Commentary

Hamilton won F1 title, but Kubica gets nod as top driver in 2008

Lewis Hamilton won his first Formula One drivers' championship, but was he the best driver on the circuit in 2008? Try third-best. The top spot goes to BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica, writes Dan Knutson.

Updated: November 21, 2008, 1:51 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

Lewis Hamilton won the 2008 Formula One World Championship, but was he the best driver? Mark Webber never finished higher than fourth, so why is he rated in among our top 10? Nick Heidfeld completed 99.7 percent of all laps, so why didn't he place better in the ratings?

Points only tell part of the story of the 2008 F1 season.

The order of the drivers in this assessment of the "Top 10" in 2008 did not end up in the same order as the top 10 finishers in the final points championship standings.

Why?

Because a different picture emerges when you take into consideration a variety of factors, including how competitive the car was, how many mistakes a driver and his team made, how the drivers compared to their teammate in similar equipment and what was expected of them.

Robert Kubica

Kubica

1. Robert Kubica
Nationality -- Polish
Team -- BMW Sauber
Position in 2008 drivers' world championship -- fourth with 75 points
Wins -- One
Other podiums -- Six
Other top-8 finishes -- Seven
Poles -- One

Drivers such as Indy 500 winner and world champion Jacques Villeneuve as well as Webber rate Kubica as the best driver of 2008. And so does your ESPN.com F1 correspondent.

BMW Sauber improved its car considerably from 2007 to 2008, but it was still not on the pace of the Ferraris and McLarens. Kubica was able to wring the neck out of the BMW Sauber, as did, to a lesser extent, his teammate Heidfeld.

The result was that Kubica was able to sneak into the top three anytime the McLaren Mercedes and Ferrari drivers faltered. The highlight came with the Pole earning the first F1 victory for himself and BMW Sauber in Canada. Admittedly it was a somewhat lucky win, but a win is a win is a win.

It got more difficult for Kubica in the second half of the season as Renault, Toyota and Toro Rosso improved their cars, but Kubica's solid second place late in the year in Japan showed he was still racing flat out.

Kubica made only one driver error during the races in 2008. He aquaplaned off the track in the rain-drenched British Grand Prix, but that was one of those situations in which the driver is just a passenger.

One of Kubica's best drives was fighting to a lowly eighth place in Hungary when the team supplied him with three consecutive sets of tires with the wrong air pressure.

After 16 of 18 races, Kubica was still mathematically in the hunt for the drivers' championship. And he still looked safe for third place in the standings until the team made a shambles of its tire strategy in the final race. The result was that Kubica and Kimi Raikkonen tied with 75 points each. Raikkonen's two wins compared to Kubica's one means that they are listed in that order, respectively, in the championship.

Kubica's outstanding consistency, ability to race above the car's potential and lack of errors made him the best driver in 2008.

Felipe Massa

Massa

2. Felipe Massa
Nationality -- Brazilian
Team -- Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro
Position in 2008 drivers' world championship -- second with 97 points
Wins -- Six
Other podiums -- Four
Other top-8 finishes -- Three
Poles -- Six

Massa finished one point behind Hamilton in the final championship standings, but the Brazilian edges the Briton out in this top-10 list because Massa performed better than many people expected.

Massa matured immensely this season. He won six times, more than any other driver. True, he inherited first place when teammate Kimi Raikkonen's car faltered in France, but then Massa had the win wrapped up in Hungary only to have his engine fail with three laps to go.

"He [Massa] did a tremendous job," three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart told Autosport. "Even last year he was peak-and-valley. One day he was brilliant, but every now and again you wondered how he could drive that badly. But you've seen less of that this year. He's a little older and more mature."

Massa's season started poorly with DNFs in Australia and Malaysia, but after that he had a more consistent season with fewer errors than Hamilton.

Ferrari let Massa down three times with a refueling rig problem in Canada, the engine failure in Hungary and releasing him too early from the pits in Singapore. If any one of those had not happened, Massa would have been champion.

The gallant and sportsmanlike way Massa handled the bitter last-minute defeat in the championship in Brazil gains him very high marks as a driver and a person.

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton

3. Lewis Hamilton
Nationality -- British
Team -- Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
Position in 2008 drivers' world championship -- First with 98 points
Wins -- Five
Other podiums -- Five
Other top-8 finishes -- Four
Poles -- Seven

Hamilton is a sublime talent and is destined to win more championships. The fact that he won more races, finished on the podium more times and scored more points than any other current F1 driver in the past two seasons proves this. It's sometimes difficult to remember that Hamilton is only in his second season of F1.

But then at times his impetuousness and mistakes remind you that he still needs experience to hone his genius.

While the competitive tide flowed back and forth between Vodafone McLaren Mercedes and Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro, the two cars were the class of the field. However, there were times when Hamilton did not make full use, or made misuse, of the fleet McLaren.

His most glaring error was hitting Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari at the pit exit in Montreal. Raikkonen had stopped for the red light Hamilton didn't see.

In Bahrain, Hamilton lost a lot of places at the start because he failed to properly activate the correct electronic procedures on his car. In Monaco, he hit the wall, although ironically that shifted McLaren's pit strategy and ultimately gave him the win.

In Japan, Hamilton was far too eager to regain positions he lost at the start with the eventual result of zero points.

But his five wins were superb, including outstanding drives in the wet in Monaco and Britain. And his remarkably conservative but on-the-wire effort to finish fifth in Brazil was just the recipe to clinch the championship.

The bottom line is that Hamilton doesn't make the No. 1 rating in this top-10 list because he didn't get the maximum out of his car often enough.

Sebastian Vettel

Vettel

4. Sebastian Vettel
Nationality -- German
Team -- Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari
Position in 2008 drivers' world championship -- Eighth with 35 points
Wins -- One
Other podiums -- None
Other top-8 points Finishes -- Eight
Poles -- One

In the space of two days, Vettel, 21, became the youngest driver to win a F1 pole and win a F1 race. It happened in Italy, where Vettel's superb car control in the rain combined with the perfect strategy of the Toro Rosso team to allow them to pull off the historic double.

Vettel started the season with a string of DNFs before finally finishing fifth in the wet in Monaco. After that, he failed to score points only three times in the next 12 races.

This was somewhat of an embarrassment to sister team Red Bull as both use the same chassis and Red Bull is supposed to be the leader. But Toro Rosso's more seat-of-the-pants approach to setting the car up and race strategy paid off.

Toro Rosso also had the Ferrari engine, which was better than Red Bull's Renault. But none of this should detract from Vettel's outstanding drives in 2008.

He has been called "Baby Schumi" by the German media, who think Vettel will be the next Michael Schumacher. Both Vettel and Schumacher say they are different drivers and shouldn't be compared. And Vettel has a long way to go to match Schumacher's record seven world championships and 91 victories, never mind Alain Prost's 51 wins and Ayrton Senna's 41.

But Vettel's efforts in his second full season earn him fourth place here.

Fernando Alonso

Alonso

5. Fernando Alonso
Nationality -- Spanish
Team -- ING Renault
Position in 2008 drivers' world championship -- Fifth with 61 points
Wins -- Two
Other podiums -- One
Other top-8 finishes -- Nine
Poles -- None

It was a season of two halves for Alonso, and in the second half he showed the stuff he used to win the championship in 2005 and 2006.

He was content to be back at Renault after his one unhappy season with McLaren, but he wasn't satisfied with the speed of his car. He drove every lap like he was qualifying but had to settle for a few points here and there rather than podium finishes.

From August on, Renault made a big step in the car's development and in the last eight races Alonso won twice, was second once and had fourth four times.

His win in Singapore was fortuitous thanks to, ironically, an accident caused by his teammate Nelson Piquet that brought out the safety car just after Alonso had refueled. As a result, he was able to leapfrog to the front as the others pitted.

Alonso's victory in Japan was a solid one. True, the McLarens and Ferraris had various woes early in the race, but they could not catch him after that. Quite simply, Alonso won in a car that was not really a winning car.

The petulant behavior Alonso sometimes showed at McLaren disappeared when he was back home at Renault. His drives in the second half of the season were superb, leading observers to speculate how many times he would have won had he stayed with McLaren in 2008 and been in a competitive car.

Still, Alonso was a class act in the second half of the season in the Renault.

Mark Webber

Webber

6. Mark Webber
Nationality -- Australian
Team -- Red Bull Racing Renault
Position in 2008 drivers' world championship -- 11th with 21 points
Wins -- None
Other podiums -- None
Other Top Eight Points Finishes -- Nine
Poles -- None

He never finished higher than fourth this year and was outside the top 10 in points. But in the first half of the season, when his Red Bull Renault was up to the job, Webber consistently finished in the top eight. Considering that the McLarens, Ferraris and BMWs usually grabbed the top six places, there was an intense fight amongst the rest of the teams and drivers for the final two points-paying positions. And Webber was right in the thick of it.

In the second half of the season, Red Bull's development dropped behind the likes of sister team Toro Rosso, Toyota and Renault. Webber was driving just as fast, but the car was no longer quick enough.

Webber would have -- should have -- finished second in Singapore behind Alonso. Both had benefited from having the right pit strategy when the safety car came out. Unfortunately, Webber's car suffered its only mechanical failure of the year in Singapore. The reason was bizarre as the team suspected a voltage surge from an underground train spiked Webber's gearbox and caused it to select two gears at once.

The hard-charging Webber was definitely a top-10 driver in 2008.

Kimi Raikkonen

Raikkonen

7. Kimi Raikkonen
Nationality -- Finnish
Team -- Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro
Position in 2008 drivers' world championship -- Third with 75 points
Wins -- Two
Other podiums -- seven
Other top-8 finishes -- Three
Poles -- Two

It's not uncommon for any athlete or sports team to have a slump the year after winning a championship. But Raikkonen's drop-off in performance in 2008 after winning the world championship left some people wondering if the "Flying Finn" had lost interest.

It led Ferrari president Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo to kid with Raikkonen in a postseason news conference and ask if the "real" Kimi had been in the car.

"Or is it a friend of yours, a stand-in?" he quipped. "Because in my opinion, Kimi, you were a bit tired and you let a friend of yours race for a while."

Because Raikkonen rarely shows any emotions it was difficult to gauge what he was feeling about a season in which he won twice and never again after April. He did later admit it was difficult to maintain the same level of motivation fighting for fifth rather than first.

The key to Raikkonen's problem was a subtle shift in the construction of the Bridgestone tires. He, like several drivers, including Heidfeld, had problems generating enough heat into the front tires over an out lap and a qualifying lap. The result was that Raikkonen often qualified about fourth. That wasn't good enough to put him in positions to challenge for wins. Overtaking was so difficult with the 2008 F1 cars that Raikkonen frequently got bogged down in traffic.

He would have won in France, but a broken exhaust header burned a hole in the Ferrari's engine cover. And an engine failure robbed him of a top-3 finish in Valencia.

Thanks to a trio of third places in the final races, Raikkonen took third in the drivers' championship. Compared to what teammate Massa did this year, Raikkonen, given his massive natural talent, should have had a better season in 2008.

Nick Heidfeld

Heidfeld

8. Nick Heidfeld
Nationality -- German
Team -- BMW Sauber
Position in 2008 drivers' world championship -- Sixth with 60 points
Wins -- None
Other podiums -- Four
Other top-8 finishes -- Seven
Poles -- None

The first and best way to assess a driver is to compare him to his teammate. They have equal equipment and opportunity, so who is better?

In 2007, Heidfeld outshone BMW Sauber teammate Kubica. In 2008, the opposite was true.

In both cases, the reason was the same. Last year, Kubica had trouble dialing in the car. This year, Heidfeld took a long, long time to work out with his engineers and the rest of the team on how to extract the best out of the car in qualifying. It all had to do with a problem heating the front tires to the narrow but crucial window of correct temperature in qualifying.

It got to the point that BMW Sauber delayed renewing Heidfeld's contract until the team was sure he was on top of the issue.

Heidfeld could have won in Canada to give him and the team their first victory. But the strategy worked in Kubica's favor and he scored the victory while Heidfeld finished second. It was one of four second places Heidfeld earned in 2008.

In all, Heidfeld had an amazingly consistent season. He completed all but four laps (he "lost" those four after a collision in Monaco), which meant he completed 99.7 percent of the total distance during the 18-race season. That puts him second in the record books behind Michael Schumacher, who finished 100 percent of the laps in 2002.

But for his qualifying slump, Heidfeld would have been higher up in the points standings and higher up in this top-10 listing.

Jarno Trulli

Trulli

9. Jarno Trulli

Nationality -- Italian
Team -- Panasonic Toyota Racing
Position in 2008 drivers' world Championship -- Ninth with 31 points
Wins -- None
Other podiums -- One
Other top-8 finishes -- Nine
Poles -- None

He bristles when people trot out the standard line that Trulli is an extremely good qualifier but not all that good a racer. Trulli knows he can win given the right car.

This year's Toyota was not a winner, but it was the best car the team has produced since 2005.

"We had a reasonable start to the season," Trulli told ESPN.com. "We suffered a few races when other teams made quite a big improvement to their cars. But the Toyota team reacted pretty well, and since France we are getting stronger and stronger."

As a result, Trulli could chip away at top-8 finishes. The highlight of his season was holding off Heikki Kovalainen's McLaren to finish third in France. Trulli found it good revenge for the same race in 2004 when Rubens Barrichello passed him for third place in the final corner before the checkered flag.

Trulli's experience and the improved car helped him get a steady accumulation of points, but the pairing just didn't have enough oomph to get any higher than the tail end of the top-10 list. They finished ninth in the standings and that's where they ended up in this listing as well.

Heikki Kovalainen

Kovalainen

10. Heikki Kovalainen
Nationality -- Finnish
Team -- Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
Position in 2008 drivers' world championship -- Seventh with 53 points
Wins -- One
Other podiums -- Two
Other top-8 finishes -- Eight
Poles -- One

After a troubled rookie season with Renault, Kovalainen slid seamlessly into a much happier atmosphere at McLaren Mercedes.

He knew before stepping foot in a McLaren that his friend Lewis Hamilton was going to be a formidable opponent, and that was exactly the case.

After a fairly strong start to the season, Kovalainen had a massive accident in Spain when a wheel rim failed on his car. Up to that point in the race, he had been staged for a top-3 finish because, although he was behind Hamilton at the time, Kovalainen had more fuel on board and a better strategy.

More than once McLaren put more fuel in Kovalainen's car than Hamilton's for the qualifying session. It made him look to be slower than Hamilton when it was not really the case. He also suffered more bad luck and mechanical failures than Hamilton did.

It was not a question of if Kovalainen would win his first grand prix but just a matter of when. And given the bad luck he suffered, he didn't mind a bit of good luck by taking over first place in Hungary when Massa's Ferrari expired with three laps to go. After all, there were 18 other drivers who could have been holding down second place in those final laps.

Kovalainen played a good teammate support role to Hamilton's championship bid in the final races, but given how good the McLaren Mercedes was, Kovalainen could have, and should have, extracted more from the car. That's why he's 10th in this top-10 list.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.

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