- Max Verstappen (5th, 204 points- Red Bull-TAG Heuer/Toro Rosso-Ferrari) 8.5
The list of superlatives are never ending for this sparkling Dutch prodigy. He has won Racing Acid‘s Driver of the Year award partly due to no single driver having a truly flawless season, but his invigorating performances have revived interest in a series which has alarmingly become renowned for stale and processional driving. Max started his year in a Toro Rosso, but controversy over Daniil Kvyat’s collisions with Sebastian Vettel in consecutive races at Shanghai and Sochi elevated him into the senior squad.
Melbourne saw the Dutchman start his season in an irascible fashion, where his pleas to his team to order then-team mate Carlos Sainz to waive him past were ignored. He’d outqualified Sainz to start a then-career best of P5, but questionable strategy and tyre wear issues saw him drop behind his canny Spanish team-mate, in a race interrupted by Fernando Alonso’s horrendous smash. Bahrain, however, saw Verstappen return to his halcyon days of yesteryear, where he finished an almighty P6 ahead of Kvyat’s Red Bull and both Williams cars. Again he’d outqualified Sainz, although perhaps he had been assisted by the severely-maligned elimination format, which was canned at the consequent Chinese Grand Prix. Despite Sainz qualifying ahead at Shanghai, Verstappen finished five seconds ahead with P8 as his race result. Russia saw Max beat Sainz in qualifying again, but the race saw him retire with power unit maladies on lap 34, whilst running an impressive P6. In comparison, Sainz could only finish P12, one lap down.
With apprehension developing over Kvyat’s performances in the senior squad emerging, Helmut Marko and the Red Bull board exploited his latest collision with former Red Bull champion Vettel as perfect timing to bring Verstappen into his seat in time for Barcelona. The Dutchman qualified a steady P4 behind new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who’d admitted relishing the prospect of dicing wheels with the F1’s hottest teen. The race witnessed the inexplicable sight of the Mercedes drivers colliding at Turn 4 on lap 1, leaving Ricciardo leading Verstappen, whose ex-team mate Sainz followed them in the heady heights of P3. Inevitably both Ferraris overtook Sainz, with the race unfolding into one of pit strategy. Thanks to Red Bull’s adroit gamble to place Max on a two-stopper, with only Kimi Raikkonen following his lead as Ricciardo and Vettel chose three-stoppers. The final twenty-three laps witnessed a nail-biting encounter between the Dutchman and the wily Finn, who could not compete with the Red Bull’s superior exit speed. The chequered flag would witness one of the most astonishing fairytales completed, as Max succeeded in winning in his first time out with Milton Keynes-based squad, a feat never completed before. In doing so, he broke many records, some of which will almost certainly will never been touched again thanks to the FIA’s age restrictions, which had been implemented subsequently in response Max’s startling Grand Prix debut at just 17 years of age.
Monaco would foresee F1’s youngest race winner granted a scathing humbling, though, as a crash in qualifying saw him start in P21. He would make steady progress in the treacherous conditions that bestowed the Monte Carlo circuit the following day, but after having switched to slicks once the track dried sufficiently, he crashed out of the race for a second consecutive year at the Principality. Montreal would witness Ricciardo maintain his superiority in qualifying, but it was Max who would grab the headlines again when he pressured championship leader Nico Rosberg into an embarrassing spin, clinching P4 in the progress. A visibly downcast Ricciardo finished ten seconds behind in P7. The complexities of F1’s varying track layouts began to expose the Dutchman’s lack of experience when the circus visited a new track in Baku, Azerbaijan. Qualifying would see his Australian team-mate grab P2 after Perez’s gearbox change, whilst Max languished in P9. The lack of horsepower from the Renault engine combined with substandard tyre management would prove costly for Ricciardo, however, as the more powerful Mercedes and Ferrari engined cars inevitably beat him, leaving him to finish P7, just one second ahead of Verstappen. Despite freak wet-dry conditions in qualifying, Verstappen again lost out to Ricciardo. The race would witness a mesmerising return to form for the youngster, though, as he drove to P2 having driven the last 56 laps on soft compounds and a gigantic 25 seconds ahead of his team-mate. Verstappen finally succeeded in outqualifying Ricciardo at Silverstone and the race witnessed a fascinating battle between the Dutchman and Rosberg. Controversy over Max’s blocking became apparent as Nico implored his team to complain to FIA and demanded a punishment to be applied to the then-18 year old. Unfortunately for the German, gearbox selection headaches emerged, so a post-race penalty was applied to him for having received radio assistance to reset his system, gifting Verstappen a mightly P2.
The next five Grands Prix would prove to be a struggle for Verstappen. Ricciardo would outqualify him in four of these five races, with Belgium being an exception. The race at Spa would witness some truly belligerent driving from the Dutchman, as his poor start saw him exploited the full use of the inside kerb to wallop the Ferraris. After all three dropped outside the top ten, Verstappen unscrupulously swerved in front of Raikkonen on the Kemmel Straight on successive laps, whilst later pushing Perez off the track at Les Combes. It was a miracle the Dutchman would emerge from the weekend unpunished, but the damage to his reputation was appearing. After all, the critics were unforgiving when Ferrari fans were furious when Max chopped off Raikkonen twice in the braking zone at at Hungary. The German race also saw further altercations with Rosberg, whilst Monza and Singapore witnessed uncharacteristically abject performances from the Dutchman. On the weekend of his 19th birthday, Lewis Hamilton’s untimely engine failure would present an opportunity for Max to win his second race of the season at Sepang, but after an exhilarating tussle through turns 5 and 6 with Ricciardo, he was forced to settle for second, gifting Red Bull their first 1-2 in three years.
The final five races witnessed a return for the Dutchman. Suzuka would display a ruthless execution of defence from him, as Hamilton would emerge as the latest critic of Verstappen’s exploitation of the grey areas within the sporting regulations. Austin would witness communication issues between Max and his team, as the Dutchman arrived in the pits a lap earlier than scheduled, but this proved academic with his farcical attempts to pull his stricken vehicle off the track. It arguably wrecked Ricciardo’s prospects of catching Rosberg for P2, but Mexico would witness even further controversy in the closing laps. Once Max learned of the news he’d have five seconds added to his race time, he proceeded to delay an irate Vettel, permitting his team-mate to catch them. Vettel, a major of Verstappen’s antics throughout 2016, would ironically replicate the Dutchman’s weaving when Ricciardo attempted to overtake him. Max would cross the line in P3, but it would be Vettel who appeared on the podium, only for officials to award the last spot on the rostrum to Ricciardo hours later.
Interlagos would momentously foresee the greatest performance of Verstappen’s short career thus far. In a display of dazzling car control, despite spinning on the start-finish straight, Verstappen would exploit his fresh wet compounds to overtake car-after-car to finish P3, but again not without controversy. It was agonising to see the Dutchman seemingly escape from punishment after pushing his frustrated rival Vettel off the track on the exit of turn 12, but quite simply the only other driver on his wavelength that day was race winner Hamilton. Abu Dhabi would see Verstappen spin on the first corner on lap 1, only to somehow stretch his flatspotted supersofts until lap 21 and then drive remaining 34 laps on new softs to finish P4 ahead of Ricciardo and Raikkonen.
It was utterly devastating in its execution. There is simply plenty more to come from the newest superstar of Formula One.
2. Fernando Alonso (10th, 54 points- McLaren-Honda) 8.0
Mr. Consistency once again excelled in 2016. Speculation over his future at McLaren again arose when news of Rosberg’s retirement broke out, but the Spaniard and manager Flavio Briatore are adamant that his future remains at the Woking squad. A P6 at Russia, a pair of P5s at Monaco & Austin and four P7s at Hungary, Belgium, Singapore & Malaysia once again illuminated the 35 year old’s status as F1’s most hard-nosed competitor. Not much else needs to be said.