Concluding the mid-season driver rankings, here are the top five F1 drivers of 2015 so far.
It?s tempting to say Hulkenberg?s Le Mans 24 Hours victory has inspired him to reach new heights, but that probably sells his efforts short: after all he began his season with a solid seventh in Australia. More points would probably have followed in Malaysia but for a contentious penalty for tangling with Daniil Kvyat.
A tricky quartet of races followed: in China his engine failed, in Bahrain Sergio Perez figured out the tyres better than he did, in Spain the car?s lack of downforce made life difficult for both drivers and his Monaco Grand Prix was ruined when Fernando Alonso hit him on the first lap.
Since then Hulkenberg has delivered points every time out, apart from in Hungary when his front wing failed while he was running seventh. Eighth in Canada might have been better had he not spun while being passed by Sebastian Vettel, but in Austria he was in superb form to take sixth from fifth on the grid. The upgraded VJM08 promises to make the second half of the year a profitable one for Hulkenberg.
In his third F1 campaign, Bottas is grinding out dependable results for Williams like a season pro. Seven top-six finishes from nine starts (a back injury kept him out of the first race) has kept him ahead of Kimi Raikkonen in the championship ? small wonder he?s already being tipped to replace his fellow countryman at Ferrari.
His first race back from injury showed real grit: despite slipping to 15th at the start he ended up passing his team mate to finish in the top five. Not until Bahrain did he declare himself pain-free, and there he led home a Ferrari for the first time this year. He repeated the feat in Spain and again in Canada, this time claiming a podium finish.
Had he not been clipped by Verstappen in the closing stages at the Hungaroring, his only no-score all season would have been Monaco, where both FW37s struggled with severe understeer. At Silverstone, after a fine opportunistic pass on Lewis Hamilton, he obeyed his team?s initial order not to pass Massa and paid the price ? having been unable to capitalise on his early pace advantage he slipped back later in the race when Massa was quicker.
This wasn?t the only time Massa beat him in the first half of the season. While between them the pair have extracted the best from a machine with clear strengths and weaknesses, Bottas has done a discernibly better job in spite of his early setback.
Ricciardo surely wasn?t expecting Red Bull and Renault to drop further off the pace and become less reliable in 2015, but they have. At times these problems have played havoc with his race preparations but he has often salvaged a result in spite of that: he covered just 19 laps during practice in Australia, yet still brought the car home in sixth.
In spite of these problem he carved out points finishes in the first six races, including Malaysia where he qualified fourth only to suffer brake problems on Sunday. Sixth in Bahrain was the most the car was capable of, and seventh in Spain was another result to be proud of having completed just 13 laps on Friday due to power unit problems.
Monaco and Hungary offered the best chances for the Red Bull chassis, but at the former an error with his engine settings cost him a chance at third on the grid. Nonetheless a bold and brilliant pass on Raikkonen at Mirabeau helped him to salvage fifth place. In Hungary he tangled with three other drivers during the course of the race which predictably led some to claim he had been ?over-driving?, but he was blameless in each incident and deserved more than third place.
Daniil Kvyat has kept him honest at times, notably in Canada where Ricciardo was perplexed by his car?s handling. But in a season where victories haven?t been a possibility so far, Ricciardo nonetheless is continuing to make the best of a bad job.
You would have to be very brave of very foolish to bet against Hamilton clinching his third world championship title this year. There was only one area of his game which needed improvement over the winter ? qualifying ? and Hamilton has addressed it, hammering Rosberg 9-1 on Saturdays.
However from those nine pole positions, armed with by far the best car in the field, Hamilton has ?only? delivered five wins. Two of these were down to slow starts: Austria was the first of three consecutive races in which he started from pole yet was not leading at the end of lap one. Hungary was the second, and Hamilton was fortunate not to be punished by Rosberg for the decidedly off-par performance that followed.
Then there were the questionable strategies ? pitting early in Malaysia which allowed Vettel in to win, and then there was Monaco, where Hamilton actively participated in a baffling pit call which handed victory to Rosberg. Ironically, this came during what was otherwise his most dominant performance of the year.
These problems aside, Hamilton has been formidable. His margins of victory over Rosberg may usually be just a few seconds, but in an era of fragile tyres and tight fuel limits there is nothing to be gained by having a greater winning margin. Indeed, as in China, the psychological screw can be turned by backing your team mate into a pursuing rival.
Hamilton seems to have Rosberg handled as the championship passes the halfway mark, and if he tidies up his act in the second half of the season there is every likelihood he will equal the championship tally of his hero Ayrton Senna ? and surpass his wins total.
Having been thorough upstaged by Ricciardo at Red Bull last year, in 2015 Vettel has adopted the role his erstwhile team mate performed last year ? a regular thorn in the side of the Mercedes drivers ready to seize any opportunity for victory.
Aside from a scrappy performance in Bahrain, where he finished behind a Williams after damaging his front wing, Vettel has consistently delivered the best the Ferrari is capable of. Even in Canada, where he lined up 18th on the grid after a technical problem in qualifying, he brought the car home fifth behind his team mate without the help of a Safety Car period.
While Raikkonen has only made it to the podium once, Vettel has appeared seven times, and has finished every race in the top five ? something even the Mercedes pair can?t lay claim to. He was also close enough to capitalise on Hamilton?s Monaco slip-up to claim second place.
It?ll take a big step forward from Ferrari for him to have a shot at the title, but to be within 21 points of one of the Mercedes at this stage in the championship is a tremendous achievement.
Click below to read more about each driver?s performance in every round so far this year:
Australia ? Won the qualifying battle at Force India by one-thousandth of a second, but with the VJM08 still early in its development Q3 seemed out of reach. Rose unobtrusively to seventh with an error-free race. ?At this stage in the season it is important to capitalise on any opportunity,? he said, adding he expects the team to be more competitive in Malaysia.
Malaysia ? Both Force India drivers were caught out by the rain in Q2 but Hulkenberg made amends on lap one. ?Mega first lap!? he exclaimed on the radio after making up six places to gain seventh. That became second when the Safety Car came out, but after racing resumed Vettel left him behind at over two seconds per lap. As he came under increasing pressure from behind he tangled with Kvyat while under attack from both Red Bulls and was given a debatable ten-second penalty which scuppered his chance of points.
China ? Was one of the first drivers to do his last run in Q1 and paid the price, missing the cut for the next stage. Jumped from 16th to 12th at the start which included passing Daniil Kvyat?s Red Bull and was running close to Verstappen and Ericsson before being forced out with drivetrain problems.
Bahrain ? Force India were more competitive on a track which has traditionally suited them, and Hulkenberg delivered by taking his VJM08 into Q3, claiming eighth on the grid. The race was not as successful ? he couldn?t make his tyres last and slipped to a disappointed thirteenth.
Spain ? Having been 12th in final practice Hulkenberg hoped to qualify better than 17th, but the VJM08?s shortage of downforce made life difficult. ?My final lap was not great,? he admitted, ?but it?s not easy when the car is working in such a narrow window?. He fell behind Perez at the start and spent the middle of the race stuck behind Maldonado?s ailing Lotus, which confined him to 15th.
Monaco ? Knocked into a barrier by Alonso at the start, Hulkenberg had to pit for a new front wing on lap one. Nonetheless his team thought points might be possible until the Safety Car came out.
Canada ? Equalled the team?s best qualifying result with seventh, at a track where Force India?s Mercedes engine neutralised some of their usual disadvantage. A late-braking move at turn three got him ahead of Maldonado at the start, but a much earlier pit stop for the Lotus driver got him back ahead. Hulkenbreg then spun while trying to defend seventh place from Vettel. ?I probably shouldn?t have tried so hard to defend against Seb,? he admitted, ?but when you?re a racer you just don?t want to give up a position without a fight.? That scuppered any chance of catching Maldonado at the end, and he finished eighth.
Austria ? Reacclimatised to F1 after his Le Mans triumph, and with a new engine behind him went sixth-fastest on Friday. He improved by one place on Saturday to take fifth on the grid, while Perez went out in Q1. In the race he was passed by Bottas, jumped back ahead with a quick pit stop, but ultimately lost out to the Williams. However sixth place was Force India?s best result of the year so far, and helped them pass Lotus in the constructors? championship.
Britain ? Force India?s heavily revised car looked best in Hulkenberg?s hands and he duly took it into Q3. A superb start ? which he described as the best he?s ever made in F1 ? put him ahead of both Ferraris. However they pitted before him, as did Kvyat, which cost him a total of three places, though Raikkonen?s troubles later elevated him back to seventh.
Hungary ? Had to sit out second practice and much of the first session while the team investigated the cause of Perez?s crash. Once back on track he looked quick again however, setting the sixth-fastest time in final practice. He produced another astonishing start ? leaping to sixth, then slipstreaming past Kvyat for fifth ? and his race continued to run true to form as quicker rivals leapfrogged his Force India during the pit stops. A solid points finish was in the offing when his front wing collapsed on the pit straight, sending him into the barriers.
Australia ? If anyone was going to get within a second of the Mercedes drivers in qualifying Bottas was probably the most likely to do so. Unfortunately he began suffering back pain in qualifying which later turned out to be ?a very small tear in the annular part of a disc in his lower back?. That ruled him out of the race, though he hopes to be back for Malaysia.
Malaysia ? In contrast Bottas had a disastrous first lap, plummeting to 14th place. He was also one of several drivers who had to queue behind his team mate during the dash to the pits on lap four, but once back on track he quickly made up places and by lap 11 he was on Massa?s tail. Had an entertaining scrap with Verstappen, who he passed on the outside of turn five, and he later used the same move to claim fifth from Massa.
China ? Lined up behind his team mate on the grid and was able to jump him at the start, but lost out after Raikkonen?s daredevil move into Turn Three. Struggled to match his team mate?s pace during the race but was easily quicker than the Lotus behind and so spent the race virtually alone.
Bahrain ? Completely free of back pain for the first time since being injured in Australia, Bottas took fifth on the grid ahead of his team mate and was well-placed to take advantage of Vettel?s delays. He held the Ferrari driver at bay until the chequered flag to equal Williams? best result of the season so far with fourth.
Spain ? Sat out first practice while Susie Wolff drove his car but was able to take advantage of Raikkonen?s troubles to qualify fourth. He then held off the Ferrari in the latter stages of the race to keep the place.
Monaco ? Williams had it bad in Monaco but 17th in qualifying for Bottas before penalties was quite a shock. Started on the soft tyres but couldn?t make an alternate strategy yield a points finish.
Canada ? Delivered under pressure at the end of Q3 to move ahead of both Lotus drivers for fourth place ? and he was less than a tenth off Raikkonen. ?That was as quick as the thing goes,? he said on his way back to the pits. Although he couldn?t keep pace with Raikkonen in the race he was quick enough to take advantage of his rival?s spin at the chicane. So for the third time this year he came home ahead of a Ferrari ? and this time it earned him a podium finish.
Austria ? Was pleased with the performance of his updated car and especially its performance on long runs on Friday. But had to settle for sixth on the grid as he was unable to use DRS at the end of his final lap because of the yellow flags brought out by Hamilton?s spin. Passed by Verstappen at the start, he got by the Toro Rosso driver in the race and then passed Hulkenberg too, only for the Force India driver to jump back ahead via the pits. Finally passed Hulkenberg again for an eventual fifth, as a braking trouble hampered further progress.
Britain ? Susie Wolff drove his car in first practice, then in qualifying he was narrowly beaten by Massa. Having given Hamilton a bit of an easy time at The Loop on lap one, Bottas pounced at the restart to take up second behind Massa. In Hamilton?s view, Bottas was quicker than Massa, and had Williams not initially told him not to pass his team mate Bottas might have got ahead at this point. Hamilton jumped him in the pits and Rosberg overtook him when the rain began to fall. Having been slightly slower than Massa on the hard tyres, Bottas lost far more time on intermediates at the end of the race, and was nearly passed by Kvyat.
Hungary ? Ran Williams? new front wing and secured sixth on the grid, and was running fourth early on. Having been jumped by Hamilton and Ricciardo at the first round of pit stops, he was poised to profit from their post-restart scrap when he was tagged by Verstappen, picking up a puncture.
Australia ? The trademark grin was seriously tested by Red Bull?s persistent problems with a Renault engine that lacks both reliability and drive-ability. The former meant he only managed 19 laps before qualifying, and the latter was a persistent aggravation, particularly when it spoiled an otherwise good start to the race. Under the circumstances he did well to qualify sixth, but the fact he finished behind a Sauber shows Renault have a lot of work to do.
Malaysia ? Fourth on the grid in a wet qualifying gave further cause to believe Red Bull?s shortcomings are in the chassis department rather than the engine. But in the race it was a problem with his brakes which held him back ? a string of cars demoted Ricciardo?s RB11 leaving him last of the points-scorers.
China ? Decent qualifying position was squandered after poor start as the car fell into anti-stall and was forced to try and fight his way back through the field but was held up by team mate Kvyat in the opening stint. Ran the longest stint of the race on Soft tyres but had a tough time passing Ericsson?s Sauber in the final stint and inherited ninth following Verstappen?s retirement.
Bahrain ? Seventh on the grid behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Williams looked about as good as the RB11 was capable of, as did sixth in the race after Massa?s problems. Ricciardo?s Renault engine failed spectacularly as he accelerated out of the final corner and though he was able to take the chequered flag without losing a place there will inevitably be a price to pay for it later in the year.
Spain ? Covered just 13 laps on Friday due to yet more Renault power unit problems on his car. Judged tenth on the grid to be ?my worst quali since I started with the team? but was much more satisfied after a trouble-free run to seventh. With Mercedes, Ferrari and Williams ahead, it?s doubtful there was more to be had.
Monaco ? Was ?frustrated? after qualifying as a mis-communication over engine settings cost him what he felt should have been third on the grid. He then had to give best to his team mate at turn one and was jumped by Raikkonen during the pit stops. He fought back, however, making the same late switch to another set of super-softs which scuppered Hamilton?s race. He muscled his way past Raikkonen and was waved through by Kvyat, but having been unable to pass Hamilton he then had to let Kvyat back through again.
Canada ? Last year?s winner was downcast after only managing ninth on the grid behind his team mate at a track where Red Bull?s greatest weakness was exposed. He slipped out of the points in the race and was at a loss to understand why. ?We just couldn?t get any pace out of the car,? he said. ?It is something we will look at to understand what the cause was.?
Austria ? It was always going to be a tough home race for Red Bull and it got tougher when Ricciardo had to take his fifth engine of the year and the subsequent ten-place grid penalty. Had a new chassis after his problems in Canada but lost brake temperature in qualifying and didn?t make the cut for the top ten for the first time since joining Red Bull. Ran a huge, 50-lap stint on the softs so he could attack at the end on super-softs after taking his pit stop penalty. This worked out well: he was able to take Nasr for the final point but ran out of time to demote Perez.
Britain ? Still seems unsettled and wasn?t quite on Kvyat?s pace in practice, but would have been seventh on the grid had he not been among the many drivers to lose a lap time for running wide. Arguably triggered the first-lap collision which put three drivers out, but was cleared, he then retired before half-distance with an electrical problem.
Hungary ? Hampered by an engine failure on Friday afternoon but qualified strongly. The only driver to save a set of soft tyres in Q1, two rapid laps in Q3 secured him fourth on the grid, just three-hundredths of a second off Vettel. Having struggled to get away from the dirty side of the grid he was hit by Bottas at turn ? the first of three collisions on that part of the track. After Kvyat waved him through Ricciardo passed Hulkenberg but after switching to medium tyres he couldn?t keep Hamilton?s Mercedes behind. That paid off when the Safety Car appeared, however, as he was able to switch to softs and go on the attack. He was hit by Hamilton as he passed the Mercedes, but was still able to go after Rosberg. Again there was contact, which forced Ricciardo in for a new front wing and cost him a shot at victory.
Australia ? All weekend long Hamilton seemed to have a couple of tenths of a second in hand over Rosberg in the first sector. His first run in Q3 was good enough to take pole position by almost half a second, but he lowered his time on his second run anyway. A clean start and smooth restart meant he was untroubled by Rosberg at the start of the race, and despite misleading messages from his fuel read-out he kept Rosberg back in the second stint.
Malaysia ? Missed a significant chunk of Friday running due to a power unit inlet system problem. Nonetheless a rapid lap at the start of Q3 secured his second pole position of the year ? neither he nor Rosberg beat the time as the track dried. He led at the start but pitting under the Safety Car dropped him back into the pack and by the time he emerged Vettel was ten second up the road, and after over 40 laps of chasing the gap was pretty much the same.
China ? Fastest in every single session, except for Q1. Led all but three laps of the race en route to his second hat trick of the season. Able to control his pace and manage his tyres whilst never allowing his team mate to get within a second of his lead all race. Has now beaten his team mate to the chequered flag in all three races in 2015.
Bahrain ? Claimed his fourth pole position in a row on Sunday by a healthier margin than he enjoyed in China and Malaysia. Hamilton rarely looked threatened in the race as his team mate scrapped with the Ferraris. A last-lap brake-by-wire glitch might have proved disastrous had it struck earlier, but it didn?t stop him from winning his third race this year.
Spain ? Spun in final practice after touching the artificial grass in turn three, and from then on seemed to lose the initiative to his team mate, who beat him to pole position. A poor start cost him one place to Vettel and almost another to Bottas. Unable to pass Vettel on the track, he tried to undercut the Ferrari at the first pit stop but was thwarted by a slow left-rear tyre change. A switch to a three-stop strategy got him ahead, but by the time he?d made his extra pit stop Rosberg was too far ahead to be caught.
Monaco ? Led both practice sessions on Thursday. Didn?t seem as settled on Saturday, including in qualifying where he was kept from the top spot in Q1 and Q2. He recovered well, however, chose to be the first Mercedes in the queue following last year?s controversy, and took his first Monaco Grand Prix pole position at his ninth attempt. Led comfortably from the start and was over 19 seconds ahead of Rosberg when the Safety Car came out. Didn?t expect to lose the lead by pitting, but he did, and finished a very frustrated third.
Canada ? Despite topping both sessions on Friday he had a scruffy start to the weekend ? a spin in first practice, a bizarre crash in the second, and in the third he was last after failing to get a clean lap in before the red flags started to fly. Rosberg ran him close in qualifying but Hamilton prevailed by a comfortable margin. He pulled clear in the first stint but Rosberg kept him honest after they switched to softs, the gap rarely more than two seconds. Even so, a fourth win for Hamilton never really looked in doubt.
Austria ? Half a second off the pace on Friday and didn?t seem to be much closer to his team mate as the track dried in qualifying. Then it all seemed to click when it mattered: suddenly Hamilton found his missing chunk of time in the middle sector and claimed pole position, despite spinning at the beginning of his final lap. However his start was tardy ? Hamilton later said he wasn?t satisfied with recent changes Mercedes have made to their clutch ? and he spent much of the race chasing Rosberg. Then made life more difficult for himself by straying across the pit lane exit line and collecting a five-second time penalty, so had to accept second.
Britain ? Looked genuinely uncomfortable in the warmer conditions on Friday, but overnight changes seemed to result in a car he was much happier with. He duly took his eighth pole position of the year ? as in Austria his first lap was good enough and neither Mercedes driver improved on their second runs. Having reverted to an old clutch set-up for his start he blamed a lack of grip on his grid position for a sluggish getaway which allowed both Williams drivers past. He briefly got back in front of Bottas only to lose the position again while attacking Massa. He told the team he couldn?t pass Bottas, but his lap 19 pit stop and a flying out lap ensured he jumped both the FW37s. He had a brief off at Copse when the rain arrived, and after the track dried he began to struggle with his front tyres. However his decision to pit on lap 43 for intermediates just as the rain was returning was inspired, and won him the race.
Hungary ? Swept all three practice sessions with little drama besides the occasional lock-up, and continued his domination into qualifying where he headed all three parts and sealed his ninth pole position of the year. But his domination of the weekend ended within seconds of the start: relegated to fourth in the first few corners, he then went off at turn six, slipping to tenth (and somewhat unfairly blaming his team mate for the error). He?d fought his way back to fourth when he came under attack from Ricciardo and thumped into the Red Bull, necessitating a front wing change and earning a drive-through penalty. Nonetheless he recovered to sixth at the chequered flag and edged further ahead of Rosberg in the championship.
Australia ? Vettel?s first race for Ferrari went about as well as he could have hoped. After chiding himself for not taking third place on the grid when it was in the offing, he took it off Massa in the race by pitting three laps later than the Williams and dropping his lap time by around eight-tenths of a second despite the age of his tyres.
Malaysia ? Exclaimed ?not again? when he missed out on pole position to Hamilton by less than a tenth of a second, as he also had done last year. But he was clearly pleased with the Ferrari?s performance, and better was to come in the race. He rebuffed Rosberg at the start, inherited the lead during the Safety Car period when the Mercedes drivers pitted, but picked off both of them after his first pit stop. That put him in position to clinch his first victory for Ferrari at his second attempt.
China ? Three races, three podiums for Ferrari?s newest driver. Was consistently quicker than Raikkonen all weekend and ran third the entire race, behind the Mercedes. Tried to put Rosberg under pressure in the middle stint, but the way that Mercedes pulled away after the final stops suggested challenging for the win was never really a possibility for Vettel in China.
Bahrain ? Showed his potential in final practice and delivered on it by splitting the two Mercedes in qualifying, lining up on the front row. However he wasn?t able to keep Rosberg behind in the race ? being passed three times ? and was forced to make an extra pit stop after going off and damaging his front wing. That dropped him behind Bottas, where he finished.
Spain ? Took third on the grid in the upgraded Ferrari, albeit more than three-quarters of a second off Rosberg?s pole position time. Ran in front of Hamilton for the first half of the race but when Mercedes put their man on a three-stop strategy Ferrari stuck to their guns and Vettel, perhaps inevitably, lost his hold on second place.
Monaco ? Quickest in final practice but when Mercedes got their act together in qualifying the full scale of Ferrari?s deficit to the silver cars at this track was revealed. Nonetheless he took third once again, and fought hard to try to separate the Mercedes drivers at the start. He had to settle for third, but stayed close enough to Rosberg to be able to take advantage when it all went wrong for Hamilton.
Canada ? Power unit trouble was an inconvenience in practice ? and a major problem in qualifying, where it put him out in Q1. Then it transpired he had overtaken Merhi under red flags in practice, incurring a five-place penalty which left him 18th. Made an early pit stop at the end of lap seven but a slow tyre change cost him more time, as did a contretemps with Alonso at the chicane. But he kept picking off his rivals and strong pace after his second pit stop brought him up to fifth place behind his team mate.
Austria ? Quickest on Friday by little more than a hundredth of a second, but twice had to stop with transmission-related problems. Fastest again on Saturday morning, but didn?t have the one-lap pace to split the Mercedes, although he would have been quicker had he also not been unable to use DRS. Didn?t have the pace to attack Mercedes at the start of the race on super-softs, but was quicker on softs in the second half of the race. However by then a slow right-rear tyre change had dropped him to fourth behind Massa, where he finished.
Britain ? Was held up by Massa during his final out-lap in Q3, which may have affected his tyre preparation, then had ?a really bad start? from sixth on the grid. It got worse at the restart where he fell behind Perez, though he took that place back on lap nine. An early first pit stop got him in front of Kvyat and Hulkenberg, and when it started to rain he passed Raikkonen. Significantly quicker than the Williams drivers at this point, a well-timed pit stop got him ahead of them for a podium which had looked unlikely earlier in the race.
Hungary ? Didn?t seem to quite have a match for Raikkonen?s pace in practice but led the way for the team in qualifying to take an increasingly familiar third place on the grid. A superb start put him in the lead from where he used Ferrari?s soft tyre pace to great effect ? Raikkonen was ten seconds behind even when his car was still healthy. The Safety Car period was exactly what he didn?t need but his nearest rivals mostly took themselves out of contention as he grabbed his second victory of the season.
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