Formula 1Season Review

Season Review: The Checkered Flag’s Top Ten Formula 1 Drivers of 2021

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Credit: Wolfgang Wilhelm

The Checkered Flag looks back at the 2021 Formula 1 season and rates the ten best drivers of the year that saw twenty-two races across four continents between March and December.

10 – Fernando Alonso – Alpine F1 Team

There were many doubts about Fernando Alonso following the announcement of his return to Formula 1 after two years away, but those doubts were put to bed in 2021 as he showed he had lost none of his speed or ability behind the wheel.

Racing for the Alpine F1 Team driver, he aided team-mate Esteban Ocon to win the Hungarian Grand Prix by holding off the challenge of Lewis Hamilton for lap after lap, leaving the Briton with not enough time to catch the Frenchman before the chequered flag fell.

Alonso showed his form again and again, his start in the Silverstone Sprint Qualifying race highlighted just how good he continues to be, and once he got up to speed with the A521, he was one to watch in pretty much every race.  And his reward was a podium finish in the Qatar Grand Prix and tenth place in the Drivers’ Championship.

Best Result: Third – Qatar Grand Prix

Championship Position: Tenth

Fernando Alonso made his Formula 1 return in 2021 with Alpine – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

9 – George Russell – Williams F1 Team

Little was expected of the Williams F1 Team in 2021, but against the odds, both George Russell and Nicholas Latifi scored points, lifting the team to eighth place in the Constructors’ Championship, leapfrogging both Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN and the Uralkali Haas F1 Team.

Russell continued to show why he is so highly rated within Formula 1 by putting his FW43B into Q2 more often than not, and he was even able to put the car into Q3 on occasion.  However, his highlight came at Spa-Francorchamps, where he used his skill in difficult conditions to put his car onto the front row of the grid!

Had the race gone ahead as planned, it would have been unlikely he would have stayed there on the Sunday, but with the rain preventing any green flag running, he would stand on the podium for the first time in his Formula 1 career.

Some may say that was lucky, and perhaps so, but other top ten finishes in the Hungarian, Italian and Russian Grand Prix showed just how strong a season he had in a car that was at best the eighth or ninth best on the grid. He now goes off to the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team for 2022, but he can be certainly proud of his time with Williams.

Best Result: Second – Belgian Grand Prix

Championship Position: Fifteenth

George Russell will leave Williams after three years to join Mercedes in 2022 – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

8 – Valtteri Bottas – Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team

Valtteri Bottas leaves the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team after five seasons and five consecutive Constructors’ Championship triumphs, but the Finn probably had one of his less successful seasons with the team in 2021.

Despite eleven visits to the podium, he only stood on the top step once, and he often found himself out of position and unable to make the kind of moves his team-mate Lewis Hamilton was able to do in the same situations.  His one win, however, was superb, as he dominated the Turkish Grand Prix in tricky wet conditions.

This is not to say Bottas’ season was bad, far from it, but with the car he had, to finish one hundred and sixty one and a half points behind Hamilton was not what was required.  He lost a certain podium, maybe even a victory, through no fault of his own in Monaco, while another podium chance disappeared with a puncture in Qatar

He will now head to Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN in 2022 to lead the team, but he will need to be more consistent if he is to make the move to the Hinwil-based squad a success.

Best Result: Winner – Turkish Grand Prix

Championship Position: Third

Valtteri Bottas ended third in the standings but only won once in 2021 – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

7 – Sergio Pérez – Red Bull Racing

It was always going to be difficult for Sergio Pérez to adjust after joining Red Bull Racing, but the Mexican showed himself more than capable of fighting at the front, although he was lacking when it came to consistency.

Pérez took his second career win in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix after team-mate Max Verstappen crashed out following a tyre failure, and he also captured four additional podiums as he did his best to aid Verstappen’s charge for the title.

His defending against Lewis Hamilton in the season finale was brilliant, and he proved many times that he is an admirable team player.  He improved throughout the year and should start 2022 on the front foot and be a more consistent and important player at the front of the field.

Best Result: Winner – Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Championship Position: Fourth

Sergio Pérez took a win in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on his way to fourth in the Drivers’ Championship – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

6 – Charles Leclerc – Scuderia Ferrari

In another world, Charles Leclerc would have added to his two career victories in 2021, but circumstances, and the performance of the SF21, would go against him when he most needed it.

His pole positions in Monaco and Azerbaijan were laps out of the top draw, and he drove out of his skin at Silverstone to come oh so close to victory, only to be denied by the recovery drive from Lewis Hamilton after his penalty for his collision with Max Verstappen.

However, his crash AFTER setting the pole time in Monaco was a low point, and ultimately, he found himself outscored, perhaps surprisingly, by Scuderia Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr.  However, the points do not tell the whole story, and he was the quicker Ferrari driver more often (thirteen times to nine), and he also beat Sainz fourteen times in races. 

Should Ferrari bring a car capable of fighting at the front of the field in 2022, there is no doubt that Leclerc will get everything he can out of it, although he needs to be a little less harsh in criticising the small mistakes that sometimes appear.  Although, the best way to do that would be to stop making them in the first place!

Best Result: Second – British Grand Prix

Championship Position: Seventh

Charles Leclerc took two poles but only one podium in 2021 – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

5 – Pierre Gasly – Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda

The surprising thing about Pierre Gasly’s 2021 season is that his performances still come as a surprise to many, but the Frenchman continues to prove he has the ability to drive at the highest level.

A podium finish in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix came after a great late battle with Charles Leclerc, and he took five top-five finishes across the year.  He was also an excellent qualifier, with numerous appearances inside the top six coming in Saturday afternoons, with a front row start – the first of his career – coming in the Qatar Grand Prix.

He scored over one hundred points for the first time in his blossoming career and for most of the year was Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda’s predominant points scorer as the team fought hard against the Alpine F1 Team for fifth place in the Constructors’ Championship.

He remains with AlphaTauri for 2022, but should he continue his excellent form into the new era of Formula 1, it is hard to see him remaining with the Faenza-based squad beyond then should they remain a part of the midfield battle.

Best Result: Third – Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Championship Position: Ninth

Pierre Gasly drove superbly throughout 2021 – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

4 – Carlos Sainz Jr. – Scuderia Ferrari

Formula 1’s Mr. Consistent in 2021, Carlos Sainz Jr. proved his credentials over and over again, with the Scuderia Ferrari driver ending the year an excellent fifth in the Drivers’ Championship, ahead of his highly rated team-mate Charles Leclerc.

Sainz secured fourteen consecutive points finishes in 2021, with podiums coming at Monaco, Hungary, Russia and Abu Dhabi, the final top three finish moving him from seventh to fifth in the final standings, leapfrogging both Leclerc and McLaren F1 Team’s Lando Norris.

He showed good composure starting from the front row in Russia and led the early laps before he was overhauled by Norris, but time and time again, he showed himself more than capable of being a leading light on the Formula 1 grid, and with a year’s worth of experience at Ferrari now behind him, he could get even better in 2022.

Best Result: Second – Monaco Grand Prix

Championship Position: Fifth

Carlos Sainz Jr. snatched fifth in the Drivers’ Championship by finishing on the podium in Abu Dhabi – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

3 – Lando Norris – McLaren F1 Team

In an alternate universe, Lando Norris would now be a Formula 1 race winner.  Alas, it wasn’t to be in Russia after late race rain and a dry tyre gamble failed to pay off, but the British racer has shown himself to be amongst the elite throughout 2021.

Podium finishes in the Emilia Romagna, Monaco, Austrian and Italian Grand Prix were all just reward for a driver who moved up many levels in performance this year as he built on his two years’ worth for experience to race at a level that for much of the season, McLaren F1 Team team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was unable to replicate.

Norris may have seen Ricciardo win in Italy, but his pace throughout the season and race craft in both attack and defence was sublime, and he should have easily have secured fifth place in the Drivers’ Championship but for some late season bad luck and a slight drop off on pace with the MCL35M.

Ricciardo’s arrival may have been the catalyst for Norris’ improved form, but heading into 2022, should McLaren give him a decent car, it would be of no surprise if the popular Briton again out paces his more experience team-mate.

Best Result: Second – Italian Grand Prix

Championship Position: Sixth

Lando Norris had four podiums and a maiden pole position in 2021 – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

2 – Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team

Lewis Hamilton looked for all the world that he was on course to become a record-breaking eight-time World Champion as he sublimely led the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but circumstances worked against him, and he was forced to concede the title to Max Verstappen.

Nevertheless, the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team driver was still on top of his game throughout 2021, even in the races that Verstappen and Red Bull Racing had the faster car.

Hamilton can take a lot of satisfaction from his performances throughout 2021, winning eight times to take his career tally to an amazing one hundred and three, although he will rue a couple of mistakes during the year that cost him the crown.

Outbreaking himself at the restart of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix cost him a near-certain victory, as did his failure to pit for slick tyres on a drying track for the restart of the Hungarian Grand Prix.  However, he was on the podium in all bar five events throughout the year, and he looked sharp and ready to go toe-to-toe with Verstappen when he needed to.

Best Result: Winner – Bahrain, Portuguese, Spanish, British, Russian, São Paulo, Qatar and Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Championship Position: Second

Lewis Hamilton won eight times but was forced to settle for second in the Drivers’ Championship – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

1 – Max Verstappen – Red Bull Racing

At times during 2021, Max Verstappen was in a class of his own.  The Red Bull Racing driver was putting the RB16B in places it ought not to be, and even if the championship was decided in controversial circumstances in Abu Dhabi, there is no doubt that the Dutchman is a deserving World Champion.

Verstappen finished on the podium a record breaking nineteen times this year, a new record for a single season of Formula 1, and nine of those were victories.  Only once did he finish the race inside the points in a place other than first or second (a ninth in Hungary after being hit at turn one by Valtteri Bottas), and of his three retirements, two were because of contact with Lewis Hamilton and the other due to a high-speed tyre failure in Azerbaijan whilst leading easily.

The Dutchman continues to have the best fans in the world, and he rewarded them with a fantastic victory in the Dutch Grand Prix, with Verstappen untouchable all weekend long.  He also took a win in the United States in a race where Hamilton was expected to dominate, while his French Grand Prix win to catch and pass his title rival was sublime.

Verstappen has shown himself to be the total package in recent years, showing well in both Qualifying and in races, but in 2021, he moved to an even highly level and took the battle to Hamilton, a battle he would ultimately win.  2021 was most definitely Verstappen’s year.

Best Result: Winner: Emilia Romagna, Monaco, French, Styrian, Austrian, Belgian, Dutch, United States, Mexico City and Abu Dhabi

Championship Position: World Champion

Max Verstappen – 2021 Formula 1 World Champion – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Ranking the Other Drivers

20 – Nikita Mazepin – Uralkali Haas F1 Team, 19 – Mick Schumacher – Uralkali Haas F1 Team, 18 – Nicholas Latifi – Williams F1 Team, 17 – Antonio Giovinazzi – Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN, 16 – Kimi Räikkönen – Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN.

15 – Lance Stroll – Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team, 14 – Yuki Tsunoda – Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda, 13 – Sebastian Vettel – Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team, 12 – Daniel Ricciardo – McLaren F1 Team, 11 – Esteban Ocon – Alpine F1 Team.

Robert Kubica raced for Alfa Romeo in the Dutch and Italian Grand Prix in place of Räikkönen but has not been place in this ranking due to competing in only two events.

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About author
Thirty-something motorsport fanatic, covering Formula 1, Formula Renault 2.0 and Formula 3. Feel free to give him a follow on Twitter at @Paul11MSport.
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