My driver of the year? I’m going with the one statement the Hamfosi are going to give me flak for. I think the driver of a rather dire season has got to be Sebastian Vettel. Granted, Lewis is a close second, but I’d say he ruined it for himself in the last three races, and only his nigh-on flawless first half of the season keeps him from ending up third behind Max Verstappen.
I can almost hear them cry out, scandalized how it is typical that the Vettel fans would of course say that, all three of them. First and foremost, Lewis was at a definitive disadvantage. Beating Rosberg was always going to be a modest and entirely expected achievement at best and that was all he could achieve unless he would have won each and every race. Or to put it bluntly, he had nothing to achieve other than scoring a goal from the penalty sport, against a goalkeeper who had his hands tied behind his back. If you want to impress anyone with that you have to make it spectacular, and he didn’t.
Vettel on the other hand had no chance and he used it three times. Not only was he the only driver other than Hamilton and Rosberg who managed to win a race, he also force-fed a substantial helping of humble pie to all his detractors, who had written him off after the disastrous 2014 campaign. While Lewis is without a doubt one if not the best driver of the current generation, if you base it on raw talent alone, he lacks several attributes of his great idol, that he loves to refer to, attributes that for instance the likes of Alonso, Schumacher, Senna, Mansell and Vettel have in abundance.
Can you imagine Senna giving away five consecutive pole positions to his team mate? Remember 2013? Vettel had the damn thing sown up in India. Can you remember a single report of Vettel cluttering into bunch of cars, because of sleep-deprevation from partying for a week flat? Schumacher once famously got hogwashly bladdered after winning the title, wrecked Suzuka’s hispotality area in a drunken stupor and that was it. Once the hangover was gone, he concentrated on the next season and was back testing at Fiorano as soon as the shaking hands were gone. Vettel continued to punish the field, even at the cost of getting even more boos.
Lewis schooled Rosberg every which way until he had the title sown up and then he suddenly looked like he couldn’t be arsed anymore. That’s all okay, if that’s what Lewis wants and he’s apparently happy with it. He has chosen to be remembered as a celebrity rather than a sportsman, but you can’t really have both. That’s why, in my opinion, he’s only a close second to Vettel in terms of my driver of the year, because he did what he had to, but not what he could have done.
Vettel, for starters, had only 3 off-days: Bahrain, Mexico and the brain-dead overtake under red flags in FP3 in Canada. For every other race he was more or less flawless. With the last three races and completely losing the plot in Hungary, Lewis has at least one race more where he was arguably not really on top of his game. Only six times all season Vettel wasn’t at least the best placed non-Mercedes driver, if not better. That consistency dwarfs even that of both Mercedes drivers. Scratch the Mercs from the table and he would have won a mammoth 13 races. Even with the best car and being given back the lost victory at Monaco, Lewis’ tally would be 11. Nobody achieved a finish position that reflected the full potential of the car as consistently as the German. It’s of course hard to do that for the Merc drivers, because using the car’s full potential for them means winning. Everything less is by default a defeat. But that’s the the other side of the same medal. Vettel was rarely voted driver of the race when his car was head and shoulders above the rest. Winning in the best car gets you a “job done”, rarely a “great job!”
And for the statistically inclined. Seb’s tally of 278 points that saw him end the season in third place, a solid 44 points behind Rosberg, would have been enough to clinch the title in all of his championship years, even 2012, where he would have ended up tied on points with Alonso, but would have won on count-back with his five wins to Alonso’s three. Such was his consistency and such was the insurmountable advantage of the Mercs. The gap to 4th-placed Räikkönen is a ridiculous 128 points, but the Iceman is arguably well past his sell-by-date. With that sort of form, I dare not think what Vettel would have done to the field in Hamilton’s place.
I’m coming back to what I said in the beginning, it is a trifle unfair a competition as far as Lewis is concerned. You can’t really achieve much if you are Germany in a world cup qualifier and the opponent marches in to the anthem of Malta or Liechtenstein. And this is not an analogy to Lewis and Nico, but rather Merc and the other teams. Winning the title by 50 points is a big margin, even with the current point scheme. Vettel trails Lewis by more than twice that and the Brit has substantially more than twice as many points as everybody else except for his team mate and Vettel.
Yet, the season did not necessarily have to be as dire as it was, and that is entirely Mercedes’ fault. People point at aero as a reason for lack of on-track overtaking, and Lewis was quick to jump the bandwaggon to excuse his lacklustre performance in Brazil. Max Verstappen disagrees. And the 2014 Bahrain GP was a thrilling experience, despite the fact that Rosberg never actually managed to overtake Lewis. It’s the fight that entertains the people, not meccessarily its conclusion.
If you ask a number of people why Merc go out of their way to avoid real racing between their two drivers, most will instinctively answer “Spa 2014”, but I don’t think so. What they really want to avoid is a repeat of Bahrain 2014. Back then the safety car pulled in 10 laps from home. After those ten laps they were 25 seconds ahead of a car powered by the same engine. They desperately seek to mask the fact that in reality they are probably more than two seconds clear of just about everyone else, except perhaps Ferrari. And the latter will gladly provide an explanation what happens if you are than far ahead. Your car will be under such a tight scrutiny they’ll eventually find something to ban and if that doesn’t help, they simply change the rules to nerf your car (Ferrari 2005, Red Bull 2012 for example).
Without really hard racing between Lewis and Nico, they can let their cars idle around in strat mode 10, which is good for reliability and still enough to pull away from everyone. To come back to the footballing analogy. It’s like Germany winning while leaving Neuer, Schweinsteiger and Özil on the bench, because the second tier is good enough to get the job done. It’s still a win, but viewers get only half the package and you won’t get much credit for beating Albania like that and nobody will be impressed if you still manage to get beaten by Denmark three times.
Some say they hope that Ferrari will challenge the Mercs next year, but that will only be a plaster where you need a bandage to get the job done. Nothing short of a miraculous return to former glory would bring Kimi Räikkönen anywhere near challanging even Rosberg. Basically we’d have the same like this year – Only three different winners, people getting thouroughly sick of the German anthem, and everyone else pays a fortune to compete for fifth at best – on a good day.
Of course you can’t ask Mercedes to go deliberately slowly. It would be pointless as they are doing that already. The reason why we don’t have an Alonso forcing Red Bull to wait for the big prize until the very last race or no Juan Pablo Montoya or Kimi Räikkönen making sure that Schumacher’s dominance didn’t become so bad that people were switching off is, that back then teams could bring updates at every race until they caught up to the runaway leader. These days the token system makes sure that no matter what, there’s practically no way to catch Merc entirely and with the reliability penalties you can bring a maximum of three engine updates in a year. Ferrari had a new evolution every second or third race when they kept the dominant McLarens honest in ’98 and ’99. That’s why, even in the most dominant Red Bull year – 2013 – we saw five different winners from four different teams. That’s one more in each category than the last two seasons combined.
With Merc having way more speed at hand than they have ever shown in this season, the chances for the Merc domination diminishing are next to nil. The car with arguably the best chassis is still hampered by having a useless bucket o’ bolts for an engine and Ferrari, although much improved, can only gain so much ground due the restrictions on engine development. Let’s just gracefully gloss over the monumental clusterf*** that was this year’s McLaren-Honda.
2016 will therefore probably be a race in itself. Will the season be over before the viewer numbers have plummeted so badly that broadcasters will question if it still worth handing over the equivalent of a 3rd world dictatorship’s GNP for the privilege of broadcasting something that makes watching curling a thrilling experience? German broadcaster RTL only very reluctantly renewed their contract that’s been running for 24 years, in a season where eight races were won by Germans and the German anthem was played at each and every race. That should give people something to think about.
2017 will be the make-or-break year, provided there still is a product that anyone is interested in. Lewis might have the biggest fanbase, but all the Hamfosi in the world are not enough to sustain F1 on their own.