After rating every driver who finished in the bottom half of the table in the 2021 driver standings, let’s now focus on the top half of the leaderboard, where we were able to witness some truly noteworthy performances.
Fernando Alonso: 8/10
With the eye-catching drives and brilliant points-place finishes that Fernando Alonso put in this year, the level of confidence behind the wheel that he portrayed made it appear as if he had never even left the grid. While many of us joked about him being a rookie again after his inclusion in the 2020 young driver’s test programme, he honestly drove in the majority of races this season as if he was a hungry racer on his debut season, taking every available opportunity to show off his greatest offensive and defensive moves on track to gain the attention required to rise up the ranks. His defence against a hungry Hamilton in Hungary reminded us all of exactly why he was a 2x world champion and a 3rd place in Qatar was truly the cherry on top of a marvellous return to the sport we all love. With the complete regulations makeover taking place next year, we may be seeing Alonso on the rostrum deservedly more in 2022.
Pierre Gasly: 8.5/10
Although he may not have been able to experience the giddy heights of an F1 race victory this time round, overall I must say that Pierre Gasly’s 2021 campaign was even more of an improvement over last year, which is crazy to even think about. His consistency in qualifying was off the charts, so much so that people started to associate him with P6 (he qualified in this position 7 times this season). Considering the Alpha Tauri was almost certainly a tier below the likes of McLaren and Ferrari, this is truly an amazing feat. In quite a few races Gasly was so far ahead of everyone except the Mercedes and Red Bull guys that it must have been quite boring for him out there all alone, such as at Zandvoort and Mexico. I doubt he cares that much, though, he seems very comfortable in a car that is well suited to him and will surely be carrying himself with confidence into the upcoming season.
Daniel Ricciardo: 7/10
Ricciardo came into the 2021 season with a second team switch in just three years, after being unable to find his feet at Renault. Many expected Daniel to play the mentor to his less-experienced teammate Norris, but in the end it was the Aussie who was being humbled and taught a lesson by the fledgling Briton. As was the case when he was with Renault two years ago, he needed several races to truly understand the handling characteristics of his car. There was quite a large pace differential between the 2 McLaren drivers, most notable at the Monaco Grand Prix where Danny Ric was lapped by his teammate. A true nightmare scenario for any driver! Over time he appeared to have adapted to the MCL35M, and his efforts all came to fruition under the refreshing sunlight over Monza where Ricciardo took an emphatic victory and his team recorded the ONLY 1-2 of the season (unbelievable, right?). However McLaren chose to focus on development for the next season in the latter third of the campaign and Daniel once again was left toiling just outside of the points, only managing a top-10 finish once in the last 5 rounds. He will most definitely be communicating with his team all winter to build a car for next season where he can show the raw pace that we know he has.
Charles Leclerc: 8/10
Charles Leclerc is often very hard on himself in post-race interviews, lambasting himself for every one of his mistakes and vowing to doubly make up for it in subsequent outings. With such a drive and mentality, he must be feeling very bitter about how the season panned out in the end, what with being overtaken by both Lando Norris and teammate Carlos in the driver standings. He didn’t have the best of luck this season either: such as his DNS at Monaco after qualifying on pole; losing the race lead at Silverstone with 4 laps remaining and 6 4th-place finishes. But it must be said that the last statistic is still mightily impressive given the Ferrari was very much the third or fourth fastest car on the grid. He was also very consistent in finishing in the points, only falling outside the points on 2 occasions where he didn’t retire. Here’s hoping Ferrari pull out a better car for him in 2022 so we can confirm whether he is at the same level as Verstappen and Hamilton.
Lando Norris: 9/10
It’s easy to forget that Lando Norris is a mere 22 years of age and is in only his third year of full-time F1 racing. His consistency at near the top of the pecking order, particularly in the first half of the season, was something one would expect from a driver in his prime (and a rare talented one at that). For the longest time Lando was flirting with the secondary Red Bull and Mercedes drivers of Perez and Bottas in the driver’s championship thanks to 10 points-scoring finishes in succession, of which 9 were double figures. Not only was he consistent, he also put in a couple of superlative drives such as in the second Spielberg race and Monza. I would even count Russia as one of his highlights of the season. He was on course for victory were it not for a combination of weather changes and a poor decision to stay out on slicks in the pouring rain (perhaps his inexperience reared its head there). Give this young man a top-tier package and a couple years’ more experience and I can envision him duking it out with the very best, several positions higher than where he finished this time round.
Carlos Sainz Jr.: 9/10
Along with Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz Jr. achieved the greatest number of points finishes throughout the season, only failing to enter the top 10 on 2 occasions. Now obviously this has to have required some modicum of luck, but I don’t think many fans really appreciate how great of a driver one has to be to churn out solid race weekends week in, week out for 15 times IN A ROW. The mental fortitude and calmness under pressure that Carlos has shown this year has been very impressive. Perhaps he has inherited this longevity from his father, who continues to participate in rally events to this day. While it could be argued that he hasn’t had as much raw pace as his Monegasque teammate Leclerc (particularly in qualifying), his sheer consistency placed him in 5th position in the driver standings, which could be considered the best of the rest behind the 2 dominant teams of Mercedes and Red Bull. We’ve always known him to be Mr. Consistent, but with 4 podiums over 22 rounds he has really elevated himself again this year, demanding recognition among the highest tier of current F1 drivers.
Sergio Perez: 7/10
Sergio Perez knew, as did all of us at the beginning of the 2021 campaign, that he would be firmly the number two driver at Red Bull alongside Max Verstappen. He was fully aware that in terms of race strategy in most circumstances his task would be to support his teammate in achieving as many points and victories as possible, sometimes to the detriment of his own race pace. To that end he performed exceedingly well. Mexicans the world over will be living off the highs of his jaw-dropping defensive displays against Lewis Hamilton in Turkey and Abu Dhabi. While it’s true that Verstappen casts a deep black metaphorical shadow over anyone in the same car as him owing to his once-in-a-generational talent, it is hard to ignore some hard-to-swallow facts such as having 3 qualifying session outside the top 10 (Bahrain, Netherlands, Qatar). His single victory at Baku was great to witness however, and Red Bull have been kind enough to give him a second year at the outfit which his predecessors haven’t been fortunate enough to get, so maybe he will be able to settle fully to the dynamics of his vehicle. Don’t expect him to be challenging his teammate though.
Valtteri Bottas: 7/10
Maybe it was due to the fact that Bottas knew for the majority of the season that he would no longer be a Mercedes driver, or perhaps it’s just the driving style that we have come to expect of him, but you could kind of sense that Bottas’ heart wasn’t into the competitive aspect of Formula 1 this year. While decently fast, time and time again he refused to get into any sort of wheel-to-wheel action with rivals. He looked shy behind the wheel from time to time, and you couldn’t feel that burning passion and desire to maintain a high-scoring position that we saw from many others in 2021. However he did manage a noteworthy 11 podiums over the season as well as a spotless victory in Istanbul reminding us of the ice-cold beast within. The Finn will finally be free from the shackles put on him during his 5-year stay at Mercedes, and although he achieved a handful of victories and notable performances while at the Brackley outfit, hopefully a move to Alfa Romeo where he will be very much the more experienced driver will reignite that fighting spirit that we saw in his early days at Williams.
In the final part of this article, we will look more in-depth at the two championship contenders who took the spotlight’s attention for the entire 2021 season: Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen…