Alonso showed true greatness in '05
Who were the top 10 drivers in Formula One this season? A total of 25 drivers competed in at least one Grand Prix in 2005, but the final points standings don't necessarily reflect how good of a job they did, especially when you take into account the cars they had at their disposal and how they coped with the cards that had been dealt to them.
The top three were obvious, not because they ended up in the championship in that order, but for how they did so. The next grouping is more difficult to rank, as you had guys like David Coulthard and Jarno Trulli doing better than expected compared to drivers like Giancarlo Fisichella and Juan Pablo Montoya, who underperformed. The drivers at the tail end of the top 10 each had their own set of circumstances.
1. Fernando Alonso, Renault (actual '05 standing: first)
It is a very close call for the top spot between Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, but Alonso comes out on top not because he is world champion but for the way in which he won the title. Alonso made but a single mistake all season, when he clipped the wall in Canada, but otherwise his performances were sublime.
With his early points lead, he could afford to be conservative. When he had the quickest car, he won. When the McLarens were faster, Alonso was always perfectly placed to earn as many points as possible and to snatch a win if they faltered. In the season finale in China, with new parts on the car and no longer needing to be cautious, Alonso flat whipped Raikkonen. All in all, it was a brilliant performance by a guy who was only 23 years old for most of the season.
2. Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren Mercedes (actual '05 standing: second)
Like Alonso, Raikkonen racked up seven wins in 2005. From the fourth race on, Raikkonen had the faster car and McLaren Mercedes had a win-or-bust strategy to close the gap on Alonso. The car let Raikkonen down with four engine failures in practice and a hydraulic problem that robbed him of victory in Germany.
But Raikkonen made mistakes as well. He drove a sloppy race in Australia to finish eighth while Alonso took third. Clobbering the curbs in the San Marino Grand Prix probably contributed to the drive shaft failure during that race. And a flatspot in a front tire eventually cost him the win and 10 points in the European Grand Prix. Raikkonen has a massive amount of natural speed, but he and the team failed to exploit every last ounce of it this season.
3. Michael Schumacher, Ferrari (actual '05 standing: third)
The fact that Schumacher finished third in the championship with the uncompetitive Ferrari package proved that the seven-time world champion has lost none of his tenacity and skill. Throw out his win in the U.S. Grand Prix when only six cars started, and he probably would have been fifth in the final points standings.
Schumacher drove fabulously in races like the San Marino Grand Prix, where he hounded winner Alonso all the way to the finish line. But, when mired back in the pack, there were races like Australia where, in a move condemned by virtually every other driver, he took out Nick Heidfeld. Schumacher's season ended in shambles in China, when he wandered into the path of another car on the warmup lap and then spun out of the race during a pace car period. He is still the super star, but we saw the first signs of it fading in 2005.
4. Jarno Trulli, Toyota (actual '05 standing: seventh.)
After falling out with Renault, Trulli needed to find a good home, which he did at Toyota. His arrival coincided with Toyota taking a huge leap forward in performance, and Trulli was really able to exploit it. He had two second-places and a third early in the season, which were the first-ever podium finishes for Toyota.
Prior to 2005, his best career finishes were a win, a second and two thirds, so this was a stellar season in terms of results. As the other teams, especially McLaren, started to catch up, Trulli didn't make it back on the podium, but he steadily scored points. Trulli was generally faster, especially in qualifying, than teammate Ralf Schumacher.
5. David Coulthard, Red Bull Cosworth (actual '05 standing: 12th.)
It was an outstanding season for the 12-year veteran. His career could have been over after being dumped by McLaren, but he found a perfect home in the relaxed atmosphere at Red Bull, where he blended his vast experience with a playboy lifestyle.
A liberated Coulthard with a new lease on life drove superbly all season. His best finishes were a pair of fourth-places (he would have been third in Monaco if Michael Schumacher had not hit him) and he had seven other top-eight placings. That was pretty impressive given that Red Bull is a privateer team. Coulthard easily outshined his rookie teammates, Christian Klien and Vitantonio Liuzzi.
6. Juan Pablo Montoya, McLaren Mercedes (actual '05 standing: 4th)
Montoya's raw speed and dazzling car control are beyond question, and his volatile, hard-charging style led to victories and mishaps.
Three wins in 2005 were balanced against tangling with slower cars in Turkey and Belgium and petulantly causing an accident during practice in Monaco. Missing two races after injuring his shoulder (playing tennis on the back of a motorcycle according to jokers in the F1 paddock) meant it took longer than expected for Montoya to get into the groove at McLaren. He should have and could have done better.
7. Giancarlo Fisichella, Renault (actual '05 standing: fifth)
Long rated as one of the best drivers in F1 -- if only he had the car to prove it -- Fisichella finally had that car this season, yet he failed to come anywhere near matching the performances of his teammate, Alonso. Fisichella started the season off with a pole and a win, but he finished on the podium only two more times in the remaining 18 races (compared to Alonso's 15 podium finishes in 2005).
To his credit, Fisichella suffered mechanical failures that missed Alonso, but he also got involved in accidents that Alonso managed to avoid. Overall, this was Fisichella's best season since his F1 debut in 1996.
8. Ralf Schumacher, Toyota (actual '05 standing: sixth)
Like Trulli, Schumacher needed a change of atmosphere. After six years at Williams he settled in nicely at Toyota and seemed to be less moody than in the past. Ralf finished in the points an amazing 14 times out of 19 races (remember, F1 only awards points to the top eight) and twice visited the podium with a pair of third-places. Although he edged Trulli in the final points standings, Schumacher didn't perform as well as his teammate overall.
• Heidfeld (actual '05 standing: 11th)
He looks more like a college kid than a star F1 driver, and his quiet and sometimes bland demeanor keeps him out of the limelight, but Heidfeld had some great races in 2005. He finished third in the blazing heat of Malaysia, driving without being able to drink any water after the drink bottle system failed on his car. He followed that up with back-to-back second-places in Monaco and at Nürburg. From that point on, however, Heidfeld faded along with the deteriorating speed of the Williams BMW. An F1 testing accident followed by a bicycle accident ended his season early, but BMW rated him highly enough to sign him to a three-year deal with its new team.
• Webber (actual '05 standing 10th)
This was supposed to be the season in which the gritty Webber made a big step forward as he joined a top-ranking team like Williams BMW. Unfortunately, Williams was not a top team in 2005. Webber earned the first podium finish of his F1 career when he took third in Monaco, and but for the team's pit strategy he would have been second in that race. As the car got worse, Webber fought harder. He finished fourth in Japan in what was probably his best race of the year, and he would have finished much higher than seventh in the season finale in China if he had not been stranded behind Rubens Barrichello during a crucial stage of the race.
10. Jenson Button, BAR Honda (actual '05 standing: ninth)
Button finished third and his team took second in the manufacturers' standings in 2004. Both took a mighty tumble in 2005. The first part of the season was pointless thanks in part to a three-race ban because of an illegal fuel ballast system. Button then went on a blitz with 10 consecutive finishes in the points, including two third-places.
However, his star didn't shine as brightly this year when you compare that to nine podium finishes in 2004, and then add in the tawdry contract dispute with Button trying to get out of his Williams contract so that he could stay at BAR one year after he tried to do the opposite.
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.