Mixing the orderLaurence Edmondson November 27, 2013
It's at this time of year that Formula One journalists turn on their laptops and start making lists. The most popular one is reorganising the championship standings into a ranking based on drivers' individual performance regardless of the car underneath them. Inevitably, few lists among journalists are the same as it's impossible to truly strip driver performance from car and compare like with like. Yet this task is performed each year, usually to a backlash from fans arguing their man should be higher placed (keep an eye out and feel free to dispute ESPN's before the end of the year), as it gets to the core of what we all want to know: Who is the best all-round driver in the sport?
Drivers that come on strong towards the end of the year always feature highly. Romain Grosjean is an obvious candidate this year after a flurry of podiums in the last six races and a complete turnaround in his confidence both on and off the track. He's left a good final impression on the season and as a result is likely to feature ahead of team-mate Kimi Raikkonen on some lists, who left anything but a good impression by skipping the final two races. Yet up until the summer break (over half the races this year) Raikkonen had scored at every race and you would have been laughed at for suggesting Grosjean had performed to a higher standard. He may be among the most improved, but Grosjean will have to wait until next year to prove he can perform over the full course of a season.
Mark Webber is another driver who will no doubt feature in a lot of top tens. The outspoken Australian is well liked in the press room for his no-nonsense attitude and will be missed next year, but look at his results and it's hard to find something positive to say. He scored roughly half the points of team-mate Sebastian Vettel and failed to win a single race to Vettel's 13. No matter what the dynamic is within the team or how much bad luck he suffered throughout the season, that's a significant margin to have to a team-mate. Among the top six teams, Ferrari's Felipe Massa is the only driver to have a lower proportion of points to his team-mate. Comparing team-mates, therefore, is fairly straightforward.
But judging drivers at different teams requires a lot more guesswork. Is Fernando Alonso's second place in the drivers' championship more impressive than Nico Hulkenberg's 51 points for Sauber? (One list has already put Alonso behind Max Chilton). Should Jenson Button be commended for scoring points at nearly 75% of this year's races in his recalcitrant McLaren or should Nico Rosberg be more highly praised for seizing two race victories when the opportunities presented themselves? These are the judgements that are so difficult to get right with cars and teams having such a big impact on what drivers can achieve. As a result we tend to slip into perceived wisdoms - such as Alonso being the best all-rounder, Vettel being the best over one lap etc. - but next year those perceptions could be challenged.
It looks as though Mercedes and Marussia will be the only two teams to stick with their driver line-ups from 2013, while every other driver on the grid will have a new team-mate. Although the Lotus, Force India and Sauber line-ups are still unconfirmed, the rumours in Brazil hinted at a big shake-up. Lotus could have Maldonado and Grosjean or Hulkenberg and Grosjean, both of which would be fascinating line-ups. Sergio Perez seems likely to join Force India and alongside him could be Hulkenberg (if he doesn't get the Lotus deal), Paul di Resta or Adrian Sutil - again line-ups that pitch drivers with something to prove against each other. Williams, we already know, will see fading star Massa go head-to-head with rising star Valtteri Bottas, but the real interest is among the top teams with Alonso versus Raikkonen topping the bill. Vettel versus Ricciardo could also throw up a few surprises and Button versus Magnussen has the potential to make or break careers.
In most cases the newcomer to the team will have a disadvantage, but with the new regulations neither driver will be instantly familiar with their car. It's a chance to prove critics wrong but equally a chance for weaknesses to be exposed. The driver market may be dominated by money in the midfield, but the resulting shake-up after a relatively stagnant few years is set to offer a little extra insight into how the drivers stack up.
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1