Following on from the first part of our review of the 2016 Formula 1 season published on Friday, the second feature profiles the entire grid in the driver rankings.
Deviating from championship order in a bid to try and see who was really the best driver in 2016 is always a challenge, but perhaps more so this year than in previous ones.
There was a definite top five that, in reality, could be ordered a number of other different ways, with each variation having a strong argument in its favor, such were the fine margins between 2016’s outstanding performers.
23 of the 24 drivers who raced in F1 this year have been included in the ranking, with Stoffel Vandoorne being excluded. Despite putting in an almighty display on debut in Bahrain, with just one race under his belt, it is impossible to accurately rank the McLaren driver against the rest of the field.
Without further ado, here are MST’s rankings for the season.
23. Rio Haryanto – Manor (new entry)
Rio Haryanto may have been the latest pay driver to grace the F1 grid, but he did himself no disservice during his half-season with Manor. The Indonesian ran highly-rated teammate Pascal Wehrlein close in qualifying, but suffered a whitewash in the races against the Mercedes junior across the garage.
Season Highlight: Nearly reaching Q2 in Baku, finishing 17th.
22. Esteban Gutierrez – Haas (re-entry, 17th in 2014)
So much promise surrounded Esteban Gutierrez’s return to F1 with the new Haas team after a year away, but it faded into disappointment. Sure, there were unlucky moments, yet misfortune is not enough to explain the 29-0 loss to teammate Romain Grosjean in the points standings. A tough year for the Mexican.
Season Highlight: Making it through to Q3 at Monza and Suzuka.
21. Felipe Nasr – Sauber (-5 from 2015)
Times were hard at Sauber through much of 2016, with financial issues limiting any real progress in the early part of the year. The rebuilding program is now well underway, and Nasr played his part in that by charging to P9 in Brazil to take two crucial points for the team (and the prize money along with it).
But Nasr lost out in the head-to-head battle with teammate Marcus Ericsson in both qualifying and races, making it a disappointing campaign given the buzz around the Brazilian.
Season Highlight: P9 at home in Brazil, albeit aided by a perfect strategy.
20. Esteban Ocon – Manor (new entry)
Esteban Ocon finally got his long-awaited shot in F1 when Rio Haryanto’s backing fell through, making his debut at Spa. The Frenchman was immediately on-pace with teammate Pascal Wehrlein, beating him 5-3 in races both finished and even flirting with the points on occasion. A good first half-season in F1 by all accounts.
Season Highlight: Spending much of the Brazilian GP in the points before ending up P12.
19. Marcus Ericsson – Sauber (+1 from 2015)
Marcus Ericsson was one of the quiet successes of 2016. Like Nasr, he was hamstrung by Sauber’s financial struggles, yet Ericsson managed to outclass his better-rated teammate through the year. Ericsson will now be hoping to carry this form through to 2017, when hopefully he will make a return to the points.
Season Highlight: A brave one-stop strategy in Mexico that left him 11th, agonizingly close to the points.
18. Jolyon Palmer – Renault (new entry)
Expectations were mixed for Jolyon Palmer’s debut F1 season with the returning Renault team, but the Briton failed to impress as many had hoped. Palmer struggled to adapt to life in F1, with a miserable weekend in Monaco being a low point where he crashed three times. However, signs of progression were impossible to ignore later in the year as Palmer picked up his first point in Malaysia. He needs this steady improvement to carry into 2017.
Season Highlight: P10 in Malaysia, marking his first F1 point.
17. Pascal Wehrlein – Manor (new entry)
Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein arrived in F1 off the back of a title-winning DTM campaign, and quickly set to work impressing the grid. The German scored just the second point in Manor’s seven-season history in Austria, and reached Q2 six times through the year. He may have failed to blow Rio Haryanto away or beat Esteban Ocon, but it was nevertheless a good rookie season by all accounts.
Season Highlight: P10 in Austria, keeping his cool for a breakthrough point for Manor.
16. Kevin Magnussen – Renault (re-entry, 12th in 2014)
K-Mag’s F1 comeback was a good news story given his hard-luck McLaren departure, but the Dane didn’t exactly light things up (except for when his car did in practice at Malaysia). Yes, Renault had its struggles through the year, but just two top-10 finishes remained a disappointment for all. Let’s hope Magnussen finally gets his shot in a semi-decent car with Haas next year.
Season Highlight: Dodging early chaos to finish seventh in Russia.
15. Jenson Button – McLaren (-3 from 2015)
As much as we’d like to say that Jenson Button’s (probable) final F1 season was one packed with memorable on-track displays, it just wasn’t. Button was firmly in Fernando Alonso’s shadow at McLaren, scoring just five more points than he did in 2015, a year that most at the team have wiped from memory. He did have one stunning weekend in Austria, where he qualified third and finished sixth, boosting an otherwise-measly points total.
Season Highlight: Qualifying third and running second early on in Austria, before winding up P6.
14. Daniil Kvyat – Red Bull/Toro Rosso (-7 from 2015)
A really tough year for Daniil Kvyat. After early heroics in Bahrain and China, the latter race yielding his second F1 podium, the Russian’s star fell when he crashed into Sebastian Vettel twice at Sochi, giving Red Bull the excuse it needed to swap Kvyat with Max Verstappen at Toro Rosso.
From then on, Kvyat’s season was about fixing himself after appearing rather lost mid-season. Much-needed respite in the summer break led to a series of good results to close out the season despite the engine struggles Toro Rosso had with the 2015-spec Ferrari power unit. Singapore stood out.
Season Highlight: Kvyat’s ‘torpedo’ act in China and his thug life line to Vettel: “I’m on the podium so it’s OK!”
13. Felipe Massa – Williams (non-mover from 2015)
Like Button, we’d like to say that Felipe Massa’s final season in F1 was one to remember. But like Button, we just can’t. Massa made a strong start to the year, picking up P5 finishes in Australia and Russia, but finished no higher than seventh from then on. Bringing home 32 points less than teammate Valtteri Bottas showed the gulf in class between the two this year.
That said, Massa gave us more emotional memories to end his career. His walk down the pit lane in Brazil will surely go down in F1 folklore as one of the most tear-jerking goodbyes.
Season Highlight: Massa’s final show of heart in Brazil as the paddock said farewell.
12. Nico Hulkenberg – Force India (+3 from 2015)
Nico Hulkenberg is a frustrating driver. Despite his great ability, as evidenced by his debut Le Mans victory in 2015, Hulkenberg is still yet to score a podium finish in F1. Admittedly, some of that this year came down to strategic misfires, but Spa and Sao Paulo stood out as the latest lost opportunities.
Force India once again proved itself to be F1’s best pound-for-pound team in 2016, scaling to P4 in the constructors’ championship. Hulkenberg played a huge role in this success, but was in Sergio Perez’s shadow through the year.
Season Highlight: Coming close to a breakthrough podium at Spa, running P2 early on before ending up fourth as Lewis Hamilton fought back.
11. Romain Grosjean – Haas (-6 from 2015)
Romain Grosjean’s move to Haas was always regarded as a risk, but when he took the American team to P6 in its debut race in Australia, it appeared to be a masterstroke. Another excellent drive followed in Bahrain, going one better to finish fifth, but the points then dried up as the reality of life in F1 bit the rookie operation.
Through it all, though, Grosjean kept fighting. For all of his ‘teenager raging on Xbox’ radio calls and complaints, Grosjean was the outstanding star for Haas in its debut season, winning arguably the most one-sided teammate battle against Esteban Gutierrez.
Season Highlight: Fifth place in Bahrain with a masterful display.
10. Valtteri Bottas – Williams (-2 from 2015)
Valtteri Bottas was one of the unsung heroes of the 2016 season. Williams clearly struggled this year as engine performance converged through the field, minimizing the advantage of its Mercedes unit. However, Bottas plowed on regardless, often taking the best result realistically possible for the team.
Williams was, at times, sixth-fastest through 2016, yet Bottas was able to push to eighth in the final championship standings and even take a podium in Canada. A good campaign for the Finn.
Season Highlight: Third in Canada, an opportunistic but well-taken result.
9. Sergio Perez – Force India (+1 from 2015)
Sergio Perez’s 2016 season was another quietly impressive one, building on his achievements last year. The Mexican scored two superb podiums: one thanks to good strategy in Monaco, and one thanks to outright pace throughout the weekend in Baku, where Perez nearly took a shock pole and qualified second on merit.
Force India’s rise to fourth in the constructors’ championship was undoubtedly a team effort, with Nico Hulkenberg matching Perez for much of the year, but the outstanding results were once again down to Checo.
Season Highlight: The Baku weekend, ending with third place in the race.
8. Kimi Raikkonen – Ferrari (+6 from 2015)
2016 was much better from Kimi Raikkonen. Gone was the inconsistency of 2014 and 2015, instead replaced by a solid pace and performance throughout the year. Raikkonen ran teammate Sebastian Vettel very close in the points race, and came close to his first win for the Scuderia since 2008 in Spain, but tailed off later in the year, failing to score a podium after Austria. Bwoah.
Much like Bottas or Perez, Raikkonen often took the best possible result given the pace of the Ferrari. Let’s see if he can continue this improvement in 2017, 10 years on from his World Championship.
Season Highlight: Second in Bahrain, splitting the Mercedes drivers with an impressive display.
7. Sebastian Vettel – Ferrari (-5 from 2015)
For all of the expectation on both Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari following pre-season testing, 2016 proved to be a tough year for both parties. Victory opportunities were fleeting – Australia and Canada come to mind – but passed by as Ferrari snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Vettel’s form was still solid through 2016, taking P4 in the drivers’ championship, but we may be starting to see the early cracks in the much-heralded relationship with Ferrari…
Season Highlight: Second in Canada, where Vettel ran Hamilton very close for victory.
6. Carlos Sainz Jr. – Toro Rosso (+3 from 2015)
Carlos Sainz Jr. is a driver that could arguably be ranked higher, such was his excellence throughout the year. Max Verstappen’s departure from Toro Rosso helped to defuse much of the tension at the team, leaving Sainz to become team leader amid Daniil Kvyat’s struggles.
The Spaniard was quick early in the year, and despite Toro Rosso falling back in the pecking order with its 2015-spec Ferrari power unit later in the season, Sainz continued to flourish. P6 finishes in Austin and Mexico in difficult circumstances proved the quality of the youngster.
Season Highlight: Nearing a podium in Brazil through torrential rain and red flags.
5. Max Verstappen – Toro Rosso/Red Bull (-1 from 2015)
Verstappen? Down one place from last year?! Yep, really. Not because Verstappen was worse than he was in 2015. Far from it. Just because there were four more outstanding drivers through the year.
Verstappen was nevertheless incredible during this campaign. His move up to Red Bull from Toro Rosso may have been sudden, but the Dutchman dealt with it perfectly and answered his critics in the most convincing style by winning on debut.
It was a year filled with magic drives from Verstappen, with Brazil likely to be an iconic memory in years to come. However, there were also mistakes: the start at Spa, for one; his Monaco weekend for another. Verstappen’s qualifying form was lacking compared to Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo, and he lost 9-7 in races both finished – so there’s still room for improvement.
Season Highlight: Verstappen’s wet weather magic in Brazil – his car looked like it was in a different class.
4. Fernando Alonso – McLaren (+7 from 2015)
2016 was typical Fernando Alonso. As he has done for about the past eight years, Alonso took his sub-standard car and worked wonders with it, leading McLaren’s charge and even taking a top-10 finish in the drivers’ championship.
After escaping a horrific crash in Australia and missing one race through injury, Alonso quickly made up for the lost ground with P6 in Russia and a superb outing in Monaco, finishing fifth. Another P5 was chalked up late in the year in Austin, with a series of P7s mid-season – all while McLaren had, realistically, the sixth-fastest car.
There were few (if any) weekends where Alonso seemed off the boil and not at the peak of his powers. If this kind of improvement continues through 2017, then maybe his move to McLaren won’t seem so crazy after all.
Season Highlight: P5 in Monaco, having kept Rosberg at bay for much of the race.
3. Daniel Ricciardo – Red Bull (+3 from 2015)
Daniel Ricciardo always works with a smile, but in 2016, you could really see why. The Australian rarely put a foot wrong this season, and really should have won two races, with a sure-fire victory in Monaco being lost after a dud pit call by the Red Bull team.
Ricciardo did not crumble under the pressure that Max Verstappen’s arrival at Red Bull created, either. Instead, he did his talking on-track, proving himself to be ahead in the teammate battle – a big statement ahead of a possible championship charge next year.
Like Alonso, Ricciardo rarely failed to max out the potential of the Red Bull RB12 car, and was massively consistent with points in 20 of the 21 races.
Oh, and he brought the shoey to F1…
Season Highlight: Dominating proceedings in Monaco before his tough and undeserved defeat to Hamilton.
2. Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes (-1 from 2015)
More wins and pole positions than any other driver wasn’t enough to give Lewis Hamilton the World Championship, and nor is it enough to give him P1 in our driver rankings (we imagine he’s more upset about the latter…).
Let’s not dress Hamilton’s season up as being anything less than an unfortunate one. Had it not been for his setbacks in China, Russia, Belgium or Malaysia, he would most likely have been World Champion ahead of Nico Rosberg.
But the same is true of his poor start in Australia. And his poor start in Bahrain. And his anonymous weekend in Baku. And his poor start in Italy. And his struggles in Singapore. And his poor start in Japan.
When Hamilton was on it, he was on it. But there were too many weekends this year where he was clearly second best to Rosberg. That’s why he was left in the situation he was from Suzuka onwards, where four straight wins to close out the season weren’t enough to take the title.
Season Highlight: His demolition of the field in tricky conditions in Brazil. Hamilton made something very difficult look very easy that weekend.
1. Nico Rosberg – Mercedes (+2 from 2015)
Nico Rosberg’s championship success in 2016 is probably one of the most peculiar in F1 history. Despite winning nine races, questions remain regarding the legitimacy of his success given the comparisons to Hamilton, and the misfortune that the Briton suffered through the year.
So yes, Rosberg got lucky at times. Many of his victories were taken without any serious challenge. But he had to be in the position to seize that opportunity in the first place. So let’s not slight the German simply because Hamilton wasn’t there to put up a fight.
Because there were plenty of occasions where Rosberg proved himself to be a very different and more adept racer to the one that lost to a gust of wind in 2015. He still had poor weekends (Monaco being the strongest example) and thought rashly at times (the clash with Hamilton in Austria being the biggest flashpoint), but was on the whole much better this time around.
Rosberg didn’t choke. Even when Daniel Ricciardo was bearing down on him in Singapore; even when Verstappen was charging through the Interlagos rain; even when Hamilton was backing him into the pack in Abu Dhabi – every step of the way, Rosberg kept his cool.
His one race at a time mentality may have been infuriating to many, but it did the trick. Rosberg is World Champion. As the now-retired German said many a time through 2016: “That’s it!”
Season Highlight: Holding on in Singapore to beat Ricciardo by half a second, a crucial win in the title race.
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