against Ricciardo in Baku was the ultimate cardinal sin, and a crash in Monaco only added to a growing sense of crisis.
Thereafter – despite insisting that “nothing had changed” – Verstappen scarcely put a foot wrong. An opportunistic win in Austria and another dominant display in Mexico were further glimpses of Max’s seemingly infinite potential. When he wasn’t winning, Verstappen spent the latter half of his season totally maximising his RB14 – often well clear of his team-mate on raw pace. If an isolated early season implosion proves the cost of the Dutchman’s late-season form, the competition has a lot to worry about for 2019…
#2 – Charles Leclerc – Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team
Beat team-mate in qualifying: 17/21
Beat team-mate in race: 9/13
Laps spent ahead of team-mate: 664/920
Qualifying margin: -0.431s
Charles Leclerc is turning motorsport into a game of hop-scotch – effortlessly bouncing from Formula Renault to the cockpit of a Ferrari in a few short hops. Given that Charles was entering F1 with one of the finest junior CVs ever seen, his first few races were perhaps never going to live up to expectations. Spins in Bahrain and China, all the while struggling to match the pace of his unfancied team-mate, was not an ideal start.
However, the real Leclerc announced his arrival in Baku with a superb, combative drive to sixth. Across a European season spent mugging points from faster midfield competitors, Leclerc became an increasingly obvious prospect for Ferrari. The total annihilation of the midfield competition in Sochi would only vindicate the Scuderia’s final verdict, as would a string of sevenths in the final three races of the year. Charles ends the season ready to move up the ladder again; now just a few short rungs away from an F1 title.
#1 – Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport
Beat team-mate in qualifying: 15/21
Beat team-mate in race: 17/20
Laps spent ahead of team-mate: 866/1202
Qualifying margin: -0.17s
By mid-season, there was certainly no guarantees that Lewis Hamilton would head these rankings. He trailed Bottas on pure pace in Shanghai, Baku and Montreal, and had to wait until Barcelona before taking the chequered flag on merit. Hamilton had his indifferent races in 2017, but overall Lewis’ start to the season was lacking its usual majesty. After ceding victory at Silverstone to Vettel – extending the German’s title lead to eight points – Hamilton found a new gear.
He would win six of the next seven races. Throughout this incredible run of form, two moments stand out: Hamilton’s masterful tyre management in his duel with Raikkonen in Monza and a truly legendary Singapore pole lap. Across that 96 second lap, Lewis not only gave a glistening snapshot of his remarkable natural speed but finally landed his smack-down blow in the championship. Having won eleven of the twenty-one races, Hamilton’s occasionally frightening superiority across a wide spectrum of tracks and conditions is a daunting prospect for any driver with designs on taking his crown.