The revelation of rookies Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz in 2015 has proved that young drivers can perform in the thick of the action in Formula 1, given an opportunity to do so. In recent years, multiple GP2 champions and Formula Renault 3.5 drivers have failed to graduate into F1, citing limited funding or lack of seats. How competitive the field would have been, had they been racing in Formula 1 is a debate that is to be left for another day.
For now, our founding editor Rachit Thukral dissects the performances of all 21 drivers that took to the starting grid this season, ranking the top-half of them in order of their accomplishments.
10. Nico Hulkenberg
Nico Hulkenberg will always remember 2015 as the year he won Le Mans, for his results in F1 left him asking for more.
Reflecting back on the season, Hulkenberg did a fine job during the first part of the year, driving what was effectively a 2014 car. But it was his inability to exploit the B-Spec Force India that demoted him behind teammate Sergio Perez in the drivers’ standings.
To be fair, the points deficit to Perez wasn’t entirely down to difference in outright pace. The German was hit by a string of reliability issues, disrupting the consistency - and morale - of a regular points scorer. Between Hungary and the USA, he failed to see the chequered flag at five occasions, including a DNS at Spa.
Exclude the non-classified results from the point the B-Spec car was introduced and you’ll find that Hulkenberg finished either sixth or seventh, scoring points whenever he made it to the chequered flag - something that has become a remarkable feature of the 28 year old.
9. Daniel Ricciardo
After the highs of 2014 that made him F1’s latest star driver, Daniel Ricciardo had, in comparison, an average season in 2015. It was always going to be difficult to live up the high standards set, even more so because the Red Bull chassis was poor during the flyaway races and the Renault engine remained underpowered all season long.
Nevertheless, Ricciardo enjoyed some competitive outings this year, most notably in Singapore where he remained in close proximity of race winner and former teammate Sebastian Vettel. Likewise, he stormed through the field in Monza, finishing 8th on a power track, having started from the last row of the grid.
But there were visible signs of frustration on a face that is accustomed to an evergreen smile, potentially hurting his results. For many were surprised to see him beaten by Daniil Kvyat in the standings, albeit by three points.
8. Daniil Kvyat
Catapulted into the senior Red Bull team after just one season in Formula 1, Daniil Kvyat faced an uphill task in 2015. Such was his extent of early season struggles that many criticised his graduation, forcing even Helmut Marko to issue an abrupt warning.
But the Monaco Grand Prix marked a turnaround in his fortunes, as he beat teammate Daniel Ricciardo to an impressive fourth place result. This was followed by a podium finish in Hungary, which showed his true potential behind the wheels.
During the second half of the season, he was quicker than Ricciardo on many occasions, and nearly notched another rostrum result in Mexico.
7. Sergio Perez
To outgun Nico Hulkenberg in same machinery is no walk in the park. But Mexico’s Sergio Perez made it look easy, outscoring the talented German by 20 points. Yes, Hulkenberg’s second half of the season was marred by reliability gremlins, but when both drivers made it to the chequered flag, Perez was generally the more convincing of the two.
After average results in the first part of the year, Perez’s season came alive when Force India introduced the B-Spec car in Britain, as he notched multiple top-five finishes, including a podium result in Russia. The 25 year old used his tyre management skills to his advantage to record what was his second podium finish with the team and the fifth of his career.
Another notable result came at the Belgian Grand Prix when he locked his Force India on the second row of the grid.
Perez received immense support from his home crowd on the return of the Mexican Grand Prix, and the cheerful fans would be expecting the Force India driver to fare even better next year.
6. Romain Grosjean
Romain Grosjean revelled in 2013, with his run of podium finishes raising his reputation to the stratosphere. And this season Grosjean has proved that he’s just as good in a less-than-competitive machinery, as he finished 11th in the drivers standings with 51 points.
The podium at Spa was obviously the highlight of the year, but some other lower points scoring finishes were just as impressive.
The Frenchman ended his Lotus career in a fitting manner in Abu Dhabi, overcoming a five place grid penalty to finish in the points, thanks to a late race charge on option tyres.
5. Valtteri Bottas
Williams may have retained third place in the championships, but they scored fewer points and podiums this year, as Ferrari emerged as Mercedes’ closest challenger.
Taking the above point into consideration, Bottas did a formidable job behind the wheels of the FW37, consistently finishing in the top five, including two podium finishes. Had he raced in Australia, he might well have finished ahead of Raikkonen in the standings - the same driver whom he infamously banged wheels in Russia and Mexico.
That said, it wasn’t a spectacular year for Bottas, with veteran teammate Felipe Massa closer to him on outright pace than he would have probably liked.
However, there is no denying that if Bottas has a race winning car underneath him, he will deliver week-in and week-out.
4. Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen silenced his critics with his bold and daring moves, repaying the faith instilled on him by Red Bull’s head of young drivers programme, Helmut Marko.
The young Dutchman secured a season best result of fourth place in Hungary, despite a drive through penalty, and matched that finish in Austin at the other end of the year. But his drive of the season arguably came in Singapore when he bounced back from early race woes to finish in the top 10.
It would be unfair to review Verstappen’s season without highlighting his strong wheel-to-wheel racing skills. The daring Dutchman has been able to pull through moves at locations where even world championships struggled, providing plenty of entertainment to the fans and receiving plaudits from pundits at the same time. His pass over Felipe Nasr on the outside of Blanchimont is labelled by many as the overtaking move of the year.
3. Nico Rosberg
After the 2014 season, Nico Rosberg went into the winter determined to work on his race craft - an area where he struggled in comparison to Hamilton. And although there were visible improvements in his pace on Sundays, he lost his qualifying advantage to the Brit, which meant that Hamilton won most races from pole position.
A mistake at the end of the title-deciding US Grand Prix - which he blamed to a gust of wind - was the last thing Rosberg wanted, as it handed Hamilton the title with three races to go.
That said, there were some particularly impressive results. In Spain, Rosberg edged Hamilton in qualifying and cruised to victory, while his title rival spent much of the race trying his way past Sebastian Vettel. A month later in Austria, he overtook Hamilton on the run down to turn 1 to secure his third win of the season.
But his six-race pole streak and run of three consecutive race wins will remain the highlight of the year, and bodes well for a stronger title challenge in 2016.
2. Sebastian Vettel
Many world champions have endured one-off lacklustre years: Damon Hill was severely criticised for not winning the 1995 championship despite being equipped with the fastest car; Lewis Hamilton was outgunned by teammate Jenson Button in 2011 and Niki Lauda got a poor farewell in 1985 - the year his teammate Prost clinched first of his four titles.
Hence, it is only appropriate to add Vettel’s 2014 season to that list, for it wouldn’t be right to judge the German on the basis of one particular year, when he achieved so much in the preceding seasons - including with midfielders Toro Rosso in 2008.
The 2015 season only adds to our cause. The high profile move to Ferrari paid off beautifully as Pracing Horse emerged as Mercedes’ closest challenger, while former employer Red Bull went downhill, blighted by an underpowered Renault engine.
His own performances were top notch, resulting in 13 podium finishes and three memorable victories, with the first one in Malaysia arguably being the sweetest.
The only anomaly of an otherwise excellent season for Vettel was the Mexican Grand Prix, where the German made multiple mistakes, before crashing ceremoniously at turn 7 in an unsuccessful attempt to pass Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus.
1. Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton was, arguably, at his very best in 2015, sealing his third Formula 1 drivers’ with three races to spare. Such was his dominance over the rest of the field that his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg looked pale in comparison, unable to mount a serious title challenge to the British driver.
Hamilton has always been known for his supreme one-lap pace - something that is vindicated by his haul of pole positions. And after some off-colour qualifying performances in 2014 - when Rosberg edged him handsomely - Hamilton reasserted his authority this year, beating Rosberg 12 to 9 times in qualifying.
On Sundays too, Hamilton was the more convincing of the two, winning 10 races and scoring seven further podiums. His impressive form meant that he surpassed Ayrton Senna in the all-time list of grand prix winners, although it took him an extra race to equal that feat.
The 30 year old, however, failed to cap off the season in style, playing second fiddle to Rosberg in the last three races.
Other notable performers - Carlos Sainz, Felipe Massa
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