Even with a mathematical model, it’s difficult to properly compare drivers from different eras. I’ve therefore decided to rank drivers in each decade, starting with the 2010s. Here are the top 20 drivers of the 2010s.
There are different ways to produce a valid ranking, depending on the desired outcome. Is it better to reward strong individual seasons or rocksteady consistency? Here, I’ve ranked them by their 2nd best year in the decade. This allows for a ranking close to an absolute peak, whilst also reducing the possibility for drivers to jump up the ranking due to a single strong year. Years outside of 2010-2019 are not directly counted, but are indirectly used to assess how strong different drivers are in general.
There are also a few criteria that need to be met before a driver can be considered for this list. They need at least 3 years F1 experience, with at least 2 full years within the decade in question. There are 2 drivers that would have featured in the top 20 that were discounted due to inexperience: Vandoorne and Nasr. The tiers represent places where there are significant gaps between the different performance levels. They should be used as guidance to see how similar different drivers are, along with their ranking.
20) Robert Kubica
Kubica just about makes the list despite only racing for the first and last year of the decade. 2010 was a strong year for the Pole, and one wonders what he could have done for Lotus (or possibly Ferrari) across the next few years had he not been injured. He was generally outpaced by Russell in his comeback year, but it was a near miracle that he managed to return at all.
19) Kamui Kobayashi
Known for his feisty nature in wheel-to-wheel racing, Kobayashi compared well to de la Rosa in his first full season in 2010. He then partnered Pérez for 2 years with the pair being closely matched (80pts to 79pts in favour of Pérez), but he failed he find a drive for the next year. A return to the uncompetitive Caterham team in 2014 failed to deliver results or rekindle his career.
18) Heikki Kovalainen
Kovalainen’s career never really recovered from being Hamilton’s teammate. His spirited drives in uncompetitive Caterham/Lotus cars didn’t yield any points, but featured some impressive performances if you looked closely enough.
17) Esteban Ocon
Like Kobayashi, Ocon also partnered Pérez, and came out second best (162pts vs 136pts). Their relationship was heated, with the two making contact several times in their years together. At the end of the decade Mercedes no longer seemed to think he was part of their future, but he was subsequently offered a lifeline by Renault.
16) Michael Schumacher
Schumacher’s return in 2010 was a definite disappointment, but he improved significantly in the next two years despite his age catching up to him. Monaco 2012 sums up his comeback pretty well: A brilliant “pole” lap, combined with a grid penalty for a clumsy collision at the previous race and an eventual DNF.
15) Kimi Räikkönen
Lotus took a calculated risk on Räikkönen returning to the sport in 2012, but he rewarded them with 2 wins (it took 8 years for team Enstone to win again). His 2nd stint at Ferrari was less successful, with a single victory in 5 years despite some more than capable cars.
14) Marcus Ericsson
Ericsson is given a surprisingly high rating, and appears higher than expected in other mathematical models too. He debuted in the uncompetitive Caterham before moving to Sauber. There he raced against Felipe Nasr for two seasons, before being LeClerc’s first teammate. His higher than expected ranking is probably due to this comparison, although he was beaten 39pts to 9pts in their season together.
13) Valterri Bottas
Discussing Bottas’ strengths as an F1 driver can be a delicate business due to the fact that he’s been in a championship winning car for several years now. Whilst he is incredibly lucky to have occupied such a position, his inclusion here suggests that he is a talented driver, just not one of the absolute best.
12) Jean-Eric Vergne
A name almost forgotten in F1, Vergne has the dubious honour of being the highest ranked of the rejected Toro Rosso drivers. He was overlooked for the Red Bull drive twice, once for Ricciardo, and a second time for Kvyat (a driver that the model thinks Vergne was significantly better than). His success in Formula E underlines his talent, and Red Bull may have regretted letting him go.
11) Sergio Pérez
As noted in the career review, Pérez is one of the most consistent and reliable drivers, with little year-to-year variation. This perhaps hurts his ranking here slightly, as it is based on the peak two years. Sergio spent the entire decade in midfield cars, being labelled the “King of the Midfield” in a somewhat backhanded compliment.
10) Nico Hülkenberg
Hülkenberg drove for 4 different teams across the decade, but, like Pérez, never escaped the midfield. Unlike Pérez, he never achieved a podium and ultimately ended up without a drive, showing that talent is not always enough in formula one.
9) Nico Rosberg
The A tier are all incredibly tight. Rosberg is more considered to have been more consistent than others around him, but with lower peaks. After convincingly beating Schumacher in their 3 years together (325pts vs 197pts), some concluded that Schumacher was hopeless. Given how closely Rosberg raced Hamilton over the next 4 years together, it’s far more likely that Rosberg was just very good.
8) Jenson Button
Button can consider himself lucky to even be in F1 in the 2010s due to his rollercoaster of a career. Ultimately his McLaren years cemented his reputation as a wet weather specialist and one that could give fellow champions Hamilton and Alonso more than a headache at times, even if a second championship eluded him.
7) Carlos Sainz
At times it feels like Sainz flies under the radar. He had a promising opening season versus Verstappen before getting stuck at Toro Rosso. When he did break free, he was beaten by Ricciardo at Renault. Indeed, the only teammates he outscored in the 2010s were a rookie Norris and a dejected Kvyat. However, no other Toro Rosso driver managed to escape the Red Bull system, and given what we now know of Verstappen and Norris’ talents, his results against them are impressive indeed.
6) Sebastian Vettel
The model considers Vettel to be a very good driver, but not quite the best of the best, so 6th place feels about right despite his quadruple champion success. His career definitely features peaks and troughs, but he showed at both Red Bull and Ferrari that he can be devastating in a car that is set up as he likes it.
5) Daniel Ricciardo
Ricciardo just about edges out similarly ranked drivers such as Vettel, Sainz, Button and Rosberg, thanks to highly ranked performances versus other strong teammates (Verstappen and Vettel). His recent McLaren struggles have made him look very ordinary, but there’s no doubt that he was an extremely capable racer for most of the 2010s.
Before we look at the top tier, I thought it’d be worthwhile to mention some drivers that didn’t make the cut.
Felipe Massa just misses out on a top 20 spot, with a winless decade despite having a car that twice challenged for the title. It’s possible that this was due to him returning from injury sustained in 2008, but his comeback in 2010 is actually considered his best of the decade, making this conclusion seem overly simplistic at best. Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen are another 2 experienced drivers not to feature. They are in 22nd and 23rd places respectively. Mark Webber is easily the most successful driver in the decade to miss out, in 24th place. He was only active for 4 years during the decade, and in 2 of those years (2011 and 2013) he was pretty badly crushed by Vettel. The only other race winner from the decade not to be included is Pastor Maldonado, which (with all due respect) is perhaps not the most surprising omission given his high crash rate and lack of consistency. Finally, as previously mentioned, Vandoorne and Nasr may have made the cut with a bit more experience to assess their level.
4) Charles LeClerc
The fact that LeClerc only just meets the requirements to be included and is still ranked the 4th best of the decade speaks volumes about his talent. His 2018 debut was impressive enough for him to be given a Ferrari drive after only 1 year, whilst his 2019 season was strong enough for Ferrari to consider him their lead man going forward. Although he’s prone to silly mistakes, his raw pace is immense.
3) Lewis Hamilton
The most successful driver of time is unsurprisingly the most successful of the 2010s too. The first two years of the decade were not his strongest, and at one point it looked like Button was beginning to establish himself as the team leader at McLaren. Hamilton fought back in 2012 before a shrewd move to Mercedes paid off beautifully. Not only did he win more races and championships as the decade progressed, but he became a more complete racing driver too. When was the last time Hamilton had a bad season?
2) Max Verstappen
It’s fair to say that Verstappen quickly became a sensation. His form fluctuated a little during these early years (his ranking falls behind Hamilton if the 3rd best year is considered, rather than the 2nd best, for example), but he is clearly a very special talent.
1) Fernando Alonso
This will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog. Alonso’s 2012 season is often regarded as one of the finest ever that failed to deliver a title, but his 2014 season is actually ranked even higher. His McLaren performances are harder to assess due to the abysmal competitiveness and reliability, but the model thinks he was highly competitive throughout.