Over the last two days the 25 drivers who competed in F1 this year have been whittled down to a top five.
But who was the very best of the best? Read on for my verdict – and vote for who you think was the top driver in 2009.
5. Fernando Alonso
After all the speculation, Ferrari chose to end Raikkonen’s contract one year early and bring Alonso in for 2010, at a cost of several million Euros. All season long Alonso showed great persistence at the wheel of the uncompetitive R29, regularly dragging it into the top ten in qualifying and often into the points on race day. That his motivation seldom failed him even when driving a car not worthy of his talents was surely part of the attraction for Ferrari.
But, like another driver who conjured impressive results out of a troublesome car – Lewis Hamilton – Alonso’s reputation took a knock in 2009. After his victory in last year’s Singapore Grand prix was exposed as being a result of Nelson Piquet Jnr’s crash, he showed a disappoting lack of integrity by continuing to insist he deserved the win.
Alonso has often given his best performances on the track at the times of greatest stress off the track. Like at Monza two years ago while McLaren was imploding around him. It was the same at Singapore this year, where he silenced the criticism with a cool drive to a third place the team badly needed.
The R29 afforded few chances for Alonso to demonstrate his abilities. Front-row qualifying positions at Shanghai and the Hungaroring were largely thanks to race strategies that were on the desperate side of optimistic. At Hungary a fuel pump problem and a botched pit stop destroyed his hopes of translating pole position into a podium finish.
But he hung in doggedly, bringing the car home in the points eight times, which was far more than it deserved.
Great in a car that was average at best. He kept his head down, stayed out of trouble and grabbed points that he and the team needed. Unspectacular but his achievements were remarkable. Every point must have felt like a podium.
4. Mark Webber
It was heartbreaking to see Webber’s gutsy return from injury in the first race of the season ruined so quickly, bundled out at the first corner by Rubens Barrichello.
Eight races later it looked like another dose of bad luck – again involving Barrichello – would rob him of a maiden race win. Not a bit of it: this was finally Webber’s day and not even a (undeserved) drive-through penalty could keep him from the top step.
He followed that up with third place at the Hungaroring and at this point he was Jenson Button’s closest championship rival, the pair separated by 18.5 points at the time.
A five-race run without a point put paid to Webber’s title hopes. There were some car problems (his brake failure in Singapore, for example) and the occasional Red Bull pit blunder.
But part of the explanation is also how Webber didn’t always get the car set up as well as Sebastian Vettel. At Suzuka he ruined his race before it had started by damaging his car during practice.
However he ended the season brightly with a second win at Brazil, though it was somewhat overlooked as all eyes were on the championship battle. In the final race at Abu Dhabi he battled hard but fair to keep Jenson Button behind for second in the final laps
Out-performed by his team-mate, but had his best season in F1 to date and his drives were even more impressive when you consider his fitness before the season began.
3. Lewis Hamilton
The 2008 world champion began the season looking like he was heading for an annus horribilis. Despite being saddled with the wayward MP4-24 he dragged the car to third at Melbourne – which he then lost after colluding with the team to lie about how Jarno Trulli got in front of him in the closing stages.
As with Alonso this kind of thing detracts more from his character than from his driving. Like last year, Hamilton was sometimes inspiring and sometimes a little desperate but rarely dull.
He took consummate wins in Hungary and Singapore. Without misfortune there might have been two more at the Nurburgring and Yas Island. But mistakes cost him a podium at Monza and ruined his qualifying at Monte-Carlo.
Even at races where he had the same specification equipment as Heikki Kovalainen Hamilton’s margin of superiority was usually emphatic.
It’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve his place as the best non-Brawn or Red Bull driver in the final championship standings, and his rivals know if he has a better car next year to expect a Hamilton who’s as quick as ever and a little bit wiser to boot. His huge advantage in qualifying at Abu Dhabi will certainly have given them something to think about.
Forgetting all the controversy of the Australian Grand Prix, it was actually one of Hamilton’s best races of the year for me. The McLaren was amazingly slow at that time and the fact that Hamilton almost made it to the podium was quite remarkable. Some of his other best races was properly at Hungary and Brazil, but there are quite few that can be named.
People keep saying that the McLaren was transformed into a winner – but for the car’s true pace look at Kovalainen post-Hungary. Sometimes the only advantage McLaren had was Hamilton. He pulled that car up by the bootstraps and took it places it wasn’t supposed to go.
2. Sebastian Vettel
Interestingly, Vettel was voted the best driver in a poll of team principals. But you have to suspect he had both Red Bull and Toro Rosso voting for him.
When the RB5 was properly hooked up, Vettel was tough to beat. He romped home at Shanghai (another reminder of his wet weather prowess), Silverstone and Suzuka. And even when the car wasn’t quite on the pace he could usually be relied on to bring home points.
Although it’s true he suffered some engine reliability problems, they only kept him from finishing one race, the European Grand Prix. His Hungarian Grand Prix suspension failure had its roots in contact with Kimi Raikkonen.
What really hurt Vettel’s title-winning hopes were the kind of unforced errors the likes of Jenson Button didn’t make – the collision with Kubica at Melbourne (and subsequent penalty), the crash at Monaco and going off the track at Istanbul.
Those incidents aside, Vettel was deeply impressive this season.
When somebody outqualifies Mark Webber 15- 2 in his second full season, you know he’s fast.
Still has to learn some racecraft, and still makes the odd mistake. But considering he’s just starting his F1 career he’s a candidate, alongside Button, for driver of the year.
1. Jenson Button
Before the season began we spent a lot of time discussing Bernie Ecclestone’s now infamous “gold medals” championship proposal. The consensus was that it was a bad idea – the F1 championship should not just go to the driver who wins the most races, but the one who is the most consistent.
By that measure, we can’t fault Jenson Button as world champion.
He blitzed the first seven races of the championship, winning all bar one. Some have put forward a simplistic explanation that this was all because of the speed of the Brawn in the opening races, but that’s not entirely true: Vettel in particular missed out on opportunities to win or score better in these opening races by making mistakes or failing to capitaise on this performance of his car.
From the halfway point of the season Button began to struggle in qualifying. But his consistency in the races brought home the points that made him world champion.
There were two crucial components to Button’s superiority. Even when he was stuck in the midfield he largely avoided making costly mistakes during the races (which is not something you can say about last year’s world champion). His only DNF came when he was taken out by Romain Grosjean at Spa.
Added to that was his skill in making the crucial pass when it mattered, pulling off essential overtaking moves which kept him from being stuck behind slower cars which would have scuppered his strategy.
His pass on Hamilton at Bahrain was a great example of this – the McLaren driver had drained his KERS early in the first lap, and Button’s pass at the start of the second tour was his last realistic chance to get the job done. Vettel, meanwhile, remained boxed in behind Hamilton despite having the pace to win.
Button did it to Alonso at Malaysia and Kubica at Suzuka. Together these are three drivers not exactly well-known for pulling over and letting their rivals past.
These vital passes built Button’s points advantage. A winning margin which might well have been greater had the Malaysian race gone the distance, as he was leading and Vettel was in a gravel trap when the red flags came out.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. This year Jenson Button was the man.
Did the business both from the front and in the pack. Several killer passes, kept his nose clean, kept the points coming and completed a hell of a feel-good story.
Outstanding. The Monaco and Brazilian Grands Prix were amazing to watch. Just kept grabbing the points when the car was down. One DNF when another driver took him out. Passing to win was Button’s forte.
Superb racing and precise overtaking (even against KERS cars) all season and continued to harvest points despite poor qualifying in the season’s latter half.
Complete 2009 F1 driver rankings
No rank: Nelson Piquet Jnr
24: Luca Badoer
23: Sebastien Bourdais
22: Kazuki Nakajima
21: Romain Grosjean
20: Jaime Alguersuari
19: Kamui Kobayashi
18: Adrian Sutil
17: Vitantonio Liuzzi
16: Sebastien Buemi
15: Giancarlo Fisichella
14: Timo Glock
13: Heikki Kovalainen
12: Jarno Trulli
11: Nick Heidfeld
10: Robert Kubica
9: Kimi Raikkonen
8: Felipe Massa
7: Nico Rosberg
6: Rubens Barrichello
5: Fernando Alonso
4: Mark Webber
3: Lewis Hamilton
2: Sebastian Vettel
1: Jenson Button
F1 driver of the year 2009 vote
Who do you think was the best F1 driver of 2009? Cast your vote for this year’s best driver.