F1 2014 mid-season report: Grading the drivers so far

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Following on from our review of the teams’ performances in the first half of the 2014 Formula 1 season, we now move onto the drivers that have competed in a race so far this year.

Of course, the runaway leaders have been Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. The Mercedes drivers have been in a class of their own at the front of the field with the W05 Hybrid car, and their tussle for the title is set to continue for the rest of the season.

Further back, we have seen a number of breakout performances and results for some of the younger drivers, whilst some have underperformed and struggled to make much of an impact. Here are our rankings for the year so far.

Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – Grade: A+
He may not lead the championship, but Lewis Hamilton is certainly giving it his all to secure a second world title this year. Five wins and two incredible comebacks in Germany and Hungary leave him just eleven points behind Rosberg at the top.
Highlight so far: His monster defence to keep Rosberg back in Bahrain.

Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) – Grade: A+
When Daniel joined Red Bull, few gave him a hope in hell of beating Sebastian Vettel. However, after half a season, he has won two races and is 43 points clear of his four-time world champion of a teammate. Quickly proving himself to be the real deal at Red Bull.
Highlight so far: His moves on Hamilton and Alonso to win in Hungary.

Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) – Grade: A
Like Lewis, Nico Rosberg has excelled with the W05 Hybrid, but he hasn’t quite had that killer instinct his teammate has shown. Nevertheless, he leads the world championship with eight races to go and is in the box seat to win a first world title.
Highlight so far: Winning on home soil (twice) in Monaco and Germany.

Valtteri Bottas (Williams) – Grade: A
Maybe we’re being generous with the A grades here, but Bottas deserves one just as much as the others. The flying Finn has led Williams’ charge in 2014, and is quickly establishing himself to be a star for the future.
Highlight so far: Charging from a Q1 dropout to second place at Silverstone.

Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) – Grade: B+
This might be a bit harsh to grade Alonso like this, but B+ is still a great score given the state of the F14 T car. He continues to fight on his own, dragging the car to two podium finishes and enjoying some awesome battles on the way.
Highlight so far: Nearly winning the Hungarian GP with a genius strategy; eventually came home second.

Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) – Grade: B+
Yet again in 2014, Nico Hulkenberg is proving to the bigger teams that he deserves a seat with them. He has led Force India’s charge, scoring points in all but one race, and surely must score that overdue podium finish in the second half of the year.
Highlight so far: Battle with Perez for the podium in Bahrain, even if he did come fifth in the end.

Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) – Grade: B
Seb didn’t stand much chance of defending his world title with the troublesome Renault power unit, so the real marker is his teammate. The fact that he is trailing Ricciardo and wasn’t the man to score both of the team’s wins proves that he is struggling in 2014 (if you were in need of proof…).
Highlight so far: Keeping Rosberg in sight in Malaysia before finishing third.

Felipe Massa (Williams) – Grade: B
The popular Brazilian has looked like a new man since leaving Ferrari. With Williams, he is happy and he is quick. He has suffered some rotten luck this year, and would otherwise be higher than ninth in the standings.
Highlight so far: Shock pole position in Austria ahead of Bottas and the Mercedes cars.

Jules Bianchi (Marussia) – Grade: B
As we said in the teams’ review, it’s difficult to grade the backmarkers. However, Bianchi has been a revelation for Marussia, scoring its first ever points in F1 at the Monaco Grand Prix. A successful test with Ferrari has also helped his stock to rise, but will a bigger team come calling for 2015?
Highlight so far: Points in Monaco, a remarkable result for all at Marussia.

Jenson Button (McLaren) – Grade: B
It’s been an okay season so far for Jenson Button. 2013 was a disaster, and although 2014 started with a podium-by-default in Australia, the Briton hasn’t done a great deal more. Some good one-off results, but lacks the spark of his earlier years with McLaren.
Highlight so far: Coming so close to the podium at the British GP as Silverstone turned Pink for Papa.

Kevin Magnussen (McLaren) – Grade: B-
It has been a similar story on the other side of the McLaren garage. Magnussen hasn’t done a great deal of note since his podium in Australia, but has been consistent if not spectacular. Again, his abilities seem to be masked by the MP4-29 car.
Highlight so far: Second place on debut in Australia after Ricciardo’s DSQ.

Sergio Perez (Force India) – Grade: B-
A good start to the season for Perez following his McLaren sacking, with the podium finish in Bahrain being Force India’s first since 2009. However, we have seen a few mistakes cost him big results (Canada for example). A good start to 2014 all the same.
Highlight so far: Third place in Bahrain after seeing off the Williams drivers and Hulkenberg.

Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) – Grade: C+
Not a bad start to life in Formula 1. With a bit more luck, Kvyat may have scored more than his current haul of six points. Appears to have had the edge on Vergne despite his relative inexperience and has been strong in qualifying, but will want more points in the final eight races.
Highlight so far: P9 on debut in Australia; qualifying in Austria another good result.

Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso) – Grade: C
Vergne leads Toro Rosso’s charge with eleven points to Kvyat’s six, but he hasn’t done a huge amount to prove to the team he is worth keeping for 2015. Will need more races like the one in Hungary to stand a chance of staying on for next season.
Highlight so far: Running second in Hungary and keeping the Mercedes cars at bay; finished ninth.

Romain Grosjean (Lotus) – Grade: C
RoGro has transformed himself from a crash kid into a star for the future over the past year, and eight points is a commendable haul given the torture that the E22 car has given Lotus. He is doing very well to keep the team’s flag flying this year.
Highlight so far: Eighth in Spain after qualifying fifth for Lotus.

Adrian Sutil (Sauber) – Grade: C-
In a terrible year for Sauber, Adrian Sutil has struggled to even get close to the top ten. When he has looked to be in with a chance, mistakes have been made (such as the spin in Germany). A very average season so far from the German driver.
Highlight so far: 11th in Hungary when the car didn’t look as bad.

Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) – Grade: D+
If Sauber is the most disappointing team of the season so far, then Kimi Raikkonen is the most disappointing driver. The so-called ‘superteam’ he formed with Alonso at Ferrari hasn’t delivered – or, more accurately, he hasn’t delivered. 27 points and a best finish of sixth is just embarrassing.
Highlight so far: Sixth in Hungary, and still he remained anonymous for much of the race.

Max Chilton (Marussia) – Grade: D
Perhaps the most average driver out there, Chilton hasn’t done a huge amount to set the world on fire in 2014. He did enjoy the measure on Bianchi to begin with, but has since fallen back behind. Most notable moment was taking his teammate out in Canada.
Highlight so far: 13th in Bahrain. Not really much more to add.

Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber) – Grade: D
Just like Sutil, Gutierrez has struggled with the Sauber C33 car, but he too has made some costly errors. In Monaco, points were on the cards until he spun the car and couldn’t get it back going, and otherwise the Mexican has been very quiet all season. Needs a change soon.
Highlight so far: Hungarian GP weekend when points looked possible; sidelined by a problem on the car.

Kamui Kobayashi (Caterham) – Grade: D
It’s been a tough year for Caterham, but Kobayashi hasn’t set the world on fire with his performances. Brought in for his experience, the signs are that it could be him who gets the chop if a pay driver comes knocking. Nothing really of note for the popular Japanese racer.
Highlight so far: His reaction to a question about the World Cup in a press conference, saying “I don’t care!” and claiming that Japan are rubbish at football.

Pastor Maldonado (Lotus) – Grade: E
The jokes about Pastor Maldonado this season have only continued. Crashes in qualifying for the Chinese and Spanish Grands Prix didn’t do him much good, nor has the fact that he hasn’t matched Grosjean for pace when the car has been going.
Highlight so far: Confirmation of a seat with the team for 2015. Yes, really.

Marcus Ericsson (Caterham) – Grade: E
Put Ericsson in the same box as Chilton marked “average”. Nothing special this year, has rarely looked like scoring points even if he did come close in Monaco. Unlikely to stick around for 2015 if bigger bucks can be found by the new owners.
Highlight so far: P11 in Monaco.

Matty Brabham working towards IndyCar comeback

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Australian American young gun Matty Brabham is hoping to work towards a comeback in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Brabham, 23, was along with RC Enerson the two top young guns who raced a handful of 2016 races but didn’t get a proper encore in 2017. Brabham has instead specialized in racing in Robby Gordon’s Stadium SUPER Trucks series, where he leads that championship and hopes to win it this weekend in Lake Elsinore, Calif.

While his PIRTEK Team Murray deal was announced two years ago in December in a technical partnership with KV Racing Technology for 2016, Brabham didn’t get the chance to build on that beyond the two races he did at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Indianapolis 500 itself. An impressive qualifying run at the road course saw him nearly make Q2, while he fought an ill-handling race car in the ‘500 all month to finish his debut.

Being out of the cockpit hasn’t meant a lack of work, with Brabham having kept his face present at a number of IndyCar races working to put together meetings, occasionally driving two-seaters and then staying active in the trucks.

“All the racing stuff comes naturally as I’ve grown up in it around my dad (Geoff), and from my grandfather (the late Sir Jack) as well, that’s been the easy part,” Brabham told NBC Sports. “It’s the off-track stuff, finding sponsorship and the money to continue racing, that’s been the hardest battle to get into IndyCar or any motorsport.

“It’s been challenging but I’ve learned a lot on the business end. What a lot of people forget is that I went straight from high school straight into racing, so I don’t have a ton of business experience to learn about how to find sponsorship. It’s been a lot of learning as you go.

“Obviously you have to work on business deals and try to find companies. I’m involved with a lot of traveling, and I’ve been at a lot of the shows, PRI and SEMA and the main ones. The biggest thing is networking and talking to people, and learning from them, and go about doing it.”

As the Verizon IndyCar Series is riding a tidal wave of young talent gathering either part-time or full-time rides, Brabham is one of a handful that sticks out as being absent.

The 2018 field includes recent Indy Lights graduates Kyle Kaiser, Ed Jones, Spencer Pigot and Gabby Chaves – each of the last four champions – along with other drivers Max Chilton, Zach Veach, Matheus Leist and Jack Harvey who’ve all graduated within the last three years. That number could grow if either or both of Zachary Claman DeMelo and/or Santiago Urrutia find seats.

Brabham, Enerson and Sage Karam, the 2013 Indy Lights champion, are probably the three drivers most deserving of a full-time IndyCar shot for 2018 with recent MRTI experience that hasn’t got it yet. None has driven more than 15 races in the series, Karam only having had a partial 2015 campaign with three other one-offs at the Indianapolis 500.

Seeing the success his counterparts from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires have had hasn’t angered or frustrated Brabham, as it’s shown how capable the ladder is of preparing drivers for IndyCar. A switch to the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit next year is also key to note.

“When there’s a big change, you’re seeing guys with the guys I’m racing with in MRTI,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for them to show what they could do next year. I’d love to be a part of it. Envious of the guys testing so far. Everyone’s said it’s like a real race car that’s a bit more challenging to drive.

“But it’s really cool to have that going along, and be a part of. For the young guys, it’s quite difficult for them to jump in for one race, and compete against veterans for some time. It takes them a couple years to show results and win races. There’s plenty of young guys who could do so with the right environment, step into the series.

“It’s great seeing Jack, Spencer, and all these guys I competed with on MRTI do well – and I won championships – so it’s a little frustrating, but it’s great to see them get in and do well because I feel I could do just as well.”

Brabham was close to stepping into the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda last year when Sebastien Bourdais was injured, but didn’t quite have the funding to make it happen. Such an opportunity would have seen him filling in for his 2016 teammate, who he had nothing but high praise for.

“I think there were a couple of us in conversation – but it’s a sad thing when it happens and you never want to see it; plus, Bourdais was my first teammate,” he said. “He was great and very helpful. You hate to see it. Lots of conversations went on in the background, certain people put my name forward and my name was in the mix.”

Alas, his talent is still there, and it’s worth remembering past Team USA Scholarship recipient Brabham beat Pigot to the 2012 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda title when the two were teammates at Cape Motorsports and then he followed up with a crushing performance en route to the 2013 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title.

It’s a common story for young drivers that talent isn’t the lone qualifier for an opportunity, but Brabham is hopeful he hasn’t faded from the radar.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations and in constant talks with the team owners and with sponsors as well. There’s nothing set in stone but I am working towards things,” he said.

“I’m kind of right on the edge of getting in there, will just take that last little bit of funding – which is the same for everyone else. I just need the lucky break to get in there for a couple races, show what I can do. I’m hungry and will work extremely hard. I know I can do it – it’s just a matter of getting that chance.”