Top 10 Formula 1 drivers of 2020 - Our verdict - The Race
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Top 10 Formula 1 drivers of 2020 – Our verdict

Dec 15 2020
By Mark Hughes, Scott Mitchell and Edd Straw

Formula 1’s condensed but rapid-fire 17-race 2020 Formula 1 season has come to an end.

To mark the end of the campaign, The Race has compiled its ranking of the top 10 drivers of F1 2020.

This is not simply a ranking of the best 10 drivers overall, but judged based on their performances in 2020 alone relative to the potential of their machinery.

Each of The Race’s trio of journalists – Scott Mitchell, Mark Hughes and Edd Straw – submitted their top 10 ranking blind, with the three lists used to create the final top order.

Dec 16 : Our verdict on the top 10 F1 drivers of 2020

To decide on this, F1’s points system was used with 25 points awarded for first place, 18 for second etc.

The final top 10 ranking does not precisely match any of the three individual lists, but all three have contributed to our analysis of the drivers below.

10 LANDO NORRIS

10

Norris’s season started with a breakthrough podium finish for third place in the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix and he went on to score points in 13 out of 17 races.

“Norris’s season might go under-appreciated because it peaked immediately!” :: Scott Mitchell

He played a crucial role in McLaren securing third place in the constructors’ championship given he was the highest-scoring ‘second’ driver in the midfield pack, contributing 48% of the team’s points.

Edd Straw: Norris built on his promising rookie season well, but despite the results suggesting he and team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr were almost identically matched, his was the marginally less impressive campaign. But it was still impressive.

He’s better at hustling the car than Sainz but also struggled when more understeer-limited and while his best weekends were excellent there were times when he couldn’t match his team-mate’s polished performances.

But he’s quick, drove more aggressively this season and signed off with a great qualifying and race performance in Abu Dhabi.

Mark Hughes: There were some terrific peak performances, his feisty third place in the season-opener probably the highlight. This included a great gloves-off scrap with his team-mate in which he came off best.

Jul 05 : Austrian Grand Prix review

But over the balance of the season the fullness of Sainz’s ability played out and Norris, while never anything other than very good, wasn’t always able to access his absolutely top drawer stuff.

Scott Mitchell: Norris’s season might go under-appreciated in the eyes of some because it peaked immediately!

The headline-grabbing manner of his charges to third and fifth in the first two races were an early declaration that Norris had made the step McLaren demanded of him this year but there was a subtle reminder of that all through the year.

Lando Norris Sergio Perez Racing Point Austrian Grand Prix 2020

He is now an effective, reliable performer in the upper-midfield, one who is much more ready for the challenge of Daniel Ricciardo as a team-mate than the man who ended his rookie season 12 months ago.

9 VALTTERI BOTTAS

9

Bottas won in Austria and Russia and claimed five pole positions on his way to second in the world championship.

“Bottas simply has the misfortune to be up against an impossibly good team-mate” :: Edd Straw

His 124-point deficit to Hamilton didn’t do him justice and there was no shortage of bad luck, but he remained a valuable part of the Mercedes team and was a key cog in its run to yet another constructors’ championship.

SM: It’s perhaps harsh to view Bottas through such a critical prism given he needs a spectacular performance to beat Hamilton.

But it’s also fair to say there have been precious few spectacular performances this season. And while contrasting that with drivers in lesser machinery might be difficult – because their stand-out drives are easier to spot – this was a season in which Bottas was perfectly decent for the most part but without the peaks of others.

ES: Being measured against Lewis Hamilton week-in, week-out is one of the toughest jobs in motorsport. Easy as it is to pillory him, Bottas made a decent fist of it and simply has the misfortune to be up against an impossibly good team-mate.

He was at his best on Saturdays, continuing his record of outqualifying Hamilton roughly one-third of the time but he once again showed he wasn’t as adaptable and well-rounded on Sundays.

Stand-in team-mate George Russell having the beating of him in the Sakhir Grand Prix was also a blow which didn’t help for a driver who is great on his day, but also too easily knocked out of that window.

MPH: These are mighty high standards to be judged by, of course. But once you’re in the best car, you are under massive scrutiny.

How would Bottas have got on at Racing Point alongside Sergio Perez, for example? He’d probably have a much higher reputation than he now has, but with less success to show for it.

Every year Bottas has to rewrite the script in his head about how he can improve, where he can make gains against Hamilton.

And every time it looks like there might be promise there, the blow arrives. It’s only ever a question of whether it arrives sooner or later.

There are surely only so many times a competitor can recover from such repeated blows before his motivation begins to lose its elasticity, before he goes into races with the equal best car expecting to get beaten.

8 PIERRE GASLY

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, Italy

His rehabilitation from Red Bull Racing reject to midfield star was completed in 2020, culminating in an emotional first grand prix win at Monza.

“Could he now go up against a Verstappen at Red Bull? Probably best he doesn’t try” :: Mark Hughes

But while luck and calmness under pressure handed him that victory, there were plenty of less-celebrated, but no less accomplished, drives as Gasly racked up 10 points finishes and comprehensively outperformed AlphaTauri team-mate Daniil Kvyat.

MPH: There was a freedom and assurance about Gasly this year that was certainly not there during his Red Bull stint, but which was also a step up from his previous highlights at Toro Rosso.

He clearly found his groove with his engineer and the set-up of the car and the more he just kept working it, the more his confidence soared.

Once he got that lead at Monza there was no way he was letting it go. There’s a fierceness within him and he’s accessing it regularly now that he’s filled his data banks.

But could he now go up against a Max Verstappen at Red Bull? Probably best he doesn’t try.

He’s now in the situation Sainz found himself in within the Red Bull group, too good to remain much longer in the junior team and needing to fly the nest.

SM: This was a proper coming-of-age season from Gasly, who has shown no ill-effects of his Red Bull demotion – and actually this season was so good he has done the unthinkable: made himself Red Bull’s best option again.

Unfortunately for Pierre, Red Bull’s not actually interested.

But the apparent apathy of his overall employer should take none of the shine away from a brilliant year. Gasly’s peaks were as high as anyone’s – not just figuratively, given he became a race winner! – but the quietly excellent and efficient drives were just as impressive.

He had a tiny dip at the end of the year as team-mate Kvyat regained a bit of form, but overall this was an emphatic demolition by Gasly.

ES: Gasly has always driven with a swashbuckling exuberance in F1, but building on his successful second half of last season he further refined his approach to become a resilient and consistent force in F1’s midfield.

The Monza victory will always be remembered, but it probably wasn’t even his best race performance with his off-strategy drive to eighth at Spa after the safety car compromised him, and his top-six finishes in Portugal and Bahrain also outstanding.

He also comprehensively outperformed Kvyat, who is a very capable F1 driver.

Fast, consistent and, since his demotion from Red Bull, robust mentally.

7 GEORGE RUSSELL

7

His season was defined by one, glorious outing for Mercedes that should have yielded a breakthrough grand prix victory.

“Sakhir showed he was ready to walk with the gods. He drove as if born to win grands prix from the front” :: Mark Hughes

But there was far more to Russell than that, as he dragged the Williams FW43 into Q2 nine times and came close to scoring points both at Mugello and Imola – although a crash under the safety car put paid to his chances at the latter.

SM: In Russell’s rookie season, judging his performance in a – ahem – recalcitrant Williams was difficult. It became easier this year.

He’s carving out a bit of a reputation as a one-lap specialist with some excellent qualifying performances to haul himself properly into the lower-midfield battle but has consistently provided evidence that he’s a dab hand on race day too.

This year could be the making of Russell as it thrust him into more challenging situations than his rookie season simply by virtue of being able to race other cars.

Once or twice he stumbled but overall he was excellent – and his Mercedes debut should eliminate any questions over whether he’s a choker.

Dec 07 : Sakhir Grand Prix review

MPH: For a long time he’s looked exceptionally good. But in a Williams, how did we know just how good that really was?

The signs were there, the little indicators that he might be something special. But they were only signs, not proof.

George Russell Mercedes Sakhir Grand Prix 2020

Sakhir showed he was ready to walk with the gods. He drove as if born to win grands prix from the front, as if this was the normal state of affairs and he’d been doing it for years.

My concern in rating him here is that it will seem ridiculously low when looking back, rather than too high.

ES: Russell has always shown a strong turn of speed in the Williams, but his intelligent approach, focus and capacity to absorb information indicated that he was very much a complete package even before he jumped into the Mercedes.

There are still things to master, such as his judgement in battle and balancing when to be aggressive and when to consolidate, but that will come with experience.

Forget the lack of points in the Williams, he turned in some outstanding drives in a car not capable of scoring on merit, not dissimilar to a certain Fernando Alonso with Minardi back in 2001…

6 SERGIO PEREZ

6

Despite missing the Silverstone double-header thanks to COVID-19, Perez was one of the most consistent points-scorers during the 2020 season.

“He’s almost Prost-like in his race performances” :: Edd Straw

He would have picked up points in every race he contested but for Mercedes-related failures in the Bahrain and Abu Dhabi GPs. Along the way, he delivered a popular first grand prix win in his final season with Racing Point.

MPH: We saw the depth of Perez’s desire this year in the way he reacted to the news of being replaced by Sebastian Vettel next year.

He just buckled down, put the blinkers on and kept delivering – to the point where in the latter part of the year the quality of his performances was becoming almost embarrassingly good.

Embarrassing for the team that was letting him go, that is.

Yet still he remained on good terms with all those around him that were helping him access the great performance in the RP20.

The Sakhir win was one of the drives of the season, combining tyre whispering, raw pace and ruthless, smart overtaking.

SM: This season Perez shed the baggage that he’s carried since McLaren dropped him in 2013.

He proved he’s more than a pay driver with a knack for underdog heroics: he can be a bona fide team leader.

Finally blessed with a car to match his abilities, Perez rose to new heights in 2020.

If this proves to be his F1 farewell he can leave with his head held high because he has never had a season as good as this.

ES: Perez was one of the standout midfield performers last year and built on that with a campaign that was relentlessly strong in 2020.

While not the fastest over a single lap – but still very quick – he’s almost Prost-like in his race performances.

What’s more, he has the knack for taking control of his own race, making key passes when they count and rarely getting bogged down in the queue.

With the right balance of experience and unsatisfied ambitions, he has so much more to offer and is still getting better.

5 CARLOS SAINZ Jr

5

Sainz once again seemed to have more than his fair share of bad luck during 2020, but while his results look similar to McLaren team-mate Norris’s on paper, he was the all-round stronger performer.

“He might just be an even more formidable driver than the one Ferrari thought it signed” :: Edd Straw

His best result was second in the Italian Grand Prix, a race he by rights should have been first in line to win once Hamilton had dropped out of contention for victory. But his second place was still among nine top-six finishes.

ES: Sainz is a hugely consistent driver capable of taking the countless small pieces that make up a grand prix weekend and assembling them into a complex whole.

That he did so in a car that wasn’t always the easiest to drive, certainly in qualifying trim, shows he has the fundamental ability to underpin his intelligent approach.

He’s always shown that class in fits and starts, but he’s taken another step this year with McLaren to the point where he might just be an even more formidable driver than the one Ferrari thought it signed.

MPH: At McLaren Sainz has blossomed into the great driver he always showed the potential of being.

Blessed with fantastic car control, he’s learned how to use it only as an aid to the goal rather than an indulgence.

In the meantime he’s developed a great big picture understanding of how to access the maximum from every weekend, without losing that fiery charging quality that allows him to pounce on an opportunity – remember those great early laps on the softs at Portimao.

He’s a young elder statesman and he could be set to be the Prost to Charles Leclerc’s Senna at Ferrari.

SM: Sainz is missing probably 25% of the points he should have in 2020 through no fault of his own.

He thrived as McLaren’s team leader last year and rose to the occasion with more pressure from Norris this year, and can count himself unlucky to not be among the surprise race winners of the season.

4 DANIEL RICCIARDO

4

Having signed up for a McLaren move in 2021 before the season even started, there was a fear this season might be something of a damp squib for Ricciardo.

“Here’s what a world champion-calibre driver looks like in a midfield car” :: Mark Hughes

But he gave Renault every last cent of value from the $25million he was paid for this year with consistently excellent performances.

Strong in qualifying, outstanding on race day, he picked up two podium finishes in a breakthrough year for Renault.

SM: Ricciardo started the season having already decided Renault wasn’t the place for him beyond 2020.

That could have thrown him and the team off its game.

Instead he was a professional to the very end, and a very, very effective one at that.

This season was so good Ricciardo might be forgiven for wondering if it’s bad that he’s leaving. From Renault’s point of view, it definitely is.

MPH: Here’s what a world champion-calibre driver looks like in a midfield car.

He doesn’t have a weakness. His intense – almost skewed – competitiveness is hidden by that laughing exterior but backed by an incredible feel for the car, the tyres and reading of a race.

He has destroyed every team-mate he has ever had with the exception of Verstappen – and even that has to be considered a draw over the three seasons they were together. The previously highly-rated Esteban Ocon is just one more scalp.

ES: That Renault was in contention for third in the constructors’ championship is down to Ricciardo’s excellence in so many ways.

How often do you hear him moaning about unexpected handling characteristics or strange tyre behaviour?

Daniel Ricciardo

He detects, understands, reports, but at the root of his excellence is that he accepts these variables and battles to get on top of them.

He doesn’t seek excuses, only solutions, which is what makes him so formidable.

And underpinning all that, he is seriously quick.

3 CHARLES LECLERC

3

Leclerc regularly dragged the absolute maximum out of a limited Ferrari in qualifying while on the ragged edge, supporting that with consistently excellent race drives that allowed Ferrari to be a bigger threat in the midfield battle than it deserved.

“His qualifying laps at Mugello and Sakhir were astonishing, right up there in Gilles Villeneuve territory” :: Mark Hughes

He also destroyed team-mate Sebastian Vettel and confirmed Ferrari’s decision that he’s the future of the team.

MPH: Leclerc’s peaks are things of wonder, those days when he takes the Ferrari on a wild ride with him and he repeatedly brings it back from the very margins of feasibility.

His qualifying laps at Mugello and Sakhir were astonishing, right up there in Gilles Villeneuve territory in the extent to which they transcended the car’s natural level.

With the car in improbable grid places he naturally felt driven to pull off similarly impossible feats on race day and that’s where his seizing upon any sniff of opportunity on the first lap came from.

It was the situation and his attitude to it more than a trait. If Ferrari provides him with a competitive car it will likely disappear.

It’s hard to criticise someone for trying for the improbable and failing to pull it off when they have managed it on so many other occasions.

ES: If you wanted to choose a qualifying lap of the season, you could begin and probably end your quest by sifting through some of Leclerc’s Saturday performances this year – Portugal, Sakhir, Nurburgring, Britain – the list goes on.

And he usually supported that with battling race drives that flattered the Ferrari. The one criticism is that there were too many errors – notably first lap clashes in Austria (Styrian GP) and Bahrain, crashing heavily at the Parabolica at Monza and hitting Lance Stroll at Sochi.

That suggests he must still finesse the fine line between going to the ragged edge and over it if he’s to make good on his title potential.

SM: It was going to take something pretty good for Leclerc to top his first Ferrari season, which was so effective it earned Leclerc two wins and a team-defining shift behind the scenes.

However, this season topped it. Leclerc grew in stature and by and large he produced big results whether the car deserved them or not.

He is still evolving and maturing as a driver but there was a crucial step in 2020.

2 MAX VERSTAPPEN

2

Verstappen joked repeatedly during 2020 that he had a reservation on third place, which given the pace advantage of the Mercedes was usually as good as it was going to get.

“With the bandwidth his colossal raw talent awards him, driving the trickiest car on the grid barely registers” :: Mark Hughes

But he was always there or thereabouts and picked off a Mercedes or two when it was possible, winning at Silverstone and Abu Dhabi and generally confirming his status as a future multiple world champion.

Aug 09 : 70th Anniversary Grand Prix review

SM: Verstappen had three chances to win in 2020 and he grasped two of them.

The only one he didn’t was Turkey, and even that one had the mitigating factor of an out-of-kilter front wing because one side had been adjusted in the wrong direction so the balance was completely wrong.

Turkey was Verstappen’s only sub-par performance. Every other weekend he got the maximum from his car. He was very, very good.

The only tiny factor against him is his team-mate was so mediocre that at times it became a little tricky to work out how much Verstappen was dragging the car to unbelievable heights and where the car’s “natural” position really was!

ES: Verstappen’s always been a force of nature, but faced with a season of staring at the rear wing of a Mercedes while it headed into the distance he responded brilliantly

Others might have become frustrated by the situation of a difficult-to-drive car, but Verstappen barely seemed to notice it was a problem as he consistently extracted the maximum from the machine and arguably made it look stronger than it really was at times.

An extraordinary driver, one still capable of the odd small mistake but also very clearly capable of stringing together a championship campaign in a car worthy of his abilities.

MPH: Driving the trickiest car on the grid takes barely anything from Verstappen.

With the bandwidth his colossal raw talent awards him, it barely registers. He wrung every last gram of speed from that car every time he got in it.

The competitive order of the cars would probably be perceived quite differently if we let Verstappen drive them all.

Mar 30 : How good is Max Verstappen?

Hamilton versus Verstappen in equal cars might not happen before Lewis retires.

But what about Verstappen vs Leclerc vs Russell in the years ahead? Is that not something to savour?

1 LEWIS HAMILTON

1

Eleven wins, 10 pole positions and a seventh world championship from 2020 leave him unchallenged as statistically the greatest grand prix driver in history.

“This year was indicative of the all-round force Hamilton has become” :: Scott Mitchell

He wrapped up the title with a superb victory in Turkey and showed a voracious appetite for self-analysis and improvement. At 35, he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

SM: Whether it’s acing the start, grabbing a key opportunity to get ahead, remaining calm and playing the long game or deploying unmatchable pace when required, this year was indicative of the all-round force Hamilton has become.

As Verstappen has said, Hamilton’s worthy of his successes because he makes the difference in key moments. We saw that again this year even if it was in more nuanced fashion than we’d like.

MPH: The part he played before this year in maintaining a push on the team to come up with something that freed the limitation of this generation of Mercedes should not be underestimated.

Ultimately, it’s what led to the development of the extreme rear suspension – probably the most significant factor in the step-change in the W11’s performance gain over its predecessor.

Finally, he had the low-speed rear downforce that opened up an entirely new set-up window, one in which he could have his slow corner rotation cake and eat it without rear-end sliding penalty.

ES: Fast, adaptable, good in battle, consistent, an ace tyre manager and still capable of transcendent performances like his Styria pole position or in-the-zone victory in Spain, Hamilton is a driver at the peak of his powers.

Nov 23 : Criticisms of Lewis Hamilton – fair or false?

The question isn’t whether he stays at that peak next season, but rather whether he reaches a new one.

Yes, Mercedes is the best team with the best car, but Hamilton’s contribution to that must not be overlooked. This season added to his greatness, on and off track.

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